The FIRE Next Time
…is the title of James Baldwin’s book. It comes up in memory now because I am in the midst of the largest Firestorm in California history at this time of writing. But I am thinking of other Fires: the Fire in our bellies; the Fire that burns and turns our desires into Ashes; the Fire of creation; the Fire underneath the cauldron of my life. This Fire is Life.
So being surrounded now by the literal char of houses and trees and wild grass, I feel the weight of a Quietude that has settled in the pit of my gut and my throat. What needs to be said that I can’t find the words for? What does the Heart know? What does the Fire and Wind want me to hear?
There are so many images and stories of The Firestorm already saturating social media. I couldn’t bear to watch them so I’ve never even watched the news. But thankfully, the City and the Sheriff’s office and Calfire provided periodic updates. Community listserves (Nextdoor) seem to bring folks into conversations thus creating a semblance of care and concern. But it only took a few topics to rear their heads before dialogue was polarized: What about the homeless-before-the-fire? Who cares about them? What about the people who didn’t lose their homes but lined up to pick up donations? (How dare they?) What about the invisible victims of this fire: the undocumented vineyard workers, the Native families? Who is talking about them?
And there are those who say they will rebuild “bigger than before” to show that this Fire will not douse their ambitions. There are those who brag about having good insurance that will pay for their hotel stays. There are those who say that the Fire may have eaten all their material goods but all of it can be replaced. There are those who can’t wait to move on and “feel normal” again.
I am reminded that this culture doesn’t really take time to Grieve and Mourn. It has forgotten how; it has lost its traditions and rituals for containing and honoring Grief. This quote from Stephen Jenkinson says it:
Wisdom will come from learning the cost of all our entitlements, all the rights we have exercised at such considerable cost to the world around us and to our mutual life. It will come from learning what our kind of privacy and individualism has done to our ability to practice any ceremonies, rituals, or shared understandings of the mysteries of life not utterly purloined from the indigenous traditions not yet riven by our poverty on this matter. It will come from learning what those mysteries- including the mysteries of being born and dying- ask of us. We have pursued self-determination at the expense of a mythically mature and binding mutual life, a village mindedness that could guide us in times of such uncharted and radical sorrow.
As I am only at the beginning stages of learning how to live with an indigenous mind and heart, I am often at a loss for words in conversations about how to move forward. A friend tells me that my use of the concept “downsizing our carbon footprint” is a good principle but it will never get traction because people will not like the word “downsizing”. We are a culture of Bigness, he says, and capitalism and self-interest is here to stay.
There is this gap between where my imagination wanders into — visions of village-mindedness, of voluntary simplicity, of indigenous ways of being and doing that is grounded in a symbiotic relationship with Place/Land, visions of slowness — and the in-between incremental steps that we can begin to take once we decide that we really need to decolonize our ways of thinking.
Does trying to find some entity to be held accountable for the Fire’s damages the way to go? Whether it’s PG&E or the Alert system that failed to give adequate time for folks to escape, or the City that allowed housing development on a fire corridor — will it ever be enough to put all the accountability on these institutions?
I keep thinking of this culture’s need for Certainty and Security. It has been very good in creating Big Stories about the human capacity to solve any issue that impinges on our need to feel secure and certain — whether it’s about being the greatest country on the planet and that it has the best technology and science to develop systems that will guarantee this top position in a hierarchical world — this sense of security is fragile. So fragile that not even 800 military bases around the planet is not enough to guarantee it. Yet people may cling to it in the absence of an alternative Story to live by.
But this alternative Story has always been here. The Land, this Place tells this story. If you take care of the Earth, the Earth will take care of you. So simple and yet to understand what the indigenous peoples meant by this in a literal, not metaphorical sense, is difficult to practice. The disconnection is profound, so deep - that in order to even make the gesture of repairing this split is like jumping into the abyss. There are shadows lurking there. There are monsters who will bite you. There are painful memories that have been waiting for remembrance. There are ancestors waiting to be met.
And in order to do this work, we must be willing to slow down. We must be willing to empty our plates. Must be willing to make different choices.
This is my work now: a practice in smallness, slowness, and rootedness in Place.
This afternoon I noticed the baby hummingbirds, the newly hatched termites, and the fragrance of wet roses in the drizzling rain….