For a moment, two weeks ago, I thought that I was home. The air was thick in the darkness, humid like Western Pennsylvania in the summer time, and the roll of thunder outside of my window slowly roused me from sleep. But then I heard the howl of the wind. I woke up with a start, and smelled the air for smoke. I stumbled out of bed to check if we still had electricity. A louder clap of thunder told me the storm was moving toward us, and I stepped out to the back patio as lightening flashed, revealing the outline of the exposed frame of our neighbor’s house.
Over our shared fence, I had been watching them that afternoon as they tore off the old roof, and, in the heat of the day, carried the new shingles up the ladder. Now the stacks of shingles yet to be installed stood like castle crags in the shadow of their redwood tree. Lightening flashed again, and I pretended not to be afraid.
The storm, of course, is not what it is terrifying. It is the possible aftermath – which was realized to its full and horrifying potential in the days that followed. For the past two weeks, everywhere around us has been burning. To the east, to the north, to the south. My body responded to the stress with an internal fire of its own – it seems that the only place not aflame is the sea. We have yet to recover from the last fire season. We are still in this midst of this pandemic. We are facing the same eviction crisis as the rest of the nation (perhaps more so), and the recent heatwave has been unbearable.
How can we live through these days? a woman asked me on my upteenth Zoom call of last week. I confess, I don’t remember what day it was, or what call it was. I only remember the wisdom of this woman’s words, and the way, that even through my computer screen, her eyes searched my heart.
Out on my back patio, on that night two weeks ago, lightening bolts touched down just a few blocks away, and the redwood tree in our neighbors’ yard rained dead needles upon our garden. And then, rain. Actual rain. First, a strange light drizzle, and then, downpour. Lights flashed, this time in the windows of our neighbors’ house, and soon two men appeared on the roof. No one had thought it would rain, because it doesn’t – it shouldn’t – in Northern California in August. And now, because their roof was off, it was raining in their home.
I stepped out from under our porch, and shouted to my neighbors on their roof, Do you need help? Do you need another tarp? It wouldn’t be difficult to get ours from the shed.
One of the men shouted back. No, he said, and don’t come up here. He shouted the same thing at his wife, but in Spanish. And so, I simply stood in the rain, my spine tingled as the water beaded on my skin. Lightening flashed again – even closer now – revealing the silhouettes of my neighbors bracing tarps against the wind. For a moment, they reminded me of subsistence fishermen – the ones who live on the southern coast of the Philippine island of Mindanao. Their tarps looked like nets hoisted above their heads, just before being cast into the sea.
How can we live through these days? I do not know. Just as I do not know how subsistence fishermen live on Mindanao. Just as I do not know how two families can live together in that small house next door. Just as I do not know how black people live under the weight of police violence. Just as I do not know how people live under tarps on the creek trail, just a block away from me. Just as I do not know how any one of us can live if we fully consider the grief of our world in this moment.
Some days, like many days in the past two weeks, the grief gets the best of me. I have been unable to formulate words regarding the fires that burn around us. I have instead fought the fire within myself. I have played with our puppy. I have picked tomatoes from our backyard. I have spent long hours talking to a friend. I have kept up with my work, so that it has not accumulated around me. I have made it through. Sometimes, that is all any one of us can do – survive.
But we do not survive simply for survival’s sake. Because How can we live through these days? is not Will we live through these days? How concerns itself with with condition, with means, with manner, with purpose. To know how we will live through these days requires that we know why and for what we live in the first place.
I said as much to the woman on Zoom. I imagine we will live for each other, I said. I almost pontificated upon integrity, or some else equally inaccessible. Thank God exhaustion prevent me, because, truly, how we live is less a matter of ethical inquiry and more a matter of practical faith. It is how we respond to each other when we are at our wits end. It is how we continue to speak the truth in love, even when it seems that no one is listening. It is about how we cling to the hope that we are not alone in this moment, however heart-breaking this moment might be.
How will we live through these days? One day, one moment, one movement, one protest, one conversation, one faithful action at a time.
On that night, two weeks ago, I could only watch in fear as my neighbors persisted against the wind. The lightening struck again and again, and even through they were among the tallest objects for blocks around, it did not touch them. Eventually, I heard them laughing. I laughed, too, out of relief, and waved goodnight to them.
Buenas noches, they shouted back at me, and they held on to each other for balance, as disappeared down the ladder over the side of the roof.