I had a few different ideas today on what to write about. A likely continuation of my ash and smoke and fire writing that has been my focus for the last two weeks. And I thought about weaving this into the timing of this being my first writing, of three fully completed years of writing every week, that actually falls on Christmas Day. Not that I necessarily celebrate Christmas, being the nice jewish girl from Long Island that I am. Nice being the operative word. And I do kinda celebrate Christmas.
We did when I was little. And celebrated Hanukah, too. Or Chanukah if you like to spell it that way instead. I wonder if the difference in spelling is a north shore or south shore thing? Those who grew up on Long Island will understand this.
So when I was little we had the eight days of (C)Hanukah and we had Christmas, too. Never with a tree but we had stockings with our names on them and we got presents. It was an American holiday, day. And this lasted, well, forever really.
And then I got married and we celebrated Christmas, too. With a tree and presents and my kids getting up early and running downstairs to find all sorts of great things that inevitably needed batteries which I inevitably forgot to get. Every year.
And then one year, I think the kids were like 12, 9 and 7 or something around that. Or maybe 14,11 and 9. Regardless, they were still kids and I was at ToysRus on Christmas Eve. It was not a pretty sight. And I was flying down those aisles looking for shit that my kids really didn't need at all but, non structured and anti-list-maker that I am, this last minute shopping was kinda part of the overall Christmas tradition that was my life, and I swung around the corner and ran into this guy. He was probably in just about as good a mood as I was. And he looked at me and said you drive like a girl.
I probably said fuck you. I may have said merry christmas and fuck you. I know I was not nice.
And I got home that night and told my kids that this was the last Christmas with presents. That we were done, that I was done. That we would have the day. We'd make the same food we eat on Thanksgiving because we love this food and we love Thanksgiving. But presents: nope, nada, no more, finito. I was not gonna run around anymore buying stuff for the sake of buying stuff and becoming a really mean mom.
And they all said ok. Like no big deal. My kids are so friggin awesome.
So this not buying presents thing, I actually did still buy stuff for Christmas after that, but not in the same way. We still got a tree, once we got one that was so big we had to tie the top of it to the railing on the landing above the living room so it wouldn't topple over. And I bought cool stuff, like a six foot giraffe and hampers for the kids' laundry that were actually animals. A bear and a lion and a cow. But there was no more running around and getting stuff because I was supposed get stuff.
It shifted the intention of Christmas and shifted my intention, too. I am so much nicer now around this time of year!
So fast forward to now. Today. December 25, 2017. A few weeks after the biggest fire in California history. And a time where my three children are in three different places all over the world. I have one on the east coast, one in Australia and one working at the Ritz Carlton, Santa Barbara.
None of them will be with us today. All of them are always with us.
And so I was thinking about what to write about. And then I saw the sunrise. We got to the beach early today. I have been going a lot lately. To the beach in the morning. To walk my perfect Doberman puppy who is almost three and not really a puppy. I started going to the beach on a regular basis after the week I spent at a dear friend's home on the beach when we were evacuated from our home as flames burned up our land and the hills around my town. And living on the beach for that week reminded of the beauty of the beach and my need to be in this place where salt and air and sand intermingle.
And so when we got back to Ojai and moved back into our remarkably untouched and not too smokey home I continued to drive the twenty five minute drive down Highway 33 to the beach in the mornings. Early, but never as early as today.
Driving down to the beach today, my dog and my husband in tow, and seeing the red sky beckon me toward the ocean tide, I knew that today's writing would just be a picture essay (with a really long and quite wordy introduction) capturing this beautiful morning.
So here you go. Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. May your day be filled with love and rich with laughter and may you feel the sweet connection to others that this day, and every day, is really about.
There is sadness in the air. It sits like smoke, unable to leave this quiet valley because no strong winds blow through our town. It is good, this lack of winds because without strong winds there is less fire. But without strong winds there is this smoke.
And this sadness.
