Fire, smoke and ashes.

That wonky redwood is the “Dr Suess Tree” as we call it, on the other side of my backyard fence, that towers above my garden from my neighbor’s place. I took the picture from down the street, quickly before the sun set.

We are seeing the setting sun through smoke. It’s been like this since last Thursday, when shortly after wildfires began to destroy the town of Paradise in Butte County, ashes and cinders from that destruction floated three hundred miles to the south, here and beyond here, at least to San Jose. Students and teachers in our schools are on the fifth day of their weekend, what with Veteran’s Day and smoke days.

It’s gloomy. My friend Myriah may have lost her house, though she was mercifully stuck in Texas when the chaos began. Or, her house might still stand, one of the few that weren’t destroyed by the blazes. The prospect of being a householder on an outpost in the middle of a burned-out town, “in the middle of an ash heap,” as Myriah puts it, is bleak. Whatever the condition of her house, her home is gone.

Lately in Liturgy the litany has included prayers for those suffering as a result of shootings, and this week “fires” was added to the phrase, along with the extra remembrance of soldiers slain in wars. Our parish was also commemorating the repose of a beloved priest, and we met at the cemetery Sunday afternoon for a prayer service in his memory. Several parishioners wore masks against the bad air.

It was a sweet gathering and memorial, for a man who was in many ways the heart of our parish — and still is. After the prayers and hymns and aromatic censing of the graves, we sang “Memory Eternal,” and the service ended. A little table had been set up on the grass next to the grave, with a candle and a icon on it, and our priest poured the melted wax from the candle on to the grave marker in the shape of a cross. Then he emptied the charcoal from his censer and remaining bits of incense on top of that.

A couple of the children crouched down to ask what he was doing, and I didn’t hear his answer, but I did hear him say, “I need to you blow on that, gently.” He wanted the incense to go on smoking for a while, so the kids got to provide the supporting wind.

A lawsuit has been filed against the utility company that supplies electricity to Butte County, claiming negligence on their part; it may have been sparks from their wires that started the fires. They had previously talked about the possibility of shutting off power to several counties because of extreme fire danger, and wanting to avoid all possibility of sparks or downed power lines instigating a disaster. I can see how they would at the same time like to avoid depriving their customers of what is a means of life support for many, especially in that mountain community where many retired people are now missing the comfort of winter coats that are turned to ashes.

I have no thesis around which to organize my ramblings, only sightings and impressions and feelings. Myriah is collecting clothing and supplies that match the actual needs of specific people in her hometown, and she will stop by here to get a few things on her way there. That is the most concrete and encouraging thing I have to write today; as was the case last year when the inferno was right here, the stories of sacrifice and true community are heartening.

One friend at church wrote on a chalkboard by his front door, “The love in the air is thicker than the smoke, and depression is a close second.”

Like children at this spectacle.

NOVEMBER

It is an old drama
this disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death

of the landscape.
In a later scene,
or earlier,
the trees like gnarled magicians
produce handkerchiefs
of leaves
out of empty branches.

And we watch.
We are like children
at this spectacle
of leaves,
as if one day we too
will open the wooden doors
of our coffins
and come out smiling
and bowing
all over again.

~ Linda Pastan, born 1932, American poet

The risk of dancing with Little Bee.

Little Bee is among a rare set of books in my personal Modern Era, in that I found it in “hard copy” right in front of me, and picked it up with my own hands, and read it through to the end without consulting Goodreads or Amazon in making a guess as to its worth or suitability. That day last week, when I visited the used bookstore in Colorado Springs, it was the four double-sided book racks on the sidewalk that drew me closer, and that’s where I found Little Bee carrying a $1 sticker like all its shelfmates. A cheap risk.

The book appealed to me first because of its short and sweet title that reminded me of the friends in my garden, and secondly because of its appearance: small (unintimidating), paperback, and mostly a pleasing orange color. I did read a few lines of blurbs on the back and inside cover, and noted words like “dark” and “hope.” I probably also read a bit in the middle somewhere, to see if anything tacky jumped out.

I bought it and read it in a couple of days. It helped that I had at least three solid hours coming home Tuesday, on the plane and bus and at the bus stops, and I reached the last page in bed, just before turning out the light. — Forgive me, that was a long intro that would annoy me if I read it somewhere.

Little Bee is a page-turner of a novel. It tells the story of a young refugee from Nigeria first of all: “Everything was happiness and singing when I was a little girl. There was plenty of time for it. We did not have hurry. We did not have electricity or fresh water or sadness either, because none of these had been connected to our village yet….that village we did not yet know was built on an oil field and would soon be fought over by men in a crazy hurry to drill down into the oil.”

Though she never drank tea in her country, because it was mostly exported, she did get a cup on arrival at the detention center: “And when I tasted it, all I wanted to do was to get back into the boat and go home again, to my country. Tea is the taste of my land: it is bitterĀ  and warm, strong, and sharp with memory. It tastes of longing. It tastes of the distance between where you are and where you come from. Also it vanishes — the taste of it vanishes from your tongue while your lips are still hot from the cup. It disappears, like plantations stretching up into the mist.”

I likely read those lines before I got on the airplane, and when the attendant asked what I would drink, hot tea seemed the best choice. I resolved to drink more real tea in the future. I always knew it was rich in historical associations, but Little Bee’s words reveal it as rich in art and philosophy as well.

After Little Bee, this is the story of the British family with whose lives hers is indissolubly linked by one of those events called “dark.” Given the subject matter, the novel might have been highly politicized, but instead it is an account of how the various characters cope with the traumas from outside, and with the troubling revelations of their own souls’ poverty.

