As I look at the horrific pictures coming out of California, my mind goes back to the most intense experience of my early childhood. I still well remember standing outside our old ramshackle two-story home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina watching the top story of the house go up in flames. I well recall the oily black smoke billowing from the windows, the bright orange and red flames pouring out from the roof, and the hoarse shouts of the brave local firefighters as they rushed about doing everything they could to save what was left.
Unlike so many in California today, my family was able to escape without injury. Uncontrolled fire is like a ravenous beast consuming everything in its path. The resulting losses often include many of one’s most prized personal possessions: family keepsakes, old family photos, gifts from friends and other cherished items. Once these things are gone, an emotional space opens up in the middle of one’s life, a space where everything, or nearly everything, is defined by what came before and after the flames swallowed up the world.
When our house burned, I realized for the first time the impermanence of things. What’s more, having to leave there, the only home I had ever known, leave our neighbors, my little next-door playmate and our vegetable garden out back, only added to the sense of displacement. A sudden, unexpected calamity like fire takes away so much more than just one’s material belongings: it takes away a portion of one’s core identity anchored in a specific place and time. The one great compensation was the fact our neighbors and friends were there for us when we needed them most.
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I mourn for the fire victims in California, especially those families who lost loved ones. Much of what they have lost is irreplaceable. The only thing we, their fellow citizens, can do now is to let them know we are there for them; and to remind them that, despite the formidable distances that separate us, despite our disparate backgrounds and birthplaces, despite our differences of ethnicity, race, sexual or political persuasion, we are still family.
As the great French theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, “We are one, after all, you and I, together we suffer, together exist.”
Elliott lives in Asheville.