This sadness dances around the possibility and opportunity we see in front of us. We feel it here. Nestled in against ourselves and our town. We feel it and so we cover it with words of affirmation and support for each other and ourselves.
We look to the future and plan how we will rebuild and notice how we connect and figure out what we can take from this ash and smoke to make a better place than the one we had before.
But still there is this sadness.
It settles in our eyes and rides along our breath. I hear it in the rhythm of my step along the pavement as I walk in town. I see it in the eyes of the people around me. Both those that lost a great deal and those that lost just a bit in this it-is-all-relative-to-where-we-were-and-where-we-are-going and there is no quantitative way to measure that pain and the grief and really how do we comprehend what really happened in this valley.
And so we sit in it.
And so I sit in it.
The sadness. And the discomfort of it. I cry and I do not know half the time why the tears are there. And I go on social media even though I am overwhelmed by social media. And I give $50 to GoFundMe pages and YouCaring pages for people that I know and people that I do not know, too.
And I walk my dog and worry that the smoke that I am keeping from my lungs with a mask of white with yellow bands does not fit her face so she is breathing in this air of smoke.
And breathing in this sadness, too. Falling from the sky like ash.
Last week my town burned. As did the towns and cities around me - Santa Paula, Oak View, Casitas Springs, Ventura, Fillmore, Carpinteria, Summerland, Montecito and into Santa Barbara. The fire is named Thomas and it skirted it's way over ridges and down into valleys, along highways and roadways and jumped over concrete to reach it's hand towards the beach past Mussel Shoals. It rode on Santa Ana winds, fast and focused and moving at speeds that nobody expected. Because that is what fire does. It grew from small to over 230,000 acres in seven short days. It is burning still as it makes it's way along the ridges of national forest land and fills the sky with falling ash.
I think we were some of the first to leave the lower valley - myself and my husband, my cat and my dog. And our neighbors who live along the road that sits nestled against a hillside and shares its land with Upper Ojai. Vast and open space, Upper Ojai was already burning before we knew there was a fire even. It had come up upon them from opposite where our valley sits.
When we did know there was a fire, we stayed awake to watch on line but finally, at midnight, I could not keep my eyes open and made my way to bed. My dog and I. Only to have my husband wake me up not even an hour later with Lizzie, we need to evacuate.
I had already put our passports and our birth certificates along with my toothbrush in a bag to take with me. Just in case. This bag and my cat and my dog and my husband was all I needed.
My son spoke about this in the yoga classes that he taught this past week. I had shared with him that in that moment when I had to think about what was important there was little attachment to anything that was a thing. I had my life partner, my soul dog, my spirit cat. I had our passports because you are always supposed to take your passports. And a folder with our birth certificates because Faith's was in there and the written documentation of her name evolution from Erin to Faith was the key to something important. I still am not sure what that is. And I had my toothbrush which needs no explanation at all.
My son, in his class, talked about my reptilian brain - my primitive, instinctive brain. My powerful and oldest brain. He talked about this in his class as a lesson on what is important.
For this brain knew, in that moment what that was. That I only needed those few things. And truthfully if I had left the bag on the table that would have been ok, too.
We went back home the next day. Tuesday. The fire had not made it down the mountain yet to edge along the land behind my home. We went back home and still only a few things called for me to take them out of harms way. I grabbed clothing I would need to keep warm when I walked my dog. I took my three pieces of jewelry. And a second pair of jeans to wear if we were gone a long time.
And then we were gone. Again
Tuesday night the fires came. Over the rise from Upper Ojai and down the hillside, mocking the houses that lived against the overgrown branches and grasses that hadn't seen fire for so many years. The fire crews came and saved our home. We learned this from a neighbor who stayed on his land, next to ours, and worked alongside our fire angels. And so I got updates as the night played out against the fire's fitful dance. And I did not know till morning if my house had made it through.
