The top branch of the Asian pear tree on my lawn sways in the late-morning breeze. Part of the sky behind the branch is blue, with a soft layer of fog draped over the mountain, obscuring the ridge. The blue sky and the clarity of the light this morning caused me to check Purple Air hopefully.
Lo and behold, for the first time in weeks, the circles indicating readings on indoor and outdoor air filters all over the East Bay, where I live, are green, blessedly green. This, after weeks of angry purple, orange, and red buttons pulsing like welts on the screen.
This, after weeks of pink-tinged, dusty air, scratchy throats, burning eyes, face masks tossed casually on my son’s desk, on my colleague’s desk at work.
Humans are insanely adaptable, as we all know. It’s perverse how quickly I’ve adapted to seeing folks walking around with face masks pulled over their noses and mouths, even though numerous articles have questioned their efficacy.
Today, I am tense, nervous, worried. Stiff with tension. It’s hard to get air into my lungs.
But it’s not the smoky air this time.
This time, it’s the shooting in Santa Clarita, California, that’s stopping my breath, that’s sitting like an anvil in my belly.
Driving my daughter to her high school this morning, I was decidedly uncomfortable, squirmy. I felt like I wanted to jump out of my skin.
What are we getting used to? Why am I bringing my daughter to school, when I know with each additional “school shooting” that occurs, our chances of avoiding this mayhem lessen?
It makes me sick, and as I write this, I fight irrational fear that if I write about this, if I face it, acknowledge it, I will somehow bring my family closer to the sights of this… sickness, this plague.
It’s is a plague.
Life in the Bay Area is interesting right now. Oakland, where I live, is changing terrifyingly fast. It’s on a rejuvenation tear, as it’s the only remaining place in the entire Bay Area that has even remotely “affordable” real estate anymore, and it’s not affordable anymore, not for most folks, that’s for sure.
Homeless encampments are growing by leaps and bounds, as avid landlords and homeowners seize the opportunity and cast out renters and tenants, deepening the housing crisis.
Coming home from dance last weekend, around midnight, I was just a few paces from my front door when five gunshots rang out right around the corner from my house. It’s not uncommon to hear gunshots from where I live, but they are usually a few neighborhoods down or over. This was behind my house.
When I entered the house, I heard my daughter crying. For one crazy moment, I thought the shots had been fired through her bedroom window.
I took the stairs two at a time and found her just woken up and scared. She thought she’d had a nightmare. She thought she saw a face peering through the sunroom door attached to her bedroom. It was the gunshots that woke and scared her, but her mind had created another event to make sense of it.
I dropped her off at school this morning.
On the way, I said, “Look, I didn’t want to tell you about this, but…”
“You mean the shooting?” she asked.
“Yes. You heard?”
“Yes, the mom who drove me home yesterday was talking about it.”
I was reading a Wall Street Journal article yesterday about how teen girls are falling prey to a mass social media experiment that we’ve subjected them to and are not faring well in the face of it. They’re besieged by loneliness, depression, and anxiety. The article said girls are staying “close to their mothers” and staying home on Saturday nights.
This certainly describes my daughter.
Michael Moore posted an angry message on Facebook yesterday about the Santa Clarita shooting. He said the time is coming when our kids will no longer walk docilely out of their high schools with their hands above their heads, but will turn angrily on the adults — all adults — all of us — and scream, why have you let this happen to us? Why have you not protected us?
My daughter said goodbye several times this morning. She said goodbye as she left the car. She got out of the car early because there was so much traffic. She could get to class faster if she walked at that point.
Normally, she doesn’t look back. She doesn’t like me to embarrass her by saying goodbye out the window either.
Today, she looked back twice, waved, and blew me a kiss. And she smiled when she saw me waving and smiling frantically.
I have to ask myself, I did ask myself, as I was driving, Why am I bringing my daughter to school when we know it’s no longer safe?
My friend said last year, “Don’t be ridiculous. It’s incredibly rare. She’ll be fine.”
At what point do we say, enough? What is too much? When do we decide it’s no longer fine?
The fires. Fire season, a phrase I’d never heard my entire life growing up here in the East Bay, is now a thing. Three years in a row now, we’ve had devastating fires.
Two weeks ago, the winds kicked up again, and fire was sparked up and down the state, including nearby in Sonoma county, in Vallejo, in Lafayette, neighboring communities to me. Fires are jumping highways.
On Sunday night two weeks ago, I woke up to the smell of fire strong in my house. I threw off the covers of my daughter’s bed where I was sleeping as we have family visiting. I pushed aside the curtains and pushed the window closed. I walked up the stairs to my son’s room, opened the door, checked his windows. I made my way to the downstairs bedroom, slipped into the room, and shut those windows.
I went back to bed.
In the morning, the smoke was thick on the street. The scent was strong, acrid. I could not tell the direction, nor how close any fires were. The smoke lay like a stubborn, still, heavy force on the street.
We’d had no electricity for two or three days. With the electricity went the internet and WiFi so I could not check the news, even on my phone.
With trepidation in my heart, I got in the car and set off for work, even though I was taking our only car and leaving my family with no transportation. Yet, the only way I could get news was to get in the car and turn on the radio. I made my way to work in the early dawn, driving out of our smoky neighborhood, listening to the radio.
I learned that the Kincaid Fire was still raging in Sonoma County, that no fires were directly threatening my house.
We were without electricity for four-and-a-half days. We played board games and poker at night by candlelight. We lived out of ice chests. We threw a lot of food away.
Today, the air is clear, finally.
And we have this new shooting, and it’s in California. I have allowed myself to believe we are safer here, that we have fewer guns. This is not Texas, after all. When I heard the first bits of news yesterday afternoon about this latest tragedy near Los Angeles, I felt sick.
It’s similar to how I felt, and feel, about my friend Sarah who just discovered she has late-stage ovarian cancer. When my friend Caitlin died of this a few years ago, I allowed myself to believe I was safe because I’d had kids. She hadn’t. Maybe her ovaries were could not fight off the cancer because she’d never had kids, they were somehow not exercised. Magical thinking.
Sarah has kids. And she also now has this illness. I am not safe.
We are not safe. Not safe from fires, from shootings, from cancer.
The world felt optimistic not very long ago.
I can’t help but think that the troglodyte in the White House has colored everything. Maybe karma or the universe is getting us back.
These days, I try to keep my head down, get my exercise, make good food for my family. We stay close to home. We don’t drive more than we have to — just work and school. I’m not interested in traveling anymore. I have no interest in adding to our carbon footprint. It feels irresponsible, decidedly so, to travel for “fun.”
I live with bated breath, checking our bank account frequently, willing it to grow, casting about in my mind constantly for how to make us safe, how to get a second income stream, some sort of passive income, wondering when and if I should put $3000 in the basement, if I should look into disaster preparedness for real.
I think about how to protect us. How to protect my kids. What will they need in the coming years? How can I lighten my kids’ lives a little? I see them holing up in the house, affixed to their phones, oddly not dating, not making real connections. Where’s the lightness and fun of youth? It’s not much in evidence around here.
I’m not sure how to end this essay except to say that the fog that had blanketed the ridge facing my house has lifted and a multicolored line of green spiky trees populates the skyline, perky and beloved evergreen shapes.
Focus on the positive. That’s what they say. The trees are positive. For now, they are still with us. The pear tree on my lawn, the noble redwoods all around, the earth. Earth abides, that she does. And we shall as well, for as long as we can.