Paradise Lost

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The houses are still ringed by Christmas lights.

And we’re two weeks into January.

It’s past Christmas – beyond the promise of the new year or the first sweet bite of King’s Cake. But we can’t let go of wanting to feel good again. To feel joy. To feel hope. To feel safe. To be in control of our lives.

Each day we awaken and say to ourselves, “Today will be a better day.” The fear is behind us, we tell each other. Now, we can get on with our lives. We share stories, while we still wipe the grit from our eyes and cough. We sweep the driveways and water down the gardens.

Still wearing our masks.

And we pray for rain.

The fire isn’t out yet, but it’s moved further away. Only the ash is still here – threatening us in unseen ways.

We come down with colds and fill the ER with our flus and bronchitis.

We flip the switches and look to the Christmas lights to make ourselves feel better.

We try not to think of the fire that threatened us, that stopped our lives and put us in this post-apocalyptic daze.

Quickly, it had started – blown alive by some monster wind.

All we could do was watch from a distance as it devoured our neighbor’s lives – all the homes and businesses – scorching the earth south of us. We shook our heads at the disbelief of the quickness of the devastation. At how fast that fire hungrily took home after home while sparing others equally there in its path. We crossed ourselves and said our prayers that it hadn’t happened above us – in our own mountains that watch over our towns.

Carpinteria. Summerland. Montecito. Santa Barbara. Goleta.

We felt we had been spared.

Until the smoke came.

The wind had changed and blown harder, pushing that fire – dancing the flames across the land as it remembered us from the scorched history of our past.

Jesusita. Gap. Coyote. Zaca Mesa. Whittier. Painted Cave.

So many flames, some with names no longer remembered. Each one we battled and fled from in terror. This one threatened to be even bigger as it turned directions and now headed our way.

We watched it move closer – speeding towards us. We hunkered down with our masks, packed up our cars, and took flight while the wind and the flames swirled around us.

The firefighters, always the heroes, stayed in our place. Fought the good fight. And when the winds took pity on us and slowed, the heroes pushed the fire away from us, from the towns laying so vulnerable there in the path to the ocean that the fire so desired.

The battle was won.

We took a deep breath and returned. Spent from running away, with pets and belongings, exhausted from calming frightened children that were crowded into cars; with our lives in suitcases and boxes, we came back to our homes. We had stayed with relatives. Moved to hotels. Bunkered down with friends. We had slept in shelters. We had gotten out. And now, coming back, we tried to reach for normal again. We celebrated the holidays with our sore throats and air purifiers humming in the background.

And we kept those Christmas lights still burning on our homes.

While the fire burned too – higher above us now – in the forest beyond the crest.

We bowed our heads and prayed for rain.

“We need rain!” “Hope it rains before the next winds!” said the Facebook posts in all of our Timelines. “Please, God, let the rains finally come and end the fire!” We cursed the drought and the winds and we knew the answer to finding normal again would be in the winter rains.

Long overdue.

And when we heard they were coming it raised us up with hope.

For a moment.

Until we heard caution in voices that were meant to calm, warning us, telling us to beware.

Fear takes a toll on you when life is full of uncertainty. And your fate is tied to the fickleness of the wind. Quickly, hope can change, and you’re not ready for it.

Within a day there were knocks on our doors again, the cell phone texts awakened us in the thick of night: “Evacuate! Evacuate!”

None of it seemed real.

A mist had started to fall on us that day – so soft and fine – sweetening the air again. All day it had misted – merely a drizzle. Nothing to fear. We welcomed it.

But the messages blared from the tv and social media: “Get out!” “Make plans to get out!”

It didn’t ring true. It didn’t seem possible. With so much beauty returning to our world – the sun was out and the air was just starting to fill with the scent of normal again. We had taken off our masks, unpacked the cars, settled down the children and the pets, and started to live the routine of our lives again. We had our world back once more – a world filled with beauty, an enchanted forest that kept us there, privileged to walk and live within it.

It’s easy to overlook Paradise sometimes. To take it for granted. With bills and work and worries filling our heads and clouding our eyes. But the fire had reminded us. We had been threatened and humbled by the threat, but now it was gone, and the rain, so gently falling, would finally put an end to that threat. We would be free to live in Paradise once again, knowing just how lucky we all were to be there.

To have survived.

