Lost In the Fire
On a blog where I write about the concept of home and all of the stuff that goes inside it, I have found it nearly impossible to put together the words to write about the way the Paradise Camp Fire has disfigured my life. While the Farmhouse is where Johnny and I live, the place I always referred to as “home” was my parents’ house of 30 years, the house in Paradise, CA where I grew up, on Hickory Way. But as of November 8, 2018, that home and everything in it doesn’t exist anymore. The homes in that neighborhood don’t exist anymore, either. In fact, most Paradise neighborhoods don’t exist any longer, and neither does the town.
Four out of my five bridesmaids also no longer have their childhood homes. The one who still lived in Paradise lost her own home as well. Alpine. Evergreen. Hickory. Kibler. Sawpeck. The street names that were the backdrops of our childhood adventures are all now desolate wastelands of eerily standing chimneys and toxic ash. Along with 18,000 structure and the things inside of them, this fire has seared away the threads that knit together neighbors, routines, and a functioning community. Lifelong friends have scattered, schools, hospitals and businesses burned down, care providers left town, and the ability for anyone to rebuild on such a vast scale is all but certain. And because of that, what happened wasn’t just a fire, or the loss of a house. Normalcy is simply, and completely, gone.
Today, after three trips back to be with my parents and witness what is left of our tragic town, I can say that I have truly seen the lowest common denominator of what stuff can become. I have scraped off my fingerprints digging through it on my hands and knees. A two-day search for hope produced some scorched and broken porcelain dishes and figurines, and little else. But those items are now sacred — the new heirlooms — all sent back to the Farmhouse with me, where I have carefully cleaned them and stored them away. The totality of three decades of my family’s life now fits neatly in a single small plastic tote.
Hundreds of miles away in Southern California, I struggle with answering the frequent (and always kind-hearted) question of how I or my family is doing. “It has fundamentally changed our DNA,” I think to myself. “We are not ok. Will we ever be?” But instead I smile and say “Doing alright!” or “Hanging in there!” I don’t know how else to acceptably answer. But it has been two and half months, and I’m still crushed. Will I ever not be?
I have lost my way a bit since the fire, falling into a rut that has taken creativity out of my life; a rut that has sapped my energy for personal growth. It is a small bit of fallout in comparison with the loss experienced by my parents and friends who are in temporary housing, futures in limbo, possessions all gone. But it is my reality, and like the pieces of found porcelain that at times crumbled in my hands, I feel brittle and stale, ready to break. I am desperate for inspiration, a creative outlet, and a way to contribute and make an impact. But I have melted into a routine I can’t shake, one that houses a life that is very small and shrouded in grief. So much has been lost in this fire, and I am lost too. Will I ever not be?