There’s nothing up there,
I said during a critical conversation with a friend of twenty years about another friend of twenty years who had just moved from Chico to Paradise, a low-income town of 30,000. 80 years ago Gertrude Stein said, “there is no there there,” about her own Northern California hometown of Oakland. Paradise, California is a twenty mile trek up the Skyway from Chico, a beautiful drive with a deep, sublime canyon to the north and a landscape to the south that looks like Eugene in the spring and the Serengeti in the Summer. I’m told that the volcanic rock spread sparsely throughout the grasses rolled down from a Mt. Lassen eruption long ago. Or was it Mt. Shasta? I never researched the truth.
Why would anyone live there?
I asked during that same conversation. My attitude went on to create some division between old friends. How do you react when someone tells you that the town and home you live in shouldn’t exist? The fact is that my feelings had more to do with the lack of Ubers after a Saturday night bar crawl than a care for the quality of every day life. Hindsight is full of humility.
The hard question now is, was I right for the wrong reasons? Should Paradise exist? The Fire has given its answer.
All is not lost, the unconquerable will, and study of revenge, immortal hate, and the courage never to submit or yield,
John Milton writes in Paradise Lost. Should we hate The Fire or listen to it? If we listen, is it submission? Would listening be the conquering of our collective will, or the beginning of a 21st century Manifest Destiny — an enlightening path forward? Do we listen to The Fire?
My father’s home was one of 6,000 eviscerated. I was the only one there when it came. That friend of twenty years with whom I had the critical talk of Paradise and his new family put me up my first homeless night. They gave me a key.
I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only,
TS Eliot writes in The Wasteland. I’ve been using my father’s house key in the shiftlock release of my automatic vehicle for months. I can’t shift into park or reverse without it. The key is nice and big, and it slides into the small, unusual slot conveniently. I needed it to escape on November 8. It’s only purpose now is to unlock my mobility. The key will never turn again, but it still works.
My hospitable friend’s son Crusoe is one-year-old, and he loves to repeat da while he points in every direction. I gather that da means dad, down, and that. DA, Eliot writes, is What the Thunder Said. It was a man-made thunder that started our Fire. Our energy source, our sustenance that gives everything, turned against us in a blink to take it all back.
Awake, arise or be for ever fall’n,
Milton writes. As soon as I awoke to the door-pounding fist of my neighbor — my savior — and walked outside I knew there wasn’t a minute to waste. Milton also writes, “solitude sometimes is best society.” That morning was not one of those times. That morning, society was an unfamiliar orange. The house faces south, so I could see the deadly glow coming from the east. As soon as I drove out to the tree-lined one-lane road it became pitch black, and there was inevitable gridlock. All the Paradisians were doing their best to be orderly and not panic. Stay in the right lane. Two miles to the main road. I panicked and turned around. A stranger immediately yelled from his window, “don’t go that way!” I listened, turned back around, and drove down the oncoming lane, passing those in waiting. They had a selflessness I didn’t understand. I cheated to reach the officer directing traffic at the intersection of Clark and Pearson. He waved his arm west and I went, knowing for the first time I would escape terror. One week later, over 1000 are missing. I cheated.
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,
Milton wrote. For most, the mind is all that’s left of Paradise. Our aggregates are forever gone, but our ideas are untouched and pristine.
“There’s nothing up there,” I said. “Why would anyone live there?” I asked. I could not have been more wrong, and I know the answer to that question now. Milton says that the mind is its own place that can make a heaven, but I say that heaven is the mind, where our soul is our ideas, where all is impervious to destruction. Paradise is an idea.
Do we listen to The Fire?
Hell no. We live in heaven.