I write this from Sonoma County, where a deadly blaze has been burning without containment for the past five days. The death toll climbs daily. My car is packed with the things that truly cannot be replaced: my books of musical compositions, the sculpture and a drawing that is all I have of my father’s legacy, photo albums of my daughter’s childhood, paintings that I have cherished and which define “home” for me. Dozens of my friends have evacuated already, and several have lost everything they own, including my friend and sometimes videographer, Christopher. In the ashes of his home are the melted remains of the Mythica video equipment and the films we made the past year that we had hoped to turn into a revenue stream for both of us.
All of this is tragic—but with the large lens of time, it is not unusual. As a scholar of Ancient and Medieval history, I know that there have been so many worse disasters in the world, like the plagues that killed 30% of the population of parts of Europe in one summer. Or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Or the Albigensian Crusade, which decimated Southern France in the 13th century, leaving a vast swath of burned lands and tortured citizens. It is not yet as catastrophic as the World Wars my grandparents and great grandparents endured, or the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s or the Great Potato Famine in Ireland.
Tragedy is a tune that returns again and again, weaving its dark and often brutal sounds in the tapestry of life. The question for us is not will tragedy break us---but will it break us open?
The great traditions of alchemy and depth psychology invite us to consider that inside the ashes of outer destruction are the seeds of new life, liberation and depth. These great traditions affirm that what looks like a breakdown can be a breakthrough, and that when all seems lost, something of greater meaning and authenticity might be found. This is the arc of the Hero’s Journey that we see played out over and over—not just in the myths of Parsifal or the stories of Jesus and Buddha, but also in the lives of Francis of Assisi, Dante Alighieri and Ludwig van Beethoven.
I am heartened and inspired by the story of the Confraternities of Florence, groups of laypeople who responded to the horrors of the plague during the calamitous 14th century. There were not enough doctors to tend the victims, nor enough priests to bury the bodies, and so ,ordinary folks gathered together to do what needed to be done: to tend to the sick, to bury the dead, to console the bereaved. Inspired by their patron saint Mary Magdalene and Francis of Assisi, they gathered their courage to stand fully present in the midst of pain, and also offered what they could of hope. They also created joyful liturgies of song and dance, commissioned works of art, and in the midst of unbelievable suffering and sorrow, found reasons to remind each other of the goodness and beauty that still existed in life.
These words of Goethe capture something of what I am feeling:
by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We must not hope to be mowers,
And to gather the ripe gold ears,
Unless we have first been sowers
And watered the furrows with tears.
It is not just as we take it,
This mystical world of ours,
Life's field will yield as we make it
A harvest of thorns or of flowers.
I look around my community and I marvel. The evacuation centers are overflowing with donations and volunteers. The local coffee shops and restaurants are giving a percentage of all their sales to fire victims. People are opening up their homes to friends and strangers alike to stay. Hairdressers and massage therapists and yoga studios are offering free services tot those displaced by fire. In the midst of the worst of circumstances, we are also seeing the best of humanity shining forth.
Marc Andrus, Episcopalian Bishop at Grace Cathedral, told me a wondrous tale a few years ago. He had collected disaster relief funds for Haiti to assist in recovery after their horrific earthquake. When he arrived with his wife Sheila, who has a background in public health, they were astonished to learn that the first thing the Haitians wanted to rebuild was not the hospital or the water treatment plant. The first thing the Haitians wanted to rebuild was the music conservatory. This, they were told, was because music represented something even more important than medicine: it represented hope.
Bishop Marc's story has stayed with me. In the coming months, Sonoma County will need so much assistance as we rebuild shattered lives and charred and now desolate landscapes. We will need all the help we can get with building, and no-interest loans and housing. But just as much—maybe even more—we will need hope. If you are one of those people who needs to be reminded that there is still beauty and goodness in the world, I invite you to join my email list. Each week I promise to send out music, poetry or art that might be balm for your soul--- I know it is for mine.
Together may we find the seeds for renewal, to live a life of communal celebration, intimacy and connection deeper than we have yet dreamed.