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The Star

Were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt.

— T. S. Eliot, “The Journey of the Magi”

Theirs was the Age of Myth; a world where night was not dimmed by the web of lights that now obscures the stars. Their nights were lit by flaring torches, dim oil lamps, guttering candles; by the phases of the moon and the broad shimmering river of the Milky Way. As the sun declined and night ascended, life withdrew into shuttered and barred homes. Only the very rich or the very poor were abroad in the dark.

The night sky, now so thin and distant, so seldom really seen, was to them as thick and close as a slab of coal studded with diamonds. They could turn it in their mind’s eye even as it turned above them. They reclined on their hill sides, their roofs, or in rooms built for viewing and marking the moon and the stars. They watched it all revolve above them and sang the centuries down. They remembered. They kept records and told tales. They saw beings in the heavens — gods and animals, giants and insects, all sparking the origins of myth — and they knew that in some way all was connected to all; as above, so below, “on Earth as it is in Heaven”. They studied the patterns of it all and from those repeating patterns fashioned our first science, astrology.

And, like all our other celebrated sciences since, they looked to astrology to give them hints about the future, about what they should do, what they should expect, what they should become. They looked to their science then, as many look to their science now, to remove their doubt.

In time stronger, more intricately argued sciences would rise upon the structures of the proto-sciences of astrology and alchemy; sciences that chained demons with data. These new data-based sciences would push the first sciences into the realm of myth, speculation, superstition and popular fantasy. And, as it is with our advertising, promise, big promise is the soul of our brave new sciences.

The new sciences, you see, are much, much more about “Reality” than the old sciences. They will never be tossed aside as so many playthings of mankind’s youth. The authority of our astronomy, our biology, our physics, our chemistry and others is, we fervently believe, as certain as the pole star. Unlike astrology and alchemy, they will never be questioned; they will be built upon. [click to continue…]

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The Return to Paradise

On Saturday, December 15, all evacuation orders were lifted for residents to re-enter Paradise.

Leave in the smoke, return in the fog.

73 Years? Stuff. Just Stuff.

My home

My “totem.” With me for decades. This I will salvage.

My desk.

The garage.

My front door.

Where my neighbor’s children played. She said, “It’s a good thing the fire didn’t happen in the night.”

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A Slight Detour on the Road to Paradise

Family issues will curtail Paradise posting for a couple of days.

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My Amazon wishlist has been a revelation in how many people care deeply about my situation. Pretty much all that I have placed on it as a wish has come true. However, there are some flaws in Amazon’s Wishlist that have, I think, caused a few things to go mysteriously astray. So far three things are marked as having been purchased for me but have, after quite some time, failed to appear. Since Amazon does not allow me to know, from the list, who my angels were, I can’t contact them directly to inform them.

Hence, if you happened to have been so wonderful as to grant me the following wishes you should know that Amazon has failed to deliver them and you need to contact the company:

  1. Amazon.com: Cuisinart C77TR-15P Triple Rivet Collection 15-Piece Knife Block Set: Block Knife Sets: Kitchen & Dining
  2. Amazon.com: Seagate Backup Plus Slim 2TB Portable Hard Drive External USB 3.0, Silver 2mo Adobe CC Photography (STDR2000101): Computers & Accessories
  3. TaoTronics TT-DL037S Eye-caring LED Desk Lamp, Aluminum Alloy Table Lamp with 3 Color Modes, High CRI 92, Double-Light, Night Light, Philips EnabLED Licensing Program, Silver – – Amazon.com
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Rebuilding Paradise Could Put Old Men in the Ground

These days only old and/or expensive furniture arrives built. Everything else is planning to drive you mad and kill you. If it’s merciful it kills you first.

When it comes to things I’ve placed on my wishlist I’ve been blessed and I’ve been stupid. I’m blessed that so many of my readers have responded to the hodge-podge of needful things I’ve put on the Amazon Wishlist. These kind souls have saved me days of searching and hundreds in costs and I will always hold them and their response at this time close to my heart until the end of my days.

At the same time, since I’d never done a wishlist before, I was very stupid when it came to a few items I blithely added to the list. I just listed those items as readily as I listed a slim volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. In doing so I failed to consult the important details.

Case in point: The Cosmodemonic  Sauder Adept Storage Credenza,  from the dark Satanic mills of Sauder.

Item Weight 125 pounds
Product Dimensions 58.2 x 17.2 x 36.3 inches
Item model number 418344
Assembled Height 36.26 inches
Assembled Width 17.165 inches
Assembled Length 58.189 inches
Weight 133 Pounds

Some assembly required.

Some? Some?! This little item took me the better part of 5 hours and left me shaken, exhausted, splinter struck, and drenched in a sweat that fell from the veritable fountains of profanity I launched at this !!!@@**%!*@!! item of our damned age. If it had not been a gift and if I had not just come by a pathological fear of fire, this THING would have been piled in the parking lot in front of my little apartment and set alight while I gibbered and danced about it’s flames in loincloth, pitchfork and torches.

Most of the first hour of trying to assemble this overweight and overbuilt POS was spent counting the nine (9!) different sacks of nails and connectors and sorting the various wooden slabs (one weighs in at around 50 pounds) and reading the always delightfully ambiguous instructions illustrated by a set of mechanical drawings in the ever-popular “oblique” style.

The next two hours would have found me assempliung the various units to the mantra, “Slowly…. and ….. patiently.. and slowly… and…”

The final two  hours would have found me in the 9th circle of Dante’s Inferno looking for the way out with only one beer to my name.

I’m not a petite man and I’m not a weak man. But this one brought this man to a new awareness of his age and his mortality; a mortality that I prayed would not kick in until I had hunted down the sadists behind Sauder and stood them all against the wall.

In the end I did get the!!!@@**%!*@!! item built. It stands on the back wall of my living dining area ready to receive the needful things for which it was made. As for me, I had to take to my couch for half a day just to get over the intense fatigue resulting from tossing 125 pounds of pressed wood around my house and trying to cuss it into place.

Following this experience I lay on my couch swearing to never, ever, “assemble” any item of furniture. But guess what? Unless you are ready to lay out serious cash, there are no items like that any more. Everything is Ikea-infected and made of sawdust.

