I write with tears welled up in my throat, my eyes burn even indoors now- the smoke air has gotten into all our hundred year old houses. The thickness in our throats and the dark yellow snot we wake up with in our noses tell us that our bodies are working to create barriers. We wear masks when we go outside but the masks make your heart race because your not quite getting the oxygen you need. After a while of wearing the mask you pull them off in disgust because you feel like your suffocating. The smell is not of woodsmoke but of chemicals, of acrid noxious charred unknowns. Air is remarkably equal in its treatment of humanity- we all need to breathe. Here in San Francisco I know we don’t all breathe equally though. There are those of us who have advanced air filtration systems for our renovated homes, windows double paned and weather sealed and there are those of us who have no home at all. There are those us who have always breathed the compromised air living under the freeway overpass and no place to retreat when a smoggy day arrives. What is this we taste in the back our throats?
We breathe in the dust of our dead, we breathe in the toxins from their homes, we breathe in the cars, and trucks and sofas and televisions, horses and cats, and the deer and bear and mountain lion, we breathe in photo albums and record collections, hidden diaries and hordes of cash, tree upon tree upon shrub upon bush poison oak and manzanita, sequoia and tan oak, black oak and white, live oak and madrone, and we breathe in sheets and pillows and rugs and boots and desks and books and computers, we breathe in the dust of our dead.
I imagine moving to the desert where there is nothing to burn, where the sky can stay clear and I can run in the evening and stay up all night writing and painting, sleep in the heat of the day like a lizard in an earth ship half sunk into the ground, headphones on and sleep mask listening to oneohtrix point never and rising at dusk for coffee and a run. I will catch my water in the two weeks or so of rain and snow that come in the late winter early spring and I will garden in containers on the roof of my earth ship and I will scavenge the trash heaps to build my house and a barn for dancing. I will teach the dances to the people around me as a method to manage the stress and anxiety of the world without chemical pharmaceutical intervention.
The trouble is we don’t, we won’t have anywhere to go. If we decide to leave we will in many ways thrust ourselves into the role we have no tolerance for in this particular moment- the migrant. Let’s be real- they are refugees, and we would be refugees. Particularly people who don’t have savings, investments, property, people who live at the fragile edge of the fragile edge- people who are poor in California. Many will leave because of the fires. Many will not want to go. Born and raised or happily transplanted, Californians are proud of what we are, who we are. None of us will want to go.
I imagine the exodus while I sit in my car on the 80, slung low in what feels like a fishbowl filled with milk, the red eye of the sun makes itself into a gash winking and menacing in the white sky, a bloody slit as its sunset excess is reflected in the white water of the bay. The smoke has erased everything, the city, the bridge, the islands in the bay, everything is gone, smoothed out in the thick white smoke, only the sun can reach through it and it has become something else- shows another face- a potential we had not seen before. Inside this porcelain dome I am crawling along in my hybrid vehicle wearing a n95 face mask and feeling my heart race from lack of oxygen. Where would we all go- if suddenly we had to go? The air today is Hazardous and is designated by a deep purple color with an exclamation point on the air quality index. People laugh with a nervous darkness, “Welcome to the Apocalypse.” but stuff like that feels empty, slippery, its meaning out beyond our mouths and into the bodies of the children being born this year and next, and next and next.
My sister is pregnant, her second baby, a boy due next month. To me it is an ominous birth, a life that will not be like ours, can not be like ours, a life that will bear witness to things we ourselves have wrought but might never fully face. What have we done?
After twelve days of smoke filled skies it begins to break apart. We can see the growing moon that night and the sunset skies streaked red and purple. The smoke is coming apart, the light is breaking over stratus clouds way up high. On the thirteenth day it rains. Big steady rain like the kind we have not had in months. When did we last have a storm? I would have to look it up but I am guessing we had some showers about two months ago and then before that it would have to be March or April. People who don’t live out here don’t understand that- this long expansive dry time- and now it has grown and the drought is a feature of the climate, its not even really a drought, its just we don’t get much rain regularly. I find it better to think of California in these terms. Think about it as it really is, as it will be, instead of constantly comparing this California to some historic understanding of it- an understanding that will prove to be a passing through, a stop off on the way to something else. California as a place where 39.54 million people live, come and go, are born and die. California as the leading edge of the changing climate of the west, the diva, burning and raging, quaking and falling on the way to uninhabitable intolerance of the human organism. California as a myth, as a fantasy- as the site of the production of the primary exports of American culture. California works overtime to produce the American story, the corrupt and blazing, far away and impenetrable American story.
I think of an early morning conversation with a group of young Portuguese I met while I attended a residency there in 2015. Standing on the dark stones in Porto at 2:00 am smoking cigarettes we end up talking about California. Looming large in their imagination is this place I am from- that I can never really be from, but the place that defines me more than any other. California is the place my Americanness has most taken shape- a hallucination that stands in this old river town on the west coast of Europe. Here I am a dream of myself, I am a version of an idea of a myth. I am an American, a Californian and an Artist- capital A artist. The Portuguese kids are fascinated and immediately start singing lines from Dr. Dre to me- their perfect English inflected with the song of their accents and Dre forming more easily inside those mouths than he ever could for me- too self conscious to sing ____California knows how to party______. I laugh and they are charmed and charming, we enjoy the tobacco together and then they admit to having some weed and I smoke with them in the cold February morning, all of us a little drunk and stoned and pleased to have stopped in the quiet street to share fire, warmed by the dream of the west. California is a song the world sings. It is a love song to itself, it is the narcissist dreaming, blonde light through the sunset that lasts forever. It is a never ending reflection pouring warmth that can not really reach you across the cruel mirror of the Pacific, a million billion screens lit up with its radiance. California is on fire- and it and rages with the tongue of the prophet. What new world is this we have made