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The Emotional Whiplash of Living in the Bay Area

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on December 28, 2020 - 8:51pm

was so mad at my home of Northern California back in August and September, when our whole region was on fire. Every morning, I looked outside my bedroom window and saw a gray, smoky sky and our car in the driveway, covered in ash. I checked an app to find out whether my children could go outside, and when the answer was no, I wept or screamed or both.
When I went into labor in the middle of the night, I had a brief reprieve from the overlapping catastrophes that were 2020. I focused on breathing and pushing and the warm, wiggly body the doctors placed on my chest. But the next morning, when I awoke in my hospital room, the first thing I noticed was the smell of smoke seeping in through the hermetically sealed hospital windows.
The app on our phones told us that the air quality index was above 200 — burgundy on the color wheel of doom that had become our daily guide. We rushed our baby from the hospital doors to our car, hoping her fragile newborn lungs weren’t undergoing too much permanent damage in that 200-foot traverse.
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We bought giant air filters on Amazon and set them up all over the house, their constant whir becoming our baby’s first white-noise machine.
I didn’t leave the house for two weeks. It wasn’t safe to be outside. And because of Covid-19, it wasn’t safe to be indoors anywhere other than our home. We played board games and watched a lot of TV and tried to explain climate change to our older children without frightening them too much. When their whining became intolerable, we allowed them five-minute allotments on the trampoline, though even that seemed unsafe.
“We can’t live here anymore,” I said to my husband on September 9. That was the day the sun didn’t rise and the sky glowed an apocalyptic red for 24 hours.
“Why is it still nighttime?” my three-year-old asked at the breakfast table.
I tried so hard to feel grateful that we were healthy and safe from the dual calamities of the fires and the pandemic, but I could feel only one thing: trapped. I sat in my rocking chair, nursing my newborn in the middle of the night, both of us awash in the blue light of my iPhone. I swiped back and forth between terrifying Covid-19 statistics and alarming fire maps showing blazes surrounding us on all sides.
And then, in what felt like a thousand years but also the blink of an eye, the land wasn’t on fire anymore. Thanks to the hard work of countless firefighters and a little bit of cooler weather, life returned back to this new normal, bringing with it the clean, crisp air and uninterrupted sunshine of autumn.
Over the past two months, I have reveled in the glory of this beautiful place, which has been on full, almost ostentatious display. I took walks in the Presidio with my newborn hugged to my chest, enjoying the shadows and chatter of the eucalyptus trees. I played in the sand at Baker Beach and watched my children squeal with delight as they dipped their toes in freezing, foamy waves. I breathlessly hiked the Marin Headlands on Election Day, trying to sweat out my anxiety, rewarded at the top with a sparkling view of the Farallons.
This has felt like the honeymoon period after hitting rock bottom, as if the Bay Area were trying to compensate for the trauma and betrayal it doled out earlier this year. I am powerless against its beauty and manipulative charms. I don’t know which feeling to trust — the one that told me to leave when it was on fire or the one telling me to stay when it’s not.
A few days ago, I lay down in a redwood grove, playing airplane with my children, their ropy torsos balancing on my outstretched feet. I gazed up at their floating bodies, awestruck by the towering thousand-year-old behemoths above them, whose tops seemed to pierce the sky itself. These trees had probably survived dozens of fires, and their one-foot-thick bark bore the scars. In some cases, the heartwood, the tree’s innermost core, was completely burnt out. But the redwoods continued to grow and propagate, not despite the fires but because of them, using the heat and wind to open their cones and scatter their seeds.
Maybe I could learn something from their resilience.
As much of the country is forced to stare down an unimaginably dark, cold, and isolating Covid-19 winter, I feel guiltily fortunate for this temperate climate and endless beauty that I know will carry me through these next few months.
Northern California, I can’t say that I completely forgive you for this emotional whiplash, but thank you for not turning completely to dust.