When it comes to rebuilding Paradise and the items it will take to furnish it, it’s going to take more than a Wishlist to build it. At the very least it’s going to take youth, grit, and more than one case of whiskey. I know and I’ve got the backache and $100-a-day Tylenol habit to prove it.

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Boomer Anthems: Against the Wind

It seems like yesterday
But it was long ago
Janey was lovely she was the queen of my nights
There in the darkness with the radio playing low
And the secrets that we shared
The mountains that we moved
Caught like a wildfire out of control
‘Til there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove
And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then [click to continue…]

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Paradise: Hell from the Air


My home from above, left at the end of the driveway, on Scottwood and Buschmann. The structure at the top, a shop, was built last year. It was the only structure on that corner to survive. On the other hand, the 200 foot redwood outside my back door seems to have sailed through too.

CONCOW, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 6: Concow Ridge is charred and denuded of plant life, Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018, above the community of Concow, Calif., one month after the deadly Camp Fire roared over the hill from Pulga killing 85 people. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

Helicopters carrying important people have been hovering over Paradise. I hear them leave from the Chico Airport and chutter overhead here by the old train tracks. “Important” people these days get free helicopter trips to important places; to Paradises and to Hells. Some important people even have their own personal, paid-for-by-others, helicopters. VERY important people have fleets of helicopters. Importance above VERY rates military helicopters with very different sounds overhead.

I’m not sure who the important people in the free Paradise helicopter rides were but at least one was prescient enough to bring a photographer along. Here’s what Paradise looks like from the air these days.

PARADISE, CA – NOVEMBER 15: Aerial footage shows homes destroyed by the Camp Fire near the Paradise Plaza off Clark Road in Paradise, California, on Thursday, November 15, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

[click to continue…]

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At the Gates of Paradise

Lookout Point, Paradise, Spring,2018

Lookout Point, Paradise, Winter, 2018

So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life. – Genesis 3:24

Yesterday for the first time we took a drive up the Skyway to see how close we could get to Paradise. When we arrived at the gates of Paradise we were greeted not by an angel with a flaming sword but by a Highway Patrol officer with a kind attitude and a Smith & Wesson. He informed us that my home on Scottwood was not in the zones now open for return and directed us to go back down the Skyway.

Up or down the Skyway the landscape is not what you expect in your imagination. Instead of a charred and shattered scene, it looks almost clean; almost scoured.

The fire of November 8 came down Butte canyon and those around it like flood waters swirl and plunge and rip on by. The winds behind the fire drove it down at high speeds and it stripped out the scrub and underbrush and blankets of pine needles turning them to ash. The leaves on the trees were toasted a tan brown color for the most part and the sick trees with openings into their trunks were hollowed out by fire and lie toppled here and there.

I say here and there because the trees along the Skyway and up through the canyon seem to be about 80% upright. Whether they will put out fresh green leaves in the spring I have no way of knowing, but the odds favor it. Beneath the trees, there is on all sides a sort of charred surface with tiny chunks of charcoal crunching like tiny pumice pebbles on some cooled volcanic beach. In the middle distance, all is burned black, but closer in you see that the late, very late,  rains of December have already caused the green shoots of grass to push up through the burned soil surface and tint the ground with Spring.

The earth at my feet

The horror of the burning one month back will, in time, be darkness visible when I am allowed into Zone 11 to access to what was my home. For now, in these startlingly beautiful clear winter days, the scene on the road up and the road down is one that hints of, in the spring, something that will look very much like a carefully manicured park.

In the town of Paradise, they are still waiting for recovery to begin. Nature doesn’t wait.

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Boomer Anthems: Touch of Grey

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1987, the Grateful Dead released “Touch of Grey,” from the album In the Dark. Peaking at #9, the song was– and remains to this day– the only Grateful Dead song to reach the Billboard Top Ten. Or even the Top 40. Or even the Top 50. (“Truckin’”— the Dead’s highest charting song prior to “Touch of Grey”— peaked at #64.)

June 19, 1987: MTV premieres the video of “Touch of Grey”— a first for the Dead. The video’s concept: life-sized marionette skeletons wearing the same clothes and playing the same instruments as the Dead musicians gradually morph into the actual performers. The video was shot in front of a live audience at California’s Laguna Seca Raceway.

June 24, 2017: The reunion band known as Dead and Company (which teams John Mayer with original Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, and Bill Kreutzmann) plays at Citi Field in New York. During the performance, a nearby skyscraper synchronized its lights to the band’s rendition of “Touch of Grey.” That skyscraper? The Empire State Building. And no one cursed the glare. — Like Totally 80s [click to continue…]

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Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. — Hebrews 13 2

When you’re like me and have to buy all things new that a month ago were old, you get your fill of the brand spanking new fast. When you’re like me and the only thing old in your apartment is you, you yearn for the old and worn things; things that fit your life like comfortable old shoes. When you’re like me you yearn for things that have a touch of grey, a wisp of Wabi-sabi. When you’re like me and you are replacing your life on a budget, you go to tag sales; a lot of tag sales.

She was haggling over a cast-iron frying pan and I was there to haggle over a chair. It was inside a cold Quonset hut out by the railroad tracks at about 8:00 on a Sunday morning. She was almost old and certainly haggard with long lank strands of white and grey hair around a too old for her eyes face. She was making jokes and laughing with the tag sale lady as she worked her down a buck at a time. She worked her down with that tone people have when every dollar is important to their cash flow. Then she heard me ask the quiet question we are all asking in Chico when we shop for everything to replace everything we’ve lost, “D0 you have a Camp Fire discount?”

She came over to me with her hand already holding her cell phone and asked the question Paradise refugees ask each other when they first meet, “What street were you when the fire came through?”

“Scottwood. Where were you?”

“Driving my school bus. We’d started at 6:30 and then after I picked up some kids we were called back to the bus yard near the school.”

“Did you go?”

“Couldn’t get there. The fire was already there. I just told the kids to stay in their seats and I got to the K-Mart parking lot.”

“I thought that burned to the ground. The whole shopping center.”

“No. No. It was okay when I was there with the kids. They had other cars there too and a fire truck hooked up to a pump.”

