Smoke and Mirrors

The Thomas Fire is raging to the south of us with no end in sight. The air is filled with smoke and ash, and we have friends who have been evacuated. These are anxious times. But until I have some more current writing to post, I thought I would share the following piece I wrote thirteen years ago, during another fire. 

It was the long-awaited weekend of my daughter’s high school graduation, that evanescent marker of beginnings and good-byes, and we gathered beneath an ashy sky, distracted by the eerie light, the sickening swells of smoke, the low flying helicopters with buckets of seawater suspended from their bellies. My daughter sat among the Dunn School graduates in a too-large borrowed gown and a lei of magenta flowers, the angry eyes and teen-age glare sometimes giving way to a tear and awkward smile.  The flag was at half-mast for the death of Ronald Reagan. Events do not unfold as one expects.

We had been at a graduation luncheon when the fire began the day before. Guests at our house in Gaviota received the call to evacuate, hurriedly packing into their truck every item they suspected might be valuable and transporting it to us. Now our own little car was comically crammed to capacity with computers, violins, assorted knick-knacks, costume jewelry, random photos, and heavy file boxes of odd papers whose existence had long ceased to matter.  How do you harvest the artifacts of someone else’s life, given twenty minutes? Some people prepare for such hasty retreats; we were not among them.

The winds were gusty and erratic. I was wearing yesterday’s dress and kept a hand on my straw hat, newly aware of being insubstantial.  I thought about my father, born in 1911  — the same year as Reagan — my father, who never had the chance to be old. I tried to imagine him at ninety-three watching his granddaughter graduate, but it was impossible to override, even for a moment, the old familiar fact of his absence. Now as a new generation of young men and women ceremoniously entered adulthood, my pride was tempered by worry, local as well as global. Control is always an illusion. One of the graduates sang a song about faith.

There was comfort in community. Friends — close and casual — tendered sundry offers of assistance and invited us to stay in their homes. A network of cell phone numbers connected Ranch residents, and I received a flurry of informative and reassuring e-mails. Julie remembered being evacuated for a week during the Painted Cave fire, watching the flames from a distance and feeling curiously detached. “At one point, “ she wrote, “we were allowed to go home and had a half hour to gather belongings. We ended up taking only a few very special things, important papers, and animals. In the end, it was a Zen experience. We gave up everything. And then we got it back.”

Another friend, Genevieve, recalled spending a night in Michael Jackson’s guardhouse when she was a child while the Midland community battled a raging barn fire with metal pails of water.  She was evacuated again a few years later as flames rolled down the mountains during the Mare Fire of 1993. She took refuge in Saint Mark’s church in Los Olivos and watched the sunrise for the first time in her life. “The proximity of fire strikes a primal nerve in us, “ she concluded. Maybe it is some ancient recognition that we are part of a cycle much greater than ourselves.

We were spared: I can afford to be philosophical because the fires have been contained and I am typing this in my well-furnished living room.  But the straw-colored hills are ominously dry, the winds are gusty, and the air still smells of smoke. We drove back past blackened hills, charred and skeletal trees, small spiral blizzards of white ash blowing.  Fire has revealed the true faces of the mountains and exposed scores of beer bottles that were tossed into the brush at the outskirts of the state park. At the Ranch, the light is hazy and surreal, and everything is strangely quiet. What lingers is a sense of humility and vulnerability, the premonition of bereavement for all we must lose.

Meanwhile, my only child has graduated and is about to leave home. She has chosen a college on the East coast, the coast I abandoned many years ago when I headed westward in a ’73 Buick whose tattered strips of vinyl roof blew like sails in the wind. It was my great migration, my life’s defining journey. So forgive me if I cannot sleep. The moon is beginning to wane and the stars above the silent hills are like bits of bright broken glass.

The burned areas will in time heal themselves: wildflowers will surprise us and new growth will come. I guess it is all just a saga of endings and beginnings, of brush fires and brushing lives, of deaths public and quiet, of the family of origin and the family of friends. It is about the illusion of possession, the consolation of community, about too much stuff and what really matters. It is about the legends we create amidst blizzards of ash, about precious ephemeral lives, about letting go and having faith. There is nothing but change, and it will not unfold as you expect.

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