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News: 06/15/2018

Recovering, Reimagining, Rebuilding

The reward of patience

Arthur and Jill Dawson (left) with neighbors Margie and Ritch Foster (right), Pepper (center) and Ona (the Golden Retriever) at their trailer on the Foster’s property in Glen Ellen. Photo by Alec Peters

It’s eight months since the fire and what do we have to show for our rebuild and recovery? A half-finished set of plans, a lot that’s clear of debris but all torn up with a hole where our home used to be. Early in the year I contacted a number of landscaping companies about getting the dead trees removed. The earliest available date was three months out at the end of May. So we waited as patiently as we could, trying to ignore all the pent up energy that had nowhere to go.

There’s a Twilight Zone episode where the main character is a bank robber who dies and goes to the afterlife. When he “wakes up,” he thinks he must be in hell. After all, he’s a crook, a “bad guy.” But when a spirit that seems to be an angel tells him he can have or do anything he wants, he decides he must be in heaven instead. Maybe he did something good as kid? Something he’s forgotten? He decides he’d like to rob a bank. The spirit sets it up for him, the heist goes off without a hitch and he makes off with bags full of money. He’s so happy he decides to do it again and the same thing happens. It’s almost too easy. By the third robbery, he’s wanting a little more challenge, a little more uncertainty. But the spirit tells him no, he can’t do that. The robber gets angry and shouts, “If this is heaven, I’d rather be in the other place!” The spirit says, “Maybe this is the other place.”

The other day I was browsing online for information about a book on home design. Amazon had it, and I could get it today (!) if I ordered in the next “4 hours and 02 minutes.” With a countdown staring me in the face, my desire to have the book doubled – it could be in my hands tonight! Like that bank robber, Amazon was telling me I could get exactly what I thought I wanted. Except that, sight unseen, I wasn’t sure I really wanted it, and the price, even with regular shipping, was pretty high. For the time being I resisted temptation.

Contrast Amazon’s push for instant gratification with the slow and stately recovery and rebuild process (by stately I mean subject to government bureaucracy and regulations, not a somber procession of dump trucks and bulldozers). We think we pretty much know what we want, but it’s still countless steps away. And even if our rebuilt house could suddenly appear tomorrow, constructed by a 3-D printer connected to the algorithms of our imaginations, it would probably not end up being what we really want.

But the waiting brings unexpected gifts. The landscape company we hired told us we could pile up as much small brush as we wanted and they would feed it through their chipper. The weekend before the trees came down, we put out the word and more than a dozen friends showed up with weed whippers, chainsaws and hand loppers to lend a hand. It felt so good to get out on the property and do something! It was a huge morale boost and another example of what a caring and generous community we’re lucky to be part of.

I thought seeing the trees removed might be an emotionally wrought experience akin to watching the remains of our home being hauled away a few months earlier. Instead it was a relief to see the burned wood gone. Virtually all that’s left on our lot is one surviving valley oak with a tire swing still hanging from a branch. Our property looks bare and devastated. But at least we now have a blank slate to dream on.

It’s a huge contrast to where we’re living, just a quarter mile down the road. Our trailer at Margie and Ritch Foster’s place is surrounded with mature green oaks and a beautiful flower garden. After all the loss and upheaval we’ve experienced, they’ve provided us a real safe haven. Margie and Ritch are among the most big-hearted, generous and humble people I’ve had the pleasure to know. They devoted many hours into getting the trailer in place and the critical systems – electrical, plumbing and septic – up and running. Margie even gave us potted flowers for the little deck in front of our door. We’re feeling more settled than we’ve been since the fire, and our animals seem to be as well. Just like at our house, Pepper is in charge of the yard, aware of anyone crossing the perimeter. The Foster’s dog Ona gets along with Pepper and our two cats. She hangs out with us a lot, especially because we’ll throw the ball for her dozens of times in a row. She never gets tired of it.

Another plus about our trailer is that it’s near Sonoma Creek. Right now, at the beginning of June and the dry season, it hardly makes a murmur. But in the middle of winter, as it swelled with the arrival and passing of a dozen storms, its voice grew and faded. The proximity to the creek was one of the big reasons the Fosters bought this property back in the mid-1970s. Their house was at the top of the bank overlooking the water and they could often hear the sound of it, even inside.

By 1986 they had two young boys, Andrew and Evan. That winter, one of the biggest storms in living memory let loose over the area and triggered a catastrophic flood. The rushing waters eroded the bank beneath their home; as the deck tipped precariously and an outbuilding tumbled into Sonoma Creek, they evacuated. The county condemned the structure as beyond repair. Friends and neighbors provided help while they lived in a trailer and rebuilt, well back from the bank.

So Margie and Ritch understand our situation intimately; we share a bond of loss forged by flood and fire, by disasters three decades apart. As they are paying forward all the generosity they experienced in their time of need, so will we if given the opportunity. The fact that they rebuilt and recovered and got on with their lives gives us a lot of hope for the future. They also remind us not to expect too much too fast. “I still miss our old house,” Margie has said. “I hated this new one when we moved in. I like it now, but it took a while.”

I’m going to wait a few days to decide if I really want that book and I’m willing to wait a lot longer for a well-thought-out home. Even then, when we move in, it may not be exactly what I thought I wanted. That’s OK. The waiting brings its own gifts. Years ago I heard a saying that I couldn’t quite understand – maybe I was just too young, impatient and anxious to get it. It took a wildfire and its aftermath for me to grasp it. You have to say it slowly, with a pause:

The reward of patience… is patience.


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