This weekend I had the opportunity to go to the new Meriam Park Drive-in and watch the documentary “Joy Will Find a Way,” the Camp Fire anniversary event held last November 8, 2019, at the Paradise Performing Arts Center. Speakers, musicians and community members shared a time for remembering the experience, the terror, the acts of heroism and the shock of so many people lost from a small and intimate community.
It was everything I expected it would be; it was tender and reflective, and you could see the sadness and the hope on each performer’s face. But I realized something part way through – maybe it was when the images of those lost flashed by one after another, the briefest moment in an endless string of names and faces.
Each new photo made the previous ten, twenty, fifty somehow both less and more important: less, as the names became too many to recall, melting into scores of lives I’ll never know or understand, whose loss can never pierce me very deeply. I didn’t know them, and there’s so much other pain and ache in the world in every passing day. I forgot the names as quickly as I read them.
But each face became more important with the growing number, too. What I noticed in those faces of people holding loved ones, laughing, getting married, welcoming a newborn, is that the brief, unknowable experience of others is what, in sum, makes an actual community. Most of those people didn’t know everyone else who died any better than I did, but they were and are bound together because they lived on the Ridge. The sights, the smells and the stories of that place meant something to each and every one of them. And that made them important to the perfect strangers who still memorialized them a year after they died.
This may seem an odd place to mention the election we’ve all just endured. But the faces of Paradise reminded me of what it is that ties our whole country together and can, if we choose, help us to better see the strangers around us as our own community. We may not all know each other, or even hope to truly understand one another’s experiences, but we’re all here together, now, in this place. We can risk offering each other some kind of fumbling grace or we can further isolate ourselves, righteous and certain and lonely.
There is right and there is wrong, and there is a time and place for fighting for what’s right. But if we choose, we can fight like a family in their home, knowing and trusting that we share a love of the place we live. We don’t actually have to love our home for all the same reasons. It’s our home, nonetheless. And that makes us a community. Maybe we can start with that.