I have a fascination with timbres of voice and I often will listen to someone speak because I like listening to them. The poet N. Scott Momaday comes to mind. I saw him speak once at Cal Lutheran University where I was a student and I was mesmerized by both his poetry and his voice.
So when I heard Marco Pierre White for the first time, on the late great Anthony Bourdain's show, I had the same feeling. The British accent added to it, of course, but the timbre of his voice had this gravelly clarity that I found so compelling. So I listened.
And it was while listening that he said something that has spurred a revelation for me that I must write here before I lose it. It's too important to sweep it away.
As a chef, White said that he learned over-time that nature is the genius. Nature is what provides the best food. "I'm just the cook," he said. "Start with beautiful produce and keep it simple." He drew the small analogy of artists who often say things like, "I just drew what I felt was on the paper or the canvas or in the stone," or whatever the medium.
In the midst of hearing this, I have been contemplating 28 years as an English teacher. I confess that I have moments of clarity that force me into the realization that I no longer love the career. There are bright and shining moments in it, but the bureaucracy and the politics, the absurd state and Federal agendas, the pay that is almost worth it, but not quite--it gathers up on me now and I sometimes have regrets.
I have no greater argument with my chosen profession than this: The current mantra in education is "Data drives instruction." It may well be the most asinine thing I've ever heard. It breaks down this very human pursuit, full of all the imperfections and idealism and heroism and cowardly, sinister behavior of people into numbers on paper or screens. Nothing, really, could be further from the truth.
What drives instruction is us--human beings. We drive instruction. My students will no more learn from me if they don't like or at least respect me than they would an axe murderer. Why would they? If I walk into each class thinking, "it's the data that makes this class relevant," I may as well simply go do a much simpler job where I could make no pretense about passion, commitment, love or curiosity. The bright and shining moments are the ones where kids light up with curiosity, discovery, passion or understanding. That's human and it doesn't come because of data. Nature provides the ingredients, as White would say. Nature provides the humanity. My job is to provide the opportunity for growth.
Mind, my job is not to make the students grow--rather, it is to provide them with opportunities for growth, to coax out of them as a cook coaxes her ingredients. If the ingredients are at their peak of freshness and taste, then the dish has the opportunity to be at its peak. But if not, then there is only so far it can go. Time is needed.
And if we're honest, as we rarely are in this profession, we know that many students at whatever age won't be ready for growth until they're much older. That makes them fragile while they're in our classrooms and the very last thing we should be saying to such students, to such people--is that data drives what we do for, with and to them. It does not. Saying so won't make it so. I won't equivocate. Data informs instruction? Sure. Data provides information for instruction? Check. But drives it? Without question--no. It does not. And if you are among those who believe it does, I beg you to leave the profession now--or at least, go to a university and do research where data will provide you years of solace. If you stay in the classroom with that mindset, you are part of the very big problem being made worse every day by standardization, testing and driving education into a piece of data used to measure human beings without anything resembling a heart or soul.
As for me and what I do for the next couple of years as I finish this portion of my career--my profession--will be an honest humanity, a kind heart as often as I can and a hand willing to reach out to my students and provide opportunities so that they can become who they are meant to be. To be at work for any other reason as a teacher is to throw away the very heart of the relationships we build. I won't do that.
Snow and cold are memories I cherish with such fervent velocity, it speeds me up. Christmas comes and I want to savor it, like I did when I was a boy in the Midwest and east. But like my damnable eating habits, formed more from 28 years of teaching, its compressed half-hour lunches pocked with myriad bits of paper-work, coverage of various duties and students interrupting and attempting to find something out, I move through it all too fast--and while attempting to slow down, point a lens and maybe share it with people I love, I fail. I don't live in the snow anymore, but that's OK. This year's Christmas has been seasonably cold, for here.
The Christmas lights of our town's own "Candy Cane Lane," called Gemini street, a staple since our daughter was two-years old, is now a mission. She still likes to go, and at almost 18, I feel blessed that she asks and that she wants to share it with me. We went three times this year, once with my wife and sister-in-law, a few of Shannon's friends--a big group making noise and gregarious with large crowds, spilling off the sidewalk and veritably shouting "Merry Christmas" to each other across the street, smiling and keeping warm together on a cold night. Two other times, it was just the two of us and Simon, the dog. She talked quietly, held my arm at times and barely ever mentioned the past. It was just now--just this Christmas. Just tonight.
