Firefighting

Part of me wants to sit and write forever – typing my digestion of this past week, month, year. Another part of me wants to sit in a silent room– having nothing to say, nothing to write, nothing to do.

Tonight I’ve settled upon my red pajamas, renting Juno and eating a dove bar for dinner. I did start writing some yesterday, noticing there’s the writing I feel I should do – updating friends and family on the fire – and there’s all the words underneath. I’ll probably make a series of it, as the onion reveals itself. I beg your patience with both the wordy waterfalls and days of silence in between.

I just re-read the last fire update I sent. Now it feels so dramatic. The big, bad (and yes, still burning) fire that had all our fingernails chewed down to the quick has, after an exhaustingly watchful week, moved along from Big Sur with (relatively) little fanfare. This is in no way intended to diminish to the 27 homes lost, or our northeastern neighbors who are now evacuated, but when it seemed like the fate of the entire coast was at stake, to have the highway back open in the span of a mere week seems altogether anticlimactic.

The statistics feel worse than the fire. Apparently by the time this is all said and done (probably not until the winter rains) this will be the largest wildfire in California history. It’s a few fires actually, that have joined and will burn more than a quarter million acres. In all honesty, that means nothing to me. It’s a vast sea of wilderness that my brain can’t wrap itself around. When I look at the fire maps I see fragments of Bambi flash through my memory reel and I imagine the distress of the deer.

Hearing about landmarks, big and small, help my mind and body understand. I can picture the garden at the zen center vividly – memories of my fingers in soil beds that are now smoldering, black mounds. Sula’s house, where I sat with her over a long tea, talking about the joy of mixing paint colors and how Big Sur swept her off her feet so many years ago. Feeding her horses lunch and imagining myself living there too, in the little Airstream on the ridge. All those paintings and teacups and books – the accumulation in the life of a dilettante – now ash and dust.

View from the highway July 3rd

** View from the highway July 3rd **

When I first saw the fire up close, on evacuation day, I was surprised at the force of the effect. I sucked in breath and sobbed. The line of flames burning down the ridge looked like a scalpel, with neither malice nor care, cutting through the vulnerable skin of a friend. And we had to leave, not knowing if we were in for an appendectomy or a heart transplant.

The week away was a blurry flurry of websites and phone calls and meetings. Everyone insatiably hungry for information, most of which told us only to keep waiting. The people who know things announced it would be at least a few weeks before we could return home. And as abruptly as the evacuation came, one evening (Thursday? Yesterday? A year ago?) they announced the road would open to residents the next day. This was more shocking to me than the evacuation frankly. Great for Big Sur businesses and obviously a good sign the fire was well contained along the coast, but I couldn’t help feeling like I’d just worked really hard getting comfortable in an uncomfortable chair, and now I had to go find someplace else to sit. I could understand the joy of friends who could finally go home, but I had no home to go to. The place I was planning on moving to survived by the hair of its chin, but the owners have decided not to rent it for awhile. So now what?

I began to feel all the stuff behind the stuff. How becoming absorbed in managing a community website was simultaneously providing me with a point of focus and a container, giving me purpose and sense of earning my space in the village. How the fire was giving me a good excuse for eating badly, feeling sorry for myself and playing hooky. And now the containers and urgencies were falling away, and my community was scattering back up on their ridges, each immersed in their own fridge clean outs. (I have to make mention of my friend and fellow fire gypsy Linda’s perfectly written account of re-entry – http://survision-bigsur.blogspot.com/.)

I’ve spent the time continuing my coffee shop wifi tour of Carmel, feeling out the not knowing in the occasional courageous moment. Not knowing always seems to come in equal parts pain and freedom. I’m still searching for my bootstraps after days full of tears and frustration and naps. But angels abound, and in the span of a day I’ve secured Big Sur house-sitting gigs through the end of August and Yossi signed a lease on an apartment in Marin.

  **the view from my front door**

**the view from my front door, July 16**

(Aside: There’s an overwhelmed little girl in me who wants everyone in the world to know that her old hometown flooded, her new hometown burned, she’s homeless, alone and her dog died last week. But what more to say than the picture of this moment – I’m nestled under a homemade quilt in a private guest house over a glimmering, enormous ocean, sipping wine and feeling taken in and loved everywhere. Don’t let me get away with the poor me routine please.)

When I finally drove back to Big Sur this weekend, I nervously wondered what our new landscape would have to say, but it wasn’t anything like seeing the fire. I just stared at the hills in awe and curiosity, not the least bit sad. Where I saw the fingers of flame coming down to the road is now a giant, ashy mountain. In the right light you have to look twice before you even notice it isn’t green. The trees are still intact in many of the burn areas, where the fire didn’t crown and just burned through the understory. (I have a newly enhanced fire vocabulary.) If anything, Big Sur just looks even more dramatic than before.

