Why ‘Smoke’ Is the Word of the Year
As wildfires raged, a smokescreen seemed to conceal the truth
In the past year, California has seen around 8,000 wildfires. Considering that there are only 365 days in a year, this number seems preposterous, but I believe it. In my seven years of living in California, I’ve seen the sky fill with smoke often enough that I’ve become a bit blasé about it. This is not a boast. By day, the sky looks overcast. But at sunset, the light gets lower than the smoke cover and reflects off it to produce a psychedelic orange and violet glow. It’s an apocalyptic luminescence, glareless, as if from an eclipse. There’s something uncanny and fitting about the mood of the streets under that weird light, especially over the crumbling concrete landscape of my East Hollywood neighborhood, dotted with palms and birds flying low under the smoke.
Los Angeles at large is a surreal landscape, with its movie-scene boulevards, back alleys, and TV show billboards. It is often lit with klieg lights for shoots, like artificial sunlight. A traffic jam could just as well be caused by an accident as the filming of the latest L.A.-based Netflix drama. Most days are sunny, but the sky is often cast with cinematic magic. If it’s not smoke, it’s our infamous smog or the fog of the marine layer in the mornings.
In movies, whenever the door of a spaceship or time machine opens, smoke pours out. The haze obscures the being stepping forth into the new world. When the smoke clears, there is illumination. I sometimes feel we have graduated from the present and entered a science fiction future. Nuclear sunsets, self-driving cars, scandal, autocracy, the planet burning.
It struck me that smoke might be a useful image to describe the veil of mystery, misinformation, and its resulting anxiety that fell over 2018. Our computer screens are like smokescreens; it is nearly impossible to grasp what is actually happening around us. Our shortsightedness supports oppositional narrative belief systems, which perpetuate divisions between us. Each side believes only it can see clearly. Even facts are disputed.
For example, some believe that the outbreak of wildfires is a direct result of climate change, an environmental shift brought about by pollutants of big industry. Others believe that blaming industry for natural disaster is dishonest political rhetoric. President Trump blamed California’s fires on water restrictions. Ryan Zinke, Trump’s secretary of the interior (at the moment), told Breitbart News that “environmental terrorist groups” are responsible for blocking forest management practices. Furthermore, online conspiracy groups argue that the fires were set to clear a route for a high-speed railway in California, among other theories. Weather patterns are supposedly manipulated with “geoengineering,” and aircraft dump chemtrails of drying agents that can be ignited. Poof!
I think the chaos of these clashing arguments shrouds us from truth. While its presence is evidence that there is a powerful and destructive force at work, smoke can obscure the very fire that produces it. And smoke, like fire, is very hard to contain. Enough of it will suffocate you and render you blind and disoriented. Magicians use smoke to hide the maneuver of a trick. When it clears, reality has changed. We suspend our disbelief to allow the possibility that the world may actually be magical. Reality may not be limited by human perception. Illusion inspires hope. We can’t believe our eyes, yet when we are entertained, we are wowed rather than disturbed. We can get carried away quite easily by what we choose to believe.
When I look back at 2018, I am struck most by my own confusion. Confusion so thick that many times, both in my mind and in conversations with friends and family, I threw my hands in the air and said, “I give up.” I was inundated and frustrated by almost any topic of social or political import. It seemed that the more I thought I knew, the more I was at risk for misunderstanding the world. So I chose to detach. I stopped reading the newspapers. I switched from news radio to the oldies station. I even canceled my subscription to National Geographic. I spent a lot of time on my back steps, smoking cigarettes, letting the smoke envelop me as though it were a fog of innocence. It was easier, for a time, not to confront the world as it was represented in the media: a limbic realm of infinite quandaries. Critical, in jeopardy. It was easier to think, “I’m okay. I have food in my fridge,” and turn inward. As a fiction writer, I make a living using my imagination, so this worked for a while. I managed to defend myself against the bombast of catastrophes in the news. I felt I couldn’t take on any more heartache, having suffered the losses of one of my closest friends and my little brother the previous year. I hoped that 2018 would be a year of healing. Hiding, as though in a cloud of smoke, might dampen my feelings. Maybe I could avoid the intensity of the fire itself, I thought.
After my brother died, my family in Massachusetts all moved to California. It was unprecedented and shocking to me to have my kin suddenly so nearby. It changed the way I thought about the land here. Suddenly, I had roots. Displaced roots, but there they were.
Within weeks of my family moving into their new house, they were evacuated by the Cranston Fire in the mountains around Idyllwild, a tight-knit community in Riverside County. Idyllwild is a strange place, and yes, it’s both idyllic and wild. It has a special brand of crunch, cheer, and mystery — the mayor is a golden retriever named Max. The fire got close to my family’s house, but nothing burned. It was the smoke that made it intolerable. My niece, who has asthma, couldn’t breathe. The city shut off the power. So my family left, drove down the mountain to the desert where my fiancé lives, where the smoke still hung but was farther away.
I was traveling across the country on a book tour at the time. When I got back a month later, power had been restored in the mountains. The sky was blue again. All that was left of the fire were acres of burned trees. It was easy to forget that anything had been amiss. But the threat is ever present. My family bought a generator. Next time, they’ll be better prepared.
One might look at the advancements in the past year and say visibility has been increasing. The #MeToo movement was very much about exposure. The FBI investigations as reported through media seem to be pulling back curtain after curtain, bringing dark secrets into light. “New information has been revealed” has replaced “this just in.” We look online for the stories that will explain the uneasiness in the air. But truth can be manipulated in storytelling. Stories can be wholly fabricated. Faith, trust, and reliance become difficult when what we read is so often a lie fixed around the appearance of fact.
Sometimes I think it is easier to lean into a delusion than truly absorb the devastating helplessness we feel. We pick a side and find the narrative to support our point of view. In this way, reality becomes subjective. I think this explains why, when I see the hallucinogenic sunset under the smoke of a California on fire, my first thought is always, “Wow, that’s beautiful.”