My Faith In Humanity Restored Through Ballet (Stories Of The Camp Fire)

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Last night I had the privilege of attending the ballet and what an evening it was! Sure, the story was slightly delayed for the season but out of the ashes the most famous ballet in the world arose in all its glory, tradition, and pageantry in a borrowed theatre here in Northern California. And the story of how this production came to be is perhaps better than the beloved Nutcracker itself… because in this story my faith in humanity was restored.

Now I am not a huge fan of ballet. I don’t often attend performances.  Since I am a writer, I am a lover of words, and without those sometimes my attention strays making ballet somewhat problematic. Needless to say, attending what I thought was going to be an “amateur” performance; I suspected the night might be filled with pokes and prods to keep me awake. Was I ever wrong.

Last night I discovered the Northern California Ballet. Since 1983 it has been producing full-length classic ballets such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and A Midsummer’s Nights Dream. Besides production, the studio has also taught hundreds of children dance skills that have led some to professional dance careers. It is a mighty place full of hope, dreams, and plain old hard work. There are no slackers, slouches or amateurs here!

As the holiday season was fast approaching Northern California Ballet was rehearsing their version of The Nutcracker when disaster hit. On November 9, 2018 the Camp Fire swooped through the town of Paradise killing 85 and wiping out the majority of this close-knit community. It goes on record as the deadliest fire in California history. But that is just the beginning of the horror. In addition to all the lives lost, almost 14,000 homes went up in smoke and so did the studio and storage shed belonging to the Northern California Ballet. With such a fast-moving fire no one had time to save anything. NOTHING. The kids no longer had clothes, school supplies, or a warm bed. They no longer had the comfort nor the routine of dance. Gone were their ballet costumes and their dreams of dancing on stage…or so they thought. Yet, when hardship and devastating circumstances arise somehow folks find the strength to fight back and find a way to turn tragedy into triumph which is exactly what Northern California Ballet did. And last night it showed. The dancers were talented, elegant and polished. They danced with real joy radiating from their faces. The world was their oyster and they were the pearls.

How did they accomplish so much in so little time? Just plain dedication and hard work. But an even more important ingredient was the global ballet community in general. As it turns out companies from all over the world donated costumes, backdrops and props. The Eugene Ballet Company, dancer Angela V Carter’s costumes from Ballet New England’s productions, and both large and small studios from Iowa to Florida found ways to give to their sister in need while volunteers sewed and stitched late into the night. And so, a vital community resource went from a studio of smoke and ashes to an on-stage performance in just a little over two months. Now that is what I call dedication. I also call it a miracle.

In addition to the dance itself music was provided by a live orchestra hiding out in the orchestra pit. These musicians were also from Paradise and many had lost their homes in the fire and their precious instruments as well. Yet, somehow they managed to come together (borrowed instruments and all) and play magnificently. Watching a ballet performed to live music instead of tape is an honor these days and I felt blessed to do so.

By coincidence I went to Paradise last week. It was my first trip up there since the fire. The devastation is immense. Unless you have survived living in a war zone you have probably never seen anything like it. It is shocking. It is horrific. It is incredibly sad.

 

Yet, after tonight’s performance by Northern California Ballet, I have hope for this world. People are amazing. Their resilience astounds me. Their fight to rise again gives me hope. Kids who dedicate themselves to their craft no matter what are inspiring. And the generosity of an arts community to their sister in need are exactly the kinds of acts of compassion and love that the world needs to see.

So fear not and have hope. There are heroes walking amongst us and tonight they were all on stage at The Nutcracker for the world to see. I wish you could see them too.

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Please visit the Northern California Ballet site to learn more. http://www.northerncaliforniaballet.com/?page_id=33

Also, they could use your financial help. Here is their GO FUND ME page. I hope you will give generously.

https://www.gofundme.com/small-ballet-studio-destroyed-in-paradise-fire?member=&utm_source=sendgrid&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=contacts-v2-invite-to-donate

 

Coming Home

Make no mistake about it. We are the lucky ones. With so many families displaced by the Camp Fire (over 45,000 people, and over 13,000 homes burned to the ground) I am lucky that the only thing we have to worry about is a slight stench of smoke which has permeated our home.

We have lived out of boxes for two weeks and I feel incredibly lucky to have had those boxes with us at so many points during this crisis. So many people did not even have time to grab their valuables much less simple things like toothbrushes and a change of clothes. They literally ran with the clothes on their back into the thick black smoke to get away from the flames that were whipping from tree to tree above them.

Today, I started unpacking the car. What I realized was that everything I had packed had deep meaning for me and most were old family things belonging to relatives I had and had not met during my lifetime.

