But Is It Worth It?

Last night, my husband and I were driving along, and he started to tell me something about the weather. What he actually said was “Today broke all kinds of records—” but I cut him off. I just lost my house to global climate change. I don’t need to be reminded that it’s real, that it’s bad, that it’s getting worse.

Right after the fire, everyone asked me whether we were afraid of rebuilding, and I glibly told them “I’m not worried about fire. There’s nothing left to burn.” At the time, I believed that. My brain needed something hopeful, something optimistic to hang onto. I don’t know if I believe that now.

Politics is getting ugly. The Republican party in California has admitted to putting up fake “ballot drop off” boxes, an attempt at election fraud. The man who sits in the White House is on television calling for racist militias to ensure that he doesn’t have to leave the White House, regardless of the election’s outcome. And that man has not just abandoned environmental regulation, he’s rewarded companies for exploiting what few resources the planet has left (including human beings). The planet is dying.

It will take years to rebuild our house, and in order to get the money to rebuild it, I have to list every single thing that was in the house that burned down. As I list, I can’t help but feel judged. I have too much of too many things. Why did I need sixty assorted candles? Or fifteen decks of tarot cards? Or a dozen music boxes? How could I conscience having all those things when so many people have so little? I will likely not replace those things, but why did I have them in the first place?

I suspect part of my despair is the fact that we’re renting a house is Saratoga, a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb. And when I say “wealthy,” I mean that the house we’re staying in is worth about $3.5 million, and is far from being the largest or nicest house in the neighborhood. As with most suburbs, there are two kinds of real estate: buildings where one buys things, and buildings where one stores and displays the things one has bought. The grounds of every house are manicured, managed, sculpted into a look that is “natural,” with very necessary quotation marks. I haven’t seen a dead animal, a fallen tree, an inconvenient rock formation anywhere. The people are lovely, but it’s like tv. It doesn’t feel real to me.

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of rebuilding. I’m starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable, not just about rebuilding, but about life. I’m finding it difficult to find a way forward. I’m looking for reasons for, if not optimism, then at least some mental ease.

Tabula Rasa

When I was pregnant with my first child, I had a recurring dream: I would wake up one morning and the baby would just be there. No labor, no warning, just BAM! — baby. I would look at this new baby and think “But we’re not expecting you for months! We’re not ready! We have nothing!” It was overwhelming and panic-inducing.

We just found a rental. We’ll be moving out of my mother’s house, where we were taking up her guest room and guest bathroom and about a quarter of the living room, and into a 4-bedroom house that’s only a little bit smaller than our house was. In the month that we’ve been here, we’re rebuilt our wardrobes to some extent (a HUGE shoutout to the folks at CP Shades who sent me boxes of beautiful black linen that I’m wearing right this minute), but we haven’t replaced anything from our kitchen (except some tea things, because TEA).

So now I’m trying to figure out what I need to outfit a kitchen that has nothing. Not a bean. Not a grain of salt. Not a speck of flour. My husband and I are avid cooks, and my spice drawer (which held only the spices I used most often – the rest being in the pantry) made me really happy.

I know we can’t possibly go from this to nothing and back to this. But my brain is breaking trying to think of all the very most basic necessities I have to acquire. Salt. Pepper. Flour. Sugar. Butter. Rice. Meat. Vegetables. Bread. Part of me is afraid that I will forget something crucial, which is stupid because there’s a Safeway less than two miles from the new house.

But I have the same feeling as I go through my wardrobe. Part of the insurance claim process is documenting everything you’ve lost. The company we’re working with has given us a spreadsheet with everything a normal household would have in it. As I go through the listings, it’s really hard not to think “I need to replace that right this minute.”

I feel like I can make myself feel safe and whole again by surrounding myself with the things I had before. It’s not like I had a huge emotional attachment to those particular things (who has an emotional attachment to a bag of flour or a bottle of oregano?), but I have a very firm attachment to the life that required those things, and maybe I’m afraid if I don’t come up with exactly the right combination of stuff, that we’ll suddenly be miserable. Is this feeling common to people who have lost everything? I have no idea.

I’m fine. I’ll be fine. Even if I have to run to the store because I forgot eggs, all will be well.

The Popularity of Tragedy

We’ve all seen it. A beloved celebrity dies, and people who have never once mentioned that celebrity’s name, let alone their work, is utterly distraught and demands comfort. Someone at school dies and people who had never known the kid’s name, let alone said as much as “hello,” are front and center with their disconsolate weeping. Disaster strikes, and people who were not only not affected, but who didn’t even know anyone who might have been affected need to insert themselves into the event. People are fascinated by tragedy, and there is something about being close enough to touch it that seems irresistible to people.

When we were evacuated, close friends and family called and texted. It was lovely to know that people were thinking of us, but this was in the first couple of days after we’d left our house, and before we knew whether we still had a house (spoiler: we didn’t), I didn’t know what to say. I was overwhelmed by the need to give them clarity I didn’t have. I stopped answering the phone.

Next came people at a bit of a remove from me. People I knew, but with whom I’m not especially close. They expressed support, they said very kind things, they made offers of staggering generosity. Nearly everyone wanted to know if we needed anything, but with our very most basic needs (shelter for us and our four dogs, food, money to purchase necessities) already met, I didn’t have the least idea what else I needed. People came forward with fabulously helpful resources – the name of a public adjustor firm, a recommendation for a builder. These things were solidly helpful, and not resources that everyone would necessarily know about (I’d never heard of a public adjustor prior to needing one, so why would anyone else?), so I was utterly grateful for the information, but still warmed by the other offers.

Next came people I didn’t really know. This was the weird bit. We’ve heard from the daughter of our real estate agent (a woman I’ve only met a couple of times) who now lives in New Mexico. We got a very surprising and incredibly sweet call from a woman whose father had built the house we lost. She grew up in it, so the loss felt very personal to her. She offered to come and help us clean up, and I suspect that her offer was motivated by a desire to walk the property and see what was left of her childhood home, but that didn’t make it any less touching to me.

But now we’re coming to the last group, which makes an interesting coda to those first days after we evacuated. Now I’m starting to see Facebook posts by people who used to know people who used to live in the area, people who vacationed here once and remembered it fondly, people who used to live in another town that caught fire but not when they lived there. These folks are expressing trauma and grief of their own, not even on behalf of people who’ve actually been affected.

As in the first days after our evacuation, I don’t know how to process the feelings of someone who is claiming the same trauma I have. Honestly, I don’t really think I have to do anything, but there is a part of me that’s a little angry that there are people demanding comfort and sympathy that I’m uncomfortable receiving.

I have gone shopping for necessities nearly every day since we got here, and not once have I told a store clerk “I’m buying new sneakers because my house burned down.” “I’m buying dog dishes, toys, and food because my house burned down.” “I’m buying storage boxes and a new hairbrush because my house burned down.” It seems manipulative to me to put that information out there, not because it’s at all relevant to our interaction, not because it’s a way of making small talk, but because I’m expecting to receive something for it – comfort, sympathy, a fat discount.

It makes me wonder what the people who need to feel a part of trauma they haven’t experienced are looking for, and whether maybe I should start looking for that thing, too.