She flips her fingers back and forth on the screen of her phone looking for the pictures we all took of what we were up to on that day. I think a lot of folks took pictures of the fire surrounding them thinking that at least something, maybe their phone, might survive that recorded their final agony. Some might have. We don’t know yet.

“Here. See that? That’s the fireman who trained his hose on my bus. Kept us cool inside all that heat. Took nearly four hours to get us out. Kept it up all that time until we could move then went along with us with the fire truck.”

“Four hours?”

“More like four and a half really. Little girl in my bus couldn’t hold it. I told her it was okay and she could just pee in the back of the bus. She was embarrassed. I told her, ‘It’s alright honey. Nobody’s gonna see.”

More images of the school bus being wet down in the parking lot flicker by with a flick of her fingers. Then images of the tunnel of fire on Clark or Pentz with a fire truck in front and the fireman still hosing down the bus behind him in this fire tunnel caravan.

“What did you lose,” I ask, knowing the answer.

“Oh, house and garage. Everything.

“I even lost my car. Here’s a picture a friend sent me of my car parked in the bus yard.”

She shows me a grim, but far too common, image of a row of gutted and burned out cars. Her’s is in the middle. It’s some sort of small hard-used banger common among the Paradise people who lived on a “fixed income.” It’s just a gray burned metal shell like those to the right and the left of it. It’s beyond minor body work. She’ll have to get a new very used car. She’ll have a hard time affording one.

“It is what it is,” she says. (We all say that a lot these days.) “But it could have been worse. Much worse. Look there.”

She blows up the photo and scrolls to the right of the burned cars. There are two very large metal tanks about 15 yards away from the ranks of incinerated automobiles. They’ve got “3,000” stenciled on them.

“Those are full of diesel for our buses. And in front, underground, are some of the bus yard’s gasoline tanks. The fire took the cars but left the tanks. Could have been worse.”

It’s hard for me to imagine anything about the Camp Fire that could have been worse but I see her point.

The tag sale lady behind her is making that turning away move people make when they need to get on selling the old junk they don’t need to someone who does. The bus driver shrugs and puts her phone away.

“Yep, could have been worse, but we got the kids out.”

 

 

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The Editor

The “month that will not end!” has ended but my chronic cold has not. Like a lot of colds, it seems to move around inside me from day to day. Yesterday, bronchial tubes. Today, nostrils. Tomorrow, toes. Who knows? At any rate, enough!, begone my complaining at such mild complaints!

(Oh my Lord! It’s five in the morning and I’m so out of it I haven’t even made coffee. Just a moment please… There, that’s a bit better.)

Sick or not my editor will not let my seething cranium be and I find myself remembering odd bits of Paradise from my boyhood and my dotage. I’m also still bumping into people who, a month removed from the burning, struggle with their changed situation much more than I am. I still hear the stories as we all try to reassemble, not the lives we had in Paradise, but the lives we have now in this and other small cities in the north state.

My readers and many other kind souls have returned me to life and I, with my small gift, would like to return the favor.

Paradise, as it was, is not dead it is gone. There will be another town named Paradise but it will never again be Paradise because, as noted right above, Paradise is gone. But I had a boyhood once in Paradise and, if memory serve, I can recall my own days in the gone world and some of them should be told. So memory shall serve. Here, because I have no place else to put them.

For now, I’ve decided to let others concern themselves with the heat death of liberty and/or the saving of the Republic. I’ve put my shoulder to that wheel long enough. And I am heartily sick of our political sickness.

Instead, for a bit, I’ll be writing about the life and the death of this one small town. Somebody’s got to and it might as well be me.  After all, I had a boyhood once in Paradise.

Here’s my list of working titles so it can stop being scribbled on the outside of all these envelopes.

[click to continue…]

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Sick… AND Tired

 

I apologize for the lack of postings. After the last month, it would seem I have come down with a virulent cold. In addition, I am moving into my new digs and they lack internet connections. Hence I am thrown back on the connection at my mother’s apartment — which I use when she’s out at one of her ladies’ luncheons to avoid transmitting my cold to her.

I continue to be amazed and moved beyond measure by the outpouring of support here and elsewhere on the Net. I am sustained by them in all ways and without them I could not even begin to rebuild my life from the ashes of Paradise.

At some point, I will face the Herculean task of thanking you all individually but at over 600 kind and generous souls have helped me it may take a bit of doing.

In the meantime, God bless and keep you all.

 

 

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The caption at NASA’s “Astronomy Picture of the Day” page reads: “Atlantis to Orbit.”

The filename of the picture reads: Nightlaunch.

And I am moved by the poetry of this most modern of images, not by the triumph of Reason which it seems to enshrine, but by that which is beyond Reason yet within this Nightlaunch all the same.

In thinking about this brief essay I could not help but think of a longer one by Doctor Bob at The Doctor Is In about a “civilized” European nation that cannot stop itself from taking the next step down into the pit; its people driven, as “reasonable” people always are, by the inexorable demands of “what is reasonable.”

In the work of Goya we see how that great soul, having walked the carnage cloaked landscapes of his era, came to understand the deepest cry of the Enlightenment: El sueño de la razon produce monstruos. [“The sleep of reason breeds monsters.”]


Ah well, the bones of the Enlightenment lie buried in a shallow grave somewhere along the Western Front. It had some nice ideals, but left us living rapt in the spell of Reason.

And now we are a “reasonable” society. Now we are a “scientific people” swaddled in a million theories of management — convinced that all of creation can be, somehow, managed through the limitless employment of Reason. Many of us, as we have seen in the past month, worship “intelligence uber alles,” that strange and deadly viral god of the mad mind that kills the soul long before it kills the nations that embrace it. We see the apotheosis of this worship leap up from the dazed lands of Europe. We see it arc across our own skies. We feel the sting of its acid rain on our upturned, stunned faces.

Reason. Its gifts are many. It enables us to raise “Atlantis to Orbit.” The poetry of that is only exceeded by the reality of it; by all that lies behind the sheer raw ability of the smart monkey to organize itself to achieve it — the mathematics and the metallurgy, the pulses in the silicon chips that hold and control the fire that slices up and beyond the sky. And the systems and wires and waves that bring these thoughts from my fingertips to your eyes now.