“Isn’t it sad, growing up? You start off like my Charlie. You start off thinking you can kill all the baddies and save the world. Then you get a little older, maybe Little Bee’s age, and you realize that some of the world’s badness is inside you, that maybe you’re a part of it. And then you get a little bit older still, and a bit more comfortable, and you start wondering whether that badness you’ve seen in yourself is really all that bad at all….”

“Maybe that’s just developing as a person, Sarah.”

“Well,” I said, “Maybe this is a developing world.”

Because of the grace of God, the way He made us humans with the strength of spirit to survive all the darkness threatening to kill us, there is much beauty and joy in the book. Like Little Bee’s description of this breakfast table scene: “The sun was lighting up the kitchen. It was thick yellow — a warm light, but not a show-off light. It did not want the glory for the illumination of the room. It made each object look as if it was glowing with a light from deep inside itself. Lawrence, the table with its clean blue cotton tablecloth, his orange tea mug and my yellow one — all of it glowing from within. The light made me feel very cheerful. I thought to myself, that is a good trick.”

The two women in the story alternate telling the tale in the first person, sometimes describing the same event from their vastly different perspectives. And those two characters especially spend a good bit of time filling each other in on their past. This is Little Bee talking again, typically philosophical:

“Everyone in my village liked U2. Everyone in my country, maybe. Wouldn’t that be funny, if the oil rebels were playing U2 in their jungle camps, and the government soldiers were playing U2 in their trucks. I think everyone was killing everyone else and listening to the same music. Do you know what? The first week I was in the detention center, U2 were number one here, too. That is a good trick about this world, Sarah. No one likes each other, but everyone likes U2.”

The girl tells how U2 was playing in her Nigerian home, the radio on which they were supposed to be listening to the BBC having been tuned by her sister to the music station instead, because “Nkiruka loved music and now I saw that she was right because life is extremely short and you cannot dance to current affairs.”

The motivations that drive these characters’ actions, their rationalizations, their good deeds, are not pure or simple. Survival, anger, boredom, revenge, guilt… and sometimes, the heart knowledge that we are fellow humans on our way to the grave, and we have nothing to lose from loving.

I very much enjoyed the character of Little Bee, whose child self is haunted by horrific memories even as she is growing into a wise young woman. The less sympathetic characters are shown to be not all that different from us average lost sheep who wander bleating here and there looking for food, and they all get at least a little more light and understanding as the novel progresses. Even one of the “baddies” is shown in remarkably few words to be irreducible to a caricature.

Picking up a book that I know nothing about, and then reading the whole thing privately, with not one iota of input digital or otherwise from another reader — that is a refreshing experience. It feels almost wild and irresponsible to my recent self. But this experiment with Little Bee was satisfying at all levels, and I can see myself taking similar risks in the future. Here’s to more reading adventure!

I throw snowballs and eat guavas.

I’m home again! I was so busy the last week of my stay with Soldier and Joy’s family, I didn’t finish my story of the Most Fun Day in Colorado: It was the snowy weather I’d mentioned was on the forecast, and I didn’t expect the quantity of snow that fell in the night. In the morning before the children were up I went out and took some pictures of the wonderland.

When the boys got on their unfamiliar jackets, snow boots and gloves, they began their happy discoveries. Brodie is only 2 1/2 and he was cautious. His brothers were kind and patient introducing them to the white stuff that they had just begun to explore themselves.

I went out to play with them, and it was such a joy. I also had my waterproof boots, and my down jacket. My gloves seemed to be waterproof. I showed them how to make snowballs and gave them permission to throw them at me! That they loved most to do, all three of the little cubs whom I’d been telling for two weeks that I so appreciated their affection, but they should not show it by pushing, pinching, or whacking Grandma as they passed by (their natural way with each other). Their parents and I tried to teach them to be gentle. Suddenly it was okay to pelt me with balls of cold fluff. We laughed and ran around and eventually built a snowman, and when I went indoors the older boys made a snow house.

A few of us went on another walk in Fox Run Regional Park and came across two teepees made of logs. Another group drove all the way to Boulder to the Celestial Seasonings factory and headquarters but that outing didn’t turn out quite as expected and I only got one picture, of the little room modeled after the Sleepytime tea box, featuring two of the boys instead of the sleepy bear.

One of the things I loved about being in Colorado Springs was attending Sts. Constantine and Helen/Holy Theophany Church. It felt a lot like home. The walls are crowded with icon murals, making it ideal for walking around and greeting all the many saints who are surrounding the worshipers like a cloud of witnesses. The first week I attended I went back into the building after the agape meal to take pictures. I look forward to visiting again whenever I travel to see my family who are hoping to settle there for a good while, God willing.

Today I flew home. It is such a short “hop” compared to what I’ve been doing the last many years; I arrived at midday, when the house was cold and the garden warm. I’d been thinking of my garden the last three weeks, when checking the weather report, and even into November there have been days over 80 degrees. I wondered if the pineapple guavas might even ripen this year — and they did!! At least, ten of them had doubled in size since I left, and dropped on the ground, and I ate one. It was ripe indeed, and scrumptious.

Lots of the dwarf pomegranate fruits have grown to be larger and redder, but still their dwarfish selves. The figs have continued to ripen, and olives to get color. The sunflowers finished drying up, but the irises and abutilon have not slowed down one bit! I turned on the fountain and marveled at my space. I am as happy as a hummingbird whose feeder has just been filled to the brim.