The There That’s Not There

My social media feed and my email inbox were filled this week with images from friends in the San Francisco Bay Area. An outré orange bloom swept across the sky and washed everything in ocher shadows. At 11 in the morning, people had to drive with headlights or turn on their houselights. The word apocalypse came up more than once.

The scientific explanation pointed to the devastating fires that are burning through California, Oregon and Washington. The impact of the images ran deep, even as I viewed them from thousands of miles away. The photos were of familiar places — my old neighborhoods, my communities, my places.

We have all experienced some emotional toll of the pandemic and varying degrees of lockdown. For me, it’s been an acute case of homesickness, a longing for familiar people and places. In this strange year, I have grasped for the intimacy of personal history.

This week I faced a dawning reality that what I left behind is no longer there.

Yes, the people are there (thankfully), but social gatherings are not happening. I miss my garden, but wouldn’t be able to sit in it. I miss cooking outdoors, but that’s not allowed. My favorite weekend getaways — Big Sur and Carmel, Big Basin, Point Reyes — are inaccessible due to fires.

The fires, and the ensuant smoke-filled air, have added to the misery of a pandemic. People lucky enough to have a garden in which to pass their lockdown are not able to do so, as ash drifts down and covers everything. Rolling blackouts, made necessary by the decades of neglect of the power infrastructure by PG&E, add to the misery.

More than one person has mentioned that they are considering leaving the state, either as an annual pilgrimage or as a full time emigration.

Let me be clear: I do not underestimate California and the ability of its residents to reinvent the state into something better. I reject the doomsday thinking that suggests that California is sliding into irreparable devastation.

But the scorched earth remains.

And whatever comes out of this will not be what I grew up with, or even what I left two years ago.

The “there” that exists in my memory and in photographs is no longer there.

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