I woke up before morning and walked myself, in my minds eye, through my house. And saw only a few more things that I should have taken with me. Included in these things were clothes. A pair of pants that I love. And a sweater, too. A dress and a lace shirt that is more like a slip. And just one pair of shoes.
Anyone who knows me know that I love my clothes. They are art to me. I have written about them many times. I have written about them and I have written about how I take care of them. My closet is my safe place. And so for me to pull, from the full hanging rods of cotton and silk, wool and denim, only a few carefully chosen pieces means something.
This was no longer that ancient and wise brain thinking now. This was my new and present brain. The brain that puts value on things. The brain that is not just in survival mode but has time to think and process and second guess, too. And this brain, it still only picked just those few items. Because it knew - because I know - that there are only a very few things really, in all of the items that we own, that matter that much.
To me they are pieces of clothing. That are more than pieces of clothing. For you they may be a bracelet that was your great aunt's or a painting found in a small shop in a sweet town in a country far from ours. Maybe it is that handprint of your child when they were young or a photograph at your wedding or the newspaper eulogy of your mom or dad.
What we value is so deep in us. And so unique to us. And the gift that is this burning is that it rids us - just as it clears away the underbrush so that we can see the dirt below - of the superficial. This burning is a cleansing. And now we see what is important.
And so now what do I do with this?
In what direction will I walk, as I walk the scarred and ash filled land above my home? What will move me forward as I help move forward those who lost so much more than me? Where will I put my focus, my intention, my passion and my energy as I focus love and support on this town that sat within a circle of fire?
Because from this burning comes opportunity. And possibility. And new growth. Always new growth.
Back in 2004 I wrote a screenplay entitled On The Edge. It did ok. It won some screenwriting awards and garnered interest from Lifetime Television. I take it out and revisit in often. I wish I could get it made now. I wrote it in response to a bill that President Bush had signed into law in April 2004, called the Laci and Conner Bill. The bill made it a separate crime to kill or harm an unborn child during an assault on the mother.
People loved this bill. They thought it was great because it held a bad person accountable for a violent act. It was positioned brilliantly and marketed in exactly the right way. Because, of course we should be outraged if an unborn baby is killed when a mother is killed by someone who we know should be severely punished for their actions.
But it wasn't really about that at all. It was about abortion. It was about the right to choose. It was yet another attempt to chip away at Roe v. Wade by defining an "unborn child" as "a child in utero, which means "a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb."
I'm bringing this up today because buried deep within the already offensive language of the current tax bill are two words that quietly threaten abortion rights.
The bill lists “unborn children” among the allowed beneficiaries of 529 plans for college savings, breaking down the legal definition of an “unborn child” as follows:
“Nothing shall prevent an unborn child from being treated as a designated beneficiary or an individual under this section. The term ‘unborn child’ means a child in utero. The term ‘child in utero’ means a member of the species homo sapiens, at any stage of development, who is carried in the womb.”
Pro-life advocates are smart. They've been smart all along. Look at the brilliant positioning in their terminology. "Pro-Life." Really, how can anyone not be pro-life? Pro-choice supporters are not anti life. They don't want babies killed. They want choice. But we, instead, have to fight against what the opposite of "pro-life" implies. Constantly. This is so smart. Brilliant really.
But I digress.
This bill and it's hidden anti-abortion agenda language is something we should be aware of. And I wouldn't have been except that someone posted something about it on Facebook. And then I shared it. Thank god for social media.
I am sure that there are so many other hidden pieces of legislation in this abomination called a tax bill. Because there are hidden pieces of legislation in ever bill that is ever voted on. Legislation that sometimes looks like it may have something to do with the bill being voted on, but just as often having nothing to do with it at all.
And so we must not only be vigilant about the obvious agendas that are unfolding before us, we need to constantly be aware of the hidden deals, as slippery politicians plant obscure language deep within the verbose rhetoric that is the language of our government.
Mother, Wife, Friend, Sister, Daughter, Dancer, Dog and Cat lover.