These are the sooty days and nights of fire, ashes, and displacement. The aftermath of loss is reassessment and, ultimately, response. We artists (poets, dancers, musicians, painters, photographers, craftspeople, writers, graphic designers, actors, sculptors, singers) possess the skill set that can unpack the events and emotions brought forward by the devastating inferno of 2007. Our skills will also help us imagine a new San Diego/Tijuana. Our creative response to this tragedy serves not only ourselves, but our neighbors, colleagues, and students as well. We have not suffered more than others. Instead, we suffer in league with our fellow humans. We must help them cope, recover and flourish anew.
Our response to this tragedy will fall outside claims adjusters and contractors but we, too, will sift through ashes looking for precious family photographs or our grandmother’s wedding ring. We will mourn the spaces we created in love. We will bury the remains of beloved animals. We will turn over our gardens.
Artists deal best in what ultimately cannot be burned, boxed, or quantified. We handle the human heart, mind and spirit with open hands and look deeply into the center of the sunflower to find the rain, sunlight and earth that brought it forth. What will we make of the firestorm? What will consolation look like? What will the San Diego/Tijuana region become as this Phoenix rises?
I was torn between calling this essay “Beyond the Phoenix,” or “The Fire This Time” in honor of James Baldwin, that brilliant American essayist of the 1960s. The fires here in San Diego are, as the newspaper reports, down but not out. We breathe a little easier for the time being even as we scan the internet and the television for the latest news. We are still looking for loved ones, checking on homes abandoned in the evacuations, trying to get into neighborhoods red-tagged by the authorities. Some of us are already rebuilding. Some of us are too shattered to form a plan, much less take action.
And the days pass…
In this interlude while we pause before acting let us think of what we want to become, ever mindful that this is both a disaster and an opportunity to shift the cultural and political ecosystem dramatically (for good or ill.) While we are doing so we will have to be mindful of our privilege and our assumptions about what is “good” or “the best way” or “the way that gives us the most advantage. Theorists like bell hooks and Audre Lord remind us that “the master’s tools will never bring down the master’s house, and Baldwin asks, "Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?"
We who have watched our houses burning must consider carefully how we rebuild and with what sorts of tools. We can replicate the power dynamic we currently live under, or we can imagine something completely different--quite beyond the Phoenix.
San Diego, California
October 26, 2007