All these, and whole Alps of others, are the gifts of Reason.

But there are darker gifts of Reason; gifts revealed by the languor with which a whole people fall “half in love with easeful death.”

Why? Why abort this child? Because it is reasonable.

Why kill this old and feeble person? Because it is reasonable.

Why take from them according to ability and give to others according to need? Always because it is “reasonable.”

Reason commands it and Reason has, in this modern era, become a vengeful and a jealous god.

If it is true that the sleep of reason breeds monsters, can it not also be true that the constant wakefulness of Reason breeds its own peculiar hallucinations; its walking horrors?

We depend on Reason when we flip a switch, step on a brake, or seat ourselves in pressurized thin metal tubes that hover 40,000 feet above the earth and move at 500 miles an hour. This power would seem to argue that Reason should be trusted in all things, that the intelligence that runs up and down the synapses of our brains in an endless flickering web of electo-chemical space-time events is the ultimate arbiter, the final judge, the self-obsessed lodestone of our lives.

And yet… and yet…

And yet, hovering outside of Reason, we still somehow sense Immanence; we sense there is something more going on here, something vaster unfolding all about us, no matter how sternly Reason rules.

We sense Immanence, no matter how many times we are told the opposite; we sense that myth, legend, soul, magic, miracle and mystery still hold us, and that

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

And that,

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down.
*

As we now move more deeply into Advent, we move — in our long sweeping orbit about our home star — closer to the moments when that which is most deeply our gift and most certainly our curse is made manifest in the music of our being in a manner beyond all reason. And no matter what our faith — even if that faith is that there is no faith to be had — this turn of the year, this Advent, will inexorably bring us once again to the memory of the miracle made manifest all about us in every moment if we could but pause to see the forever present revelation.

Our Here.

Our Now.

Our miracle.

Impossible but actual.

Our actual existence on this most unlikely melding of earth, air, fire and water, fused far ago in a forgotten eternity from starstuff, and now circling a single sun swimming in some out-of-the-way arm of a second-class galaxy, where we lift Atlantis into orbit; where we seek to populate the stars in our searching.

On the one hand, it is clear that Reason demands that “We shall not cease from exploration,” while on the other it may well be that:

“… the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

And while nothing in our Book of Reason can tell us why, its endless banal chapters on irony would need to be excised were we to discover that all “Enlightenment,” all our “Age of Reason” has wrought is but a frail and flimsy ladder to the stars where we could at last put out our feeble hands “to touch the face of God.”


For Donald Sensing who put it in my mind, and for Solomonia who pointed me to the picture.

First published 2006-11-27

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Fire Walking: The Body Cam of Deputy Aaron Parmley

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My Mother at 103 104! aka 37,960+ Days on the Planet

Her earliest memory is being held on the shoulders of her father, watching the men who lived through the First World War parade down the main street of Fargo, North Dakota in 1918. She would have been just four years old then. Now she’s 90 years old and she comes to her birthday party wearing a chic black and white silk dress, shiny black shoes with three inch heels, and a six foot long purple boa. She’s threatening to sing Kurt Weill’s ‘The Saga of Jenny” and dance on the table one more time .

She’ll sing the Kurt Weill song, but we draw the line at her dancing on the table this year. Other than that, it is pretty much her night, and she gets to call the shots. Which is what you get when you reach 90 97 and are still managing to make it out to the tennis courts three to four times a week. “If it wasn’t for my knees I’d still have a good backcourt game, but now I pretty much like to play up at the net.” [Note: Alas she had to give up tennis at 95 back when her knees finally gave up. She didn’t. Water walking twice a week. She gave all a scare a couple of years ago but came roaring back after major surgery and is more or less back to the regular schedule.]

She plays Bridge once or twice a week, winning often, and has been known to have a cocktail or two on occasion. After her operation she gave up driving much to the relief of my brother who fretted over it for several decades.

She keeps a small two-bedroom apartment in a complex favored by young families and college students from Chico State and, invariably, has a host of fans during any given semester. She’s thought about moving to the “senior apartments” out by the mall, but as she says, “I’m just not sure I could downsize that much and everyone there is so old.”

She was born deep in the heartland at the beginning of the Great War, the youngest of five children. She grew up and into the Roaring 20s, through the Great Depression, taught school at a one room school house at Lake of the Woods Minnesota, roamed west out to California in the Second World War and met the man she married.

They stayed married until he died some 30 years ago. Together they raised three boys, and none of them came to any more grief than most and a lot more happiness than many.

After her husband died at the end of a protracted illness, she was never really interested in another man and filled her life with family, close friends (some stretching back to childhood), and was, for 15 years, a housemother to college girls. She recently retired from her day job where she worked three mornings a week as a teacher and companion to young children at a local day-care and elementary school.

She has always been a small and lovely woman — some would say beautiful. I know I would. An Episcopalian, she’s been known to go to church, but isn’t devoted to the practice, missing more Sundays than she attends. She’s given to finding the best in people and letting the rest pass, but has been known to let fools pass at high speed.

Born towards the beginning of the 20th century, she now lives fully in the 21st. Nearly 23 years ago we gave her a 90th birthday party. It was attended by over 200 people from 2 to 97, many of whom told tales about her, some taller than others.

We didn’t believe the man who told about the time in her early seventies that she danced on his bar. He brought the pictures of the bar with her high-heel marks in it to prove the point.

Other stories are told, some serious, some funny, all loving. But they all can only go back so far since she has only been living in Chico, California for 30 years. I can go back further, and so, without planning to, I took my turn and told my story about her. It went something like this.

“Because I’m the oldest son, I can go back further in time. I can go back before Clinton, before Reagan, before Nixon, before Kennedy, before Eisenhower. We’ll go back to the time of Truman.

“It must be the summer of 1949 and she’s taking my brother and I back home to her family in Fargo for the first time. I would be almost four and he’d be two and a half. The war’s been over for some time and everyone is now back home and settled in. My father’s family lost a son, but — except for some wounds — everyone else came out all right.

“We’re living in Los Angeles and her home is Fargo, North Dakota, half a continent away. So we do what you did then. We took the train. Starting in Los Angeles we went north to San Francisco where we boarded the newest form of luxury land transportation available that year, the California Zephyr.

