Poems of Fire and Light

And there are days when I wish I owned nothing, like the grass.” – Mary Oliver

I always have a Decomposition Book I write in and when the fire hit, I had two different ones going, one at home and one at work. On August 25, 2018, I wrote a piece I called Burned House Blues.

Here is an excerpt:

On July 19, 2018, Pamela died. One week later, our house burned down along with 1,078 other homes full of stuff in Redding, California. And ever since I’ve been lost. But don’t tell anyone. I’ve been faking it well. I have an ocean of tears inside me. Occasionally, while driving, I let a few waves wash out of me and a few scattered screams like a tortured seagull might make. People try to understand. People who have their homes. They try to understand what it’s like. I want to tell them it’s okay. If they are lucky, they will never know what I know and that’s a good thing.

I wrote:

When your home dissolves when you’re not there, you are left wondering. What was it like when it died? How long did it take to go away? I picture it screaming sadness and sorrow before the final surreal, silence that would turn our dense, green neighborhood into a sea of dull ashes, a crematorium for houses and trees.

The next day was “the one-month anniversary of the death of our home” and I wrote New Day:

I’m drinking coffee, the ceiling fan is twirling overhead and everywhere I look I see art… all the paintings and prints we grabbed and stashed in our cars leaning up against the walls of our rented home. Why hang them? Why should they be normal or look normal? Let them reflect the disordered reality of our disheveled life.

On August 31, I wrote The Invisible World, a reference to a Rumi quote: “You must set fire to have light. Trust means you’re ready to risk what you currently have. Work in the invisible world at least as hard as you do in the visible.”

Here is an excerpt:

The rest of my life will be marked by fire, by what it burned and the hole it left in my life and soul, the lost feeling that colors every thought and breath, the deadness that permeates and perfumes my gaze and considerations. The invisible world is bored with my self-pity and pain. Enough it whispers. Knit the broken places or shed them like old skin. Be still and notice nothing has changed. Am I not still here breathing?

That day I again quoted Rumi: “You’ve been stony for too many years. Try something different. Surrender.”

And I wrote Behold the Silence:

I knock at the door and ask for words. Just a few to fill this page. Some special ones filled with generosity and surprise, the other side of dark coins, that unfold like wings and fall into the sky as easy as rising smoke and ash. We met with Terrence today and imagined the garage, all the vanishings alive again, so we could give it value. Will money cure this pain? It’s all we have left now to make us whole. Fire, like a thief, liquidated our assets with its vaporizing breath, reducing the material majesty of our trusted life to sand and dirt. There is love in me, I know, and hope and healing; the spirits of my mother and others who love me wonder if I’ll pass this test. How can I find my way out of the maze when it’s burned and charred? I think I’ll just sit here and write and listen to music. Damn the rest. Behold the silence of now.

On the first of September I quoted Rumi: “Everyone chooses a suffering that will change him or her to a well-baked loaf.”

And I wrote From the Island:

It is morning. I’m standing at our new island on Heather Ridge. Flies swarm outside the door. The smell of smoke drifted back in the night, forcing Nancy to wear her mask so she can breathe. I have hope. Not a lot. Not a little. It’s a growing thing that I coax to come near and teach me what she knows. Nancy’s making breakfast, our daily omelet of love. My mind flits about like those flies, fretting and fearful while something deeper than love holds me patiently, perfectly and purely, trusting me, even while I abandon and betray myself with doubt and shame. Coffee and scone, a freshly potted plant stand on this island with me. It’s a new beginning. My whole life starts fresh. The dead ones are here. My mother. Pamela. I think them here. Invite them to come, write them into this poem forever, or until the next fire. I am love. I am truth. I am the one. You are too. From far away, something sweet comes near. Now.

In Drifting, I wrote:

Time keeps moving and I follow and seek an answer or two. I don’t know. That is the problem. And so I drift. I built a life and someone decided I should start over. Be patient, I tell me. Don’t complain. Don’t resist. Follow the breath in and out. Notice and allow the barking dog. The flies. The smoke. Life in the slow, dead time of here.

I wrote Ashes on September 14:

No moment lasts. It just is. For that moment. And then it isn’t, replaced by a new moment that is and then isn’t, and so on. Nothing lasts. Today I visited the ashes and watched my convictions and beliefs dissolve in the dust and debris that used to be our home.

Nothing lasts and nothing matters. We cling to any of it at our peril. I am supremely happy now. I’ve decided we are not rebuilding. Why? It is so obvious. We’ll find a house and buy it and be done. Everything seems so simple now. Everything I was attached to is gone and I am free. What a blessing. The world is forcing me to change. And I am cooperating. I have no idea what is next, except, we’ll buy a house and let the ashes have our past.

Two days later I wrote No Fear:

The old life is gone and it’s a gift to have it all disappear. Those who have not lost it all cannot understand what I mean. When you lose everything, you lose the fear of losing everything. There is the blessing. All the fear is gone.

On the 29th of September I wrote Give-and-Take:

Our house burned down two months and three days ago, dissolved into ashes that were carefully collected and removed, leaving the three cypress trees, tall, burned and dead, bearing witness to change.