I don't feel age creeping up on me as much as I do experience. I don't feel older, but I do feel wiser and I am grateful for this. It is a gift and one that I know also can't last. Age is what age is--and it will do what it does indelibly and without critique. Christmas hasn't changed. I have. We have-but Christmas is the same.
And in the small weeks leading up to it, I take all of it in and I use Charles Dickens as my guide. I start listening to the digital book I have on one of the devices that cramps my nightstand with Tim Curry reading Dickens' words and like the Bible, they begin to color how I am each day. I say Good Morning and Good Day to strangers, smile more and "seem by one consent to open my shut-up heart freely..." I'm mad about Dickens, really--about A Christmas Carol. I think it's a perfect book. Like good food, it's seasonal and it fits into a specific rhythm of the year. It is filled with all of the things Christmas should be about, love, fear, children, ignorance, greed, faith, food, filth, corruption, life, death and redemption. And about a dozen other things I probably missed, but will pick up for next year because Christmas is now on its own journey outward. It left two days ago--and is going around the world sprinkling ever less of its magic as it careers out into space, only to pick up speed, gather ingredients for next year and come hard-charging again into the little darknesses we've created for ourselves. Its light will not be denied--at least not for a few weeks out of the year.
Christmas Eve is all hope and anticipation and as a child, it's the closeness of the night--the "thin space" that allows for Christ to come, a poor baby born to poor people in need of constant care. We're in that space with Him then and our hearts glow with it.
When we're older, we begin to see that the space was created for us by people who love us and we find we have to now create that space for others, for our children, for our loved ones. The trick is not to give so much of it away that we exhaust ourselves of the capacity to share in the joy. It's the one time of the year when we become not just practitioners of faith, but active participants in it and if Christmas is successful, it reminds us to take more active steps every day of the rolling year. I like to think that's what Dickens was getting at in his "little Carol."
Next year, my wife and I will become empty-nesters as Shannon leaves for college and we hold the candle here--not old, but older. Not burned out, but melted a bit down the length of the candle. But she'll come home for Christmas and because she'll come home, that energy will be brighter than it was in previous years. It will carry with it her memories of Gemini Street, of Christmas Eve church service, of the meals of her childhood, her grandparents and visiting friends and family. I only hope we made memories worth her keeping.
On the precipice of a day
when clouds hugged the peaks of hills
dragging themselves over the tops like proud warriors--
And the sky, blue with memory and tradition
poured over us, bathing us in intimate glory--
She said little as she held my hand and hugged my arm--
And biting into apples fresh with looks of resplendence
I knew then, as I know now--that this won't last forever and its preciousness
is an alarm--and a comfort, etched in deeply held visions like the cattle along the roadside
Or the horses she called "beautiful," as she turned her head to see them longer.
I was reminded then of the scar that struggles inside me, indignant and proud at once,
A family tradition that I long ago eschewed by choice, but one she has kept--
Just because feelings are unsaid, it doesn't mean we don't feel them.
lIt was inevitable in all the recent dark prophecies surrounding Facebook that the proverbial shite would hit the fan. In the most recent hack, I was compromised--and I couldn't log back in. The e-mail and the password that I had previously used, but hadn't had to remember for more than two years, were lost to history and in order to get back in, Mr. Zuckerburg and the gang want me to upload a copy of my driver's license, Social Security card or birth certificate. It's OK, though--they'll only hang onto it for 30 days and then they promise...promise...to destroy it.
So, I've opened a new account and am refriending folks as I can. I have to admit, I was comfortable without it for a week or so and it felt good not to hang out on FB. But I also misses so many people and their good and friendly influences in my life. So, if you receive a friend request from me--it's real. And if you don't, please don't take it personally. I'm moving as fast as I can. I'll stay on it for now-- and I'm comfortable with it. For now....
I have many posts to come here--I'm working on several and will post them as I am able in coming weeks.
August is a time of foreboding and rejoicing for me. It heralds the not-quite-an-end to summer, yes, but it also is a time for last minute trips, or just a working knowledge that as yet, I don't have to get up at 5:30. I do anyway, of course. Once you're past 40, sleeping in is a vague memory, a kind of pleasurable but distant and removed folly that you can talk about while sitting on the porch sipping lemonade.
