It has been a long time since I’ve sat down at this computer to write. Like, a really long time.
As a writer, I almost always feel a deep burden to capture the essence of my experience and my thoughts and feelings around it just so, all the while being careful not to choke the beauty out of it by using too many words.
When that burden gets to be too much to bear – when my thoughts get too noisy and judgy – I stop writing. To write, I don’t just need silence. I need space. Emotional space. And frankly, I haven’t given myself much of that lately.
In fact, I haven’t been giving myself a whole lot of that in these past six months. I unconsciously shifted away from writing toward more cooking. After years of friends asking me to cook for them, I finally obliged and began a meal pick up service for friends and the community in Malibu.
Ah, Malibu. My community for the past eight years. My family. My home.
I haven’t been home since Friday November 9th. At 7:30 that morning, we got our mandatory evacuation orders and had to leave our home immediately. The entire city of Malibu was being evacuated. The Woolsey fire that had broken out in the valley miles away from our home threatened to make its destructive path toward the coast.
(This was the view from my front door at 7:30am on Friday November 9th. The fire had started on Thursday around 2pm in the valley)
As I was packing up some clothing, stuffed animals and food (Ted: “You’re taking food?” Me: “Yes! We’re going to Marie’s! We’re going to need to eat! Why would I let all of this go to waste?”), I didn’t ever think the fire would be an actual threat. I thought it was just a precaution.
We were told to evacuate south, but the PCH was jammed up so bad that Ted told me: we have to go North (which was a good thing because it took people 4-6 hours to get to Santa Monica from my house, a drive that normally take 40 minutes). I left by 8:45am with Madison in the car. Ted promised he’d be right behind us (Me: You’re taking your bikes? And the computer?” Ted: “Yes! Why wouldn’t I?” Me: “Ok just hurry up!”).
As I drove north along the PCH, within minutes, the car started to fill with the smell of smoke. The sky started to get darker and darker. I started to cough. I had to cover my mouth with my sweater. I begged Madison to do the same, but she refused (toddlers!). I called Ted, “Are you SURE about this? The radio is saying to go south and we’re going north. I feel like I’m driving us right into the fire!”
“Just keep going!” Ted urged.
“Ok,” I said, “I’m really scared.”
“It’s ok. I’m right behind you. Just keep driving! I love you!” he said.
“I love you too!” I replied, close to tears.
The next 20 minutes were indeed some of the scariest of my life. The smoke was menacing. The sky was so dark that at 9:15am, it felt like midnight. The amber color of the fires in my rearview mirror mocked me into thinking it was dusk or dawn. The ocean was to my left. The hills were to my right. I kept a watchful eye on those hills, sure that I was going to see a wall of flames charging down from them at any moment.
After what seemed like an hour (but was only 20 minutes) of white knuckle driving and praying, the skies began to clear. The fire was now behind me. Barreling toward my home.
Not three hours later did the fires reach the very path along the PCH that I had taken to get out. Not five hours later did the fires reach my neighborhood. And not twelve hours later did the fire engulf the homes of my friends and neighbors, burning them to the ground and reducing all of their memories and treasures to ash.
In the end, 600 homes perished in Malibu. Thousands displaced. The entire city of Malibu evacuated.
(That cloud of smoke is basically over my street and surrounding streets)
(This is one of the homes along the street I walked down easily a thousand times in the last few years, Wandermere)
(Another home on Wandermere)
(What’s left of my friends’ golf cart)
(About to go in and check out the damage. Masks necessary)
(Burned out wheel in Malibu Canyon)
(Another street on Wandermere. This street lost 26 homes of the 30-40 homes that were there before)
Almost two weeks later, we are still displaced. Ted and I were finally allowed home to survey the damage on Sunday, ten days after the first tore apart our neighborhood.
It’s a weird thing to have your home still standing after a fire took out so many of your neighbors homes. It is somewhat of survivor’s guilt, and also a different kind of grief, one that doesn’t feel like I’m allowed to have since I didn’t lose everything I ever owned. But, there it is, not to be denied, begging to be felt.
We went into our home, but it didn’t feel like home. It felt eerie, cold, smelly and strange, like somehow, even though the fire didn’t touch it, it still managed to suck all of the life out of it.
A fine dusting of ash covered all of the contents in our garage, rendering everything unusable unless professionally washed. And even then – can you really wash out the smell of the ashes of so many hopes and dreams?
The house – without power – was dark and cold. Eerily quiet. Sure, the things that always were inside it were there – the couches, the rugs, the toys, the dining room table – but it didn’t feel familiar. It was like I was in a different house, one that wasn’t my own.
I know that everything can get washed, the rotting food will be thrown away, the surfaces will get cleaned, and life can be breathed back into our home. But what of the neighborhood? The streets that I used to walk down every single day of my pregnancy, and every day after Madison was born – they are mostly burned to the ground. I can breathe life into our home again, but how can I do it for an entire neighborhood?
A few months ago, I was feeling run down. Like I was doing too much with not enough time. Like I wasn’t present for myself, my daughter, my husband, or my life. Feeling this way, I made an agreement with the universe. I made an agreement to meditate every day, twice a day. I wanted to create space, and meditation is such a powerful tool in which to create it. It’s the pause button that stops you from running through your life without taking a moment to stop and appreciate what it’s all for.