And today, Jody texted they accepted our offer on our next home, already furnished, so we can step into someone else’s life and make it ours. They call it give-and-take, not necessarily in that order. We woke up one day with news that a fire wanted our home and there was nothing we could do but fill our cars with what we guessed we’d care about later. And now a new house with a view of the river and burned matchstick trees on the ridge and clean, empty lots where the houses used to be on the other side. The changes keep coming. Yesterday, a fist in the face. Today, a kiss on the lips. Both the same.

That same day I quoted William Stafford: “If you survive, you can tell about things: the sky that never made any promises anyway, and our tornado that made enough instant rubble to last the rest of your life. Those who complain, they are alive.”

Here is, The Secret:

I don’t remember choosing this life, but I’m pretty sure I did. I just want to know why. Somehow, I imagine that would help. Today I woke up thinking maybe the worst is over. Life is a series of choreographed assaults, followed by periods of redemptive relief before the next assault begins. Today feels like an interglacial, a lull between the mountains of misery that I ordered for the sake of my soul and its need to grow.

If you survive, you come out of it more whole and deeper somehow. There’s more light. More truth and less longing. I find myself not wanting much and accepting what comes, no longer afraid of fire or death or loss. It all burned and we live on, remarkable, alert, knowing things that the fortunate ones, those with unburned homes do not know: the secret, like silence, like snow, this calm feeling inside.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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15 Responses

  1. Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

    You’ve described survival so eloquently. Thank you.

  2. Avatar Eleanor Townsend says:

    No words to add here, Doug. Thank you for writing this; it makes some sense out of something that doesn’t make sense.

  3. Avatar Sue says:

    Reading this I feel the surrender – the Peace. So, so beautiful.
    Thank you!!!!!!!!!

  4. Thank you, Doug, for this incredible piece of writing. Such wisdom and clarity, expressed in words like these: “They call it give-and-take, not necessarily in that order.”

    Bless you and Nancy and your new life and new home and these next chapters.

  5. Avatar Linda Cooper says:

    Thank you for expressing your thoughts. It’s comforting to know that there is a shared experience. And you actually had me laughing at times:

    “And ever since I have been lost. But don’t tell anyone.” Your secret is safe with me. I won’t tell if you won’t tell.

    “What was it like when it died?” I would wake from vivid dreams of certain objects burning. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep. Regardless, you sum it up here so well.

    “You come out of it more whole and deeper somehow.” Hum. Well, for me, the event sure put a new spin on “you create your own reality.”

    Thank you, again.

  6. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    How should I feel? . . . I who lost nothing. I want to say “I understand, I empathize,” but it would be a lie. I had to evacuate but came back to everything intact so in the velvet night I sometimes try to imagine exactly how I would have felt had it been otherwise. I THINK I know . . .I know I don’t. It’s somewhat akin to when, as a kid, one tried to imagine Disneyland having never been there.

    So I read your offerings and come, maybe one scintilla closer to the knowing.

    • Avatar Larry Winter says:

      Well put Adrienne. My feelings though are a bit more troubling. I know the people whose trailer started this fire and my heart aches for them also every time I read stories about the Carr Fire. I can’t imaging the suffering they go through, and will continue to go through the rest of their lives. I hope for healing for all involved and I appreciate the words of Mr. Craig as an example of how to get to the point of understanding and a pathway to living one’s life with that “calm feeling”.

      • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

        I can’t believe I’ve never thought of the feelings of the couple whose trailer inadvertently started the fire. Thank you for the reminder. I will keep them in my thoughts along with those who lost everything.

      • Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

        I hope the driver of that vehicle is not suffering. He shouldn’t be. Road side fires are not uncommon. What’s uncommon is how a minor fire became a conflagration.

        • Avatar Beverly Stafford says:

          My thought exactly, Joanne. Unlike the Camp Fire which evidently might have been averted, the Carr Fire was truly an accident.

  7. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    Wow. This is an amazing piece of writing.

  8. Avatar Candace C says:

    Baring one’s soul in public is terrifying and brave. I hope for you and others it’s cathartic as well. I was one of those that was evacuated but did not lose my home so I do not share your experience of devastating loss when it comes to losing your home and all that that implies. I find your writings describing your personal grief and self-reflection to be poignant, heart-rendering and powerful. Also, your referring to hope as “she” (instantly thought of my mother) was comforting and not lost on me. Thank you for sharing your story. Like Larry Winter I too think about the couple who’s trailer started the fire and how their lives have been impacted forever. Forgiving others is commendable, forgiving yourself in the face of such tragedy is near impossible. Most of us aren’t so great at the self-forgiveness thing. Perhaps hope will visit them as well. My guess is she’s in large demand these days. Thank you again, I find your shared humanity to be inspiring. Oh, and you had me at “Nancy’s making breakfast, our morning omelette of love”.

  9. My sister said I should read this, and that you and I have a lot of similarities (other than losing one’s home in a fire). She was right. I deeply appreciate your sharing your words and insights and know that it does not only benefit you but others as well.

  10. Avatar Larry Harris says:

    Beautiful.

  11. Joanne Snyder Joanne Snyder says:

    Powerful article Doug. I was visiting with three ex-neighbors today, and I think the “What was it like when it died??” question is common. Also the feeling that we can still mentally walk into that home we lost, go into the kitchen and “see” everything in the pantry, or pull open a draw and see what was in that drawer. The height and width and depth of each room still exists. Thank you.