Today, however, a new fate awaited and it caught me unawares. I was running errands with my wife, who has Thursdays off generally, and we wanted to get some groceries and she said she had to stop at Target. The word itself made me tingle. I felt my heart leap against my ribs and repeated the word after licking my lips, like a soldier in the trenches aware he has no choice but to go over the top. "Oh," I said. "OK, we'll go....to Target." I considered the possibility of a Starbuck's Coffee because, of course, there's one in Target. But I'd already had coffee. I considered the possibility of an Icee, my go-to junk food choice, but it wasn't quite 10:30 in the morning and, well--that much sugar at that hour might cause a coma-inducing diabetic shock. I felt better at the prohibitions I had thrown up against myself and in to the store we went.
Sue delicately pointed out that the men's clothing area was that way and I said, "Oh, OK, thanks." But I wasn't planning to shop for clothes. I knew she was tense, then as I followed her, sheep-like, to the women's section. I was unwelcome at this point. Women do not want their men to come clothes shopping with them. They know that we'll whine about how much time it's taking and we'll not respond correctly when we're asked if we like something, grunting something about baseball scores or staring inappropriately at the bras.
For my part, I was full of dread wondering what my life had come to and then I realized, it's August. This is what happens in August. One steps outside one's door and casually goes about errand-running and winds up in the women's clothing section at Target. It's then one questions one's choices in life. You have to--the unexamined life and all that. So I turned to her and said, "you go where you need to, I won't bother you." And just like that, she was gone. Like something out a Harry Potter movie, she up and disappeared and I was turning in 360 degree circles looking every bit a drunk man who didn't know what dimension he was in. Some other women walked by me and looked at me, some with pity, others with knowing disdain. Unforgiven and repentant, I sauntered to the men's clothing area.
I had done the great purge of my closet earlier in the summer, throwing away clothes that had no business being in there. I must have donated 100 pounds of clothing to the local Goodwill and as I folded them neatly into garbage bags, I wondered whatever possessed me to buy them in the first place.
Left unfettered and to my own devices, I started looking at what Target calls fashion. I'm not a Target guy, generally. But that's not important, as I said earlier. It's August--and when one saunters out on errand-running with one's wife, one is likely to end up at Target. It is the way of things. Let that go. I found some nice clothes that I thought were sort of, well, "hip." I teach high school, so you know it's not Brooks Brothers and Men's Wearhouse, it's jeans and t-shirts and stuff. I liked this rather rugged pair of black jeans that were sort of faded and pock-marked and I thought, "these would go great with that green short-sleeved button down I saw." Mind you, they probably didn't look good together at all, but I figured solid colors and rather drab--how could I go wrong? I took both to the fitting room, a sort of hard-plastic EZ-up in the middle of the floor, locked the door and disrobed--uncomfortably. When you're 17, you get to buy new clothes and look at yourself in the mirror. It's glorious. At least I think it was. At 53, I'd just as soon the mirror weren't in there.
I pulled the jeans on and realized my first error. They were slim-fit jeans, but built to my size. No one with a 38 waist should wear slim fit jeans, though I will admit, they were comfortable--those things hugged my ass like a hooker in a cheap Minneapolis motel room in February. Man did I like how that felt. But I recoiled in horror at how it looked. If I'd have put my blue sneakers on, I'd have looked like my legs were charred from a horrible bbq accident and the pants had burned away.
I tried on a few more things, without relish, and without looking in the mirror too much. By then, Sue came over as she had found a lovely outfit that suit her nicely. The tables were now turned and she was "assisting" me in clothes buying, but I knew how this would go, too. I'm a sensitive guy. I need big, bold emotional strokes. If I say, "do you like this," and her answer isn't an emphatic and panting, "YES!" then I know that, in fact, it does nothing for her. Tepid responses of, "that's OK," or "Um, yeah, it works..." are not what I am after. A full-throated shout of "Huzzah! You've found your style!" is all I need to hear and if I don't, I'll hang it back up.
The only thing we settled on was a harvest-khaki colored pair of pants that fit well, didn't make me look like Ozzy Ozbourne's illegitimate off-spring and were a decent price. She LIKED those. The rest was tepid and, in one case, hostile.
