When you’re looking at the wreckage of a wildfire, you have to rest your eyes to be able to see details. It’s almost like one of those paintings that looks like nothing but scribbled lines… until you get patient and an image emerges. I was never very good at those. Now I’m looking at a pile of brick, tile, metal, ash, remnants of wall, glass, wires. It’s hard to tell what any of it is, or was, or is it still?
There is my microwave, which crashed into my stove, now rusted over as if they’ve been exposed just like this for years. The doors of my burned refrigerator and dishwasher and dryer, which seem so naked standing in the sun, are all flung open. I can make out a window frame. The wall heater. The glass part of my blender. I think the bathtub was over there. I wonder if any of my jewelry is intact. Anything that remains is underneath, buried in the sopping wet sheet rock and piles of roof tiles.
I am filled with regret. On that night, in the midst of such ferocious winds and that ominous red glow quickly approaching over the hill – in those indescribable moments – I felt a strong intuition. Grab your passport. Go back into the neighbor’s house and get more of their albums, maybe one of their children’s pictures off the wall! And then, my brain doused it – don’t be ridiculous. You’ll be back in the morning!
It turns out I am not the only one that thought this. I have talked to countless of the thousands of people who lost their homes in the northern California wildfires – including friends, coworkers, and family – and so many had the exact same thought: don’t be silly. We’ll be right back.
We couldn’t get back for several days. We were under evacuation orders and our road was blocked by a downed power line, the blackened ends still smoking. The scale of the damage throughout this town that I love still hits me in layers. And as I stand looking out at our place, the debris seems to go on endlessly now. l wonder how a tractor will even begin. And where it’s all going to go. Where do houses go when they die?
I wonder where my grandma’s quilts are – did they fly away in sparkly embers? Along with every childhood poem I wrote? Every saved note. The special feather. The pictures developed from film. What a spectacle that must have been.
And with the passing days and the third trip to the site, my thoughts of how I should have run back in are quieted by the burned out trees on both sides of the narrow road – the only exit. The surrounding hills have turned to soot. The leaves of the trees now a pale white. They didn’t get a chance to fall. And everywhere the distinct smell of ruin. I shudder to think what might have happened if the neighbor didn’t come knocking. If I didn’t get the intuition to look outside again when I did. If, if, if…
I’ve been lucky to already find two special pots that made it [story], and I’m not expecting much else as I quickly survey for some little piece of what so quickly became my past to reveal itself. But today just one familiar thing emerged: a message on a big mug from a lifelong friend. I don’t have any idea how this broken cup kept its blue paint even though every other thing in this entire place is now colorless. Maybe it’s still blue so the message would come through: Make it Happen.
It comes through so clear for me now. The inhibitions, the hesitations. There’s just no room or time for that. Make it happen. The phone call. The coffee date. The trip you want to take. Go even if you don’t have a thing to wear. Explore nature. Love her. Defend the hell out of her. Stand up for justice. Tear down walls and barriers. See the world with your eyes and heart wide open. Educate. Motivate. Whatever it is that burns inside you, that your spirit is yearning for, make it happen.
There’s something quite liberating about losing every “thing.” About seeing the place where you were sleeping go up in smoke. And the only thing remaining a message to not let one more opportunity for connection or inspiration pass you by.
The truth that we know in our hearts but sometimes talk ourselves out of in our minds is that you never know for certain if you’ll be back in the morning.
So Make it Happen.
– written by the Sister
I knew exactly what my sister meant when she sent me that text. I was at work on a job where one of our crews was demoing a piece of equipment for a possible purchase. I stepped away so they couldn’t see the lump in my throat. I wasn’t sad at that moment that my sister had just confirmed she lost everything to a fire storm that unleashed hell upon her town. Her passport that she wished she would’ve grabbed before having to evacuate was gone. I didn’t care. All of her pictures and letters written turned to ash, I didn’t care at that moment. I had yet to think about the quilts she had that our grandma made her or all of the keepsakes that she kept close to her up to this point in her life. I didn’t care. All I felt at that instant, as I stood alongside the road next to my work truck, with the magnitude of the event and everything leading up to that point flashing through my mind, was a million gratitudes that my sister was alive.
