Jacob Margolis 0:00
[wind ambi] On a cool and windy day this fall, my four-year-old Lev and I sat on our front steps and talked like we usually do about his day at school, what we might be doing this weekend, until inevitably, we were interrupted by one of the big things he thinks about a lot. [JM: ...sit next to me?] [sirens]
Oh, I hear one right now.
Jacob Margolis 0:23
What do you hear?
A fire truck. The siren.
Jacob Margolis 0:28
Why do they turn on their sirens?
Cuz if there's emergencies, they have to turn on their si-, cars, cars will pull over cuz they're going really faster to save the people to have a, an emergency. Or a car accident could happen, you don't know. Or somebody could get sick or cold or something or somebody might have a fire. [duck under]
Jacob Margolis 0:52
Lev's a really observant kid, and he's been bringing up these real big scary ideas lately. He asks me whether he needs to worry about volcanoes exploding in California [Lev and JM talk in background] because he saw one in a cartoon. He tells me he had a bad dream about an asteroid hitting Earth because he read about what happened to the dinosaurs. And when he's talking to me about fire trucks, he's often bringing up fires too.
I see, I see gray clouds.
Jacob Margolis 1:20
Yeah, it's not smoke.
But it looks pretty gray.
Jacob Margolis 1:24
Yeah, but those are probably rain clouds.
Jacob Margolis 1:28
They- smoke clouds look a little different, and I would be able to tell if there was a smoke cloud.
I saw the smoke cloud before. [JM: Oh yeah?] Only one time. That was my first time. When we were coming home from somewhere, [_______] we saw a big smoke fire.
Jacob Margolis 1:44
Oh yeah. What did you think when you saw it?
I just wanted to go home and not see the smoke cloud because it made me worried. But then it seemed so close, I was starting to get scared. Have, have you got a fire at our house before?
Jacob Margolis 2:03
No, there's not gonna be a fire here.
Jacob Margolis 2:07
Because we're far from anywhere that burns in a fire.
Does anybody in our family... Do they get their house burned?
Jacob Margolis 2:16
Jacob Margolis 2:21
One of the parent things that I find hard is figuring out how much I should tell Lev about this big stuff he thinks deeply about. How much I should say about the world around him. And I try to be careful. But the thing about fires is that they're not something he's just seeing on TV. He's been around them since he was a baby. We ran away from smoke with him when he was two. And I'm sure he remembers sitting in our hot house during the pandemic while the Bobcat Fire burned just over the hill. Air purifiers on and bags taped up over some leaky vents because we couldn't stop the smoke from coming in... for weeks. I try my best to shape the narrative in a way that makes my kids feel okay. Taking a moment during these intense conversations to remind them-
Jacob Margolis 3:10
You know you're safe, right? You know that Mommy and I keep you safe no matter what.
Jacob Margolis 3:16
And just as I'm gearing up to reassure him, his kid brain is already on to something else.
How can birds fly without flapping their wings like [bird ambi] this?
Jacob Margolis 3:27
They're gliding on the air.
How? Do they ever go to space? [music in] [JM: No, that's a little...] [fade under]
Jacob Margolis 3:33
When I started working on this season of the podcast, I genuinely wanted to find hope. And in our journey across California across nine episodes, we found challenges and solutions and most importantly, so many reasons to be hopeful, because we know what we need to do. Like put more fire on the land to make our forests more resilient. [fire ambi] [audio clip from episode 4: If you do that timidly, you're gonna get burned. Do it with like, intent...] Prep our go bags. [audio clip- Derek Bart: Energy, fuel for your body. Good fuel.] Rethink how and where we build. [audio clip- Melissa: The world seems to be changing so quickly. Oyy. You know, it's just (laughs) what are you gonna do?] But the problem is, when I look at this big list of everything we have to do to make things better, the amount we have to accomplish starts to feel overwhelming. And existential dread starts to set in. [music swell]
Jacob Margolis 4:40
Maybe this has happened to you too. I know it leaves me wondering how do I even start to talk to my kids about something so big and scary that's only gonna get worse? And how do I come to an okay place with everything that's going on? This is The Big Burn. I'm Jacob Margolis. [music out]
Jacob Margolis 5:15
When Lev asks me big existential questions, I'm thinking about my responsibility as a parent. How I can talk to him about stuff without scaring him, how to say the right things while I'm still trying to figure out how to process all the heavy stuff we've been dealing with. So I wanted to reach out to someone who has a lot of experience helping people talk about trauma, who's also thinking a lot about climate change, to help me figure out how to even begin approaching all this big stuff.
