Yesterday the stillness of Santa Barbara, wrapped in the brisk and earthy air that follows a bout of rain, was punctuated by the sound of the pounding rotors of military helicopters. Every hour or so one would thunder across the blue, winter's sky. And every time we were brought back to the present reality of shock at the terrifying events that have come to call this season.
In the first weeks of December, California's largest wildfire on record came plundering across several counties, engulfing homes, causing massive evacuations, and sending up sun-choking clouds of smoke that descended upon our cities with ghostly blankets of ash. From San Louis Obispo where we escaped to keep our children out of the fumes, we received word that the evacuation zone had reached our house; I drove back that day, the yellow-dead sky thick with quiet urgency, and loaded the car with a hasty selection of valuables, closing the door on the rest for perhaps the last time. The smoke followed us north and eventually we decided to seek hospitality from relatives further afield, ending up in Roseville, above Sacramento, checking the news compulsively only to hear that the fire would likely burn on until Christmas.
Our house survived. We returned from a month spent in other people's guest rooms to a home that seemed odd in its familiarity. We spent the holiday in Pasadena, driving past hills that looked moon-blasted, charred trees blackening both sides of the coastal 101 highway. When we returned to Santa Barbara I spent an hour in a breathing mask with a push broom, scrubbing away the soot that covered our walkway and carport as we moved towards life shaken and hopeful.
Two days ago it rained. In the middle of the night avalanches of turgid mud tore through the hills of Montecito. Houses, streets, cars, people, gone, replaced by wreckage and sludge. Highway 101 closed. Westmont College evacuated. The sight of first responders and rescue dogs and muddied survivors and devastation vivid on the news. And helicopters, rumbling piercingly through the sky, bringing in supplies, transporting the injured, and seeking out those still stranded before the chill night.
Those are streets I have walked many times, now impassable wastes. Those are people I have conversed with, now drenched with devastating loss. Those are people I have known, now missing in the dark.
This was not how I envisaged this season. The warming, lulling carols of Advent and Christmastide were conspicuous in their absence, save in the form of the Quadriga Consort's two winter albums as the soundtrack to my solitary return to Santa Barbara. Late at night in northern California I found myself mulling over one of my favorites, a Scottish Gaelic carol sometimes known as Tàladh Chriosda or Christ's Lullaby. Its melody rises and falls with a comforting ease and stark beauty. Its words describe Jesus from the point of view of his mother, Mary. This imagined mother's perspective is conspicuous for its unremitting combination of intimacy with awe, circling around the mystery of the incarnation just as Mary cradles and fondles the Holy One of Holy Ones in her arms. But she also expounds upon the experience of the Holy Family, a harrowing story of tumult: a mandatory relocation issued by the ruling colonial authorities, rejected from familial hospitality, Mary delivering her first child alone and friendless in a barn, and later a midnight escape from the genocidal soldiers of a malicious tyrant. This is no idealized cherub-Jesus, no placidly docile, haloed caricature of infancy. This is a baby born to the life-threatening and heart-breaking challenges of human existence.
"O hard-hearted Herod / Your plan will not be victorious / Many are the mothers you left wretched / When you vehemently pursued the death of my little one."
This is a mystery to me. I walked around the block today with 3.5 month old Felix in the front carrier as black helicopters fly desperately and purposefully in the distance. I thought about Jesus born to the rush and tears and pain of homelessness and rejection and devastation. Of the fragility of his existence, the vulnerability of mortality, the tears and words and sighs and laughs and cries that would accompany his short life. I picture him walking beside me, hand shielding the wintery sun from his eyes. Or him knee deep in mud, keenly following a rescue dog into the wreckage of a house. Or him at a counseling center, anguished people haranguing him for news, screaming directly into his face until they are hoarse, or crumpling into sobs across from him at a card table.
I do not know if this is comforting to me. Perhaps it is too soon for comfort. I do know that it is something deep and close and fervent. I cling to that.
"Neither holy angels nor men will understand / Until the last day of the world / The extent of your mercy and love / Coming to take a human body."