So when they warned us and told us to be ready, it didn’t make sense. Our heads were still filled with that post-apocalyptic daze. It was hard to chase it away – the malaise wrapped around us, slowed us down, took away the swiftness of our feet, silenced our questioning. Our lives had been unpacked and safely tucked away. How could they tell us now to get out?

The rain was not the fire.

We couldn’t fear it. We couldn’t see it like the flames in the distance, or sniff its destruction in the air. We couldn’t taste the smoke as it choked us. We couldn’t see the danger. There was only the soft touch of a drizzle. A rain so gentle it only comforted us. The rain was here and it would save us. And save our Paradise too.

We were too tired, too spent to listen, to pack up again, to run away.

And so we stayed.

Not knowing the apocalypse we thought we had survived was only yet to come.

And our reclaimed Paradise would soon be lost.

(Our family is safe, but others have paid the ultimate price simply for living where we live.  If you’d like to help victims of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito Mudlside here is a list of organizations who you can contact:  Disaster Relief Organizations

 

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Darlene Craviotto Presents Californio at the Alhecama Theatre

Darlene Craviotto reads from Californio. Photo by Kevin McGarry.

On September 14, 2017 the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation was pleased to welcome screenwriter and Santa Barbara Presidio descendant Darlene Craviotto to present her new novel, Californio.  Ms. Craviotto presented an engaging illustrated historical introduction to her book, which traces one families journey north from northern Mexico to their new home in Alta California during the late-eighteenth century.  She then read a passage from the novel.

Darlene Craviotto signs copies of her book following the lecture. Photo by Kevin McGarry.

The captivated crowd enjoyed the presentation in the newly-restored Alhecama Theatre at El Presidio de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park, and following the formal part of the program, joined the author in the courtyard of the theatre for a reception and book signing.

Californio is one of the few publications that fully imagines this human story of migration…

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Everyday People Doing Good Every Day

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(Every now and then someone sends me something special or tells me a story that helps me remember how much goodness there is around us. I’ll post these stories to share with everyone, hoping we’ll be inspired to do good things ourselves, in whatever ways we can to enrich our world.)

She was a little girl dressed in a Spiderman costume.

And he’ll never forget the day he met her.

His name is Jason. jason30

Born and bred in the U.S.A, he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga, a middle class All American boy-next-door, through and through. A topnotch athlete in any sport he ever played, and he played them all. One of those millennials all those articles tell us are privileged and self-absorbed, Jason would be the first to say that was right – well, the privileged part, at least. He grew up with two loving parents in a big beautiful home; there was plenty of food on the table every day, clean clothes on his back, and he didn’t have a worry in the world.

But that self-absorbed part?

Not a chance.

Jason was living in a bubble, that’s how he describes it. “I’m thankful my parents gave me everything I needed or wanted. But why me? There are so many other kids out there without equity.”

When he went to college, he soon saw that up close.

At UCSD, Jason met all types of people – from all different races, classes, cultures, and religions. “Going to college gave me a different perspective on the world, and it opened my eyes. It showed me all the work that had to be done.”

As an undergraduate, he worked at The Pruess School that was comprised of students living in poverty. The goal was to provide educational equity for those students, surrounding them with the best teachers and resources. The school became one of the top high schools in California. And Jason was there, opening his eyes and learning.

It was just a natural fit for him to graduate from UCSD with a major in History and a minor in Teacher Education. He didn’t waste any time at all before putting himself through Point Loma’s teaching credential program by tutoring students ages 5-18, subjects ranging from learning the alphabet to AP Calculus. And he landed his first teaching job right away at Mount Miguel High School where he motivated students, and turned the failing baseball program into a winning one.

Three years later, he was offered a job as Vice Principal.

That’s what brought him to El Cajon Valley High School. A school with a large transient student population, over 20% of its students are refugees from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries in Africa. Maybe because of its demographics, ECVHS was a perfect school to get involved with the “Bridge Baskets” program that took place this last December.

“One of our teachers – Ryan Trammell – sent out an email about a project started by Bridge – a community organization that was set up to help refugee families recently resettled in El Cajon. These were people in our community – mothers and dads with little children – who were struggling just to get by. And they really needed help.”

Everybody at ECVHS jumped on board.

From the administrative staff, to the faculty and students, the school became the drop off center where supplies for “Bridge Baskets” were gathered and sorted.

