A Small Comfort

Life in these parts has been dismal for the last week or so. The air is heavy with smoke from the Camp Fire, four hours northwest of here; and the emotional atmosphere is charged with our collective despair for those intimately affected by the disaster. Most have lost every single possession, from the smallest to the largest. Even worse, many have also lost family. I cannot bear even to glance at the front page of the local newspaper. Whenever I do, I feel a sword of grief enter me.

Then last night, we had dinner with Steve’s father, who lives in Saint Paul’s Towers, a retirement community in Oakland, a block from Lake Merritt. In addition to bulletins about the danger of the smoke-filled air posted on boards in the elevators throughout the complex, we faced what we face each time we see Steve’s father. Though his dementia is certainly not as severe in degree as that many people and families struggle with, we are saddened whenever we spend time with Bob. Once a brilliant and witty professional, at 92, he’s become socially withdrawn and unable to participate in conversations about anything other than the past.

I always feel saddened when we leave Bob, but last night I felt especially bad.

I woke up this morning feeling melancholy. I had an appointment to drop off the car for service at 9:00, and Steve offered to follow me so I didn’t have to wait for a ride home. The smoke was still blanketing us, and as I drove to the service center, I couldn’t get the image out of my mind, of Steve’s father looking off into the distance during a 15-minute Steve and I had.

Steve was waiting for me when I finished up, and when I arrived at his truck, a small twig with several leaves, stuck in his windshield caught my eye.

I plucked the twig out and marveled at its beauty: its three small, oval leaves delicately curled and spotted with mold, the surface painted in black, grey and pale yellow-green, embodying movement and stillness simultaneously; a tiny deep red berry, spotted as well, peeking out near the third leaf. A section of a twig that had dried and broken off the tree, now reborn in my eyes, into a work of art.

How lovely, I thought, reminded that beauty can be born from destruction. And then I thought of the fire. There is no minimizing the scale of this disaster, the tragedy it dropped into so many people’s lives, the suffering it is causing and will continue to cause.

But I can also see small elements of beauty within the devastation: the compassionate response of so many people in Northern California, the kindness of those who have offered their homes to some of the fire’s refugees, the sadness most of us carry in our hearts for them.

I don’t expect any of this to offer immediate solace to those directly involved with the fire. But just as the small portion of a twig comforted me this morning, I hope that someday in the future, many of the victims will be able to look back and take into their hearts these smaller moments of grace within the apocalypse.

A Bit of Twig


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