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Flames and Flowers

May 15, 2019

Every now and then, life sends you a storm to remind you that you’re human.

November 8 started out like any other Thursday: Wake up at 5:30 a.m., rush to get ready, drive through the canyon and meet tens of smiling college students anxious for good futures as their professor at 8:00 a.m.

Driving through the canyon, I realized it wouldn’t be an ordinary day.

Moving to California, I never resubscribed to cable. I’ve been living without TV for the last 20-months, and if there ever was a 20-month period to be sans TV, it would be the last 20-months. The Charlottesville rally took place the week I moved and in its aftermath, our country seemed to unfold with vitriol week-after-week, day-after-day and minute-after-minute. Without a cable subscription, I have been able to make my home a place of bliss–a place safe from the world and its ever seeming doom–a total reprieve from what’s going on in the outside.

Because of my profession and desire to be a good citizen, I know I can’t live in absolute ignorance of what’s going on in the “real world.” So I listen to talk radio and scan Twitter and websites every morning to get my daily dose of misfortune and bad news.

November 8 was bad.

As I carefully careened my car across the curves of Malibu Canyon, conscious of the time and hoping I wouldn’t be late, I heard the news.

The night before, people–including my college students–went out for a night of fun at a country bar some eight miles from my house. 13 of them wouldn’t leave that night, because a gunman entered a place where people desired to be joyful and carefree and murdered them.

It seems like every day we hear about another mass shooting in America. Various points of my life are bookended by mass shootings. I was a high school freshman on April 20, 1999 when Columbine took place minutes from where I grew up. My father’s coworker lost his son. When my dad called me that night from work to tell me he loved me, it was one of the first times I heard him cry. I was a new prosecutor in Aurora, Colorado on July 20, 2012 when a gunman entered a movie screening of a Batman film and murdered 12 people. I would be working in the jail he was housed the next day, carefully navigating through the cells to offer plea bargains to people accused of much less serious crimes.

In each of those instances, I felt innocent–a kid living in a movie where the backdrop was a country with a growing violence problem. At both points in history, I was living with my parents and because I could come home to their nest, I felt like I didn’t need to face the issue head-on. I was the kid. The adults would fix everything. I would be safe.

On November 8, I was the adult.

By the time I entered class at 8:00 a.m. on November 8, my students had heard the news. One of their classmates, Alaina Housley, a beautiful, talented and pure 18-year-old, had been murdered at Borderline.

I don’t know what I said to them that day. But standing in front of the room as a professor whose vocation is to lead a group of young people to bright futures, I felt hopeless. Hopeless that the world these young people are moving into is one that as days go on, seems more rife with violence, hatred, mistrust, deceit and greed.

I couldn’t focus once I got back into my office after teaching. I had a speaking engagement at the Tiger Woods Foundation in Orange County that afternoon, so I left Malibu early and drove south. I cried a lot in the car that day, just questioning how things can be so brutal in this world and how a simple, small person like myself could ever make a difference.

November 8 was a bad day.

Walking into the Tiger Woods Foundation, my mother who lives 1,000 miles away called me. She said she was having stroke like symptoms. A 14-hour drive away, I again felt hopeless, unsure of what I could do to help her in that situation. While November 8 would mark another hospital visit in a string of several for her, luckily all would turn out alright.

I spoke to a group of high school students at the Tiger Woods Foundation who will be first generation college students. Hearing their dreams and aspirations provided a sparkle of hope in an otherwise rough day.

Leaving the speaking engagement, I met my friends, Andy and Katie, for dinner. As I drove, the radio announcer came on saying a fire had started. It was near my house, but far enough away that I didn’t feel I needed to cancel my dinner plans. I figured I would enjoy dinner, drive the 90 miles home, pack a bag and be prepared to leave the next day, if need be.

Because of the stress of the day, I let my guard down at dinner. We relaxed and enjoyed each other’s company. I wasn’t in a rush. I hugged my friends goodbye several hours later, thankful for the role friends play in otherwise dire days.

Driving up the 101 freeway, my mind raced again about the role I play in securing the positive futures of young people. My heart hurt for the dreams that were taken too soon by someone filled with such great hate. I questioned how hate could be erased.

