Growing in the darkness
The firestorm that wrecked our hills and sweet valley is done with us, and gone. That raging furnace with its furious winds has left behind a silent, blackened destruction – and now, only that long dark season called winter lies ahead. Our hearts ache for those who suffer wildfires in other places now, like parents of an injured child who remember such injuries all too well. We regret our helplessness, in our grief for them.
The longest night of the year, when our earth tilts farthest away from the sun, is less than a week away, on the 20th. Then the winter solstice will happen at 8:28 the following morning, Dec. 21, when the sun will have gone as far south as it can – before beginning its slow climb back towards the inevitable spring day when it crosses the equator, and returns to us. I’ll waken that Thursday morning this coming week, and stand at the window as I always do to look out at the day, drinking a glass of water, in wonder and in reverence.
The immensity of what has happened to us this fall has not fully sunk in – and will not for a while. The historic proportion of what is now considered our worst wildfire ever cannot come into focus until it is truly history, and that will take time. We do know that the Valley of the Moon is changed, its demography and economy is changed – and we don’t know quite yet in what way.
What kind of winter we are given meanwhile, we also can’t know. As Heraclitus famously said, we cannot step into the same river twice, and the only thing we know about the future is that we know nothing about it. Once again we find ourselves in uncharted territory, at the edge of an enormous unknown everything – though, in fact, this has always been true.
This is one of the lessons disasters always bring, and one that we must finally learn: there never really is a path ahead of us, only an unexplored frontier to enter warily, alert and apprehensive, discerning with curiosity and excitement, but not with fear. We sense our way along, measuring our progress by inner standards based upon our values, rather than upon maps that are out of date, or familiar landmarks that now are gone.
Perhaps the most important inner standard to measure by, as we go, is kindness. I’ve seen kind gestures throughout these past weeks – people reaching out to one another, waving in greeting and stopping to talk, and to hug. I’ve seen people invited into homes for dinner, and dinners and clothes being brought to them. I’ve seen drivers patiently waiting before stretches of one-way traffic, calmly obeying the direction of road crews at their work. I’ve recognized kindness every day.
At one of the community gatherings, early on, I signed in hundreds of people as they arrived, stamping their hands one by one. I paused to speak with each one of them, and to hold their hand. That day I saw both parts of generosity – the willingness to give, and the willingness to receive. Together, they constitute community. That word “community” comes from “commune,” where people speak to one another with profound concern, thought, and feeling – sharing on that deepest level where caring and healing is found.
Pastor Jim Hill told me how first responders had saved the Glen Ellen Community Church, and about “grasping the hem of the Lord” – that necessary willingness in times like these to reach out, to step outside the isolation of despair, to allow and accept an embrace by something larger: the community – and the belief in something larger than fixation upon misery.
What we do in the coming darkness must be attentive, and deliberate. Workers in the vineyards know that winter is a busy time as they prune the deadwood to preserve the vines, deciding which canes to cut and which canes will remain to start the next growing season. There is a lot to sort through as we consider what’s been left behind – what’s endured and survived, and what of that is essential for recovery.
We must begin paying attention to what is taking place, and not just mapping as we go but occupying and experiencing the wilderness we map – exploring new challenges to find new possibilities. We must feel our way along sensitively, responsibly, carefully and caringly. A fellow I spoke with said yes, he’d lost just about everything, but he still had what was most irreplaceable: himself. This is the best place to begin.
Tempting as it may be to sleep during these long nights, this is a time for contemplation – and to gather. The holidays are for us to offer and receive comfort, sharing food and music and, yes, laughter. We must do – and will do – more than simply endure and survive the approaching, abiding darkness of winter. We will come together as a community, again and again, to bend this dark season to its purpose: to shelter and nourish the development of an inevitable spring.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and the executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.