It’s happened, you know, when something far away suddenly somehow becomes real? What I’ve noticed is that it often has to be a concrete bodily sensation for it to become really real. I’m not certain if that’s a human deal, or just my deal with the way I’m human. I was out for a run last night and was on College and as cars zoomed past I thought to myself that way too many of these folks have clearly not serviced their cars recently because it smelled like their radiators were overheating. It was like an electric singe smell. And because I’m sometimes slow to connect the dots and because when I’m running I’m also often working on other things in my head, I intermittently thought that since the wind wasn’t blowing, maybe it was only one car with an overheated electrical system and the singed odor was simply hanging in the air. It was about that time, also as I was watching the sun sink and it was soooo hazy, the revelation came. This is smoke from the fires that are burning in the western section of our country.
The news has been filled with the images and the numbers of people who have died and the many who have lost homes and businesses and the exhaustion of the firefighters who endure more than we can imagine. But we see so many images on our screens, I think it sometimes slips into a sort of dystopian non-reality with all the intensity happening in this time in history. But then I smelled the smoke, and not the kind of smoke from a firepit where friends gather to laugh and talk and watch the beauty that is a controlled reminder of the Holy Spirit that descended with tongues as of fire. That’s what pastor nerds think about around a firepit. This wasn’t that aroma, this was a singed electrical smell that that wouldn’t recede.
And I started praying. I do that sometimes when I’m running, mostly that I will survive and they won’t find me passed out and shake their heads saying folks my age should not be out pounding the pavement. This was one of the other kind of prayers. You know the ones when you suddenly realize there’s a world beyond the small little sphere we create around ourselves? There’s a bigger world where people are suffering and they are our brothers and sisters and sometimes we forget because it seems so distant. I prayed for a cessation of the fires. I prayed for rain to help stop them. I prayed the winds would calm and the firefighters would survive and that families who have lost homes and livelihoods will have family and friends and churches that will offer help and hope in the midst of the acute emergency. And then I prayed for our earth. It’s the only one we have, and we aren’t doing our best at taking care of it. We seem to have forgotten that in the beginning it was a beautiful and verdant garden with which God blessed us and then asked us to have “dominion” translated responsibility for it. Human beings were given the gift of naming the plants and animals because I think God knew that we take more responsibility for those things we are invested in from the beginning.
When I said my amens, the singed electrical smell and the haze across the sun was still there. God is not my minion and prayer is not a lucky rabbit’s foot that takes care of everything in an instant. I’ve read that smell is one of the most poignant senses that brings back memories. I sometimes catch a whiff of my grandma’s teal and chrome kitchen when I’m in someone’s home. I can’t describe it, I just immediately know. The burning smell last night took me back to kindergarten when they came and got Belinda and me from school because our old two-story farmhouse was burning to the ground. I remember that I was wearing my red shiny patent leather shoes with pointy toes which I loved, but thinking how much I wished I had my tennies because they felt way better on my feet and I would have to wear these the rest of my life because everything else was gone. The mind of a five year old. I remember my mom’s and sister’s tears, I don’t remember having any of my own. I remember wondering where we would live and where Greybaby, mom’s favorite cat and the only one who got to come in the house, was. Dad ended up finding him about 5 days after the fire at the top of one of our huge everygreen trees that survived on the west side of our yard. We decided he had way more than nine lives.
The smoke of a campfire or firepit doesn’t often bring back those memories – the singed electrical smell from smoke that has travelled across thousands of miles somehow did. How odd is life? The metal part of my mom’s former cherry wood piano that my dad gifted her with for their wedding leaned up against a square-paned metal fence that marked the boundary of our yard for a long, long time. A reminder of what we lost, but maybe also of what we still had. The instrument was gone but my mom and sister, and someday me, still knew how to play. It would simply take awhile to replace the instrument to allow the music expression again.
Our neighbors in California and Oregon, and earlier in the year, Arizona, have lost much in the course of the flames that have consumed. The most important being family members, and the animals who called so much of those hillsides and trees, home. There is insurance and rebuilding and beginning to heal and see new growth, and loss will be a part of all of it.
So. Much. Loss. This chapter of our history. Does it seem real? 200,000 lives to a pandemic in this country alone? 19 years last Friday, 9/11/01, and over 2,500 lives. Will we someday build memorial architecture and statues and museums for the 200,000 lost to a virus? It hasn’t happened in one day, but relatively speaking, maybe 6 and a half months equals the one day of a 9/11. How odd that our minds have to think about those kinds of things – so most of the time we don’t. But sometimes on a random evening run there’s the smell of an odd singed burning and a haze across the sun. And God invites us to remember that we indeed are, our brothers, our sisters, and our earth’s keepers.