I was excited to check out at the self-checkout stand because they have my favorite mints and sometimes they're on sale, the only time I'll buy them actually, and I consoled myself with the thought of a container of them. But, as it happens, Sue's gift-card required a Ph.D. in computer science to use, which meant I was useless and that sent my head spinning off in the direction of how much I hated Target and that it was actually unfair that the place still existed. In my mind, it should simply disappear. They can't even get their damn gift-cards right and..."Oh, you've got it? Right, well off we go."
August, my friends. September isn't far off.
Author's Note: My own inability to manipulate images here as I wanted prevented me from posting more pictures. If there is one picture that gathers together the feeling of the past week, it is the one above (the one to the left, here, is mere affectation). This is the story of a gift of vacation, of love and peaceful, gentle travel...
Ask a South Carolinian about the weather in June with its 95 degree temperatures and 80% humidity and they will simply smile and say, "Yeah. It's hot. But it's nothing like July and August." They don't complain about it. It's just how it is. There is joie de vivre here and a smile on everything whether it's filling up the car with gas or shopping at the local farmer's market. Weeknights, locals come home from work and gather together for meals in local taverns, or go out on the boat on Shem Creek or the Cooper river. They live the moment.
This was our experience during this past week we spent in Charleston and Savannah, Georgia after flying into Charlotte, NC and meeting up with my cousin and her husband. We've now spent three vacations together and loved every single moment we have. It's more fun than we ever imagine it can be and we spend the better parts of our days laughing, joking and laughing some more, sharing that same joie de vivre. It revealed itself in our first stop, a kind of prophetic sense of place called Peace and Hominy. Real southern barbecue run by a local Charlotte family whose restaurant is filled with life-affirming sayings and a diversity of people from well-dressed Saturday night church goers to tourists like us.
These experiences come with a kind of dallying and ethereal dream-like quality as we work to defeat the time-difference between us. We travel from the west coast and Don and Marilyn from the east coast and flights east are in the early morning hours, drowsy with sleep and hard-charging through airports and baggage claim terminals.
And then we get together and the fun begins. Charleston was singularly beautiful. The 17th and 18th century English architecture, suitable as a stand-in for some London neighborhoods with low hanging Live Oak and Magnolia branches draping their outsides and the alien-looking palmettos lining the streets were a vision in splendor. Porches punctuated with rocking chairs and the ubiquitous sky-blue ceilings that keep the "haints" away, and keep the birds from nesting. Sue found for us the most beautiful home to rent for the week in Mt. Pleasant and it was our gathering and sleeping place, our air-conditioned comfort run by truly decent and kind people who took care to make it feel like home to us.
Qualities of light in the south are peculiar, providing a kind of water-droplet reality to everything. It's a languid and golden look and adds to the air already thick with humidity and the pace becomes naturally slow. One cannot hurry, no matter the need, in the southern summer. Walking anywhere is to risk dehydration and yet, we do it, content with our lot and happy to see the Spanish moss dangling from the trees and the sea birds screeching from the Ashley and Cooper rivers as they dive for meals into the cool water. Even the dolphins move slowly as they dive low into the colder depths, surfacing only for a long, slow breath and then back down.
Food is religion here, and we prayed dutifully. We sat at table with those who would be strangers and became fast friends. Boundaries of race and ethnicity, at times the ugly hallmark of the south, faded into common humanity and friendship, discussion, talk and understanding. We felt loved--and we gave that in return. We were able to eat at both Husk and Rodney Scott's Barbecue and better food in the U.S. you simply will not find. I don't have a "bucket list" per se, but these were places about which, now that I've visited, I feel I'm a better man knowing I've partaken of such carefully and lovingly prepared food. I've been elevated to a place where the meal is communion, a coming together of hearts and souls over genuine and real food. These were dinners of slow roasted meats, dripping their own juices and paired with locally grown vegetables prepared in mouth-watering ways with sauces, cream, seasoning and just plain and we savored each one.
We found a small place not far from the aquarium called "The Craftsman." Charleston, like so many other cities, has an explosive craft-beer scene and Sue, Laurie and I each had local beers and food that complimented it with a technical and artistic elegance.
We visited places ripe with such American history, standing on ground fought and bled over by patriots and rascals, racists and cowards and we watched at Fort Sumter, ground-zero of the Civil War, as people from all over the country gathered to strike the colors for the evening.
