When I think of home there are many integral components beginning with community. American political scientist Robert David Putnum wrote, “Social connectedness matters to our lives in the most profound way.”
My family and I have lived in Susanville for 20 years. This marks the longest period of time I’ve ever lived anywhere. Until now, my record was seven consecutive years in South Lake Tahoe. I think its safe to say I like mountains and a little snow.
While the surroundings are certainly picturesque and I enjoy our four — albeit, unpredictable — seasons, the connections I have with neighbors, co-workers, fellow churchgoers, business operators and public agency entities, have enriched my daily life and are a major part of what makes Lassen County my chosen home.
Never having lived among family for very long, ties of common history have become a source of meaning and belonging to me. I find it comforting to function in the same circles of happenings and to recall many shared moments with friends and acquaintances. I appreciate those shared reference points.
This doesn’t mean my world is small. I have friends in other countries and have lived in at least a dozen states across the U.S. Yet, the fact that my granddaughter’s birthday parties are attended by children of friends who used to attend my daughter’s parties is a source of amazement to me.
I am also terribly sentimental about many of my earthly possessions. Memories of people and places flood my mind when I handle special objects. Books are among the chief of these. I am able to revisit emotions of adventure and joy when holding my well-worn tome of Dickens’ David Copperfield. And, family photos are something I find nearly impossible to relinquish.
Gift shops peddle silly sayings stenciled on signs claiming that a house is not a home without a cat or dog and I am inclined to agree. In addition to the immediate gratification of walking in the door to a critter that is always happy to see me, my beloved animals provide comfort and strength in distressing moments. The affection and favor of trusting creatures that need me and prefer me above all others nourishes my psyche in ways that research is still discovering.
According to Dr. Karen Becker “ … often a person’s relationship with a pet involves tenderness, warmth, stability and loyalty, all of which can lead to feelings in the human of being loved unconditionally. This feeling of complete acceptance may cause pet owners to look to their companion animal for comfort and reassurance during difficult times.”
These creature comforts of mine are precious to me and no matter where I go, I will always have these special places and faces awaiting my return.
In truth, nothing is forever in this finite world. The knowledge that death is life’s only certainty stirs both appreciation and fear in my heart.
Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph. D. sums it up like this, “The eventuality of loss always exists when we feel love — either for a person, a thing, or an experience.”
Lately, when I feel blessed, relaxed or wrapped in love, I am also visited by waves of grief on behalf of residents of Paradise for the deep, tragic loss of not just one aspect of their daily lives but for all of the material belongings and community resources that have been stripped away.
The Camp Fire impacted every single person living in or near Paradise in every conceivable way. The extent of damage the blaze wreaked on their society approaches annihilation.
Last July I spent four days in the town of Paradise while my husband underwent a hip replacement. He slept a lot, so in between watching Shark Week together and playing the occasional game of Scrabble, I familiarized myself with the good eats and eclectic variety of shopping available to me.
The short drive from my hotel to the hospital provided a spectacle of hydrangea blooms the size of dinner plates juxtaposed against gigantic blue agave, plus a myriad of other unexpected flora and fauna that was lovingly nurtured in unique microclimates throughout the town.
I was so impressed with the landscape of one home that I surreptitiously took its picture to see if I could incorporate any of those elements on my own property. I entertained thoughts of what a beautiful place to live Paradise would be, were it not for — as the billboard for one church warned, “You think it’s hot here?” And, boy did I!
This was during the time of the Carr Fire and most days were filled with hazy skies and a blood red sun, so there were conversations with some of the hospital staff about fire preparedness. One woman in particular shared that she lived a bit out of town with just one road out and was always sure to keep a full tank of gas. I wish I could remember her name. I think of her every day and wonder if she made it out.
Another nurse who lived locally shared that she had just bought a second house in Lake Almanor and her kids wondered what she planned to do with two houses. I suspect she doesn’t have that concern anymore.
A recent visit to Paradise drove home the reality of a ‘Paradise Lost’ even deeper into my spirit. Like everyone else, I’ve seen news footage of the vast destruction so I felt I had a broad overview of the situation.
I did not.
Driving into town via Skyway Road, I felt my stomach do an elevator drop at the sight of several scorched skeletal remains of vehicles bordered along roads, parked in lots and abandoned in ditches.
My husband and I were given a tour by the lovely Becky Ray, president of the Paradise Ridge Quilt Guild, and I was glad she had him for company because I was struck nearly speechless and spent most of the ride with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth, seemingly incapable of uttering words consisting of more than four letters.
The formerly well-manicured, tree-lined streets I had been so enamored with now featured only chimneys, swing sets and twisted piles of metal as their highest reference points.
Exiting the car to take photos proved the lingering smell of soot and ash are still palpable nearly three months after the Camp Fire swept those homes off the map.
When Becky explained that the rough patches rattling the car like cattle grates were actually residue from abandoned cars melted into the asphalt, I could neither speak nor breathe properly.
To be clear, I have no friends or acquaintances who were directly affected by the Camp Fire. But I am affected. As I experience my blessings, I remember their losses and when I face personal obstacles, they feel so small in comparison — because they are.
I pray when I remember to do so, but mostly I worry about how thousands of displaced residents will carry on. My vivid imagination allows me to put myself in their place in the briefest of ways for even briefer moments, but it is not powerful enough to comprehend how Paradise can ever be restored.
I hope that it can be. I hope that people like Becky Ray, who still have houses standing, find a way to feel at home again. I hope families who choose to relocate find joy in establishing new roots in other communities. I hope the indomitable spirits who have a vision for rebuilding Paradise obtain the necessary resources. And, I hope that each and every person who endured this trial by fire finds healing along the way.