Welcome Home

As someone who tends to fear little things, I’ve learned to redirect my thoughts when they go from the standard concern to an irrational spiral toward an epic catastrophe. My sons call me Worst Case Scenario Mom when I go too far, yet I slay many of my childhood fears with my redirection approach.

One fear from my childhood became a real event this past November.

The possibility of destruction always loomed over us as we lived in the fire-prone landscape at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains. For forty-six years we rode out the dangers of droughts, dry chaparral, acres of flames, and near misses. This luck literally went up in smoke the afternoon of November 9, 2018, when the Woolsey Fire raged through Malibu, CA. 

I was in the sixth grade during the 1978 Agoura-Malibu firestorm when dry brush and the Santa Ana winds fueled the flames from Agoura to the Pacific Ocean. As the smoke massed over the mountains, we packed our cars and drove down to Zuma Beach to wait out the destruction. Huddled with fellow evacuees, including horses and other livestock from the ranches and farms that dotted the hillsides, we watched and waited. 

I wandered on the beach with my dog as the flames rolled down the mountains sending showers of sparks down the bluffs across Pacific Coast Highway. 

“Please, God, Please!” a woman prayed aloud as the fire swirled around her house in full view of the beach. 

All at once, the house burst into flames from within. The windows exploded, and the fire suffocated the building and the woman’s prayer. Some people comforted her, and I moved on down the beach feeling as raw and vulnerable as the landscape around me.

Late that night as we drove back up into our neighborhood in Malibu Park, past the smoldering remains of familiar houses, we held our breath as we turned onto our street.  By sheer luck, the flames had left a swath of land untouched that left most of our street, including our house, intact.

Three years later, we woke up on an early December morning with smoke already inside our house. The field behind our backyard was in flames. The Santa Ana winds had knocked a powerline down and sparked a small fire that burnt at least one house before it raced down the hill to our street. The firefighters, my family, and neighbors, were able to contain it before it spread and destroyed anything else.

For decades after our near misses, our house stayed out of the path of the major fires in Malibu, but we still worried. My parents took emergency preparedness courses. They cleared the brush around their home. They cut down trees. They made evacuation lists. The fire never came.

I eventually left Malibu for Washington state. Even here, with our abundant rainfall, I think of the “what if” options if a brush fire ignited. These dense forests can certainly burn. The past two summers we had many days when our skies filled with smoke from fires in British Columbia and Washington. I’ve considered what would happen if a fire started near my house—the different trajectories, the escape routes, and the outcomes.

On the morning of Nov. 9, 2018, a quick scan of the news prompted a pang of worry. A fire in Southern California had jumped the 101 Freeway. Once a fire jumps the 101, the fire will likely burn to the coast. This is Southern California fire logic. I read Malibu was under mandatory evacuation.  

I called my parents. They were packing and had a plan. Of course, they had a plan. 

Every break I had from work that day, I scanned social media, clicked on news links, and texted my brothers. My parents were out of cell range, but they had been seen by a family friend. They were on Zuma Beach. 

During my lunch, I watched live news footage. A helicopter flew over the fire, but I couldn’t tell where it was exactly. I studied the vertiginous sweep of canyons and red-tiled roofs, flames, and smoke. For a second, the screen flashed an overlay of street names, and it hit me. This is our neighborhood. For just a moment, I saw our street and the blobs of house-sized fires hazed in smoke. The camera peeled away to survey another burning neighborhood.

Malibu Park is a mix of old timers, like my parents, in their ranch houses and the fancier types, with astonishing Mediterranean-inspired estates. Celebrities and rumored international royal family members live in square footage enough to get lost in.  Mixed up is everything else imaginable—converted garages, sleek steel and glass rectangles, and even an ornate replica Victorian. Dog trainers live next door to physicians, plumbers, retired rock stars, teachers, and real estate agents.

My parents’ house was classic, a house with an iconic and timeless feel—the original midcentury pink bathtub, the double-sided brick fireplace that showcased the kitchen and living room, and the quilted design my mom made tacked carefully to the living room ceiling, between wooden rafters, to hide the popcorn texture above.

It was a laidback house with comfy seating, heaps of books, and a big table in the kitchen where we feasted on excellent meals. Out front, on the brick porch, we had a weathered rocker for sea gazing. Some things were not perfect, like my old bedroom which still had the ugly black and hot pink stripes I made on the closet door (it was the 80s after all). 

On that November afternoon, after the fire had made its way to the coast, my dad walked up from Zuma Beach treading carefully, hyper-aware of the dangers of hotspots and fallen power lines. He couldn’t go all the way to the property, but he went far enough to see what remained. Only the fireplace stood on what had once been our homesite. 

Later, I found out my parents had first settled in the parking lot for Malibu Park High School where they could keep an eye on their street. But as the fire came down the mountains, they told me the flames funneled into whirls and made deep undulating sounds like massive gears on some horrible machine. They feared for their lives and fled to the beach.  

Hearing the news of the growing numbers of fatalities in the recent California fires, my heart breaks. I am grateful that my parents and others are alive. This is what’s most important. Yet, there’s no denying a profound sense of loss. My greatest fear about my family home has always been that one day it would burn down. Now it has.

This was the home my brothers and I returned to often and brought our own children to share in the experience. It was my escape when the dark winters of Orcas Island got me down. It was our home—the one we moved into in 1972–not perfect but one we accepted and loved, with all the idiosyncrasies, like a member of the family.