In the morning on Tuesday, we went to the South Carolina aquarium and even there, the dream-like qualities continued as we happened upon a theater-gathering in the operating room where veterinarians, biologists and specialists gathered to operate on a Kemps-Ridley sea-turtle, whose lungs were damaged. Shannon was riveted and even she realized that she was in her happy-place, around animals in their natural habitats and wanting to assist them and nurture them in their surroundings . An odd, life-affirming spirit pervaded as we watched the technical but successful procedure, and we were aware of a kind of kindness we didn't know was needed--that these animals are endangered and saving one is not only saving others, but reminding us that living creatures are sacred, like love itself and by saving them, maybe we're saving ourselves in the process.
The sea-turtle's name is Ron Weasley, by the way. And his prognosis is guarded, but improving.
Revelations in Savannah of heat and humidity, but also of beauty, history and kindness, greeted us for a day we spent on our longest drive of the vacation. Sue's house-rental hunting was so very good that we were in the center of everything we needed in the Charleston area and rarely drove more than 20 miles a day most days. The exception was down the Interstate into Georgia and this fine city where food was again the centerpiece at Mrs. Wilkes' (see photo above).
More than all of it, again, is the gathering of family who are now friends with whom we cannot dispense. Our relationship to Don and Marilyn continues to grow stronger and we get excited when we get to see them and sad, to the point of tears, when we have to leave them. They fill our hearts, all of us, with a kind of life-affirming joy that has been as surprising to us as it is wonderful. We have already begun plotting when we'll be able to see them again, on to the next adventure.
It's easy to have lost track of this time. I did not intend to go dormant for so long, but the long and relatively cruel winter gave way to a decent spring and I simply had better things to do, which is something I celebrate.
Memorial Day always brings thoughts of Mike. He was a great kid. I still see him sitting there in my classroom in Simi Valley, big goofy smile, big and happy Italian-American family and grateful parents, loving sisters, good friends. Mike was memorable. He was always helpful and that followed him into his adult years. He wanted to be a paramedic and he earned it--went off and joined the Army after 9/11 and shipped to Iraq where he was with the elite 571st Med-evac unit, "the Witchdoctors." His Blackhawk helicopter was shot down over Falujah in 2004. All aboard were killed.
There are many stories like his and so many of us have them. They deserve to be told, every year, over and again so that people can know them. Our war dead should not be forgotten. If they are, then war is perpetual. Remembering helps us realize what was lost--and that is the first step toward peace.
There is so much more to say, I know. I've got a thousand stories but I have to wade through them one at a time. Today is for Mike--and all of his brothers and sisters. Peace...
Forgive us. We have made sacred ordinary and deadly things. We are here on the hard edge, buried deep in our culture and honoring, like faith, things that can fail. Deadly, murderous and aggressive, we have allowed ourselves to believe that there are reasons. Feckless and mired in a kind of paralysis, we are losing the most important gift we've been given-our children, our loved ones, and the cost appears to be our souls.
These are not sacrifices. These are willful throw-aways. The culture has reached out into a starless night on a pointed tip forging forward and destroying, burying precious and holy things. Parkland, Florida is a watershed. The dead call out for honor, memory--and for life again. It was not supposed to be this way.
I teach. This is not academic and no pun is intended here. Every day, every class, I work with young people with the primary objective of giving them the tools to be good citizens. That's always what teaching was about and in a free country, being a good citizen meant teaching people to wonder, to be curious and to consider the good--the best life to live.
Now, faced with what is obviously the dual sword of a culture gone terribly awry and its people seemingly ignorant on what to do, we do not act. We pray, sometimes sincerely and we hope--but we also allow time to pass, doing nothing and wallowing in the expectation that all will be well. It isn't-and it cannot be well.
First things dictate that the slaughtered innocents be memorialized and honored and their families cared for. For us of faith, this is not an affectation--but a rite and an obligation. God calls us to this compassion and we must demand it of ourselves.
That compassion, then, needs to extend to very practical and obvious steps. I'm not willing to debate gun control with anyone. I'm not a gun advocate. It seems to me that the second amendment can remain perfectly in-tact while also instating restrictions, licensure, background checks, mandatory training, limitations on various manufacturing and certainly, a ban on automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons.
Compassion also dictates that schools take security far more seriously than they already do. Whether armed guards or simply monitoring every entrance and exit and checking identification of all who drive or walk on to a campus and perhaps limiting access to one entrance and one exit, school officials must stop taking daily operations for granted.
