Life After Trauma

The New Thanksgiving

One year after the Tubbs fire, it would be too easy for a lot of us in Sonoma County to feel sad this week. Everything from the newspapers to the Kaiser wellness groups I attend say that we’re going to be blue. No one would blame us for frowning, crying or being short with others.

Instead, I think we in Sonoma County should make Oct. 9 a New Thanksgiving. If you think it’s strange to feel thankful today, let me take you back to some of North America’s first English settlers. No, they weren’t the Pilgrims you learned about in elementary school, but the men and women who founded the Jamestown colony.

The Jamestown colonists arrived in present-day Virginia in 1607. The place they chose, though far away from Native American tribes, had unfarmable land, undrinkable water, lots of mosquitos and drought. To add insult to injury, a hurricane took out a resupply mission intended to arrive in 1609.

And you thought Matt Damon had it rough in The Martian.

The majority of the colonists died during the winter of 1609–10, a period known as the “Starving Time.” It got so bad that a few of the deceased went on the menu. But more ships came, and the survivors rejoiced. Though no official record exists, I do not doubt that they had a feast to mark the occasion and give thanks.

So, Thanksgiving has as much to do about overcoming hardship as it does about being thankful. Even the Pilgrims who celebrated the official first Thanksgiving had plenty of obstacles to overcome before they sat down at the dinner table in 1621.

So today, on the first anniversary of the Tubbs fire, I want to give thanks for what I have.

In no particular order, I am thankful for the roof over my head; my warm bed; the first sip of coffee in the morning; my laptop; my supportive parents; my growing freelance writing business; my latest short story to appear in a literary journal; going to Russia earlier this year and getting paid to drink beer there; Temptation on tap and chicken wings at the Russian River Brewing Co.; my extended family; getting out on my own again early next year (anyone have an open granny unit?); the beautiful weather; the ocean; the golden hills; In-N-Out; getting up when I want to every morning; the fact that today I’m hanging out with my best friend, whom I haven’t seen in four years; getting a check in the mail; Dillon Beach; Tomales Bay; Bodega Bay; Ramen Gaijin; Hana Sushi; caring for a family friend with Alzheimer’s; scratch-off Lotto tickets; cobalt-blue skies; the winter rain; the 3pm Petaluma wind; my health; knowing how to cook; tax deductions; Obamacare; Treehorn Books; Point Reyes Books; taking power walks every morning; studying abroad in college; teaching at-risk teenagers for four years; earning my master’s degree; doing what I love for a living; and still having the wonderful memories of the things the Tubbs fire stole from me.

To honor my list, I resolve to imbue this and all future Oct. 9ths with a spirit of Thanksgiving. As you break bread with friends and family this week, it is my sincerest hope that this sentiment fills your heart as well.

Happy New Thanksgiving, Sonoma County.

—Thomas Broderick

Thomas Broderick lost his Coffey
Park home to the inferno.

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On the Arts Front

While the arts help the North Bay heal from wildfire trauma, artists continue to suffer.

That’s the finding of San Francisco–based research firm Learning for Action, which reached out to artists and arts organizations in the area with a survey to determine the extent of the fires’ impact on the arts communities in the North Bay.

Commissioned by Northern California Grantmakers, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the new report, “North Bay Fires and the Arts, One Year Later,” found that physical and economic loss as well as emotional trauma has dramatically affected local artists’ ability to rebuild their businesses and produce new creative work.

“The arts bring communities together, breathing life and vital energy that strengthens connection and understanding,” says Ellen LaPointe, president and CEO of Northern California Grantmakers in a statement. “This is especially important during times of trauma and struggle, when art is a powerful means to help people grieve and heal. Artists and arts organizations are also a vital part of the North Bay economy. For all of these reasons, the profound impact of the fires on North Bay artists is a matter of great concern, and warrants concerted attention and investment.”

Learning for Action compiled information from 98 individual artists known to have experienced some level of loss, and 39 arts organizations.

The report notes that many working artists in the region shared their personal and business spaces, meaning that those who lost their homes often lost their studios and offices, supplies and existing projects. Photographer Norma I. Quintana lost her home, photo studio and over 250 vintage cameras to the Atlas fire. Musician and music producer Marcos DeFluri of Mendocino’s ‘Round Back Studio lost his home, his home recording studio and 30 years’ worth of instruments and gear. The report also finds that more than half of arts organizations in the region have seen a decrease in earned income, largely due to decreased funding and donations over the last year.

Beyond detailing the art community’s loss, the report discusses how arts have played a large role in the North Bay’s overall healing process, serving as “second responders” for a public suffering from trauma and looking for respite. In the last year, fundraisers and community-building arts events have blossomed, from BottleRock Napa Valley’s series of benefit concerts last fall that raised nearly a half-million dollars for fire-relief funds, to the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County offering an interactive firefighters playhouse to engage local students in therapeutic play.

October is going to be filled with anniversary events that use the arts to remember and rebuild. This weekend, the Santa Rosa Symphony performs a new piece of music from Santa Rosa–born composer Paul Dooley, “Sonoma Strong,” as part of its season-opening program of music Oct. 6–8. Also this weekend, Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation welcomes several artists, musicians, comedians and more to participate in activities and performances at Shiloh Ranch Regional Park in east Windsor for an anniversary event, Community Healing Together, that focuses on using artistic expression to foster well-being.

