Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.
My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.
What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.
With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:
“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.
“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.
“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.
“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”
I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.
–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.