I ride the train every day. It’s generally a peaceful affair, and after one or two trips the slow methodical rocking back and forth becomes a ubiquitous feeling that the regulars don’t even notice. When you first start riding the train much of the trip is spent staring out the windows, taking in the sites, understanding what it must have been like for people a hundred years ago to move from place to place; but after one or two rides, so too does the passing scenery and the golden hills of our beloved Northern California fade into the periphery of me and my fellow commuters, staring intently at our digital lives or catching a quick nap.
I’ve ridden the train nearly every day for four months and stopped looking out the window a long time ago, but this week has been different. Those golden hills have been replaced with an opaque beige, a choking smoke that has taken the picturesque canvas of the California landscape and wiped it clean. It’s as if the world were flat and we’re looking off the edge of the world into the vast nothingness. The sun, reduced to a burnt umber eye staring at us intently through the smoke, casts the world in a surreal and pale orange, giving everything an odd dreamlike quality that makes me wonder when we all get to wake up to see the sapphire of the sky, the gold of the hills, and the white of friendly smiles.
In a conversation yesterday with an old friend, watching in horror from afar as the anchor point to her life, the place the long rope of time eventually snakes back to, burns – we shared a joke and found ourselves discussing the guilt of stealing levity from the ludicrous. We needed that moment, a flat palm over the lip of the chasm, pressing on the edge to lift us up, even for a moment.
In the face of disaster, you find within yourself things that you might not have known prior – for me it’s an appreciation for community, a marvel at the kindness and goodness in people, but also a rage that has no outlet. I feel and understand the impulse to fight that which cannot be fought. I want to shake my fists, and scream for it all to stop; I want to believe that the flames have a conscious, and can feel remorse for their endless appetite. They don’t though, for as much as the flames eat, and run, and jump, and dance, and scream, they have no soul. They contain no conflict in their action, and their only real byproduct is memories. In their wake, besides ash and soot, are memories of the things we had, the things lost, the moments had, the moments lost. That’s the exchange the flames offer – they feed off the bricks you’ve laid down during your life, and in return, you’re left with only their memories.
I know quite a few people who’ve lost their home in totality to these fires and trying to fathom the feelings that accompany such an ordeal don’t serve to do justice to those I know who are experiencing it. My hometown has been burned, and now many of those places from my youth will exist only in memory. In these times of chapter after chapter of disaster and trauma being placed on the shelf we long to put down that bookend where we can take a collective breath and do our best, as a community, to figure out what needs to change and how we can be better – but maybe we need to stop waiting and recognize our own resilience, generosity, and charity.
The coming days, weeks, months, and years will be trying for many. The physical bricks of people’s lives have been melted away, but the experience of laying them hasn’t. I’m encouraged by how so many people I know have come together, the only tenuous connection the shared proximity of youth, to help start laying new bricks. New houses will be built, new homes made, new businesses, new streets. The charred scars of this disaster will give way to new growth, new trees, and new lives – and soon enough all that will remain of this last week will be memories that the flames left behind, and the community that rose up to shake a fist, a fire hose, and the fortitude of their resilience.
Special thanks to all the first responders – the police keeping people safe, the EMT’s and paramedics, the doctors, the nurses, the volunteers, the community – and most of all, the fire fighters. Stay safe.