The fire was burning several miles away when we left. It wasn't supposed to come close to our house, but suddenly, the wind shifted and evacuations were under way. My brother and sister left with a neighbor and my mother and I left our appointment early to go home. But coming over the hill, all we could see was smoke and flames. Our entire neighborhood had disappeared, drenched in thick black smoke. I had a panic attack. I was fifteen-years old and my entire life was in that house. All of my journals and notebooks and photos and diaries and notes and poems and memories. I feared the worst. That I had lost everything. That I would be identiy-less without my clothes and shoes and journals and photos. I was defined by my possessions and nostalgic and forgetful.
I thought that without my yearbook, I would someday forget my closest friends. That without my diaries I would forget my past. My whole life since kindergarten had been recorded. I had documented everything. And now? It was all about to become dust. My anxiety mounted and soon I was flailing, hysterical in my mom's mini-van. I didn't want to go home because I was afraid I didn't have one, anymore. I always thought of home as a safe standing structure full of belongings. Pretty soon, I thought, we would be homeless. Have nothing. Be stranded on the outskirts of our past lives.
I still remember what I was wearing. CK jeans and brown mules that I regretted buying but wore anyway because they were the only shoes that matched my Guess? blouse, which was also brown. Brown with beige paisley flowers.
"This is all that's left!" I screamed, to my poor mother who was driving home, strong, patting my arm, telling me everything would be okay. "And I hate these shoes..."
We weren't allowed to go back to our neighborhood so instead we sat at the park down the street with all the neighbors. Some of us were laughing, trying to keep upbeat. Some were crying. I was a total wreck. So much so, my mother at one point yelled at me to calm down.
"You need to get a hold of yourself!" she said. "It's just stuff!"
She was right, although at the time I didn't think so.
"Stuff? STUFF? My journals are not STUFF!"
We waited for my Dad to come home from work. And Rachel and David to come meet us with our dog, Dexter. We waited until we were all together and then we piled in the van and went to my Aunt, Uncle and cousin's house. Where it was safe.
Our house was fine. Dozens of others in the area weren't so lucky and several friends of mine lost their homes and many houses in my neighborhood were damaged. Our clothes smelled like smoke for several months but it could have been a lot worse.
There have been plenty of wild-fires since. Southern California is full of them, but none have been as bad and have hit so close to (my) home as the ones that sparked last night. On the same date they did eleven years ago, October 22nd, 1996.
This morning I got a call from my parents who received a call from the authorities at 6am telling them they needed to pack up their belongings and be ready to evacuate. A new fire had erupted near San Marcos and was blowing toward them. My parents got up and quickly sorted through their belongings.
"Do you want me to grab anything of yours?" My mom asked.
I thought for a moment, half-asleep in bed. I couldn't think of anything. My entire childhood and teendom in boxes in the garage and in my old bedroom and nothing occurred to me as being important enough for my parent's to take with them. It didn't matter: A strange feeling for someone who for so long thought it did. Thought that everything mattered. Thought that stuff was important. That the artifacts of one's past were all one had left to remember her former life. But it wasn't true. It isn't true.
"No." I said. "Whatever you think is important, grab. But I'm fine. I don't need anything."
I hung up the phone with my mother and wandered around the house for an hour or so, thinking about what I had just said. It was unlike me. It was out of character. It was weird.
"The past has passed," I thought. "I don't need things to remind me of who I am. Where I have come from. What I need are friends. And family. And whatever can escape a firestorm in its own two (or four) legs.. Everything else is just ash. Always has been. Even if I didn't think so at the time."
I went to turn on the news, except there was nothing about San Diego. Too many fires in LA County. Too many fires. People being coaxed off their roofs, desperate, trying to fight what they cannot control. Little hoses versus the inferno. It seems so silly. Then, again, I'm in Hollywood, where it's safe. And I remember how scary... the thought... thinking... everything might be gone by morning.
My mother just called me again. Just now while I'm writing this post. But my hands aren't shaking. They always shake-- my hands. They shake when I feel out of control. And anxious. And scared.
"We're evacuating, now," she said. "So is Aunt Fran. And Nana. The local lifeguard went to Nana's house and told her it's time to leave. We're all going to Grandma and Grandpa's."
"But Aunt Fran is in Rancho Santa Fe. And Nana's in Del Mar..."
"It's everywhere, now," my mother said. "250,000 people have been evacuated this morning. No one knows what's going to happen. We're all at the mercy of the wind."
She sounded like she did eleven years ago. Calm. Collected. Matter-of-fact. Wise beyond her ability to recognize her wisdom.
"Let's just pray the wind goes the other way," she said.
"Okay," I said. "I'll pray."
We hung up and I looked at my hands. Still not shaking. Not even a little bit scared but maybe that's what happens when you're in shock. Because last night everyone was in their homes and today.... Things are different. Because the wind picked up. Because it's so dry. Because there is nothing anybody can do. Because most of the time, there is nothing anybody can do.
We're all at the mercy of the wind. Whether its a fire storm or a brain tumor that looks like a heart. Growing. Shifting. Moving the right and then wrong way. At the wind's mercy. All of us. The sick and the dying and the healthy and the newly born. Our future and the world we haven't taken care of. A land whose rebellion is stronger than any force. Any prayer. Any hope.
Today dozens of fires are blazing out of control around Southern California. Many of which are 0% contained. And around the world they also burn. And even in the safe neighborhoods smoke looms overhead. Ash is in the air. Some fires are inescapable. Sometimes there is nothing we can do.
We're at the mercy of the wind-- More than we care to admit.
I have no idea what's going to happen. No one does. And for some reason, where that once seemed extremely scary it is now somewhat of a a relief. A relief because sometimes it takes an evacuation to know where home really is.
And sometimes it's better to stand back and hold the hands of those who truly matter than to stand on a roof amidst the flames trying to protect things that never really did.
Because no matter what may burn in the fire, there are some things impenetrable. Indestructible. And those are the things that matter most of all-- and the only things really worth protecting.
To all readers in evacuation zones (I know many of you, personally) my thoughts are with you and your families. Praying that the wind blows the other way...
(This video was taken in Joshua Tree several weekends ago of friends Ryan and Cheryl (Fort King) rocking out in the very wee hours of the morning. I thought it was apropos to the above post, considering the lyrics and all...)