I visited my parents this past weekend at their miraculously-there house in Ramona, California, one of three to survive in a neighborhood of seventeen. Walking the dogs with my father after dinner, the only lights in our neighborhood were theirs – a bright island in a sea of impossible blackness, interrupted only by the occasional parallel tracks of solar-powered driveway lights leading to nowhere.
When we found out that our house was still standing, we should have been happy; we should have felt relieved, spared, lucky. And we did; we declared our gratefulness to family, friends, the universe – and not least to our neighbors, with something like shame. But more than this: we were afraid. My mother was convinced that our house, so alone now and beyond our reach while the roads were barred, without power or water or watchful neighbors’ eyes, would be burglarized. My father was convinced the fire had somehow infiltrated the house and was smoldering there, waiting to ignite. We all had nightmares.
This is the terror that children know: the terror of our own helplessness, our own powerlessness, of abandonment. It is a built-in terror; one that adults, with the best of intentions, often dismiss as groundless, or a phase. At twenty-five, I’ve discussed this phenomenon with many friends: that we, children of sheltered, fortunate, middle-class homes, passed long nights as children paralyzed by terror – of aliens, monsters and bogeymen, but also of murder, and kidnapping, and fire. Perhaps tragedy is just this: the bringing to life of those worst, shadowy fears, and a return to our childhood sense of vulnerability.
Waiting for news of our house during the fires, a newscaster advised parents to “act normal” during evacuation. She said, “Your kids will read you.” And I thought of that parental impulse to deny the world’s evil and uncertainty until it’s impossible to pretend any longer that horrible, random things don’t happen. (How many children’s homes burned down that night?) As a young woman on the cusp of marriage and motherhood, I wonder: is keeping children innocent as long as possible always the right impulse? Might it not be better to say, “This is happening, and we can’t control it, but we will do our best with what comes and we will be okay?” Of course, I am not a mother yet; and I suspect that my impulse to protect will be overpowering, to the point where I’ll be all too happy to see refuge in denial.
When it was safe to return home, my boyfriend and I trolled the blackened landscape for remnants of coffee table books, picture books, magazines; these pages, the thickest and glossiest, survived in eerie, pirate-map fragments. There is a page from a children’s book about Noah, burned down to a tiny circle of text about the dove. There is a map on which only North Dakota survived. There is an emergency address/phone number contact list from my own neighborhood; not a single entry is discernible.
It seems obvious now that my neighborhood was living at odds with nature (the Native Americans used to regularly burn down swaths of trees here just to prevent disasters of this scale). Yet, if you had asked before the fires, I suspect that my comfortably middle-class neighbors – garden enthusiasts, birdwatchers, avid dog-walkers – would have declared themselves relative masters of their environment and their world. It is in our adulthood, in our sense of maturity and competence, that we may forget what all children instinctively know, and what tragedy reawakens: that we are very, very small.