As I drive over the grapevine in Southern California heading north, visibility in the smoke filled valley is reduced to just 100 feet. Somewhere in this smoke, I see my childhood home, built by my parents starting in 1969. I see the ashen remnants of the entire town of Paradise, California some 300 miles north. Not just my home but every home I ever played in as a kid: from the McDonalds next door, to the Baileys clear on the far west side of town, to the Peeks all the way south on Neal road, and even the Mangans up in Magalia. Every home held treasured memories and traditions, my story held in their walls as I hold the memory of those homes in me now. We were, we are, a tight little community nestled in a sleepy town fit for the setting of a novel.
When I used to say, “I’m from Paradise,” most people thought I made up the name. Now that statement is met with a sad, sympathetic look. This previously unknown town has gripped the hearts of the world and is now synonymous with disaster.
To see news anchors and late nights hosts speak the name of my town as another headline, another disaster, makes my head spin. This one’s mine and I still don’t know how to believe it. The extensive coverage speaks to the magnitude of the disaster. A fire that jumped canyons and leveled a town within a few hours. 1 in 35 of our ridge residents is either still missing or deceased, some are names I know. I know intimately the gripping viral videos of harrowing escapes through tunnels of fire; they are shot by my friends, down streets I grew up on.
And so as the world witnesses us, sandwiched between football games and Trump Tweets. For a moment I hope they take pause and share in the enormity, because we can’t bare it alone.
I attended the candlelight vigil for Paradise at the First Christian Church in Chico. I was hoping to mourn with my community to see familiar faces. Instead I found a wall of camera crews, from the BBC to Japan, there to witness a handful of community members mourning. And what are we to do? When our town is completely gone and it’s people scattered? Where can we go to mourn its loss? If say, just a quarter of Paradise had burned and 2000 homes were lost, it would have still been the worst fire in California history, but we would’ve had a piece of the town left from which to stage a recovery. We would have gathered in the community center or the Paradise Performing Arts Center to unify and grieve together.
Instead Hummers and armed guards block every entrance into what is classified as E-Zones. My ridge people are displaced and have nowhere to mourn their collective loss. More than the loss of my family’s home, I weep for the loss of the town, the history, and the land and in that I know I’m not alone. This town shaped us all and through this, continues to do so. We lean on one another and hold each other’s pain. We now know new depths of empathy and compassion. Those who witness us from all over the world have said, “I see you Paradise, I feel for you.” Our community is much bigger then we know. We may be trending with “#Paradisestrong”, but the truth is we are “#Earthstrong”. Those who have known disasters and tragedies the world over are no different from me and my community; we know pain, and we know resilience. It is a truth of our humanity.
So I let go of this grief, that you are lifting it from me now. And with that, we may know Paradise.