What most residents see is a much-needed, healthy clearing – and the makings of a winter full of mudslides and road closures. Not to mention all eyes are still on the half of Big Sur that didn’t burn, as we glance at the calendar and count down 100 more days till fire season is over.

It makes most people wonder why on earth anyone has perched themselves up here in this place. I know painters who stay for the limitless landscapes. A friend told me today her neighbors wanted “country without the rednecks.” Henry Miller said it’s where he learned to say “Amen.” For me, Big Sur is a teacher of the lessons I’ve signed up for. And whether it’s flavored with pain or freedom, it always whispers in my ear “this is how big my love is.”

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8 Comments

Filed under life, writing

8 responses to “Firefighting

  1. Thank you Lisa for all you did for our community. What Lisa neglected to say is what a hero she is for the Big Sur community (and I do not say this lightly). The website she put up became the place to go for information and resources. It enable people to make strategic decisions about their lives and the actions they needed to take. Not only did it serve us— the model, the success, the practical usefulness, attracted national attention. From the Wall Street Journal to NPR to the major news networks, there was a great deal of interest and coverage of what Lisa created. There was a need, she saw the need, and chose to stepped forward. Bravo Lisa! Gratefully, Steven

  2. VFL/BFF

    Hang in there goofball! Your old hometown is in good hands! We will just start over and make things less mucky and more fabulous. My dad is back in his house with the fanciest washer and dryer I’ve ever seen and I think he appreciates a newfound relationship with his oldest daughter more than ever. It took a flood, but if that’s not a tall glass of the most perfect lemonade, made out of almost rotten lemons, I don’t know what is! I am so proud of you. Don’t sell yourself short.

  3. feeless free writer

    holy crap, lisa. this is a beautiful and brilliant entry. the paragraph about the fire performing surgery? appendectomy vs. open heart? awesome. burning through the understory?

    i so so so appreciate your insight (sidebar on the overwhelmed little girl = my very favorite kind of acknowledgement and self carpet calling).

    i hope you are writing a lot a lot, b/c i think you are gifted in both content and delivery. maybe the fire is burning out your own understory.

    my favorite short story in the world is Eleven by sandra cisneros. and the girl who turns eleven is still and always 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… so i would imagine for you all those accumulated years are really in a stir.

    you are a good egg. and i am glad you are safe. and have no doubt your bootstraps are right where you left them to be found when all is ready.

  4. John

    Lisa,
    I just discovered your blog and have loved looking through it. P is right, you are a heck of a writer! Glad you are safe. Is it OK to say I want to be like you when I grow up?

    J

  5. Linda

    Sweetie-pie, you make me cry! My goosebumps grew goosebumps. Thank you for your grace and wisdom. And what a writer you are, sheesh.

    We are blessed to have you here, our newest Big Sur gypsy soul.
    love
    Linda

  6. Toby

    Sweet Lisa G
    Such words you spill out into the world, and I sit here with moist eyes, and a full heart. You capture your own emotions and yet transcribe them so eloquently for others to take in and feel.

    We Do live here in Big Sur for its beauty; its savage beauty. Most here know of the daily risks we run being perched on the edge of the world. Like a peregrine that chooses the craggiest perch for safety and also the chance to fly free, we do the same, and face challenges that make us grow stronger and more appreciative of nature, our neighbors and our core beings. How could one not grow and transcend after this wild ride?

    What you personally did for this community that you have come to embrace and love was beyond the pale. I don’t think the greater part of your readership has ANY idea of just how much energy, skill, experience and TIME you put into surfire. You were the uniting source for a wide variety of needs. I know that many agencies, locals, media, and businesses looked to you first for critical information. You are to be publicly and personally commended for creating a template for how other communities react and share information.
    And don’t worry about finding somewhere to live – your open heart and committment to this Big Sur community will result in something wonderful for you. Personally, I think that you should be given free housing for two years at least!
    Love, Toby

  7. amy

    Lisa, on her blog, my friend Patresa suggested I come visit (I think she has before, and I am finally listening to her).

    I keep hearing about the Big Sur fires on the news, but it’s all so static. Reading about from someone experiencing has so much more impact. Also, one day I had the news on in the background and they were reporting on the fires…and I wondered: but who is helping the forest animals? I’m glad other people are worried about them, too.

    I think you write beautifully. I am going to send many, many deeply positive vibes to California so that everyone–humans, pets, and forest animals–will be okay.

    Also, Juno is on the top of my favorite movies list. 🙂

  8. kat

    I am here reading from “P’s” site…. now, on to read…

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