My barn having burned down, now I can see the moon. Mizuta Masahide
I am a native Californian. Raised on drought conditions and water conservation, parched earth and xeriscape plants. My mother taught me to turn the water on just long enough to wet my toothbrush and to see the beauty of the golden rolling hills on both sides of the freeway. To notice the patches of orange poppies and purple sky lupine brightening the hillside and the way the wind makes the wild oat grass dance. We spent the hot, dry summer nights of my childhood searching for a body of water in which to cool off, not worrying about red flag warnings.
Although my neighborhood and my town have escaped this year’s wildfires so far, we breathe in hazardous smoke from adjacent areas, monitor the CalFire app on our phones, pack our “go bags,” watch and worry. Dead trees and bone dry grass are everywhere. As I drive east on Highway 80, I see burn patches dotting the side of the road like squares on a chess board. Evidence of a cigarette carelessly tossed from a passing car, the damage held in check by the quick response of our local firefighters.
When the insomnia born of loss and absence keeps me awake, I lie in bed, listening to Dan and Buster breath and snuffle in turn and stress about sparks from the motorcyclists trespassing on the vacant property near our house, unable to shake the feeling that we are living on borrowed time. Instead of counting sheep, I make mental lists of what I would grab if I had 30 minutes, three hours, a day. So much of what I value is hard to carry and impossible to replace. The box of cards and love letters my father gave my mother. Photo albums of my childhood, our wedding, the kids at young ages, all taken long before the invention of digital cameras. The contents of Jimmy’s desk .. tchotchkes and coffee mugs, his carefully cultivated collection of bobbleheads, scraps of paper with random notes in his handwriting. Tangible proof of his too short life, meaningful in a way they never would have been had he lived.
It’s a short trip from my fire fears to fretting about everything else that has broken, gone sideways or disappeared. The other beloveds who’ve died, the opportunities I’ve missed, the still healing wounds. There is so much to worry about, so many ways that life can go wrong, unravel, go up in smoke.
When wildfires sweep through a community, they leave a trail of destruction in their wake. Scorched houses, dead trees, blackened belongings, ruined lives. The landscape becomes barren, unrecognizable. The air fills with toxic smoke and ash, making it difficult to breathe. It’s only in the aftermath that the fire followers appear. Trees and plants that use smoke or heat or charred soil as signals to sprout, their seeds laying dormant for years. When the fire ignites, the heat of the blaze cracks open the hard coating on their shells, the smoke calling them to life.
In California, fire poppies grow on the heels of a burn, blooming in the blackened, charred earth left by the blaze. Although they only live for a few days, these bright orange flowers offer hope that something beautiful can rise from the ashes.
When Jimmy’s death torched my world, the people I love most burst forth like fire poppies. They held me up, kept the ground from collapsing under my feet, reassured me that survival was not just possible but worth striving for. They refused to look away no matter how scary or bleak things got, their love burning fierce and strong, bringing spots of color into my hazy gray world.
My first responders taught me that rebuilding is possible. That even when everything feels singed and scorched, hope still shines. That the warmth and understanding of the people who know you best and love you most can carry you all the way through to the other side.
Fire teaches us what we can endure. About what matters and what doesn’t. About who shows up and who runs the other direction. About resilience, renewal and rebuilding. The way even the most devastated ground can sprout new growth. That sometimes what blooms after a blaze couldn’t have come to fruition any other way.
Sometimes in this sweet life, you need to let the fires of grief burn everything down. To clear out the underbrush and chase off what’s hiding under there. To hack back the vines and free yourself from who and what is holding you back. To look up at the moon instead staring at the ground under your feet. To learn that some rebirth is only possible after everything ignites. To watch joy rise from the blackened ground and discover that no matter how great the devastation, you can once again bloom.
Life’s beauty and its fragility live side by side. The purple and orange wildflowers painting the spring hillside die days or weeks later. We are young until we aren’t, healthy until we are bowled over by illness. Our children are busy and demanding and underfoot until the house goes quiet as they launch into the world.
As I lie awake making my late night lists, I stare at the granite boulders in the front yard, rising sturdy and strong from the oak leaf covered earth. Angular and sharp, impenetrable to fire, they stand guard, bearing silent witness to the nighttime activity all around them. Even from my window, I can see the shiny gold specks sprinkled across them dance in the moonlight like sparks of joy.