“Out from the bay and up over the Sierras and down across the wastes until we wove our way up the spine of the Rockies and down again to the vast land sea that stretched out east in a swath of corn and wheat that I remember more than the pitched curves and plunging cliffs of the mountains. On the Zephyr you sat in a plush chair among others in a long transparent dome at the top of the car and it seemed all Earth from horizon to the zenith flowed past you.

“There was the smell of bread and cooking in the Pullman cars that I can still capture in my mind, and the lulling rhythm of the wheels over the rails that I can still hear singing me down into sleep.

“At some point we changed trains to go north into the Fargo Station and, as we pulled into Fargo in mid-morning, my mother’s family met us with their usual humble dignity — they brought a full brass band that worked its way down through the John Philip Sousa set list with severe dedication. They also brought me more family members than there were people living on our entire block in Los Angeles. There may also have been a couple of Barbershop Quartets to serenade us during the band breaks, but I’m not sure about that.

“My mother and brother and I were swept away in the maelstrom of aunts, uncles, cousins by the dozens, and assorted folks from the neighborhood on 8th Avenue South.

“The day rolled into a huge lunch at a vast dining room table where my grandmother ruled with an iron ladle. Then, after a suitable post-prandial stupor, my entire family rose as one and headed out to the nearby park for their favorite activity — trying to crush each other in tennis. When this family hit the courts, it was like a tournament had come to town. Other would-be players just took one look and headed for another set of courts elsewhere.

“I was still too young to play, although my mother would have a racquet custom-made for me within the year, so instead I would have been exhausting myself at some playground or in one of the sandboxes under the eyes of my older cousins. Then, at dusk, I made my way back to the courts.

“In the Fargo summers the twilights linger long and fade slowly. And as they fade the lights on the courts come up illuminating them in the gathering dark. And I sat, not quite four, as the night grew dark around me and my mother and her family played on below.

“Now it is all more than sixty years gone but still, in my earliest memories, they all play on in that endless twilight. I see them sweeping back and forth in the fading light. Taunting and laughing together. Calling balls out that are clearly in. Arguing and laughing and playing on forever long after the last light of day has fled across the horizon and the stars spread out high above the lights.

“Service. Return. Lob. Forehand. Volley. Backhand. Volley. Love All.”

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After the first death, there is no other. — Dylan Thomas, A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London

Within a month of 9/11 as I commuted underground a bit uptown and to the side of the burning pyre of 3,000 Americans and walked through that wounded city, I wrote about the missing whose photos and pleas for closure covered endless walls windows and doors in Manhatten. Now we have fire and the missing of Paradise. On a much smaller scale, of course, but missing and many of the missing destined to be missing forever…

Their silence keeps me sleepless for I know
Within that smoke, their ash still falls as snow,
To settle on our flesh like fading stars
Dissolve into sharp sparks at break of day.

At dawn a distant shudder in the earth
Disclosed the flight of fire into steel,
The shaking not of subways underground,
But screams from inside flowers made of flame… —  The Missing – Vanderleun

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Aftermath

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The Grind

Things are happening to you, and you feel them happening, but except for this one fact, you have no connection with them and no key to the cause or meaning of them… A passage outside the range of imagination, but within the range of experience.” ― Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

I’m on short rations for writing time today. I need to see lawyers and assemble furniture. It’s how I live now.

I see a lot of other Paradise Burnouts at the tent revival meetings staged by lawyers and then down the street at Harbor Freight buying the toolkits to reassemble the IKEA shipments coming in from all points. We listen to the lawyers’ spiel and then go to any shelter we are lucky enough to have and build furniture with cheap screwdrivers. Then we go back to Harbor Freight to buy screws.

It’s how we live now.

My situation is more blessed than most. I have a (very small) but very well put together apartment.  It looked like this before the generosity of my readers struck with a mini-tsunami of Amazon boxes coming constantly to my door.

This is my space when I opened the door for the first time. It’s not a three-bedroom house in Paradise, but these days what is?:

This is a look at the space when I began to unpack and assemble my new life in Chico as my mother’s neighbor.

And miles to go before I sleep,

Miles to go…

As I say to all who ask about the mountains and rivers of Amazon boxes, “They’re from my readers. They made my new home possible. They returned me to life.”

Garage, 5533 Scottwood Road, Paradise, California

 

 

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At the end of a storm There’s a golden sky… (Yeah, Right)

The tumult and the shouting dies;
The Captains and the Kings depart…

— Recessional by Rudyard Kipling

Those of us who return to the foldout FEMA tables under the stucco pillars and inside the clay-colored walls of the once-deserted Sears store are old hands at being evacuees. The adrenaline rush of the rides through the flame tunnels is over and the adrenaline jag is fading.

The town we lived in is gone; reduced to pale drifts of an off-white filth that pervades every “official” photo of every incinerated house. The incidence of finding human remains has diminished from a dozen a day to one or two here and there. The list of the “missing” has shrunk from over one thousand to a few hundred. Everyone talks about this as if it is “a good thing” and I suppose it is… for all but those few hundred. Every day they become more distant and more dead.

Those of us from Paradise who are still standing have survived the fire this time. The rains have put paid to the flames that devoured our town and our lives and then rambled on southeast like some overstuffed ogre. After the burning, we’ve had a couple of weeks of organization and logistics and then the grace of Thanksgiving to salve our souls.

“Nothing like a good disaster to sort things out.”

And now, as it must, the attention of the world has moved elsewhere; moved towards our brushfire wars and our poisoned politics and our boring blather about the “you-better believe-they’re-beautiful” genderjumpers and their ludicrous lives; all the buffo bonfires and pooh-pooh cushions of life in this inverted epoch. The groove, as they say, must move.

The groove has moved but Chico is where it was. This week, on the faces of those who have passed through the fire, you are starting to see a wan resignation. You see people becoming aware that they will be living life in the Yellow Zone from now until further notice. You see that the waiting lines at the FEMA tables have grown used to the volunteer with his bullhorn shouting out the numbers from theTake-A-Number Machine. Down mall from FEMA, you walk into the Xfinity store and you see people packed into the lounging couches in front of the big screen not even following the game. Here too they’ve been assigned their places in one of a hundred waiting rooms they know they’ll visit in the next month, year, years, decade.