Jacob Margolis 5:42
So yeah- actually, first for the recorder, can you tell me your name and how you like to be identified?
Jenny Silverstein 5:47
Sure. My name is Jenny Silverstein. And you can just call me Jenny. I am a clinical social worker, a licensed clinical social worker.
Jacob Margolis 5:54
Can I call you a therapist?
Jenny Silverstein 5:57
Jacob Margolis 5:58
Jenny specializes in helping young kids cope with trauma. And over the last five years since the Tubbs Fire hit and 2017, lots of those kids have been worried about fire. Jenny lives in Santa Rosa and had to evacuate along with her wife and their daughter who was three years old at the time. And while she saw lots of kids process and recover from the trauma of that one fire, she says since then, the life disrupting disasters that keep hitting, like fires and COVID, have left lots of young kids she's seen struggling.
Jenny Silverstein 6:28
Yeah, it's been nonstop in a lot of places, but certainly we've, we've felt it very heavy around here. And so, my daughter is in third grade and has yet to have a regular school year so fingers crossed that this year will be the one.
Jacob Margolis 6:43
What do you think- What does that do to a kid?
Jenny Silverstein 6:46
Gosh, I don't think it's fully known yet. The thing about traumatic events when people are really young is that it becomes impossible to separate the trauma response from who we become. And it starts to seem like behaviors that are part of the personality, when really the child might have been a completely different person if the trauma hadn't happened. And so, I think the impact remains to be seen right now.
Jacob Margolis 7:12
That's really, I have to say, that's really hard for me to hear because I too have kids, and the older one who is now four and a half has an absolute obsession with like, disaster. And I try my best not to talk about my work in front of him. I try to talk him through it, but I feel you know, I feel really, really bad because [laughing] you know, he started to, he started to come into consciousness also through Covid. So it's been, it's been a heavy few years. [JS: Right?] It's been a heavy few years.
Jenny Silverstein 7:44
I think in many ways as a parent, I feel like we are completely out on a limb, like this is, nothing like this has ever happened before in terms of this level of existential crisis. The biggest predictor of being able to integrate trauma and move through it and have it become something that happened to you rather than something that defines you, is the relational health that you have throughout your lifetime. And so the kids who are surrounded by loving people have a much, much greater chance of learning to integrate and be resilient. And so I want that for every child. [laughs]
Jacob Margolis 8:25
Yeah. I'm wondering as a parent, how do I start to approach offering some sense of comfort, but also recognizing that like, you know, intense stuff does happen in life?
Jenny Silverstein 8:34
I think with really little kids, as much as we can be in integrity and authentic about it, letting them know that we are keeping them safe, and they will be safe, we are with them. So even as we were driving away from the house during Tubbs, that was the message that I was giving my daughter. You know, that language of safety is a good starting point. And then the other thing is, with our kids, we do something called co-regulation. They're not really capable yet of regulating their own emotional states, their own kind of survival response. And they look to us for that. So the classic example is if they slip and fall, and the parent says, Oh, you're, you know, I'm sorry that happened, but you're okay. And then they just move on. But if the parent says, Oh, my gosh, they start to cry, [laughs] right? So we co-regulate their emotions with them. And so the other piece of it, and this is that we take care of our own emotions. [music in] Whether it's deep breathing or going for a walk. I mean, we can talk about all kinds of tools, you know, to help regulate our bodies. But the more we do that, the more that we can then help them regulate theirs.
Jacob Margolis 9:45
Emotional co-regulation. It's kind of like putting your mask on first. I do it with my kids as much as I can, especially when it comes to scary topics. But it doesn't mean I'm not up in the middle of the night, spinning with my own existential questions. So what can I do to work through some of those big emotions? That's after the break. [music out] [break]
Jacob Margolis 10:18
[music in] One of the things that's become abundantly clear talking with a bunch of people for this podcast is that everyone's on this big emotional journey regarding climate existentialism, whether they say so or not. I see it a number of ways. Some people avoid talking about it when it comes up. Others are quick to go to the absolute heaviest place. That's where I find myself living because I find a sense of comfort in trying to understand the science of worst-case scenarios. Our therapist Jenny Silverstein says, it's something she's seeing more and more people wrestle with. And even if you haven't been through a disaster directly, what we're dealing with- it's a lot.
Jenny Silverstein 10:58
There's a, a general trend towards not really being comfortable with our harder feelings. And I think when it comes to this existential stuff, this climate related fear and response to disasters, the hard feelings make sense. They show that we care. And we can't get stuck in them because then we freeze and we don't find ways to effective action, but we can't ignore them either. We have to move through them. I mean, living in weeks and weeks of smoke is horrible. That feeling that it's unhealthy to do this basic thing of breathing air is really distressing for our minds, never mind what's actually going on in our bodies, which is a stress response to it being truly unhealthy. So it's not like that doesn't count or something, [laughs] you know.