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I saved that 1893 stamp, worthless to anyone but me. It is the one that was taped together by my grandfather and I down in his basement after an epic failure at removing it from an envelope destroyed its purity. Along with it,  came my fifth GGrandmother’s lace sleeping cap and the christening dress that was my 4th GGrandmother’s wedding dress repurposed.

I took my kids adoption records and their citizenship papers, my third great grandmothers carnival glass salt and pepper shakers, and the pot we bought at the souk in Morocco; the one where we almost lost our daughter, probably never to be seen again.

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I took as much artwork as I could fit into the car. Pieces that we have collected during our travels like the deity from Argentina, part of the collection of Japanese woodblock prints and the breastplate we bought from the potter in my husband’s town of origin in Ireland on our 25th Anniversary holiday.

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I took old photographs, the Civil War Sugar bowl belonging to my 3rd maternal grandmother and my GG grandmothers white calling card bowl. The Buddha rode shotgun guarding the collection of celadon pottery that I bought while in my children’s country of origin.

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Everything I took had deep personal meanings and connections to the past. Everything had historical/familiar significance to me and to those who came before my time. And while these items are only “things” and I can’t take them with me when I die; they bring meaning to my life now and I am grateful to have them.

I am glad to be back home. In a home lucky enough to remain untouched by a fire that killed so many. I can’t imagine having nothing left of my life but ashes and soot. I can’t even wrap my head around how that must feel. But this I know…it isn’t the collection of things that we have that are the most meaningful, it is the collection of people, our tribe, that we call our own that bring us our greatest joy.

Now go and give someone you love a hug. Then look around you and think about what you would take if you had to flee. It only takes a minute to determine what is of value to you and unfortunately sometimes a minute is all you have. So be prepared.

And…The First Fire-Related Lawsuit Is Filed. Compassion Is Needed.

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Tonight six more individuals were added to the list one never wants to be on…deceased. Dead due to a fast burning out of control wildfire. This brings the number killed to 48 with hundreds still missing. It is a sad day for our state but especially for the towns of Paradise and Concow where most of the victims resided.

Paradise is not a compact city. There were many folks living down miles and miles of long country roads. People spread out far and wide surrounded by tinder dry forests. As I read over the list of the missing I couldn’t help but notice that about 90% of them were over 70 years-old. Grandparents who couldn’t run fast enough, couldn’t drive, or maybe even hear any warnings that might have come their way.

Tonight it was also announced that the very first lawsuit was filed in court with the fire still raging and fault not yet determined by fire investigators.  The defendant in the lawsuit is PG&E, the local electrical utility. Right before the fire became an inferno, the utility emailed an individual requesting access to their property as the PG&E’s transmission wire was sparking. This is most likely just the beginning of a long list of suits that will surely follow.

While I realize that many will want to see someone held responsible for the deadliest fire in California history; I am hoping people will not turn on those who did their best during a chaotic situation…the first responders. Having lived through several emergencies, I can only believe that everyone did their best to save lives while a fire was swallowing up land the size of 8 football fields every minute. With hot embers flying through the air driven by radically changing winds which were being pushed faster than a person can drive, it seems to me that to try to point fingers is a game in futility and one that degrades our collective humanity. Yes, looking back we always find things that could have been done better and faster but when calamity strikes we all do what we can and  we do what we can to the best of our ability and with the knowledge we have at the time.

Unfortunately, we all have noble ideas of how we THINK we would react in certain situations, often playing those scenarios out in our minds at different points in our lives. But life isn’t that simple. We often find in an emergency that our previously good ideas no longer work. Trees fall, lines are long, folks stay behind for one last thing, we fail to heed the warnings soon enough or we don’t have enough gas in our car.

Unfortunately, I suspect that there will many people who will go to their graves second guessing themselves for failing to act in ways that were impossible to implement when there are so many lives to save in a cataclysmic event. It is truly one of those moments that you can never totally prepare for. The notions and ideas that survivors had about themselves and how they would react in life changing events can often snare them. Then the “if only’s” may begin to slowly eat away at them until they are but shells of their former selves.

I hope this does not happen. I hope people will look at one another and not point fingers but will show compassion and understanding. Perhaps one of the greatest things folks can do for themselves and others in this type of situation  is to stop, breathe, and say:

“I know you are suffering. That is why I am here for you.”

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The “end” of an emergency is really just the “beginning” of a new normal. It isn’t easy. Anger appears out of nowhere and despair can rob us of moments we formally enjoyed. Yet, compassion and forgiveness (a blame free environment) can go a long way towards bringing a community back together and re-building it in such a way that it creates a long-lasting atmosphere of vibrancy, restoration, and love. May everyone impacted by this fire remember that blame creates suffering which only causes further suffering for ourselves. And may those involved look for the best in each and every person and not assume the worst; so that seeds of compassion planted now will flourish in the future creating Paradise once again in this amazing mountain town.

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View of the area around my home