What We Take With Us

Rabbi George’s talk, “What we take from our homes when we flee for our lives”, was delivered as part of the interfaith healing service at The Center for Spiritual Living a week after the fire:

The wind woke Laura up. She smelled smoke, walked out our front door into the court and saw the fire coming from Calistoga Road.

“George, you’ve got to get up….”

We live in Rincon Valley and the first two times we evacuated voluntarily. It was only the third time that we got the knock on the door.

How many people here tonight had to flee their homes because of the fires?

You know as well as I the experience of deciding what you’re taking and what you are leaving behind, unless, you fled, literally for your life, and the only choice you could make was to “get the…out of there.”

Maybe you grabbed the cat, maybe not, your kids, clothes on your back, your life, your loved ones lives spared, all the rest gone…

There are also those folks who didn’t make it out, like Marnie Schwartz, a longtime  member of Congregation Shomrei Torah.

Most of us did have some time and some choices to make. Laura, my spouse, worked in emergency medicine most of her career.  It is not always fun to live with someone like her since her gauge of whether you deserve sympathy, let alone medical treatment, is if you stop breathing! But, in the case of something like the fire, she was a real asset. She just told me what to do.

Family photos, medications, important papers – we were pretty efficient.  Something did go really wrong when it came to clothes. I must have had the gym on my mind.

And then there was Emmy, our German Shephard mix. No need to search for her! She knew something was up and never left my side.

Pets. For those of us who had pets, they were a big part of the stress of evacuation and life as fire refugees.  First time we had a kennel in the synagogue.

If you and your pets escaped alive and ok, you were lucky.

A close friend of ours went back for her cat, couldn’t find her and by the time she got to her car, the fire was baring down on her like a wild, ravenous beast. She and her daughter barely made it out alive; but not the cat.

Another member of the congregation was evacuating his horse and got kicked in the head. He ended up in the ICU.

Yet another family that lost everything was out of town; no way to even get to their animals to save them.

The Bible and consequently Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are obsessed with idolatry. Most people think idolatry is about worshiping a figure, a picture or a statue of some kind. But that is really not the issue; idolatry is making something of ultimate concern that is not of ultimate value.

Whatever idolatrous tendencies we have, the fire was a great clarifier; we quickly realized what was of ultimate concern in our lives.

We may have made some silly choices in the heat of the moment like the person who took her espresso machine – I can relate to that – or the 10-year old boy who insisted on taking his hole punch for school projects. I love the story of the teenager who grabbed his surf board since they were going to Grandma’s and she lived near the coast. Reminds me of my son.

We made some silly choices but for the most part people focused on things that mattered; items of sentimental value, touch stones of memory, symbols of where we come from and who we are.

I went back in my home for two things – my grandfather’s cufflinks which is all I have that connects me to him, and a book of short stories called Cathedrals, signed by the author Raymond Carver. He was my literary idol as a young adult. I went to hear him give a reading once in San Francisco and he wrote a little note and signed my copy of his book.

It’s easy to say that it was just stuff, especially if we were able to return home to it. Much of it is replaceable; but not all of it.

One member of my community that lost everything was most upset about the three generations of Hanukkah Menorahs that were lost to the fire. For her they represented her Jewish roots reaching back to Poland before the Holocaust, through that endless night of the Shoah and finally to America and their new life here.

I have heard many mourn the loss of family photos, keepsakes like a wedding dress, heirloom jewelry, or a piece of furniture made by “Uncle Harry”.

It’s not just stuff. Such touchstones of memory tell our story, where we come from, our roots, values: Who we are.

Loss… The framework for what we are going through is loss; as if someone or somebody died. Death is a great foil for life and perhaps that is the silver lining in this disaster, that through this experience we are reminded of what really matters.

Perhaps when it is all said and done, that is what we were able to take with us when we fled our homes, and we are still holding on to it, even now, whether we have a home to return to or not. Perhaps…

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