The whole epic scenario of this catastrophe has now reached the phase where the people whose lives have been destroyed come to know a new thing: The beginning has ended, the fire has been killed, and now comes the hard part.

Welcome to “The Grind.”

Everyone displaced from Paradise has come to know in the first two days of this week that the rebuilding of their lives, no matter where it will be done, is going to be a long, hard, and debilitating march through the institutions.

The institutions along our line of march involve the federal government, the state government, the county government, the city government, and the Paradise Town Council In Exile. Dealing with each of these, in turn, will involve multiple visits, multiple repetitions of work already complete, piles of paperwork, and then more visits to places with a Take-A-Number Machine. Then there are the insurance companies, the various services and utilities one has to work with. On and on and we haven’t even gotten to the point where you actually secure housing and have to set it up.

Securing housing is the Holy Grail in and around Chico now; the Holy Grail and the Pearl of Great Price all in one. It’s the one thing you have to have. Last night I saw what happens when you cannot be “housed.”

When tenting began on the first night of the fire spontaneous tent towns began to grow up at WalMart and the East Avenue Church. There were others as well. In the main, these camps of folks from the Camp Fire have faded and dwindled naturally as the onset of the cold and the rain makes the tents untenable. But some of the hardcore homeless, the desperately poor and unsocial, the tweakers, and the junkies gaming the system have persisted in their tents. Removing the remnants of the tent towns by any sort of edict or force is, of course, politically impossible. And those in the tent towns know this and work it.

One particularly medieval tent town has sprung up around large dumpsters in front of the closed out Toys R Us store. Here there are scatted tents of different sizes adding up to a reasonable Bedouin camp in the Sahara… except this is in a parking lot.

Across from the tents is a bank of porta-potties brought in by the city to control the shitification of the Toys R Us Parking lot.

I drove by that set up in the parking lot after dark and the tent people were out. You could see them in the dark shadows pawing over the piles of old clothing people keep dropping in the dumpsters to no purpose. As I drove past the tents a large one’s flap was thrown back and a big and portly man in a lumberjack flannel shirt and what appeared to be Leiderhosen emerged into the yellow tinted and dim “Earth Friendly” streetlights. He was heading towards the line of Porta-potties across the road. I looked at him and then looked again. Hard.

As God is my witness this man was heading towards the porta potties with a live raccoon riding on his shoulder, waving one of his or her paws like royalty passing in review on the way to the can.

As noted above, after a fire takes your town in its paws and plays with it, housing becomes the most critical long-term need. Not everyone gets housing. Those that show up with a live raccoon on their shoulder probably have a long long long long long grind ahead.

Then again, we all do.

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The Ashes: Now I Know

This was my home. There’s being told, over and over, that your home has been reduced to ashes, and then there’s knowing, really knowing, that it’s gone. See the black metal frame with bulbous ends at the bottom left?  That was my headboard in my bedroom. I bought it from Ikea when I moved into Brooklyn Heights in 1993. It made it all the way to Paradise. It’s still standing and so am I. I think I’ll salvage it and restore it.

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19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:     — Matthew 6:19-21

Having procured an apartment in Chico  — where there are no apartments to be had — has eliminated the first substantial step towards putting my life back on track after losing everything in the destruction of Paradise. But forging a new life from scratch is not a turnkey operation, It is hard and unremitting. My to-do lists have to-do lists and every move made is but a very small step towards a habitable home.

Presently, thanks to the overwhelming generosity of my readers, I am making visible progress towards a habitable home. The small bathroom is finished but the bathroom is always the first room to be finished. The bed has been delivered as has been a large nine-drawer dresser that is, not counting me, the oldest thing in my new apartment. [click to continue…]

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“I Had a Boyhood Once in Paradise”: The Ghost Town

[Written in 2014 on my return to Paradise after an absence of over 60 years.]

I drive the Skyway to the town named Paradise,
park his car at the canyon’s rim, and sit awhile
in the hot silence of the afternoon looking out
at the Sierra mountains where, in June, the winter lingers.

On the seat beside me a well-taped cardboard cube
contains what remains of my father. I climb out
and, taking the cube under my arm, begin to climb
down the canyon’s lava wall to the stream below.

The going is slow, but we get to the bottom by and by
and sitting on some moss, we rest awhile, the cube and I,
beside the snow-chilled stream.
– – My Father

There are two ways into Paradise, the back way and the Skyway. When you can you take the Skyway but the back way will get you there just the same. When I moved back to Paradise after being gone for more than 60 years everything had changed but nothing had changed. Superimposed over Paradise as it is was Paradise as it was. Not everywhere but in the rise and roll of the land and roads; in the place names and the clearings, in the canyons and the crests. Paradise past was there in the overlay, in that “certain slant of light” where you see what is not there layered over what is. Because it what Paradise was  in those past, gone years is still there; in moments that appear unbidden and “fade upon the blowing of the horn.”

And in those translucent moments, I often see all Paradise’s past as ghostly, drifting like a soft wall of mist across the scrim screen of Paradise present. I can always hold this phantasm at bay, filter it out to get the errands of the day done. And then in an unguarded moment, it returns.

One afternoon soon after I arrived in Paradise I saw my father standing next to the Skyway. I saw my father, alive as you or me, and dead these forty years.

By the time I saw him it didn’t really shock me. I’d lived in Paradise for over a month and I knew these things could happen here. Paradise was not just Paradise. It was a ghost town. And it was filled with my ghosts.

I first saw my father in the middle of the day next to Big O Tires on the Skyway. I’d gone there to have some minor repair done to my car and, while they took the car into the bay behind me, I wandered into the empty front showroom and gazed through the Big O display windows looking out over the Skyway and down the steep decline and quick rise of Pearson Road. Then I glanced down to the left of the showroom at a small vacant building next door. It was caked with many years of paint. The latest coats were pale gray with a light blue trim. The windows were sheets of painted plywood nailed tight to the frames and the door was shut solid with a large padlock. It was shut tight and, like many buildings on the Skyway in Paradise and beyond, had a large red and white “For Lease” sign attached to the front.