I realized that death had been knocking on her door that night, along with thousands of other people. Unfortunately for some, death entered. I had tears of absolute joy that she texted me and that I could talk to her again. I know that dying is part of the deal of being born, but I hope and pray that it comes many more years down the road for my younger sibling. She means so much to this world. After losing everything, instead of retreating, she jumped to the front line to be of maximum service to everyone – trying to figure out what to do and where to go. And to also counsel her brother who lives two hours away.
Our cousin and his family had also lost all yet survived, which I am grateful for. I had a hard time feeling bad for all of the lost possessions and homes that tallied in the high numbers. The fire storm was so destructive and fast, I was only concerned and prayed for the survival of people that were in its wake. I couldn’t understand why people were so worried about their stuff instead of simply surviving. As I sat in my chair in my intact apartment, Monica had to remind me about how their ‘stuff’ isn’t ‘just stuff’. It was their home, their world, their everything. She was right. I felt helpless not being able to be there to assist. Roads were closed, the fire raged on, and it was complete chaos.
I did make it down a few days later to witness firsthand the overwhelming energy of people giving and helping each other out in a time of crisis. I had the feeling of either help out or get out, because I didn’t want to be in the way. The most I could do was to support and pray for everyone trying to navigate the inferno that was now their lives. The smoke was thick for days as the fires were barely contained. Fire crews from So Cal and other states were recruited to help out. I was in Oakland for work a week or so later and watched dozens of fire trucks heading south back down to Los Angeles and I was cheering for them, grateful for their service.
Monica had sent me a picture of what remained of her house and it looked like a war zone. The image was hazy from the smoke in the air and looked like it was taken back in the 1800s. Part of a wall by where she parked her car was all that was left standing in the pic. It’s one thing to see the photo, but when we actually stood at the site, I could feel and envision the crackle of the fire as the roof caved in. Standing there, it was hard to fathom what the deafening sound must’ve been like of the tornado like winds turning the blaze into a giant torch that left only a few items recognizable as the rest was left as a pile of rubble. I stepped on a roof shingle that once protected the home from the elements which then crumbled under my foot. Looking over the hillside, I could see only two colors, black and brown. The earth was exposed as everything that had lay upon it had been swept away and the beautiful oak trees that once painted the landscape with lush green leaves now stood charred and bare. The smell of burnt debris still lingered in the air.
I know that when fires burn in the wild, nature rebuilds on its own and comes back even stronger and more beautiful than before. That is what my sister and her community will do as well. Even from a distance, I experienced extraordinary emotions from this tragedy. I can only imagine the grief of the people who are still in the hospital getting surgery for their burns or saying goodbye to loved ones lost. To others that are homeless, my grieving is but a mere fraction of the pain that they are dealing with and whose lives will never be the same. But it’s real for everyone and we are brought together whether here or there. I’m grateful for all of the love and support that has poured in to those in need. In fact, volunteers had to stop donations coming in because they were overflowing.
I still feel the energy of the trauma vicariously through my sister as she figures out where the universe will lead her next. I think of what it must be like to be on a couch tour with the license plate number of your car as an address, not knowing which direction to go or having a place to call home. To think of getting something out of your closet and remembering that the closet is gone. Having to deal with local real estate and rentals taking advantage of the now high supply and demand. Using excuses such as, “Hey, it’s ok to raise prices to the moon, insurance companies will pay for it,” which is just a backdoor trick to fill pockets at others’ expense. I imagine having to go from living in the country on top of a hill watching the sunset at a fair price, to potentially paying double for the darkest bottom story dump truck of an apartment.
But, I won’t focus on the dark side of tragedy where people take advantage of others in time of crisis because anger won’t bring all the lost homes. Love stands a better chance of rebuilding this community. There will be frustrations and uncertainties through the process, but if anything I’ve been reminded to always practice compassion, tolerance, and love. To be in the moment and to enjoy each breath that I’m given, because you never know when the last one will be.
– written by the Brother