I attended a retreat this weekend given by Terry Tempest Williams author of Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. Seventy-five writers gathered to find "refuge in change and solace in uncertainty in difficult times where the violence of hurricanes, floods and fires are the norm." This is what the retreat brochure promised. However, none of us could have known when we signed up that the deadliest wildfire in California history would be blazing away too close for comfort. Massive clouds of smoke poisoned the atmosphere for miles, including the air above San Rafael where the retreat center is located. The smell of smoke lingered in our hair and our clothes throughout the weekend. As I write this reflection two days later the smell of smoke is still in the air, search teams have identified the remains of 42 bodies and are heading back to locate and identify many more in the rubble that once was Paradise. The fire has already consumed 125,000 acres including 7,600 homes and buildings. All of nature is on high alert and birds and creatures even far enough away to be out of danger are chattering in a frightened pitch.
Terry is a writer-in-residence at Harvard Divinity School who puts into brilliant lyric prose her ethical stance toward climate change that threatens to devastate the global environment and extinguish the existence of many species including our own. As a chaplain in a trauma center I thought my retreat would be a respite from the sorrow and tragedy in my daily work, but I soon realized this is not what God had in store. We sat in concentric circles and listened to each other's stories from the school of the dead, the school of dreams and the school of roots. We wrote in the light and we wrote in the darkness. We gave each other the courage to be honest, to tell it real and write it strange if that is how it is. Writer after writer pulled up stories of abuse, sickness, shame, sorrow, frustration and fear. We listened with a critical consciousness, with sensitivity, compassion and deep respect for each others labor. I was able to unravel some tangled strands of multiple tragedies I have born witness to in my daily work and feel relieved of burdens carried so long I didn't know they were there.