The report also notes that both artists and arts organizations are still feeling uncertain about their immediate future, and with rising rents and a diminishing number of available studios and workspaces, housing is still a primary concern for many individual artists.

The next year may prove the most challenging for artists and arts organizations, as donation fatigue sets in and public attention moves on, while artists continue to struggle to survive. The role that the arts play in our recovery deserves emotional support as much as it needs financial support, and the North Bay’s response will have lasting effects on the culture and economy of the region.

—Charlie Swanson

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The Juxtaposed

I was unlucky enough to be in New York City both times the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and while I can’t say that covering last year’s North Bay wildfires was a “triggering” event, I can speak a little bit to how disasters are often attended by strange and poignant moments of juxtaposed sets of images.

I have an enduring memory of 9-11 when, several hours after the planes crashed into the buildings and not long after both buildings collapsed, I got on my bike and headed downtown to see for myself the horror that had been wrought.

As I rode down the West Side of Manhattan, along a park that fronts the Hudson River, I was taken aback by how people were responding to the unfolding nightmare. Some were having very public and very emotional breakdowns. They wept and they wailed and they screamed and cursed. I mean, people were just totally freaking out, all over the place.

And yet other people were just going about their business—taking a jog, fishing in the river, walking hand-in-hand with a lover. As if nothing had happened. So weird.

I remember 9-11-2001 just as I’ll always remember 10-9-2017, when my editor texted me early in the morning as the wildfires swept through Santa Rosa. I live 50 miles from town and awoke to a smoky West Marin and an urgent text. “Get on up here,” was the gist of the instruction.

I got my head together and drove north, and had no idea what I was going to do when I got to Santa Rosa. Not a clue. When I got to the Highway 12 exit off the interstate, I decided to just follow the nearest fire trucks to wherever they were headed. I wound up at a suburban cul de sac where I encountered a weird juxtaposition of apparent calm during the firestorm. A man and a woman were entering a home, casually and without much of a sense of apparent urgency, even as right behind the house, a big plume of smoke menaced an otherwise everyday sight.

Later in the day, I encountered a juxtaposition of panic and quiet in downtown Santa Rosa, outside of Peet’s on Fourth Street, where a couple walked in the acrid and smoke-filled city, while nearby a person with apparent mental-health issues was totally losing it.

There’s a very moving scene in the 2015 film about the late novelist David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour, where the author is trying to explain to reporter David Lipsky what it’s actually like to be a deeply wounded and depressed person.

Wallace references a passage from his 1996 magnum opus Infinite Jest, which explores the psychology of having to make a very difficult decision under conditions best described as hopeless. He asks Lipsky: What compels a person to jump out of a burning building to escape the flames, even knowing that they’ll be dead on the pavement?

It’s a haunting and harrowing examination, and one that Wallace put his mind to years before people actually did hurl their doomed bodies out of the Twin Towers rather than get burned up. There’s also a striking photo from 9-11, “The Falling Man,” which was the subject of a 2003 Vanity Fair article by Tom Junod, and a subsequent 2006 documentary. The photo is striking in that it depicts the man who jumped out the window in a state of balletic equipoise; there’s an intentionality to his decision implied in the photo, and a jarring grace to the head-down pose captured by the photographer.

But it was a fleeting moment of grace—photos snapped before and after the “The Falling Man” show him flailing in the air as he plunged to his death. At the time, the photo lent a sense of calm determination in what was an extraordinarily chaotic day.

I thought about that photo over the weekend and the one I snapped last year of that man and woman entering the home. I wondered what happened when they entered the house, and after they left it. Did that sense of calm give way to panic at the encroaching flames?

I was lucky enough to live in New Orleans for a few years after Hurricane Katrina and was always blown away by the juxtaposed images that city coughed up on a very regular basis as it rebuilt itself after the deluge. I lived there while NOLA was undergoing its own rebuilding, and everywhere you looked there were signs of recovery and resistance—just as there were constant reminders of the storm. There were days when you could practically feel the Katrina panic oozing off of the streets, years after the storm. I remember driving down to Delacroix down in the Mississippi Delta one day four years post-Katrina, and there was still a big refrigerator perched about 20 feet up in a tree.

Sonoma County is filled with its own sets of physically jarring juxtapositions of recovery-in-progress and not-long-ago disaster. This imagery is especially potent in Coffey Park. Everywhere you look there are scraggly and stripped-bare trees commingling with fresh pallets of lumber and new houses underway. At some point, the former will outweigh the latter, even if a larger looming dynamic—the end of human civilization itself—can’t be addressed through resiliency and rebuilding.

If we’re to believe that raging wildfires are indeed the new normal in this state—and that global warming’s impacts are now putting a serious existential question around the fate of humanity itself—well, what now? In this headlong pursuit of rebuilding and getting on with life after the 2017 firestorm, is there another option for the fate of humanity itself, besides getting burned to death or flying out the window to escape the flames? Hey, at least it’s raining this week.

—Tom Gogola

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