I will write in my journal that today was not a good day. It began with news of a surge in diagnoses and deaths from covid-19 in New York and ended with the governor’s order that Californians must stay home. This is going to be bad before it gets better, but that implies hope.
Such days bring fear up from the belly into the eyes and ears and leave great deposits of fear, like shoals of obsidian sand, in the sheltered harbors of the heart. But in the hours in between, I was offered a vista of high clouds following recent rain, and of the blue Pacific.
There was also this: On many cartons of medical supplies donated by a Chinese company to the people of Italy were written words of the 1st century Roman philosopher Seneca.
“We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden”
“To bear in mind constantly that all of this has happened before. And will happen again—the same plot from beginning to end, the identical staging. Produce them in your mind, as you know them from experience or from history: the court of Hadrian, of Antoninus. The courts of Philip, Alexander, Croesus. All just the same. Only the people are different.”
– Marcus Aurelius, concerning the Antonine Plague in the second century AD.
It is the different people that’s the issue, though, isn’t it? Because certainly this is not the end of the world or the end of humanity. The Antonine Plague killed between 10 and 18 million people, at a time when the population of the world was about 125 million. Today there are 7.6 billion. Most of us will survive. Will I be one of them? Will you, or your older or more vulnerable loved ones?
Aurelius was Roman emperor and in the past day there have been over 475 deaths in Italy alone. In the past few days, the rate of infections and deaths has spiked worldwide. This was predicted. Now we’re afraid. What can we do?
I’m a typical introvert; at least, a little more toward that end of the spectrum. Not much for larger groups and crowds, generally. You’ll never hear me say, “Let’s go to Vegas, Baby!” But one thing I know about myself is that, as much as I normally expend energy around other people and recharge in solitude, in times of crisis I like to be with others. I feel the urge to be together and work together. When the Thomas Fire came, and then the mudslide and the outages and road closures, I drew strength from others. It was like my introvert poles temporarily switched. Now, frankly, I would like hugs.I would like to be able to hug my friends and neighbors, shake hands with strangers. A Grateful Dead show would be awesome. And I’m looking forward to that future, someday. In the meantime, we have to find other ways to be kind and love each other, and take care of each other so we can live on, to the bright morning of once-again hugs.
So how do we get through this? Together, apart. We have to stay apart to do this together. John Green said this so beautifully on YouTube last night, and I’ll like that below.
Whoever you are, I love you. From here at my desk, alone in my condo on the west coast of California, please know that. And I would embrace you if I could. We have to get through this together. If you have one of those who thinks your separation doesn’t matter, or that anyone can afford to be defiant in the face of this disease, please rethink. Please be kind. You don’t want to kill your parents or grandparents. Get away from other people to break the chain of infection. Please be kind to each other. Do the hard things, the brave things, the loving things and remember
THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives might be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Yesterday I reflected on the anniversary of the Thomas Fire and shared a photo of our hills burning. I took this photo today, of rain falling on them.
What shall we say, shall we call it by a name,
As well to count the angels dancing on a pin.
Water bright as the sky from which it came,
And the name is on the earth that takes it in.
We will not speak but stand inside the rain,
And listen to the thunder shouting I am! I am! I am! I am.
One year ago tonight, at this hour, the electricity was out in my home near Santa Barbara, California. In fact, it was out for many thousands of people from Camarillo to Goleta. That’s a distance of about 50 miles of mostly populated area – coastal cities and towns. There was a fire burning near Santa Paula and the worst power outage I’d ever experienced.
That night I wrote in my journal about the need to keep cell phones charged and batteries handy, mentioned the fire in Santa Paula – which I didn’t know had claimed so much in Ventura – and the power outage, and went to bed.
In the morning we knew that many homes had been lost as the fire swept across the Ventura hillsides, and a woman was dead. A hospital was destroyed and apartments, in addition to many single family homes.
The fire itself took two lives; ultimately 23 more a month later. But in my town, by the time the fire reached us here, days had passed, and thousands of firefighters had arrived in hundreds of fire trucks, with helicopters and airplanes. The winds were calm though there was almost no moisture in the air. This is from my journal:
12.13.2017. On Sunday morning December 10, the fire roared into Carpinteria from the northeast, and the north, from the hills near Divide Peak.
At 1:30 am we lost power and the glow could be seen. The lights went off many times and Dad and I didn’t sleep. An hour before dawn we watched the fire over the hills begin to take the facing side of our valley’s own hills, and spread and come down.
We watched the fire coming using apps, until we could see it descending on the town.
On December 11, in the afternoon, I took this photo of the burning hills from the balcony of my condo. See how the smoke from the freshest flames wasn’t even burning toward us? The fire burned slowly down the hills toward the town all day, with helicopters dropping water and planes dropping retardant, and an army of firefighters waiting for it at the bottom. We didn’t have the insane winds they had in Ventura, or Paradise, or Santa Rosa. And in the Woolsey fire just weeks ago.
Tonight I’m grateful for the absence of wind last year, for those many professionals, and for my family, and for the courage and constancy of my little town. I’m thankful for my home with Christmas lights twinkling on the balcony irons. I think about Paradise as I look up at those hills, now turning green with this week’s rain, and I pray for them. And for Thousand Oaks, Malibu, and so many places in that area.
If your home is in the mandatory evacuation area, which looks to me like more than half of the Carpinteria Valley and most of Montecito, I’m sorry. It has to be terribly stressful to have to pack up and leave your home. Those of us who are not in the red zone will be looking forward to your return. But I have to say this: we who stay behind are not necessarily the lucky ones. Less threatened? Possibly. But we will be riding out a storm like we have never seen in our lifetimes.
The last pineapple express of this magnitude, to my mind, was in the mid-1990s. Some of you can remember the exact year, the Arroyo Paredon flooded the northbound 101 at Padaro and mud covered the freeway south at La Conchita. And that was with healthy hillsides covered with plants and trees.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s like 1969 either. The Coyote Fire was 5 years earlier and there were no big debris flows in ’69. Just a lot of rain and brushy, unprepared creeks. That’s why they built the flood channels through Carpinteria; to handle water, not debris. I was only 8 but my parents tell me no one at the time mentioned that fire having any relationship to the flood.
So this is unique – historic – to have fire and epic storm so close in time. Am I being dramatic? I guess we’ll know when the sun comes up on Friday.
Stay or go, this is really going to suck. But I have faith we will survive. Pray for us who stay in the ship, and we’ll pray for you in the lifeboats. Godspeed.