I was pretty good about it, only missing a day here, a meditation there. And it has truly made a difference in my life. I am not proud to say that it didn’t keep me from overloading my schedule, but I am happy to report that it had a huge impact on my ability to manage my stress.
Since the fire broke out, I stopped meditating. Every day that we have been displaced has been a waiting game filled with a whole lot of questions, and not a ton of answers. Is our home still standing? When can we go home? What the fuck just happened? Where do we go from here?
Without a regular meditation practice, I have slowly felt the grip of fear and anxiety overtake me, trying to tell me that we are not going to be ok, that this is a terrible situation, that life will never be the same again.
Well, the truth is, life isn’t ever going to be the same again. But it never is, is it? As we live from one moment to the next, it is never the same as the moment that preceded it. Each moment that passes has passed. You don’t get it back.
In the book Untethered Soul, Michael Singer talks about how the key to peace is really to just treat every moment equally. If you think about all of the moments that make up your day, you’ll realize that the ones you get stuck in are usually the ones that rocked you: the person who cut you off in traffic, the report you failed to turn in on time and got in trouble for, the temper tantrum your toddler threw in the store. But you don’t remember the other thousands of moments that coexisted in that very same day: driving down your street, going through a green light, stopping at a red one, the tree lined streets on your way to work, the way your tea feels as it goes down your throat. Which moments rock you and which ones don’t will completely depend on your personal experience: seeing a tree lined street might not bother you, but for someone whose loved one died in a car accident on a tree lined street, it might bring up a lot of pain.
The point is that, in Singer’s opinion, the way to experience peace it to give equal weight – or lack thereof – to every moment. To let all the experiences pass through you. He’s not saying not to feel the emotions – in fact, he’s saying that you absolutely should. But just don’t let the emotions get stuck inside you, creating a pattern that will trigger you anytime something happens to remind you of that tough experience. Let your feelings be experienced, let them come to the surface, and then let them pass through you.
I’m not saying I’m good at this practice. But I do see the sense in it. I’ve been trying to apply it to this new normal we seem to be living (and I’ve also been forcing myself to expand when I feel myself contracting. Read: open when I want to close, be nice when I really just want to be mean, trust when I’d rather be fearful).
One of the silver linings of being displaced and coming so close to losing our home (there was a burning ember on our front lawn that our gardeners and a resident who stayed behind put out before it could catch our house on fire!) is this:
This quiet. This space.
We have been in a rental home for almost a week now. And since I’m not in my own space, I’m not feeling the usual calls to clean the dishes. To test a new recipe. To fold the laundry. To check this, this and this off my to do list.
Yes, there are things to do. There are still dishes to be done. There is still laundry that needs doing. But in not being surrounded by anything familiar, in not having any work to do (I served the Malibu community, most of whom aren’t there right now, and too many of whom no longer have homes to go home to), I have found a sense of peace that was missing before this fire broke out.
I wish it hadn’t taken a fire to give me the space I was craving. But the universe has spoken, and I – her faithful student – am listening.
I meditated this afternoon. I meditated yesterday. I meditated the day before. I feel calm. I feel centered. I spent time with my daughter today. Real time. Totally present. Not wanting to rush off anywhere. We read Green Eggs and Ham. Five times. In a row (thanks, Dr. Seuss). We cuddled in my bed for an hour. I gave her my undivided attention – and it has been magical.
It took a fire to get me here. But I’m here.
I am here in this beautiful rental home in Ventura, sitting down at my computer for the first time in months, finally feeling the call to write. It might not be perfect. It might not capture the essence of this experience just so. It might not even make sense in some places. But that’s kind of how my life is right now, so I guess it doesn’t get more perfect than that.
And the irony of home is not lost on me. That I can be miles from home with no idea when I’ll be able to safely live there again – if ever. And yet I feel closer to home now than I have in a long time.
Ah, life. You always keep me on the edge of my seat.
Thank you. It’s good to be back.
Happiest of Thanksgivings to you, friends 🙂 Many of us Malibu-ites may not have a home to go to for Thanksgiving this year, but as the phoenix rises from the ashes, so too will we, the community of Malibu.
Because we are #MalibuStrong
A HUGE THANK YOU to the residents who stayed behind to save their homes and the homes of their neighbors (including the Point Dume Fire Brigade!), to the people who mobilized on the ground in Point Dume to get supplies to those in need, to the FIRST RESPONDERS who risked their lives to fight this fire and save the lives of so many, to the residents who made sure looters couldn’t ravage what was left of the ashes, to the countless organizations who have organized donations for those who lost everything, and to my own family and friends who have offered their homes, their support, and their love. One of the most beautiful treasures of a crisis like this is how it brings out the best in people, and this experience has been no exception. This Thanksgiving, I will be most grateful to all of you. xoxo
(A burned out car in my neighbor’s driveway)
(What’s left of one of my dear friends’ home)
(Their neighbors across the street)
(Ash on our plants in our backyard. Oh, if these plants could speak…)
(Me and my husband, shell shocked after seeing our neighborhood and our home)