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.
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.
(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.”