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Bridge is an initiative that provides services to Middle Eastern newcomers (specifically low income families) in the San Diego area. Many Syrian and Iraqi families have arrived in the United States with minimal resources and limited English. They’ve been traumatized by conflicts and wars that have forced them to flee for their lives and the lives of their children. Suffering from hardships and the difficulties of getting out from their countries, many have had to leave other family members and loved ones behind. These survivors are suffering and in great need. The organization helps by providing the necessities of day-to-day living to these families when they first arrive here in the U.S. “Bridge Baskets” contain simple everyday items: toothbrushes and toothpaste, bath soap, laundry detergent, a water filter for a faucet, and one bike per family for transportation. Items we probably take for granted, but they are items so important in everyday life.

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“The power of action was overwhelming in the amount of support that came from that one email that was sent out by Ryan,” Jason said, with more than a hint of pride for his school.

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“Everybody pitched in and took that next step, not really knowing what to do but putting it out there anyway and having the community work together.”

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For two days in December, items were dropped off at El Cajon Valley High School.

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The school community bonded together as collectively they found a way to help. Staff members worked side-by-side with student leaders to sort everything – clothes, toys, and everyday supplies.

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A collaborative effort between Bridge, Bright Nations, and ECVHS, with assistance from the Persian Cultural Center, the Bridge Baskets were packed up and loaded into pickup trucks, and the deliveries were made to the thirty families living at a small motel in El Cajon.

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“When we drove up to the motel I couldn’t believe that this run down looking place was where families were staying.” said Jason, knowing this was a big difference from the way he grew up in Rancho Cucamonga.

But some things were the same.

“A bunch of kids were playing in the parking lot, like they had no cares in the world. They were happy to see us, not even knowing who we were!”

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“We put room numbers on every bag. There was an equity when we handed everything out. It wasn’t a free-for-all; we brought the boxes to each motel room where a refugee family was living. Families of five, six, seven, and eight were living in one room with only one bed.”

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It was a mix of people – young children, not even in high school, with their mothers and fathers. All had recently fled from the war in Syria. The International Rescue Committee had placed the refugees there for 30 days as temporary housing.

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Jason was very affected by what he saw. “To go from war, straight off the plane, and to this inhumane environment now – the small crowded rooms, a little rundown motel, and without much to live on.”

But he soon found hope there in the faces of the refugees.

“In their eyes, they were so thankful. Their sheer appreciation for everything we were giving them was remarkable. In spite of the trauma they had seen, in spite of knowing their lives in the U.S. would be difficult, they were relieved that their kids were finally safe. The sacrifices they had made in the name of the love for their kids was powerful. And I couldn’t help but think that my parents would have done the same for my brother and me.”

And then, he saw the little girl in the Spiderman costume.

“The look in her eyes I will never forget. In spite of those conditions around her, and the trauma she had been through, there was such a look of joy and freedom on her face. She knew where she had come from but she just knew she would be okay now.”

Jason still is silenced and humbled by that moment.

“It will be ingrained in my core, forever,” he finally says. “I wish every human could experience that moment in time. Anyone who loves kids or who’s raised them,” he added. “Any concerns Americans might have, it would all make sense to them – to understand what it means to be a refugee.”

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“Although this little girl and I didn’t understand a word we were saying to each other, we realized we didn’t have to. Love knows no language. God bless America.”

(If you’d like to help a refugee family in need, you can learn more information or make a donation to Bridge of Hope – San Diego (Facebook page) or International Rescue Committee by clicking the organization’s name in blue. )

Want To See a Good Film…?

I watch a lot of new films at this time of the year because I’m a member of the WGA and I have to vote on best screenplay. Seldom do I recommend a movie, but last night I saw one that I urge everyone to see.

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“Hidden Figures” is based on the true story of three African-American women who played pivotal roles in the early days of NASA and America’s first space missions. Already nominated for two Screen Actors Guild awards, two Golden Globes, and having recently won awards from the Women Film Critics Circle  and the African American Film Critics Association, this is an important, smart film that is also fun to watch. And yes, you should take your kids. It’s the perfect family film.

“Hidden Figures” opens nationwide on January 5.

Mark your calendars.

Remembering A Soldier I Never Knew

On the 100th anniversary of the Great War, I’m reposting this to honor the men in my family who served and fought…

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(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War.  It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars.  Sadly, that was a dream never realized.) Mort du France

I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial. That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth.  It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name. Gratien Ocafrain. A name so foreign, yet so familiar.  He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called.  Veteran’s…

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