“This was my house,” the man in the pick-up truck told us sadly as we surveyed the burned-out wreckage of what had been his home before the big fires this year in Northern California. “I’ve come by maybe a hundred times looking, and I still can’t find anything still in one piece. Nah…”
It has been over a month since the Tubbs Fire, and I finally went there to check it out with my daughters who were here for the holidays, and we wandered in shock through the tangled debris of charred stairways that went nowhere, ghostly playpens and burnt-out cars. “It’s like a cemetery,” Susan whispered, as we picked our way through ash and household wreckage. For those whose houses burned, I imagine it felt like the end of the world.
But maybe not altogether. From the silent, gray ash we caught sight of something happening in the distance, white tents rising into the air like a mirage. We made our way towards them, stepping carefully around blackened chimneys and trashed refrigerators, noting patches of young green grass here and there sprouting up from the blackened earth. We stopped short at a burnt rosebush that had a fresh stem sporting, right on top, a single red rose! I smelled its rose-ness in tears.
By the time we reached the tents we were ready to hear the good news.
“The block’s coming together tonight to celebrate the new year,” two busy folks told us. “Everyone’ll be here, bringing supper and stuff, and there’s games for the kids and a falling ball at six for the little kids, and another for the real countdown at midnight!”
May their courageous and positive spirit be blessed, and may they find protection and peace.
Somehow, that makes me think of Misha.
Misha was the love of my young life when I was a student in France, and we met at the youth hostel in Chartres. A Czech Jew, he was a double survivor whose parents had met in a concentration camp at the end of the war, only to have to flee their village twenty years later when the Russians marched in.
Following Misha around France was like playing a continuous game in the light. We flew kites in the rain, we sang in empty churches late at night; we danced at the edges of the surf and swam out beyond the breakers from remote beaches on islands we did not know the names of. We laughed until we were weak, and loved like there was no tomorrow.
I’d never been so happy in my life!
“You’ve had the hardest life of anyone I’ve ever known,” I said to him one day “but you have more fun than anyone else! How do you do that?” His immediate response was,
“When you do not know if you will be alive tomorrow, you learn to make sure you have a good time today!”
I remembered that years later, in a much less dire situation, when the Berkeley schoolteachers went out on strike and swore to stay out until the District responded with some necessary changes. The teachers did, indeed, stay out for several months, so some families in our neighborhood decided to start our own little school for the duration. We parents, as if we’d never quite realized it before, were nurses and scientists, musicians and writers. We had everyone we needed to start a school! One of us, a pastor, taught religion and another was an orchestra conductor! All we had to do was make a ‘curriculum,’ decide who would teach what, and when, and agree to gathering for pot-luck suppers every Friday until the end of the strike.
It more than worked; we all had the best time bonding across the generations and wondering why it had taken a crisis for us to share our lives and create the kind of community we were all longing for anyhow.
When the teachers finally came back, we weren’t sure it was such a good thing!
Some of the ‘kids,’ now parents themselves in other places, have come by to say hello and show their kids how they used to learn anatomy by dancing right here, and recall for them our hilarious New Years Eve family-skit parties where Daddy played a bogus Hamlet and Grandma was Ophelia!
I pray that the families in Coffey Park and Fountaingrove find their way to ingenious improvisation as well, despite the Apocalypse that has burned life as they knew it down to the ground. I hope they discover how to use what has happened to them to dig even more deeply into their lives, discovering hidden treasure while they are still alive.
The word ‘Apocalypse,’ I’ve learned, actually does not mean disaster; it means ‘uncovering’. I find that encouraging. Perhaps we are going through an Apocalypse right now – it may even be a positive way of thinking about Trump and his minions. After all, we are – with his help, you gotta admit it – uncovering the decay and putrid disease in our body politic, helping us to identify, examine and clean out what no longer serves the earth and its diversity of species, including us. It makes me so happy to see us rising to the challenge, coming together to share energy and innovative brilliance to re-think what clearly does not work, and re-imagine ourselves into new ways of living on this Earth.
We’re in a time of initiations, which are traditionally about enduring hard tests as a way of passing from childhood to the responsibilities of adulthood. In indigenous societies young people have been sent on walkabout in the wilderness, gone without food and water, hunted wild bear, had to meditate awake through freezing nights. Most come back the better for their hard experience, and become the trusted leaders of their tribes.
That’s all of us now, young and middle-aged and old. We are being prodded to learn how to survive well despite hardship, find the depths of our character, courage and creativity, respond to real beauty and grow the hell up!
In Fountaingrove, we went by the ruins of Ed and Carol’s home, finding it by the number on the curbstone. I just stood there, silent. In what had been their luxurious garden the lilac bushes, still there, looked untouched, each bearing lilacs in December! I reached up, gently bent one slim branch to my nose and smelled the cluster of sweet lilac blossoms, pungent and purple, right there in the midst of the rubble. I stood back, and bowed.
Two days later my grand-daughter Camilla left a note on the chalkboard in our kitchen just before the family left. It said,
“Make yourself keep on dancing even after the music stops.”