My parents plan to rebuild.  After the rubble is removed and a new home is constructed, there will be new charms and comforts. After all, the essentials stay the same. The vibrant pink and orange glow of the winter sunsets will still happen. The hummingbirds will return to fight over the bottlebrush flowers. At night, we’ll hear the waves as they break and roll down Zuma Beach. It will be home. 

Despite everything, a new home will rise from the ashes.

We hang onto this hope as tight as we can.  

What was left after the fire

Stage Fright!

I spend most of my time behind my computer screen. It’s a pretty safe place to hang out. During our recent ATOI Playfest performances, I found myself in a scary place–

The stage!

Playfest

Fools on a raft.

My play, Tenacity, was chosen for this year’s performance (Yeah!), and we had a great cast. But, things sometimes happen with community theater, and one of our actors suddenly had two new plays to direct (as well as doing a million other things .  .  .). While we searched for a new actor, I filled in during rehearsals, and as we waited for people to make up their minds, we came to the conclusion that I could play the part.

Yeah, why not? I wrote the play and, besides, it was only ten minutes. It wasn’t like I was taking on Shakespeare.

I still panicked. Why? Well, I was working with this amazing director and two very talented actors. How could I hold up?  Everyone knows comedy is hard. I needed timing, movement, crazy facial expressions, hyperbole (okay, the last one is pretty easy for me).

And, I had to be on STAGE! Before an AUDIENCE!

Scary.

In the end, I decided to let go and just dive in. Trust me, I understood Elaine. I wrote her. She’s the one who first showed up when I wrote this play.

I had loads of fun, and I don’t think I embarrassed my children too much.

Oh, and check out the reviews!

http://www.islandssounder.com/entertainment/301944661.html

I’ve never been compared to Haruki Murakami before!

And

http://orcasissues.com/the-locals-do-it-again-brilliantly

 

 

Reckless

A recent article in the New York Times discusses the connection between a novelty-seeking personality trait and well being and success.

As I read, my heart began to sink. Though I do not like being stuck in a rut and avoid boredom at all costs, my personality could hardly be described as impulsive.

I’m not spontaneous; I’m a planner. On the Myers-Briggs personality scale, my “J” reading is pretty darn strong.

As the Queen of Irrational Fear and Worry, how could I possibly be known as a risk taker?

Does this mean I will not be successful?

(see, worry . . .)

Ah, but wait!

There is an area of my life where I take many risks. I free fall and dance naked in the moonlight. There is a place I can be completely impulsive and drop from the sky to ski down a cliff face.

That place?

My writing of course.

I plan and think about plot and direction. I ask the important questions: What do my characters want? Yet, another part of the writing is reckless. Free.

“Let’s do this and see what happens.”

I can try things in my writing I could never do in my everyday life.

When I don’t like what I’m writing, I most often find my challenges originate from my need to play it safe. Insecurity.

Only when I take a running leap from the mountaintop and scream in delight all the way down I find the magic.

Spontaneity = exhilaration. Can you feel the adrenaline rush?

>Reading and Fear: Part One

>Much has been written about Ellen Hopkins and her recent experience with censorship in the hands of a school superintendent in Texas. I will not rehash the event here, but I’m sad to see this happened. It made me think of why some people are afraid of books.

When I was a teen, another popular writer was under fire. Her name is Judy Blume. The school librarian even had a special parent meeting about how to handle Blume’s books. She recommended parents read the books with their children and discuss the topics, but the one book we couldn’t read (according to the librarian), the one book not in the library, was the book Forever.

This is what the book looked like when I read it.

Because the librarian made such a big deal about the book, Forever became very popular. We passed it on from reader to reader. For those of you who haven’t read Forever, or it has been a few years, the story centers around two high school students who have an intimate relationship. Yes, they have sex. This might seem almost quaint by today’s YA standards.

 Let me give you a picture of what I was like when read Forever. I think I was fourteen, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at me or hanging out with me, for I was very physically and emotionally immature. The fourteen year old Michèle still played with her dollhouse and read The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and all the Shoes books by Noel Streatfeild. The fourteen year old Michele wanted nothing to do with drama of social life or boyfriends at Malibu Park Jr. High. In fact, I made a case to leave school and educate myself. I told my parents I could write a novel, paint with watercolors, and get a tutor for tiresome subjects like math and science.

My parents didn’t buy it.

I had to stay in school, but I did get to read Forever.

So why did the school librarian ban this particular book? Since I cannot ask her, I will guess: She was afraid we would read about sex and think it was cool to have sex and go out and have sex.

Why did I read Forever?  I was curious.

I don’t even entirely remember all the details about the book, but I do know it upset me. I cried when I got to the end and realized Forever didn’t mean forever. What did I get out of this experience? I decided relationships required an emotional investment I wasn’t ready to deal with. Forever may have helped me wait until eighteen to date guys. Well, okay, mostly this was because I was a total nerd and most guys found me scary, but Judy Blume’s book did make an impact on my life, just not in the way the school librarian feared.

At the 2009 SCBWI Conference, I attended a workshop by Ellen Hopkins. She shared some letters and pictures of teens who read her books and the ways her work has impacted their lives. I was so struck with the connection these readers felt. They had found someone who could write about things they knew or feared and a sense of community blossomed.

Books continue to be challenged. The core of censorship is fear.

Fear of knowledge.

Yet, books are a way we can gain understanding. Even if we ourselves don’t personally know a particular world or desire to go there, we can learn about what it is like. The more we know, the better we understand the world around us. This happened when I read Forever. 

 Okay, so my message has to be read in a mirror, but I think you get it!