An Unfiltered Breath
by Michael J. Orr
In the aftermath of the wildfire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California, talk has turned away from the tragedy and onward to air quality warnings for the northern half of the state. And perhaps rightly so. There are indeed dangers to breathing the smoke-filled air. Masks are recommended anywhere within one hundred miles of Paradise.
But sitting here down the hill, a mere nine miles below the ruins of my beloved town, my perspective is a bit different. Though I am smart enough to realize the danger, I breathe unmasked. For me, it isn’t simply toxic smoke. For me, that smoke carries much more.
That smoke, which so many complain about, carries the last remnants of my beloved town. It carries the memories of friends and neighbors. It carries the hopes and dreams of every small business owner on the ridge. It carries churches of every flavor. It carries the faith of some, while strengthening the faith of others. It carries our parks and beautiful vistas, scarred for now, but not destroyed. It carries the invincible innocence of every child who never should have seen the sights they saw that day.
If you listen closely, that smoke is made up of every song I have ever written and recorded and every word I have ever written. Its chemical composition includes my favorite artworks of my children: handprints, paintings, their first written words—everything.
That smoke carries within it the last remnants of my pets Macie, Connor and Sammie. It carries my high school letter jacket and football helmet, my favorite guitar, that painting on the wall, and my photos of life. Lost baby teeth, clippings of hair, all the things of no particular value but that mean everything to me and my family. It carries my home.
That smoke carries the same pains that my friends and neighbors are suffering. It is a truly shared experience. That smoke carries the Thanksgivings of 30,000 and the memory of what was. And when the smoke dissipates there will be nothing left. Nothing, that is, except what is in our hearts—love of Paradise, love of each other, love of the potential of a rebirth.
So, yes, I am an idiot for not conforming to the masked masses’ sense of preservation. But I will continue find my own perspective, my own peace, my own memories. I will breathe my unfiltered perspective.
Photo credits: pineandlakes.com and cnbc.com