Sitting in the Reno airport waiting to board, listening to the soulful sounds of Mr Josh T. Pearson. It’s too hot in here and the incessant blinking of the slot machines is annoying as hell.
I don’t really know what to say yet about what I saw and heard and felt in Chico, at the East Avenue Church makeshift shelter for the people who lived in Paradise. I don’t know what to say yet about the enormity of the loss and pain, the mountains of sorrow and grief; the deer-in-headlights look of everyone I met. I have no idea how to convey what their feelings were after losing everything to fire, most with no idea at all where they were headed next.
I’ll tell their stories eventually. Not tonight. I’m flying home tonight.
My heart was broken by everything, even though there was a lot to be grateful for: the donations, the people who were there to work, to help, to care for the displaced. There was plenty of food, plenty of clothing, plenty of stuff.
The thing that’s playing on a rewind reel in my head are the words of the mom of two young men, both married with babies, one who had returned home from active duty in the Army two weeks before his brand new house went up in flames. Their family lost three houses in Paradise and were living, twelve of them, huddled in a small place in Chico. They had come to the church to get diapers and food but mostly they couldn’t remember what they needed because they were in shock and swimming in an ocean of sorrow and disbelief so deep that they seemed like they were barely there.
The mom and I walked around gathering up the things they needed: food in one trailer, baby stuff in a room in the front of the church, personal hygiene supplies in another trailer. In her quiet, tender voice she told me this: “Our fear is that as soon as the lights go down and the cameras shut off everyone will forget about us.”
A collective fear.
Everyone will forget about us.
A fear based in a reality that exists every day in our world. It was big news when the fires were burning hot and fast, it fed the insatiable hunger of 24/7 news consumers and made for terrific headlines and visuals—to see those flames, the ashes, the images of people hugging and crying, of tired firefighters, an entire city leveled … quelle horreur!
Three weeks into it and the shelters are closing. The one where I worked was the last one standing. Three weeks into it and the people who lost every single thing they ever had including peace of mind and the basic dream of a future, have to find someplace else to start their whole life over.
I want to be able to tell you about all the amazing people and the incredible generosity and the love, because there was a lot of love, for certain. But mostly I am left thinking about the many ways we abandon the people who are our neighbors when they need us most. I am thinking about our short and shrinking attention spans. I am thinking about the many ways we waste our time doing not much of anything when our neighbors have lost everything.
For now I will leave you with this: there is something surreal about being in direct, actual contact with the people we read about in our newspapers and online. When one woman handed me her cell phone to show me the photos of her home, before and after the fire, it settled into me, fully … these are those people. When you hear firsthand the stories of the walls of fire on both sides of the exit road, while they were driving out of town, melting sneakers and tires; that burning, falling trees crushed the next car back, that they had about four minutes to get their kids out of the daycare building before it went up in flames, then the news has a face. The sensationalized, make-up and air-brush-tan-delivered news has a heart, skin, eyes. And once you go there you know you can’t ever turn your back again. Your cells shift, your heart blows up in your chest, your head hurts. You look them in the eyes, you survey the wreckage and you think … it could just as easily be me. And then … one day it may be me sitting here in this shelter with nothing left of my life and nowhere to go.
You realize, once you go to that place how very fragile all of this is and how very wholly and fully we need each other.
I invite you to go there. And trust me when I tell you you don’t have to travel all the way to Chico, California to find what I’m talking about.