Jacob Margolis 11:44
How do you even start to lessen the hyper vigilance, the feeling of, like right now it's Santa Ana wind season when we're talking, and like, I know there's a wind event comin' up in a couple days. And I'm like, I know that I'm gonna be waking up in the middle of the night smelling smo-, like trying to look for smoke. That happens to me now.
Jenny Silverstein 12:03
Yeah, it happens to me now, too. I have been in this place for five years now and my being a therapist doesn't make me immune. I wake up under distress when there's a wind event. And the difference I think is that when I know that it is not a Red Flag Warning that it's not likely to cause a fire, um-
Jacob Margolis 12:25
But it can cause a fire. [laughs] But like any, any one of these events we get during Santa Ana season in California or Diablo winds, whatever, you know, wherever you are, I mean, they can. S-, so like, what, [laughs] you know, I'm up at three in the morning, like worrying about it.
Jenny Silverstein 12:41
Yeah, so part of it I think is just being like accepting of we're gonna have some days like that, right? So you do all the things that you need to do to prepare. If there's actually a wind event and you've done everything that you can to prepare, and you're lying in bed waiting to see what happens next. So taking a deep breath, where we feel our bellies expand on the inhale. So it's a nice, slow inhale that goes all the way down to the belly. And then on the exhale, the exhale's actually longer than the inhale.
Jacob Margolis 13:11
Can we do it right now? Because I'm, I'm feeling a little f-, I'm feeling a little hyper vigilant at the moment.
Jenny Silverstein 13:16
Sure. So let's do it twice. So we'll do an inhale of five. So 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and an exhale of seven. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. And again, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7.
Jacob Margolis 13:50
I'm a little lightheaded. I mean, it k- definitely takes the edge off.
Jenny Silverstein 13:55
And it takes getting used to. If it's not something that you have a habit of, it can actually feel uncomfortable at first. But my very favorite way to teach young children to deep breathe is we pretend first that we're smelling a flower, so the inhale is through the nose, and it's a nice big inhale because you want to really smell how yummy that flower is. And then on the exhale, we pretend we're blowing out birthday candles, because that's something most of them are familiar with doing and so on that nice long, slow exhale that gets all of the candles blown out, is a great way to demonstrate to children how to do that. And then the other thing I think about is, you know, your four and a half year old is certainly not too young to start developing some of these coping tools that we've been talking about. We all really, the first way that we regulate is with rhythm and movement.
Jacob Margolis 14:42
Can we dance as a family? Would that help?
Jenny Silverstein 14:45
Yeah, dancing as a family. Absolutely. [laughs] Absolutely. Especially if it's music he likes, you know. The, all the things that we demonstrate to children also work for adults. [laughs]
Jacob Margolis 14:55
Oh, it worked. I mean, it got, it got me there. I'm feeling, I'm feeling a little bit more relaxed.
Jenny Silverstein 14:59
Yeah, so the thing about it is with that stress response, we go into that hyper vigilant mode, because it's how we survive. It's how we evolved to survive. If there actually was a threat, then we want our heart racing, and we want our breaths short, we want all the blood in our limbs, and we want to be in the case of fire, fleeing. And so that's why that happens. And so, to calm our bodies, the one part of that response that we have any control over is the breath.
Jacob Margolis 15:27
I do think it's really important for us to talk about these kind of like acute responses and lessening the anxiety in the moment, especially, you know, for like you and me when it's windy outside during a dry season and the threat of fire. But I also wonder about the long term processing of these really heavy things. How do I start to work towards some sort of healthier relationship with these existential crises? Has anyone figured that out? [laughs] ...How to do that?
Jenny Silverstein 15:57
[laughing] Yeah, I dunno that anyone has figured that out exactly. But I appreciate this idea. If you're feeling overwhelmed by these existential fears, and you want to ground and cope more, I think step one is to get back into the present.
Jacob Margolis 16:13
What's step two?
Jenny Silverstein 16:14
Step two is, is this idea of purposing, which is a little more complicated, I think.
Jacob Margolis 16:18
Give me a general example if you can.
Jenny Silverstein 16:20
Well, what is the thing that you like to do and is there a way you can do it in community? So you know, if you're a gardener, can you work on a community garden with somebody? If you are an engineer, and you get involved in sustainable design for a local nonprofit. We are, live in a very isolated society but there's, there's people everywhere doing amazing work.