Once practical applications have been made in schools and in our society to limit the kind of losses we have suffered as a country, we then need to address ourselves. The issues of mental health, broken families, abuse, drugs and the slow erosion of a moral center and compass are worthy of serious discussion from all sincere contributors and all walks of life. Perhaps schools can even take a serious look at what we have abdicated in favor of what has passed recently as "rigor" in classrooms. But really, the schools are mere microcosms of what is happening, writ large, in the culture. Generations of throw-away children, broken relationships, a kind of desensitization of violence and a culture that continues to worship fame and wealth over community and shared experience have not given us progress. Rather, we have isolated ourselves into factions, feeding off what we believe and seeking to know less, not more.
If we are to stop the wantonness and murder, empty promises and preening politicians will never be enough. Concrete practical action followed by a willingness on the part of families to commit to a new desire for peace, love and healing led by role models who do more than just seek the power of office, will be the new true north. Only then can we hope for peace. Only then will we be home.
Dec. 1 was all hope, joy and a sense of accomplishment. There was Pt. Loma Nazarene University, my wife and daughter and I as we explored the first college that she wanted to see. She fit in--she was at home, she felt herself and we were excited for her--for ourselves. It was a round, home-like feeling that allowed us to dream, to find.
And two days later, I was at a funeral in Ojai. Deb was a colleague, a friend--full of life-esoteric, aesthetic and elegant. She was a woman of words and cared deeply about each one. She filled her life with them. She taught English, she sang in an Episcopal choir and she spoke with a resonance and grace I found alluring. It was there, on the altar at the church, where she was singing in rehearsal with the choir, that she suddenly passed away-singing hymns of praise and grace and gliding, as with one movement, into the hands of God.
On Dec. 4, the world was on fire--the terror and horror of catastrophe ripped through our county and while it is slowly coming under control, we are 21 days into it and still more than 1000 people are working on the Thomas Fire.
So this is Christmas...
Our pastor called Christmas eve "the thin space," in between the long night of advent and the morning of hope that brings a savior, a peace and salvation unlike any other. And it was a rough-hewn acceptance of grace for which I was unready. Filled with the wails and tears of loss and what appeared random destruction and devastation, I find myself in the gully of my petty grievances and weaknesses. My anger and my sense of revenge topped the happiness. I got glimpses--Christmas lights and cold nights comforted by the closeness of my family, I could achieve smiles and even laughter at times. But in the back was the resounding reverberation of hard-hearted spite and righteous indignation.
But I was--I am--in that thin space. And I awoke this morning to the joy of the day with family around me and food, a roof overhead and the kindness of good and decent souls peering in across the miles of distance to wish the blessings that come with a day celebrated by those of us who believe there is something much more to this life. That thin space where Christ came into the world among a people so undeserving, so fixed against the quiet coos of a baby born in humble circumstances, is filled with expansive light.
There have always been catastrophes--some so great that the depth of human depravity reveals itself ferociously and anew, a raging fire that will not quench. And yet--there is the still-small-voice, the guiding light of a star and a quiet night amid the tumult of sadness and gracelessness that surrounds. How will we find it at all? How will we forgive and love those we, in our peevish judgment, deem unlovable? That must be the question that God asked, mustn't it?
I have not yet returned to that comfort and that grace-but I find that I want to and that is a beginning.
I've tried for almost two weeks to write this. It's impossible to encompass all that has happened. I'm fortunate--my wife, my daughter, my family, are all well. But friends of mine, colleagues and associates, have lost everything. The grief of 2017 is as complete a thing as it can be.
Thomas is the name of the now monster 270,000 acre-and growing-fire that began burning Dec. 4 when the Santa Ana winds, as reliable as any other weather pattern in southern California, began to blow. Now, two weeks later, the winds continue to blow and the fire continues to burn. The numbers are impressive. More than 500 houses lost in Ventura alone, more than 1000 buildings total burned, the sad and tragic loss of two lives, one a young firefighter who came to try to tame the beast and lost the fight. From Fillmore in the south and east to Santa Barbara in the north, the Thomas Fire is a Greek tragedy, an epic woven deep into the fabric of our own folly and ignorance in California. It is the cost of living in a place where rain is relatively scarce and where environmental policy is haphazard at best.
I wrote about the fire for the first three days it burned for the New York Times as a stringer. I do not feel compelled in any way to write a narrative of the destruction and the anguish and revisit again what I've already recorded.