Then as I looked at it my father walked through the closed and padlocked door and, like me, stood looking down hill as the traffic paused at the light and then turned left or right at the T-junction.

It was December for me, but it must have been summer for him because he stood there in his starched, short-sleeved, crisp and immaculate white shirt with a stainless steel Parker ballpoint pen in his pocket, a sharp crease in his slacks, his perfectly shined shoes, and a ruler-level flat-top — his choice of a “sharp” haircut for men and boys. He stood there for about a minute as I watched him without moving, the smell of new tires in my nostrils. Then he turned and walked back through the walls and into his office.

Behind me a burst of compressed air from a lug wrench brought me out of my brown study and I was looking again at a ramshackle gray and blue building with a small courtyard that was now “For Lease.” It was then I recognized the old building as the place where my father had had his car dealership when we all lived in Paradise in the mid-1950s.

I told myself that what I had just experienced was some sort of vivid memory from my childhood as a kind of faint film from my mind projected onto the mundane present. Yes, that was all it was. I’m sure of that. I’m an educated man of no little experience in the real, wide world of now. It only felt like seeing a ghost. In broad daylight in deep December, dressed for summer in his crisp white shirt.

The last time I’d seen my father before this was in a dream decades after he died on the operating table. He came to me out of the streets in the Red City that persists off and on over the years in my dreams. He was wearing a hospital smock stained with large patches of his blood. He said to me, “I don’t belong with the dead,” and then he faded. I hadn’t seen him since.

This time, on the Skyway of Paradise, he was looking much better; looking at home with the dead. This time he didn’t even seem dead, only translucent. I had a brief moment of disappointment that he was gone before we could continue the conversation from where he left off in my dream, but having been briefly dead I knew that the dead have little to say to the living. In any case, he was my father and I was, this time, glad to see him.

The poet says “Old men should be explorers.” When I was younger I admired that sentiment but now, as the hand of age closes around me, I find I don’t wish to explore new lands, but to explore again those I have already passed through trying to see what I missed in the first hectic rush towards my “goals.”

These days I pass my father’s place on the Skyway several times a week while turning onto the Skyway on an errand in Paradise or down from the ridge and into the valley to see my mother or to get the kind of meal unavailable in Paradise.

My father’s vacant office is right at the turn and, because of that (or so I tell myself), I don’t stop. Someday I might pull over down the road a bit and walk back to his office hoping to see him again. But I don’t think he’ll oblige if I do. He doesn’t have to. He’s not inside our time now. He’s just one of many ghosts that I’ve seen of late, up here on the ridge, up here in Paradise.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE to help me recover after being burned out in the Paradise fire with my thanks.

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Over the River and Through the Woods

Giving Thanks, 2018

And then the rains came to Paradise and in the valley below the ridge, my mother and I went to Thanksgiving at my brother’s home.

It was a soaking rain; one that washed the heavy and grimed coats of the fire crews closing the line on the Camp Fire. It was a softly pelting rain that soaked the gray flecks of ash off the leaves that remained in the trees and then washed the leaves out of the trees. It was a cold rain and it made for a miserable Thanksgiving. We all loved it. You stood outside in this drenching rain and raised your face towards heaven and felt it fall on you. It was a rain that smelled of smoke.

My mother and I left early to drive to my brother’s home in Grass Valley. At 90 minutes it is at the outward edge of my mother’s travel radius, but this one is worth it and we are in no position, jammed into her apartment, to attempt to have it in Chico.

Our route goes down Highway 99 and then east towards where the Camp Fire grinds forests in its bright fangs, but picks up Highway 70 outside of Oroville. Then it is down that dangerous two-lane freeway to “The Shortcut” and then the climb up to Grass Valley; another town built in the mountains inside a pine forest.

Thanksgiving marks the second time my mother has been out into the smoke from Paradise. The first was the day or so before when she insisted on going shopping for “something red, some red top to go with my red boots.” She’s had her almost magical pair of red boots for decades and they’ve become a kind of signal that wherever she wears them is an official feast or festival. And so we went downtown with masks on to shop. For my mother at 104, a little smoke is not going to keep her from making a fashion statement… or Thanksgiving with her family.

South of Chico about nine miles we entered the Burned Zone. This was where the fire threatened Highway 99 on the first night and even managed to jump it but was then turned back. As we flow along at highway speeds the land on the west side has dry brindle grass covering the earth, on the east side the burned char from the fire and the backfires stretch over the long flatlands where cattle would graze, and then over the low hills and far away. Patches of brindle crop up here and there but it is mostly a scene of a black dank earth. It goes on over the low hills and higher ridges and then out of sight. It seems limitless. It smells of the pit.

Then suddenly we’re out and everything is “California, the Golden State!” We drive south under an overcast sky where slabs of clear blue are showing higher up. We drive down 70 towards Yuba City past trailer parks, and ranches, and endless orchards with my mother trying to figure out what the trees bear. “It would be thoughtful to put up a sign telling us.”

A bit north of Yuba City we get to the Woodruff Lane shortcut. For years this has been a beaten-up shocks-destroying section of road that took fifteen miles off the journey to Grass Valley. Everyone used it and everyone hated it for its potholed surface and loved it for its clouds of migratory birds settling into the rice paddies. This year the shortcut has been, magically, paved and lined and made new. We run it at highway speeds and the birds swirl over us as the sun comes out around us and we cruise back up into the mountains.

Of late my mother has become a fan of the diva, Sarah Brightman, and one of her CDs is playing as we make the final turn towards my brother’s place and, of course, Brightman’s version of “Dust in the Wind” plays its four minutes when we are five minutes away. My mother listens thoughtfully and says nothing. I’m finding it difficult to see clearly. And then we are there.

My brother and his wife are there as are her daughter and her father and assorted friends. As usual, the meal is cooked perfectly and is straight down traditional lines. Two additions to the lineup this year one of my nearby readers along with homemade apple pies dressed in a crust that is cooked to a flakiness of great promise and a bottle of local Placerville wine.

