September 9, 2020 – Many years ago, it was 1978 to be exact, after my family lost a home in a conflagration similar to the ones blazing today in California, I recalled a quote from Carl Sandburg, one I remembered from high school. The past is a bucket of ashes. I found a scorched tree branch turned charcoal, and scratched that message on a burned piece of wood I put outside our property near our metal gate. Decades later I can say that for me, at least, Sandburg’s message was incorrect: Despite being left with only a pile of debris, I learned finally that the past is far more than a bucket of ashes.
Let me reboot. This week, watching California ablaze yet again, I relived through strangers the heartaches, the disappointment, the impotence one feels when confronted by a wall of flame. Right now many of you are still in shock, traumatized by the events that changed your lives. One hopes you escaped with your family, your friends, your pets. Right now you are haggling with insurance companies, seeking help to remove the rubble from your property, looking for a place to live, attempting to recreate a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time.
We were lucky; the government brought in trailers for the hundreds who lost their homes in our fire. We rebuilt. And forty years later, that home, now owned by others, was destroyed in a similar inferno. It is our California reality, made worse now by what we’ve done to the earth.
I say to strangers who have lost your homes, please do what I did not: Grieve with your family. After our loss, I told our youngsters: We’re fine. The animals are fine. It was just a house. At the time I thought we had no time to grieve, an appalling error on my part. No one told me strength resides in tears. No one told me that loss, if not recognized, sneaks up on you years later to reignite flames you thought you’d extinguished.
Fifteen years after our fire, from 500 miles north, I watched on television as the Santa Monica Mountains burned yet again. It was then I learned my folly. Tears flowed as I acknowledged for the first time, our loss.
Sometimes sorrow is a long time in coming.
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Through adversity we learn that things are simply that: things. Perhaps you lost the only keepsake from your grandmother’s life, though it exists still in memory. As does she. Take comfort in the knowledge that the important things live inside. You lost a lifetime of photos? Take solace knowing that you don’t need a camera to relive the moments of your life, for in memory, those moments are crystalline. The sounds that live in your head: newborns crying, children laughing, birds singing, remain.
And wait, for the fires in our lives ultimately ignite the realization that things of value exist inside, immune to flame’s wrath.
For me, Carl Sandburg was wrong. Ashes were the smallest part of the picture. As surely as the mountains and valleys endure, you too, endure. Those spaces sacred to you will remain your spiritual homes. Though scarred, they are a place that calamity cannot destroy.
The first wildflowers gracing the hills, the return of a doe, filled our hearts with pleasure, proof that nature endures.
As you endure: bearing the weight of a thousand losses, yet better still.