I had to evacuate my house in Sonoma a few days ago, as did all my neighbors, when the fires pressed down upon us from Santa Rosa, which had already been horribly decimated – thousands of houses and businesses burnt to the ground. At that time we didn’t know about all the lost lives, just the wretched smell of smoke, the ash falling like heavy snow, and the police driving up and down the roads telling us how close to us the blaze was. Yet as of this writing there are over thirty confirmed deaths including a young teenager trying to outrun the fire on foot.
I know I am lucky. Gayle and I and all of our friends are alive. At this moment, our house is still standing. We also know it may not last the night. Winds of up to 60MPH are expected this evening, the same as what started this conflagration. Still, we count ourselves fortunate. Many of my friends have lost everything. Up on Bennett Ridge, which until Sunday was home to dozens of artists, Sherry and Dina lost a lifetime of work. Sherry is a well known collage artist, has collected collage material for decades, has scores of works on paper one more beautiful than the next, now all gone. Not to mention all the art and antiques they’ve collected over the years that graced their beautiful home. We spent Monday night with them – they’d slept in their car in a Safeway parking lot on Sunday as their house burned to the ground – and we got a little drunk and told ourselves what everyone tells themselves: “We have each other and that’s the important thing.”
This statement is true, but it’s also a kind of lie. What I discovered, what many of us did, was that the objects in our lives are also the “important thing”– these objects with which we surround ourselves – the art on our walls, our mother’s china, the photo from that hike in the Sierras, the plant we’ve been nursing for ten years, the love letters moldering in that old file box, the playbill from that first date – these in fact are the items by which we define ourselves. They are our connection to those whom we have loved or hated, those who gave us life or those who helped us along the way. Our journals, our cancelled checks, our collection of salt and pepper shakers – whatever it is that in our own lives mattered – this is also who we are.
And when you have an hour or less to decide: what do I pack into the car – and you see how small the space is in your car – and you realize how little time you have to choose – a kind of Sophie’s Choice confronts you – which child lives, which is consigned to the flames – and you begin to have a sense that things also have a spiritual nature. Similar to friendship, love, faith and work. These things, they are also your identity, even the ones you’ve forgotten that when you look upon them remind you of who you were, where you were, what you said, to whom you said it – oh yes, that’s right, that happened! That was me. That is me. Your history. Your beginning. Your legacy. Your things.
I’ve sometimes discounted the importance of things: after all, it’s just stuff.
To all who are confronted with the horrible fire, and to all who can only watch and wait, stay safe. Stay strong.