After two sets of Grace for this family’s deliverances this year, the turkey and side dishes are heaped and reheaped on the plates. Then it is desert and some football during digestion. I walk outside with a glass full of the local Placerville wine to a little patch of needles and leaves under the pines, now soaked with rain and hence, for now, less lethal.

I raise my glass to the four points of the compass and say a prayer for all those whose ashes are being washed clean and downstream by the rains in Paradise. Then I pour out my small libation to the dead. Then I drive down out of the mountains with my mother beside me through the most beautiful Sierra autumn sunset I can remember. By the time we get back to the burned zone, it’s dusk and we can’t see the darkness.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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It’s late in the evening on the 20th of November 2018; otherwise known as “the month that will not end.” Since the initial shock of the Camp Fire incinerating my home and my hometown, I’ve been struggling with details small, large, and life-altering. My house is burned out and for now so am I.

But all is not gloom and doom. I have, against all odds, actually secured a small apartment in Chico, a town where there are no apartments or houses to be had for love or money — unless it is a LOT of love or a LOT of money. In my case, it was the love of many here in Chico for my mother. Through what I have taken to calling “The Power of Lois” an apartment appeared on my path and I took it. What is even better is that it is located close to my mother’s apartment. This enables us to go from being “roommates” to “neighbors.”

The apartment is a tiny place (about a sixth of what my house was) but it is quite secure and recently refurbished and it will suit me down to the ground.

This forms one of the three pillars of my own personal salvation and deliverance from the fires of Paradise. The second pillar is formed of a living chain of my friends and readers whose help and support have carried me through and, in all senses of the term, returned me to life. To say I am deeply moved and grateful for all your unremitting and instantaneous aid is to barely touch my gratitude. I am a man of words and I have always been suspicious when I read “there are no words.” But all of you have made me a believer.

The third pillar has to be the continuing and mysterious grace of God.

Now it is late and I am, I confess, very, very tired. I’ve been running on empty for many days and I think I am going to have to take a break for tomorrow and for Thanksgiving and perhaps the day after. I have many notes and will have many things to say about this unmitigated catastrophe, but they will have to wait.

Farewell for a bit and God bless you all. Have a deep and profound Thanksgiving. This year I know that my family will when we gather at my brother’s home. At my brother’s, we don’t normally drink a great deal of wine but this year we will toast all of you. Each and every one.

And then I will go outside into the woods near his home in Grass Valley and for all those who did not survive the fire this time I will turn down an empty glass.


If this essay pleased or informed you DONATE HERE with my thanks.

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Praying for Rain in the Ashes of Paradise

In those lines where we all line up, this time  for the free and needful things at the Salvation Army’s Airport Supermarket (No charge.) we all talked about the rains; the rains that were forecast, the rains we hoped to have; the rains that when they come, even if they come in this very instant, come far too late this year; far too late for all of us.

The grandmother with the thousand yard stare who stood next to me wanted rain, wanted it badly. “It’ll put the fires out. Finally. Forecast to be a real soaking rain, a real soaker I heard,” she said as she snagged the escaping toddler among her seven grandchildren. She’d been working in the post office in Paradise, left it almost too late, got home and scooped up her grandchildren and, “My six Yorkies. Rounded them up and put them the van with the kids. Off we went. The fire was starting to surround us. All the kids were quiet but the Yorkies just yapped and yipped all the way out. We have to have that rain. We just have to have it. It’s going to be a soaker.”

She and her older children lost five houses between them. All were burned out. All were saved. Her son, a solid man with an even and determined look, came over and agreed about the rain. “I’m buying an RV and I’m going to park it right next to the foundation of my house. Get a generator and some chain link fencing. You should too, mom.” She was off scooping up her escaping toddler while the son’s wife secured a daughter who was trying to escape from her stroller. “Better rain. Better rain soon.”

As we waited in the line and silently prayed for rain, a strange thing began to happen to Chico. The smoke began to lift. The air began to clear. Some blue. S0me clear blue began to appear. And then, for the first time since the immolation of Paradise (How many days was it? Was it yesterday, or last week, or before.) it was a beautiful autumn day in Chico. Somewhere off to the south, and off to the east,  the Camp Fire continued to burn but all that was previous, previous.

The air was still bad, of course. The air was still full of soot and toxins and all the hundreds of things given off from the burning of the corpse of Paradise, but here and now down in the valley it seemed clear and we heard the rains were coming. It was a beautiful day with the rains on the way. That was the forecast for Chico and a lot of the masks, the white smoke masks, came off.

I left the Salvation Army Everything Free Supermarket after getting some needful things and called my mother’s doctor. My mother had been housebound by the smoke for days and she hadn’t had a flu shot. And this year, of all the years of her life, she needed a flu shot. She’d survived The 1918 influenza pandemic and didn’t need to press her luck again 100 years later. I called her doctor and got an immediate appointment. We went to the office and they took her in immediately. In the reception area, the nurses were all talking about the rain. Hoping for the rain. Praying for the rain.

When we left we took some extra time to drive down the central boulevard of Chico, the Esplanade. We drove slowly on this most extraordinary clear and deep-dyed autumn day. Along the center of the Esplanade, the gingkos were in their final gold and the clear afternoon sunlight made the red leaves of the oaks glow. Then we went back to my mother’s apartment where the lady that comes to help her was waiting for, praying for, and talking about nothing but the rain.

In Brooklyn on 9/11, I’d watched the Towers burn and fall in the middle of the same kind of clear and beautiful autumn day. To the north and to the south of the Towers as seen from the Brooklyn Heights promenade it was all serene. Serene but made obscene with the burning funeral pyre of three thousand people sending up thick and deadly smoke in the exact center of a crisp blue sky.

In the days after the Towers fell, all in the city prayed for rain. We prayed for rain so that those waters from heaven, cold and deep and drenching, might put out the fires and cool the embers and we would all be restored and returned to life as it was.

And the rains came. And the dust on the leaves ran gold into the gutters. And the fires still burned on deep in “The Pile.” Burned for months and months as the smoke rose and drifted and swirled, a constant despised companion. And now it was seventeen years later and we were all praying for rain in Paradise.

And we were not restored by the rains then and these rains will not restore us now. Like a root fire, it will burn on inside all of us. Who will stop the rain? God knows. [click to continue…]

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