Thanksgiving, the giving of thanks, is an utterly splendid idea, I say. In fact, I say it out loud these days, married as I am to an Episcopal vicar. And I say it at this particular time, on this particular day, because change is in the air. Really. The air is changing. It is changing from something I would like to forget but can’t.
The air was full of death. No, not a metaphor. Everyone in this part of California must have had more or less the same intimation. We have been breathing the cremated remains of what probably amounts to several hundred people. Like everything associated with climate change, the whole thing moved faster than anyone could have predicted. One moment there was a town in the Sierra foothills full of dry and dusty pines. The next minute there was fire leaping from tree to tree, then house to house.
Or to put a necessarily finer point on it, from mobile home to mobile home, trailer to trailer. In Paradise, the mountain town that burned to the ground, most lives aren’t paradisiacal. We in the affluent coast cities don’t know about these places, literally. We never go there, geographically or psychically. It takes a disastrous fire and hundreds of likely deaths to reveal which should be at least half obvious. There are plenty of poor people in this country. Most have roofs over their heads. Some have a modest safety net under them, vis-à-vis Social Security and Medicare. But an awful lot do not have even that.
It is these people that have darkened the Bay Area skies for 10 days. Their ashes have sent the likes of me huddling indoors. With breathing already compromised, why compromise further? And while this has cramped my style, it is done something more. A pall has truly fallen over everything. And while we breathe and wait and wonder when it will end, the stories keep appearing on television. The disappeared are my age, many of them. Many are infirm, like me. The fire that raced and crackled through the trees caught them in bed, in the bathtub and, in many horrifying instances, on the road trying to escape. People were universally defenseless. That makes the whole thing biblical.
The start of the rains means the end of the fire. Very likely it also means the start of floods. And for many it also means a kind of oblivion. The fire was so hot that most victims were not only reduced to ash, but to some sub species of ash, much of it powdery, not even fragments. All that will wash away with the rainfall. And maybe it’s just as well. Yes, I would want to know if a friend or family member had died. Or would I? If they are gone and their final details never known, maybe there is some peace in that. They can live forever in memory and in mystery. They can even live in Paradise.
I stayed indoors so much of the last couple of weeks that my lungs are probably fine. What I really take in is a deep inhalation of our troubled country and afflicted planet. What’s the latest count, 60% of species wiped off the face of the earth in the last few decades? Well, breathe easy, goes the expression. I am safe. San Francisco hasn’t burned. And if Paradise has gone up in smoke, that smoke has gone everywhere, and it has a message.