Life continues, deeply changed
That hard, harsh night, we were abruptly awakened from sound sleep to a living nightmare of howling winds – and terrifying firestorms that roared across the Mayacamas and poured down Nuns Canyon into the Valley of the Moon, destroying so much.
That very day had been one of our best – the streets were closed all day long for the Glen Ellen Village Fair, our annual community-wide block party. Every year, when the harvest is done and fall colors begin to creep into the valley, a parade travels the entire two-block length of our downtown, local bands play live music for the dancing crowds, and booths line the street to sell crafts and food, and to show off local events and activities.
This year was particularly special though – joyful, yet poignant. The residents of SDC – the most severely disabled and fragile, vulnerable people in the entire state of California – were made guests of honor and marshals of the parade. They were wheeled along ahead of the high school band, and waved triumphantly to the applauding crowd from their wheelchairs and gurneys.
Hearts melted all along the way. We knew full well that by next year they would be sent away to individual neighborhood housing in other parts of the state – and the only home they’ve ever known will have closed its doors. What we didn’t know then was that they would have to be evacuated the very next day, and eventually to Dixon, 50 miles away – the farthest many of them had ever been from their SDC home.
During that night, after the last booth had closed and we had all gone home, the winds began to stir and the dry vegetation rustled ominously. Five years of drought had made our valley tinder dry. And, as the winds grew, the high-tension power lines swayed and – some say – they snapped and dropped into the grasses, sparking.
I’m told more than 60 fires started that long night, and many roared quickly out of control, at times traveling faster than cars could go. Thousands of homes were destroyed that night in Sonoma County. People rushed from their homes with what they could carry, and too many died. We’re all still stunned as I write this a half-month later, knowing we don’t yet understand the horrific enormity of what has taken place.
For many days, the smoke drifted and the ashes fell, filling the sky and coating the ground. Breathing was labored. And what filled the air was more than smoke and ash – it was what was left of the photographs and the letters, the books and the gardens, our memories and our hopes – and those of our friends and neighbors. What filled the valley was what was left of the best of our days.
As soon as we could, Maria and I returned to pick up our mail; there in the parking lot of the post office we met Marge, Archie, and Nick for the first time since that festive afternoon at the Village Fair. We all seemed older, and it seemed a year later – not just two weeks. Now we were no longer dispossessed evacuees, we were returning refugees, coming home to see what remained. And for many, nothing remained. We talked, and hugged, and wept; and the feelings in that parking lot were primitive, and unrestrained.
People naturally gather this way to share their stories, the stories of sorrow and gratitude – and the strong emotions of anger, fear, and sadness – and, for some, relief – that drive these stories, just as the wind had driven those flames. Several have spoken of feeling guilty for having lost less than others – a human enough reaction, within which resides a deeper grief that evokes empathy and compassion, with which the community reoccupies a severely shattered landscape.
There’s a lot of work now to be done, beginning with the work to recover enough to be able to get back to work. The Glen Ellen Community Church plans to host a community gathering on Saturday, Nov. 4, and the Glen Ellen Forum plans another the following day on Sunday, Nov. 5; go to their websites at www.gechurch.com and glenellenca.org, and come take part in the community. Join in as we begin the rebuilding process, which will certainly take time, thought, and caring.
As I was cleaning my office cabin at Jack London Village, I paused to look across Sonoma Creek at Chauvet Hill beyond in the Regional Park, where the underbrush was blackened and the trees seemed haggard yet still somehow living – and I thought about the winter rains approaching, and about the animals returning.
Nature always wants to heal itself, to accept damage as the inevitable changes that time brings – like the changes in my aging body – and recovery is the way time passes. Like all of nature, we are not victims of a disaster – we are resilient, returning, recovering, rebuilding. We can neither ignore the wounding nor the healing, the damage nor the recovery – because they fit together as we inevitably go on, however deeply changed.
We have once more outlasted our disaster. Life will continue – it always does. The residents of SDC will soon have returned from where they were sent; and yet, within a year or so they will be gone forever – as will SDC itself. Homes have been lost in our valley once again – but what has taken place will never be forgotten. That too will become part of who it is we are, as we continue on.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.