This is merely a reflection of the time and an attempt for me to make sense of who and where I am today.
I have no barefoot days memories. I don't look back at growing up from the age of 10 onward in California as particularly brilliant or lovely. My adolescence was marked by my parents' divorce, yet it was in my adolescence that I made my closest friends, two of whom I am still quite close with because one is my wife and the other is my friend, Keith, who lives 90 minutes away. These are the people that keep me here. They have to be--there is no other reason to stay.
On a friend's Facebook post, I wrote recently that there is a poetry in the scorched earth that the fire leaves behind. It is, somehow, complete. Utter destruction leaving nothing, not even grief. It is beyond that. It is beyond imaginings of hell. It is empty, vacant and stark--a reminder not of randomness, for there is nothing random about the complete lack of attention paid to 50 years of dry brush ignored and forgotten, but of willful, slothful ignorance.
For the past two weeks, the school where I teach has been closed with the exception of three days and during that time, I've been forced to deal with some realities of where I live. I listen to the prattling of "there's been nothing like this before," by those younger than me and by some who should know better. It is true, this fire is among the top five largest, maybe number one, and certainly among the most destructive.
And it is owed to man-made conditions, though I'm afraid we won't look at the correct reasons for it. There has been no attempt in more than 50-years to remove, clear or burn under control, the brush that nature has chosen to clear for us. It was never a question of the drought we face as a state--drought is a fairly persistent norm in this part of the world, just read the almanac and the history. We do have rainy years, but they are not average or common. What is average and common is the exact cocktail of perfection that came together Dec. 4 and began burning: high winds, high temperatures, low humidity, abundant fuel, steep and rugged terrain. Those things are more or less ever-present in southern California, this just happened to be a fine collection of every ingredient--the best of the worst.
As a boy in the San Fernando Valley, I remember in the 1970's and 80's Christmas days that reached into the mid-80 degree range. I remember one Christmas, I think it was 1976, when I got a new bicycle and went out in the morning to ride it with a sweatshirt on. I came home 20 minutes later, sweatshirt tied around my waist, wind blowing ferociously and utterly unable to do anymore, throat unslaked by moisture of any kind. One of my most common memories of my childhood in this place is being thirsty. Always.
If I think about southern California as place, that is, as landscape of home and a place that, as the author wrote, bred me, then I am despondent. I am an alien here and I have never belonged. The scorched earth is not just poetry, it is metaphor. There is nothing here. So many have convinced themselves that this place, because it does not have cold and snow, is somehow worthy of admiration and even worship. The Hollywood machine and the media giants paint images of a Shangri-La that doesn't actually exist and never did.
This place is dry, vapid, rough-hewn from a desert climate that sits astride the Pacific, giving the illusion of perfection and swallowing up dreams like a dragon. The fire is merely a natural progression, a kind of linear trash removal that acts as both destroyer and sanctifier. Rebuilding is absolute and necessary for all in Thomas's path--in every fire's path. And the process will begin again.
The stories that moved me as a child and into adulthood, books by authors who wrote of place as a character, a holy ghost that brings peace, sanity and redemption-- from Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Norman Maclean's A River Run's Through It, do not apply here. There is no redemption in the desert of fire, not for me.
My redemption here comes from the people I've met and know here. My family, my friends that have lifted me up and given me grace when I least deserved it, home when I was looking for one and peace when I couldn't find any, are why I am here. I fell in love with a California girl and she and I had a daughter who is a California girl. While I have found no peace, no joy of place for more than 40 years, the peace and joy I have found is with the people I love here. You all are what give me hope and give me reason to stay. And I know for many of you, your love of this place, its ferocious elements and powerful lure of natural beauty are very much endemic to you as the tumbleweeds and the rolling hillsides. My love and admiration for you is in that very part of your soul.
I will leave southern California one day because it will be cheaper to live somewhere else. I don't own a house here anymore and of that, I am glad. But in my heart will be the distinct clarity of friends and family, people whom I love who remain special to me not because of where they live, but because of who they are.
The fire melts away all pretense and shreds me down to my very core. It isn't just the flames, but the hot dryness and intemperate winter--of weather forces that move like monsters on the thin air and leave me to pay attention to something else, someone else--for without the people who live in a place, the place-no matter where it is-- is nothing.