Fire Trails

“History is full of people who just didn’t. They said no thank you, turned away, ran away to the desert, stood on the streets in rags, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, walked barefoot through town, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light.” 

— Anne Boyer, No

The fire trails came after 1991: the hills went up like a matchbox. Afterward, they cut down transplanted eucalyptus trees that are essentially tinder, and carved trails into the dusty hillside. When I was five years old, I ate refried beans out of a can with my grandmother among the remains. The trails bow down through the canyons, loop around the hyena sanctuary, stop and stare at the view. 

My grandmother always comes bearing gifts. Every year on her birthday we give her a farmer’s almanac. She says it is a Russian tradition to give gifts back, but none of us know if this is true. She gives us bags of bulk poppy seeds, blueberry jam, cash in a plastic bag, the Daily Cal crossword puzzles, moldy books about Degas or vintage aircrafts, oranges that come with a story about eating them for the first time as a gift from American soldiers in a displaced persons camp. The presence of each of these objects is inseparable from their past or possible absence. (To have this now is to have not had this in the past, or maybe to not have it in the future. To grow up: subtractive; to grow old: additive.)

My grandmother dies in the summer of 2017 in a hospital overlooking the flatlands of Oakland, the great gray bay, and beyond: San Francisco with its pyramids and hills. She dies and leaves us the home in which I was born on a cul de sac where deer have antler fights and raccoons eat the trash overnight. She dies and leaves us a lost language and twenty years of water damage. None of us speak her mother tongue, except for one of my sisters, who has learned it on her own. My grandmother’s home seems useless and uninhabitable, but we are all deeply, almost preternaturally, attached to it. A year and a half later it is staged by real estate agents, as if we are all minor characters in a play that is about to take place.

“And I began to wonder if my grandmother truly had not remembered anything from the war, or whether she remained silent because she thought she lacked the means to tell me the story … Now, I worry I have forgotten how to honor the smell of wood in wartime, or how to understand that the silence that comes from hiding in a wooden chest is in itself an imprint of violence on the memory.”

— Charmaine Chua, “The Smell of Wood: Recuperating loss in a country of forgetting”

My grandmother waited for so many years to find the Bay Area. She fled through Eastern and Central Europe for her entire life before finally, improbably, arriving in New York City. Later, she was in Switzerland, and then in Arizona. But one day, as she told it, she went along on a road trip with some friends, and they arrived in Berkeley right around dusk. She watched the sun set over the Golden Gate, and she knew she’d go home and get her sons and move. She never left. 

In the fall of 2018, I live in a dark ground floor apartment in Berlin for four months in a neighborhood called Moabit. It is surrounded by three rivers. In the 18th century it was settled and built up by Huguenots fleeing France. It might be called Moabit because “(Berlin dialect) ‘Moorjebiet’ (swamp area).” Or else because the Israelites stayed in Moab while they were waiting to enter Canaan. I do a lot of waiting and wondering and watching in Moabit. I sit by the river and make grocery lists, and then I fall asleep and dream about green onions. 

I am constantly stumbling upon memorials, and write in one of my journals that if you drew a line from one memorial to the next, until you had a map of all the memorials, you would just have a crosshatching. But there are still so many memorials missing, so much that is irreplaceably lost and can be memorialized only as lack. There is a genealogy and a futurity to my time in Berlin: an amorphous, ungrievable grief that precedes my own life, coupled with a joy and serenity that arrive unexpected and unbidden. When I talk to my friends, I call being in Berlin “being on the spaceship,” because of the waiting, and because I am there for my grandmother, and so I feel like a cosmonaut. 

And yet whenever I am away from the Bay Area, I am always waiting to return. I am pulled back with a tug that is like a life force, and the thing is — when you wait for so long to enter a place, maybe it makes sense to never leave.

And like landscape, grief is not static; it is a corporeal, spatial, and temporal dynamic that calls into question our relationships with the deceased, the living, and the landscape. What death shatters, the landscape has the capacity to reflect, to amplify, and to redeem. In exchange, we acquire a piece of the landscape, providing a place for the dead to ever dwell within our memory, our hearts, and our imagination.”

— Karen Wilson-Baptist, “Diaspora: Death without a landscape”

In the summer of 2017 the alpine lake had the clearest water I had ever seen. On the drive up through the foothills, I asked, “Is it ok to do things because you just want to?” a lot. It was right after my grandmother died and I was incredibly full to the brim with grief. I tried to ride my bike in Nevada and I almost fell over. The power went out on the mountain and the moon was blood orange. I stood there dumbstruck for a whole week sweating in the sauna and eating microwaved baked potatoes and saying, i love flux so much i wish i were a freeze dried shellmound and can someone please send me a sign?

I watered my bread in the oven like a potted plant and waited for the good bacteria to grow in a jar. I waited for the sea salt to drain out of my life. I waited to stop anticipating death, and living inside of grief, and wondered if there is a post-anything. I waited to stop waiting. I waited for the time when I wouldn’t be in between things anymore: standing on a ridge of sediment with a searchbeam on my forehead, getting eaten and vomited back up like the liver of Prometheus.

“Well, then it might be that you were born with your mother’s grief, like it got implanted in you as an energy ball. I feel a really strong energy from you, and it’s like, whatever that energy is, you’re a baby growing inside your mother’s body and your mother has this ball of grief or sorrow or negativity, and then it goes into your body, and you’re born, and you’re walking around with your mother’s grief and sorrow, and you don’t even know it! But it’s gnawing at you.

“There’s a way of saying, Could you please send that ball of pain back to where it belongs, if it isn’t mine? Like actually say, I’m sending this back now. And please send it back in the most healed and loving form it can go. But I don’t want it, it’s not welcome, and it’s not helping me. So there we have it. I think that’s what’s causing your road to end…” 

— Sheila Heti, Motherhood

To write about waiting is also to write about flux: the flux that feels like stasis, the flux that feels like the ground coming out from underneath me, the flux that feels like a muscle opening up; the mundane flux, the mourning flux, the sacred flux. It is to write about living by a river, and living by a mass grave. 

There’s a Montaigne essay called “That to Philosophize is to Learn How to Die,” and I think maybe learning how to grieve is also learning how to die. Memorializing — that’s learning how to die, too. It is learning how to tolerate the unsayable and the unknowable. It is learning how to write this story, which has taken me years, and is filled with gaps: things I cannot and will not say. I could write about death until I’m blue in the face, but this is about the other things that happen after catastrophe:

    about standing inside James Turrell’s “Aural” that feels like the inside of a lamp

    about the persistent emotional geographies of love

    about the thing-ness of loss

    about dancing inside a timeless fog machine

    about “Can Going to a Sauna Make Me Happy?”

    about “that queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest.”

       — (Martha Graham)

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Emily Gordis

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