Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Waiting To Burn

This past Monday was Labor Day, a rare and precious day off for most Americans. As I am self-employed I was faced with three options:

1)    Work and get the edge on my competitors while they are napping - or at least stave off homelessness a little longer

2)    Work, but dedicate the time to my more esoteric writing projects

3)    Do nothing

Originally I opted for # 2, but then I stepped outside. After months of drought, a tropical storm on the Gulf Coast had reduced the scalding heat of the Wrath of God to a mere 80 F. Now in Scotland where I grew up, that’s the hottest day of the year; in Texas, it’s a cool spring day.

Do I really want to work? I thought. No. Remember your Scottish roots. Think of the folk in your hometown, pottering about day after day in the shopping center, calmly waiting to die. Think of all the people on incapacity benefit, doing nothing even though they’re perfectly healthy. Reclaim your heritage, Daniel! Embrace idleness!

And so I opted for #3. And as soon as I did so, I partook of a collective exhalation. It wasn’t just me - somehow I could sense that all around me, people just weren’t working very hard.

I read a bit, listened to some music, then decided to surf the web. And that was when I saw the headline:

Uh-oh, I thought. As regular readers will recall, a few weeks ago a wildfire destroyed 16 homes down the street from me. Since then there have been more blazes in my area. And on Sunday, as I drove down my beloved Nameless Road, I noted that the wall of scrub was very, very dry. It would take about ten minutes for a wildfire to reach my house.

Ironically the cooling winds of the tropical storm were to blame for the new inferno, for these breezes also made it easier for fires to spread. Reading on I saw that the disaster was in Bastrop, south of Austin. I am north. But then I noticed the sound of sirens - lots of them. There were no helicopters overhead, but when I stepped outside I did see lots of fire engines racing past. Maybe they’re going to Bastrop, I thought, to help out.

In fact, my town was also on fire - just not as badly. Cops had blocked off the streets around my house - ostensibly to prevent people from driving to the burning areas, although it felt as if they were trapping me inside the danger zone. Suddenly my mellow mood disappeared, replaced by mounting anxiety. I had not, as I had promised myself, purchased renter’s insurance; nor had I kept the gas tank full so as to ensure a quick getaway. Once the threat of the last fire had passed, I had succumbed to the common, lazy belief that disasters happen to other people.

I thought about the hundreds of people homeless in Bastrop, their properties destroyed in a matter of seconds. Trees were exploding as the flames leapt from house to house. They had probably believed disasters happen to other people too. Well, they don’t. And why should I be spared?

Spooked, I prepared a box of things to save from the fire - just in case. But what to preserve from a house full of possessions? The laptop and iPod were easy to pack, so they went in first; then, some essential documents. After that I added copies of my books, in various languages, although I was tempted to let them burn as an act of ego-annihilation. After that, making choices became more problematic. I grabbed a few rare books that would be difficult to replace, such as my copy of The Ruhnama; a few rare prints and photographs; and a handful of surreal mementoes from various mystical odysseys I have undertaken over the years. I was about to add my Filipino head hunter machete (complete with monkey skull) when I stopped. 
There was no point. I couldn’t take everything. The fire was coming, and it demanded sacrifice.

I loaded the box into the back of my car and went to sleep. When I woke up, the fire had spared me, so I took the box out of my car. I was about to unpack it when I read that another 300 homes in Bastrop had been destroyed, and that the fire continued to rage. So I left it by the door.

It’s a strange experience, waiting to burn. You hope it doesn’t happen to you, but realize that there’s nothing you can do except prepare to flee. And so as I commiserate with those who have lost everything, and continue to hope that the flames pass me by, I accept that I am entirely powerless. Meanwhile if you come to this space next week and find that there’s no column, well - you’ll know why.