Jacob Margolis 16:43
It sounds like to me that even taking, doing small little things for yourself and for the community around you, even if you know that it's not going to- we can step back and recognize that there needs to be giant systemic change as well, that those little things can empower you on some level and make you feel slightly better. And that people should maybe go give one of them a try and see, and see if it kinda puts them off in the right direction.
Jenny Silverstein 17:08
Yeah, one of the things that has happened here in Sonoma County in the last five years is that there has been a blossoming of trauma responsive organizations. There's a wonderful organization locally, called Land Paths, that does a lot of land stewardship, and then environmental education for kids and my daughter has attended some of their programming. And for example, over the summer, when the creeks were getting really low, they took the kids out with nets, and they rescued a whole bunch of tadpoles from the mud in a creek that was drying up and moved them to a creek that was flowing with the intention that they would live to become frogs. And that action for my daughter in a group was really empowering and incredible for her. She talked about it a lot afterwards. They also, the ones that didn't make it, they held a little funeral for, so not only did they do this empowering action, but they also kind of held space for everybody's emotions in community. And so that to me is like, I, I just want to see that happening everywhere. [laughs] You know, a version of that.
Jacob Margolis 18:16
It sounds like connection is important.
Jenny Silverstein 18:18
It's easy to get overwhelmed by how much these systems need to change. But the amazing thing about complex systems is that they can change suddenly. [laughs] Unexpected things happen. [music in] And I think that's, you know, where I hold on to hope even when I'm feeling like things feel pretty hopeless.
Jacob Margolis 18:44
I just want to say thank you so much for chattin' with me today. I really appreciate it.
Jenny Silverstein 18:50
Jacob Margolis 18:58
Breathe when you're overwhelmed. Connect with community. Take individual action. There's a path forward. While these ideas I talked about with Jenny might help me when I talk to Lev or if I need to stop spiraling late at night, ultimately, I can still find reasons to live in a place of pessimism. Because I don't see us completely fixing the biggest problems we've talked about in this season. Not fast enough to save what we have now. I don't see us shifting our priorities to helping those who have been hurt recover the way they deserve to. But I'm also finding myself softening, continuing to grab on to little bits of hope that float by because yeah, this stuff is tough, but there are moments [ambi outside with Lev talking] [Lev: Can I give you a hug?] [JM: Of course.] like when I was back on the front steps with Lev. [JM: You just want a hug?] [conversation continues in background] It turns out the clouds that he was pointing out earlier broke into rain. The start of a really good bit of rain and snow here in California, bringing fire season to an end in our forests, and at least giving us a little bit of a break from destructive wind driven fires here. But the biggest bit of hope that I found while making this episode was when I was sitting with Lev, after we talked about all the stuff he's been thinking about. After giving him cuddles and hugs, it was time to go inside for dinner. [music out] And like I usually do when I interview someone, I asked him what I might have missed during our conversation.
Jacob Margolis 20:28
Is there anything that you want to say to the people listening to this podcast? [birds chirping]
Jacob Margolis 20:35
I don't know. What's your favorite thing in the world to do?
Enjoy my life. Enjoy my life.
Jacob Margolis 20:47
And so what does that look like?
I just like to see get, getting to see all the cars and the view.
Jacob Margolis 20:59
The cars and the view. I hope that you get to enjoy them too.
Jacob Margolis 21:03
[music in] A huge thanks to Rachel, Lev, Zoe, Mark, Melissa, and Sophie Margolis, Rhonda Eisner and Ellen Primack. And all my other friends and family for all the support. I love you. I couldn't have done this season without you. And a huge thanks to the team. Everyone who's worked on this season of the show. Our producer is Minju Park, with additional production for the series by Anjuli Sastry Krbecheck and Monica Bushman. Bruno Lopez-Vega is our intern. Natalie Chudnovsky is the Senior Producer. Editing by Meg Cramer with additional editing by Sophia Paliza-Carre. Fact checking for most of the series was done by Caitlin Antonios. Professor Theresa Gregor was our Native cultural content reader. Sound design and mixing by E. Scott Kelly and additional mixing by Doug Gerry. Original music by Andy Clausen. Shana Naomi Krochmal is our Vice President of Podcasts. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the Executive Producers for LAist Studios. Our website LAist.com is designed by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at LAist Studios. The marketing team of LAist Studios created our branding. Artwork for this show done by Dan Carino. Thanks to everyone who came to a group edit or listened to the show in its early stages. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Leo G. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live, the Strelow Family, and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. The Big Burn is a production of LAist Studios. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. [music out]