Fire Light

Yesterday I walked up the canyon wearing a cowboy hat and a breathing mask, toting a pink bag with a birthday present for our neighbor’s two-year-old daughter. There was something comical about it, but also surreal. The landscape glowed in sepia tones, the sky looked weirdly jaundiced, and the sun was a bright red disk above the hills. The Thomas Fire is an hour to the south of us, but the air here is smoky, and ash has powdered the vehicles and accumulated like new snow in the corners of the stairs to our house. The communities of Carpinteria, Montecito, Summerland, and adjacent areas are directly threatened, and I have dear friends who have been evacuated as flames draw terrifyingly near to their homes. At 230,500 acres, this fire is the fifth largest in California’s recorded history, and only 15% contained as I write this, with gusty winds and severe conditions likely to persist, and not a drop of rain in sight. We are worried, depressed, and feeling very vulnerable. I cannot count how many times I have heard the word “apocalyptic” in the last few days.

Later in the afternoon I chatted with my daughter in Oxford and learned that while we were seeing ash floating in the air, she was watching snowflakes. Heavy snow, ice, and plunging temperatures were grounding flights, disrupting power, and closing roads in England. She and her husband had gone to the park and enjoyed the enchantment of it, laughingly indulging in a snowball fight, and were now settled in at home wondering about Monday’s train service to London. A year ago they were here with us, riding horses on the beach, skies blue and hills green. Strange how things change.  I feel wistful and fragile, and I make a few references to mortality, as I am prone to do.

“Gosh, Mom, you’re cheerful,” says my daughter at one point. “That’s like the third time you’ve mentioned death.”

Well,” I said. “You’ve heard of SAD…right? Seasonal affective disorder. Maybe what I have is a little like SAD.”

My son-in-law interjects. “You’re in California! You don’t get to claim SAD in California. You live in one of the sunniest places on earth!”

I conceded that maybe I’d chosen the wrong term to explain what I was feeling.

“It’s the fire light,” I clarified. “It’s the way it slants through the trees filtered by smoke, it’s the yellow-stained shadows, the way the air smells like anxiety, the way everything is reminding us that we are ephemeral.”

“You need another term for it then,” said my son-in-law. “This isn’t seasonal affective disorder; this sounds more like mild ongoing panic. Californians experience MOP, not SAD.”

I hereby proclaim that I am in the throes of MOP.

More to come.

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