Night had fallen and it was now dark. The air smelled like a campfire and dust was falling from the sky. I was going to pack, put my tired self to bed and wake up to face whatever November 9 had to offer.

Or so I thought.

My phone buzzed and an alert popped up, letting me know that my neighborhood was about to be put under mandatory evacuation. I put my foot on the gas and drove through barricades to my apartment, which had largely been evacuated before I got there. I had three-minutes to pack things before the mandatory evacuation went into effect. The air was hot, ash was falling and the wind was screaming.

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It was hard not to panic when I got inside. How do you pick up the pieces of your life in three-minutes? I spent the first 30-seconds wandering aimlessly, lost. I then walked into my bedroom and through the billowing howls of the wind outside that were brutally shaking my flimsy windows, collected myself.

“Nothing is permanent, Alicia. Just go.”

I grabbed two belongings: the Bible my grandmother gave me on my first communion and a picture of my grandparents, who played a big role in raising me. I grabbed my document binder and a clean outfit.

And I was out the door.

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I don’t scare easy. I approach strangers, walk alone with homeless people and have traveled solo to developing countries. For once, I was afraid.

It’s hard to explain the sounds of fire or the heat or the pulses rushing through your body as you wonder if you took too long, if you have enough gas and if traffic will be too crazy to get out.

I exited my barricaded neighborhood and made my way through Malibu Canyon, the road I meandered some 15-hours earlier, unaware that I’d have to counsel teenagers about the murder of their peer. Little did I know that soon thereafter, the fire would unexpectedly jump the freeway and burn through the neighboring canyon and onto the precious campus where I teach.

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November 8 was a bad day.

At this point, I can’t remember how long I was evacuated, but it was at least a week. And in a strange way, being evacuated allowed me to fully process all of my thoughts and come to grips with the craziness this life presents.

For the first time in my otherwise charmed life, I was a nomad. Moving from place to place, reliant on the grace and giving of friends to sustain me. I had nothing but a few things. I had no work to do, as my work was literally on fire. For a brief moment, life consisted of just me and Time.

I did a lot with that Time. You think a lot when you don’t have anything and also have nothing to do.

I thought about the people I need to forgive. I rattled the scenarios through my head with the time I had. I let things go. I uttered to the universe and air and space and Time my forgiveness and sent up a wish that they, too, might forgive me.

I thought about the fortune of my life. That despite being without home or work or things, I was so full. I had people who loved me. I had places to go. I had offers to restore the material things that had been lost. I had nine zillion text messages a day from what seemed like every human I ever came into contact with. I uttered to the universe and air and space and Time my gratitude for the abundance I have been given.

I thought about what mattered. I thought about all of the things that I had accumulated and stored up inside of a home that for all I knew, had burned down. I thought about how easily and freely I was able to walk away from it all. My body still in tact, my soul still hopeful. I questioned where I was storing up my treasure. Is my treasure on Earth? Or is it in heaven. I sought forgiveness from the One from whom forgiveness really matters.

In the end, I went home. The fire burned less than one-hundred yards away from my house. It was truly miraculous that I went home.

The scene surrounding my house and neighborhood in the wake of the Woolsey Fire literally looked like something out of Armageddon. Everything was black and burned and charred and destroyed. What was once beautiful and alive and sprite was in total disarray. Hopeless.

And in that image, I saw the world I had been witnessing for some 20-months. I saw the ugliness and blight, the bitter and wrong, the unforgiving and unrepentant. There in front of me was a graphic display of all that could go wrong.

It’d be easy to say that was the end of the story. Everything was amiss, a mess and wrong.

But that would be wrong.

The rain came.

What a gift rain is. Rain is central to life. It washes. It cleans.

And it restored.

It wiped the mountains clean. It pushed away the soot. It channeled through the mess.

And presented the beauty.

It brought the flowers.

After the flames, came flowers.

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Flowers everywhere. Flowers taller than buildings. Flowers of vibrant colors. Flowers of unimaginable density, dancing around on mountaintops like ballerinas.

Flowers taught me one of the most joyful and abundant lessons in this life:

Nothing is permanent.

We possess nothing.

Redemption always comes.

If you find yourself in the midst of flames, keep going.

The flowers await you.

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