On California Wildfires


When I lived in Los Angeles, I was not well. Traumatized, but didn’t know it, mentally ill, but didn’t know it, on a slow-motion dive into ruin, but didn’t know it. I cried a lot, and was still a child, really, so I did a lot of hiding — which is to say, this being Los Angeles, driving. I’d drive up Mulholland and park at one of the overlooks (you could still do that back then), or up the Angeles Crest Highway until I got to where the stars reappeared. Or, on the worst days, out to Malibu. I’d sit on the beach at Point Dume in the sun and the warmth or the dark and the cold, and cry my eyes dry until I’d finally catch my breath enough to face my roommate, to show up to work, to get on with getting on with it. I’d eat at Alegria, long since closed, or the taco place behind the Pavilions, or if it was too late or I was too broke, the Jack in the Box on PCH, and then drive back to Hollywood confident that this was the last trek. I’d finally gotten it all out. Done and done.

But inevitably I’d be back, and over time it became a sort of ritual. I’d trek out there any chance I got, dive under waves in summer, wrap up in a blanket with a book in winter, climb the rocks and watch for whales and dolphins and seals — something I never timed right, but it was something to look forward to. The first time I revisited LA after moving to New York I was too broke to rent a car, so I took the bus — three of them, four hours round trip. I bought a lawn chair and a turkey-and-swiss at the deli by the bus stop and walked up Westward Beach Road till I got to the rocks. At sundown I headed back, leaving the lawn chair behind in the sand for someone else. It surely ended up in the trash, but maybe it’s still in someone’s trunk, or hanging on a hook in someone’s garage.

A decade later the shit that drew me first to Malibu and then New York and then Chicago finally hit the fan, and I ended up in an intensive form of therapy called EMDR that involves reliving trauma — a bit like sense memory in an acting class. I had to choose a “safe space,” imaginary or real, to visualize when the reliving became too overwhelming. The first — and really only — place that came to mind was Point Dume. Waves so loud if you lay on the sand you can’t hear anything else, sun so bright and water so reflective you can’t see anything but sky and glitter, spots within the rocks where everything disappears but sea and horizon. It had never let me down.

You’re meant to use this visualization — this place — forever, any time you need it. When your embattled brain goes AWOL, and your intellect knows it’s 2018 but your memory and your body and the recesses of your brain very much do not, because someone just said that exact thing someone said in 1984 or this room smells like that place in 1992 or that noise sounded like 2006 and now you’re back there again and you can’t breathe and — Point Dume. Waves. Sun. Glitter. Rocks.

Relief. Time and again.

One night in 2003, after seeing The Hours and identifying a bit too closely with Nicole Kidman’s walk into the River Ouse (have you ever heard anything so melodramatically 24-and-gay-and-mentally-ill in all your days, because I certainly haven’t), I drove out to Point Dume to sob into the sand and when I left, found that the Santa Anas had blown fire into the hills above the Pacific Coast Highway — a small, routine fire, contained nearly as soon as it started, because it still rained then. But a bracing sight nonetheless, and I was stricken by worry that the lava-like flames would come downhill and devour the only thing in Los Angeles keeping me together. “They never jump PCH,” they said back then, and of course even if they had, they’d eventually reach the ocean and be thwarted. But as the cops waved me toward Santa Monica, windblown embers fading to black just above my windshield, I said prayers to a God I was no longer sure existed, just in case: “Please don’t take this.”

That was years ago, a different LA, a different Malibu, a different California. I doubt you can even get to Point Dume in a reasonable amount of time anymore even at 11pm on a weekday. The city has moved on, life has moved on, I’ve moved on. But belatedly it seems that much of the Malibu and Point Dume (and so many other places) that I’ve known, and that many have known far longer and more deeply than I ever will, have moved on forever. New things will take their place eventually, of course — life finds a way, as Jeff Goldblum once told us. But it won’t be the same. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Time will tell.

But it is a sad thing. More California goes each year. The earth has run out of patience, it seems, and California is among the first in line bearing the brunt. And what the hell is there to say about that, besides an impotent I’m sorry? I’m sorry this keeps happening to you, to the city and state that is the closest thing I have to a “hometown” anymore, the place I first began a life of my own, the place that was — as it has been for so many, day after day for generations — the first stop on my escape route. I’m sorry we didn’t do better by you when we still had the chance.

I’m sorry this is happening to you.


Click here to donate to the California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund


This piece also appears on Medium.com

2 thoughts on “On California Wildfires

  1. jefftcann says:

    When I tried to create a conditioned response, a button to push, a way to relax on command, I used Rehoboth Beach Delaware as my safe space. There’s something about the beach, pushing your toes under the warm sand, baking in the sun, sounds of waves crashing on the beach. Reminiscent of the womb.It’s a shame that California is ruined for the humans. But, of course it’s the humans who ruined it. I enjoyed this piece.

    Liked by 1 person

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