This is the day we freely say
we are scorched.
This is the hour we are marked
by what has made it through the burning.
This is the moment we ask for the blessing
that lives within the ancient ashes,
that makes its home
inside the soil of this sacred earth.
Jan L. Richardson
It was about two weeks after the Carr Fire. Maybe three. We met in a church. The room was full. We came – my wife and I – with the expectation that this would be a chance to heal from the mind-numbing horror that our daily lives had become since the inferno had vaporized our home and all it contained and left a smoldering pile of ash, rack and ruin.
The event had been advertised as a healing opportunity. Catharsis even. We had hope upon entering the hall that something meaningful was at hand.
And then the speakers spoke, one after another, everyone beginning with some version of this curious, interesting introduction: “I didn’t lose my home but…” and then more words. I’d been here before. You have too. When my father had his affair and left my mother and me alone, my loss was accentuated by those who stood outside our pain, pretending they understood. Then later my first wife. Her affair and our divorce. And then all the deaths of friends and family over the years. Nancy’s cancer. The time I was crushed between two trucks while I sat on my motor scooter waiting for the light to change.
We’ve all been there. The versions vary but the common thread’s the same. To be human is to suffer such losses repeatedly. And to find others surrounding us who are not in the same place, who seem a little too glad, a little too solid in their connection to the ground and sky. It is like being emotionally naked in a room of the comfortably clothed. It isn’t just different. It is antithetical, the white to our black, the up to our down, the success to our failure, the wealth to our wretched poverty.
We’ve all been on each side of the divide between the blessed and the cursed, the favored and the damned. We take turns. Winning and losing. We all want to win, but someone has to lose. There wouldn’t be life without death. We only understand the light because of darkness. It was our turn to lose.
At some point, victims were invited to speak, and several did. I loved each of them instantly. They were me, my family, my heart. And most had it worse than we did. Especially those from Stanford Hills who had no warning, just the wall of galloping flames chasing them from their homes, forcing them to literally run for their lives. Three months later, the unspeakable catastrophe of the Camp Fire would further shock the world with its venomous incineration, but at that moment, we were stunned numb enough by our own experience of decimation and doom.
While we sat quietly listening, our surrendered hearts open to the pain of one and then another shattered soul, a curious event unfolded to my right, just outside the room, on the other side of the glass. For the first time I noticed the portable fire pit on the sidewalk and a man approaching it with something in his hand. I was incredulous. “No way,” I thought. “He isn’t going to light a fire. Is he?!”
And then he lit it and almost instantly, the familiar choking smell of smoke snaked its way into the church through the ventilation system, surrounding us with its menacing message: “I’m still here and I’m never going away.”
“Why?” I thought. It made no sense. If there is one thing we could all agree on, it was that fire was not our friend, not something we would intentionally incite and invite to this sacred place. Not now. It seemed like someone’s idea of a cruel joke. No one who lost their home would have sanctioned such a perversion, and yet there it was, the wisps of billowing white clouds and ash rising from the chasm that monumentally yawned between the lucky and the lost.
When we had first arrived, like everyone else, we were handed a small piece of blank paper and told we’d need them later. And right about the time I found myself engaging in my own futile, mental war of resistance against the smell of smoke, one of the speakers asked us to take our paper out. Sometimes I don’t listen well. I admit it. All I knew is that at some point the talking stopped and I noticed everyone around me writing on their little piece of paper, and so I did, too.
I am a therapist. I know that sometimes we ask our clients to write out their thoughts, feelings or stories on paper and then burn it. It is designed to release the fear or pain associated with past events or traumas, and in this symbolic act of letting go, we find ourselves feeling less burdened, more free, lighter somehow. It is a useful technique. It works. But at that moment, it wasn’t right for me. I had already lost too much, I thought, and most painfully, I had lost my words. Decades of my poems, journals and writings, had all been erased in seconds of searing flame. And now the fire wanted more of my words? “No!” I silently screamed. “No, no, no.”
I could feel the tears coming as they always did in those weeks after the fire, starting in my chest, rising up into my throat and filling my eyes until the room began to blur and I felt afraid. We were told to file out of the room in two single lines, one side of the room out one door, the other side out the front where another pit of fire waited, hungry for our scraps of paper and our words.
I quickly whispered to my wife that I was leaving, and while others compliantly dropped their notes into the dancing flames, I broke from the line and headed into the parking lot, intent on escape, clutching my unburned note. As I reached my car, I suddenly realized how familiar this felt, this running away, this escaping from the scene, this fleeing from feelings of fear, pain and sadness. I’ve been doing this all my life. I could have driven off. Nothing was stopping me. Nancy had her car. She didn’t need me to drive her home. But I knew it was wrong. I was betraying something deep inside me. I didn’t have to burn the note, but I needed to stay. I knew that. I turned and went back in, found my place by her side and held her hand.
I still have the note. For a while it laid on the island counter of our sparsely furnished rental. Eventually, my wife or daughter stuck it up on the fridge, tacked by a magnet where I would read, remember and nod, absorbing its meaning, reminding myself of what was real and true and what was not. And later when we bought a house, someone stuck it on that fridge. And nearly five months after the fire, Christmas arrived and my wife’s surprising gift, a framed version of my words, compiled with carefully cut letters from magazines, the date of the fire in the lower right corner. Later we hung it inside our new front door along with a Buddhist prayer flag that miraculously survived the flames in an unburned bush in front of our home, some melted objects and a key to a home that no longer exists.
When I opened the gift, and realized what it was, it all came back to me fresh: the fire, the loss, the tears, and best of all, glorious, generous gratitude.
So much gratitude. So much joy. So much love.
As humans we are all attached to objects, things, precious items that mean so much, and like us, are fragile, fleeting and frail. We fear losing them, and when we lose them, we cling to the memory of them and refuse to let them go. We hang on to things, even when hanging-on no longer makes sense. I know. I understand. I am living that now.
And sometimes we must lose and let go. It’s why we’re here: to lose and lose again. We are here to learn, and the simple truth is, we learn best when we lose. If we are surrendered and willing to be vulnerable, we learn to embrace our losses, forgive our betrayals, pardon our failures, and if we must cling, we cling to love and its mysterious ability to bind us to our precious others. When all is lost, it remains, constant, steady and true.
And sometimes, if we are truly open, we discover we already and always possess what no earthly force can claim.