Holiday in the Aftermath

It’s beginning to look a lot like… well, I’m not entirely sure. As the smoke and ash subside I’m starting to notice subtle holiday scents again, like our piney Christmas tree and that awkwardly-gifted cinnamon candle on the table by the door. But once I walk outside and look up to the charred hills, down to the scattered swirls of ash and pyrrhic dusts all about on the ground, it feels far more like a post-apocalyptic nuclear winter than a white Christmas.

Just three weeks ago things were very different. Despite a tough year, things were locking into a final-stretch glide pattern. Work was largely in a good place until January, the home sale in Oakland was finally moving forward, and we’d just picked up a lovely tree at the Cub Scout lot in town. Next steps were quite literally trimming said tree, doing some final gift shopping, and enjoying a few weeks of low stress before meeting up with my family up near Tahoe.

When we went to sleep the night the Thomas fire erupted we had no idea what was in store. The next morning the entire town went on crisis mode until… well, until the last day or so. The LinkedIn offices were immediately in evac zone range, so we’ll be locked out of them until January when cleanup is complete. Time has gotten a bit fluid of late. Holiday rituals kinda got brushed aside amidst more pressing priorities.

We stayed in town for almost a week after the fires started. After the first day I got a bunch of good N95 masks in bulk to share, and helped local friends move and prepare to move out of the area. I figured that as my condo was largely outside the high risk areas, I could stay put and serve as a central point of contact on the beach side of town.  But the smoke eventually started getting to my son, and that plan went out the window along with all my holiday plans.

The evacuation alert woke me up around 4am two Sunday mornings ago. Devin and I could see the flames from our upstairs windows, and when stepping outside on the deck, the roar of the fire could clearly be heard in the distance. The ash and smoke was overwhelming by this point, so we decided to bug out for a while to Valencia where the air was clear and our lungs could rest a bit.

We ended up in Valencia away from foul air as we realized that we might be suffering from a light form of PTSD. All the cheery families with matching sweaters and hoodies, the anxious Santa picture line, the piped-in muzak holiday soundtrack echoing through tinny ceiling-mounted mall speakers – it made Devin and I feel even more displaced and irritated. We chuckled and changed the subject to find whatever silver lining might exist inside our current stormcloud, but it was hard to find holiday cheer under those circumstances. Being a refugee at holiday times is awful depressing, I must admit.

I signed the final home sale papers from a hotel parking lot in Santa Clarita. I did my best to not play back all the great Christmas mornings we spent in that house I was signing away, my little son bobbling downstairs to find the presents surrounding the tree with unbridled glee in his face. But opening my eyes and seeing the hotel room around me, those memories shattered quickly. It was clear this year would be a different experience entirely. Not necessarily bad, but most certainly different.

It’s felt quite the fractured holiday season.

Even now, after scrubbing the layer of ash off of the surfaces in my condo and running air filters 24/7 to get the scent of burn away and completing all the usual holiday pre-game prep, it’s hard to snap entirely back into holiday mode this year. Sure, the tree’s now decorated and presents are wrapped, but I feel a little stuck in the transience of the ordeal. Like another shoe’s still set to drop and I can’t yet let down my guard.

We’re leaving again tomorrow night to be with family up North, and I know that even after that my calendar is filled through the New Year. Perhaps it’s best that this year – quite a tumultuous one at that – I just keep myself busy and don’t concentrate on its non-standard qualities.

Because after a long year of personal loss, heartbreak, physical calamities, legal hell and financial turmoil, I’m feeling like my stress isn’t all from the fires. It’s due to the prospect of my life becoming stable and free of disasters for a change. I don’t exactly know what that’s gonna look or feel like. It’s a foreign state for me right now, and maybe a bit daunting to boot.

I’m hoping stability and peace feels as good in practice as they do in concept. It’s hard to even fathom finding a new normal in the wake of all I’ve had to deal with recently. But for now I’ll just smile, wish y’all a happy holiday season, and let things happen as they may. It’s just been that kind of a year.