“Little Things,” Sept. 15, 2020

Little things mean a lot. Here’s a memory I’ll not soon forget: I woke in a hotel room, sunlight on my face. Where was I? Why was I there? Slowly, it started coming back to me.

I’d flown thousands of miles to speak at a fundraiser for some worthy cause that, for the life of me, I could not seem to recall. It was scheduled to take place that morning in the conference room downstairs. I’d stayed up late the night before polishing my speech. As keynote speaker, I would talk while everyone else ate, starting at 9:15 sharp.

No hurry. I like to take my time getting ready. I’d set the clock by the bed for 7 a.m. But wait. I hadn’t heard the alarm. Maybe it wasn’t 7 yet? Changing time zones always throws me. I squinted at the clock and read…9:05 a.m.!!

And so it began, a frantic comedy of errors that felt a lot like my worst nightmare. No time to shower, brush my teeth or use a curling iron.
I grabbed my suit out of the closet, then stood horrified staring at my suitcase. The only top I had packed to wear was my husband’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt.

Also, I had no shoes. Not the fancy ones I’d planned to wear, or even the ugly ones I’d worn on the plane. I finally found one of the uglies, but not its mate.

If need be, I could speak in a Ninja Turtles T-shirt. With no make-up. And frizzy hair. But not half-barefoot in one shoe.

The clock said 9:15. Time to get serious. I would call the chairman of the event (Fred? Bill? What was his name?) to tell him I was running just a tiny bit late, and ask him if I could please borrow his shoes?

I never made that call. My phone was dead. I forgot to bring a charger. And the room phone by the bed kept telling me to hang up and dial 911.

Just when it seemed it could not possibly get worse, I woke up and realized I was dreaming.

Some days it’s worth waking up to be reminded, no matter how bad things seem, they could be worse. Waking up from a bad dream is a small thing. But it made me hugely happy.

It’s always the little things that seem to keep me afloat—that keep me walking on water when I feel like I’m about to drown.

A phone call from one of my kids just calling to talk. A hug from a grandkid just wanting a hug. A laugh shared with my husband laughing at ourselves. A FaceTime kiss from a toddler babbling “Nana!” A note from a reader saying she and her mother were praying for our safety, hoping our house didn’t burn. A thin patch of blue sky in a thick cloud of smoke. An act of kindness. A word of praise. An answered prayer for help. A quiet reassurance of hope.

Little things change the world.

This summer has been a living nightmare. The pandemic has caused us to live in fear of a deadly virus, profoundly changing our way of life. And more than a dozen states—especially California, the place my loved ones and I call home—have battled wildfires unlike any we’ve ever seen.

In a matter of weeks, my husband and I watched three separate blazes burn near our house. One of them forced us to evacuate for eight days. Thanks be to the grace of God and the heroic efforts of firefighters, our place was spared. But some fifty homes nearby were destroyed.

Fires continue to burn in every direction. Countless lives have been lost. And we’re all wearing masks, not only for Covid-19, but also for toxic smoke.

Years ago, after my first husband died, a friend sent me these lovely words: “Then, when it seems we will never smile again, life comes back.”

I want to believe that one day soon the pandemic and wildfires and other fears will end. We will wake up to find the nightmare is finally over. And life will come back, more beautiful, more precious, than ever before.

Until then, I’ll count on little things to keep me afloat.

“Echoes of Two Grandmothers,” Sept. 8, 2020

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week for the holiday. Also for wildfires, rolling blackouts, and 120 degree heat. The following column is from 1993. Please stay safe and cool and well! _ Sharon)

My grandmothers were about as different, one from the other, as any two women could be. One sang soprano, whistled it while she worked. The other sang alto, sultry and low. Neither of them sang especially well, but together, their voices found harmony in me.

Neta and Grace met in 1940, soon after the former’s 15-year-old daughter ran off to marry the latter’s 25-year-old son. I am told the meeting was civil, though not especially cordial. The one thing they could agree on, knowing their children as they did, was that the marriage did not have a snowball’s chance in hell.

Why do mothers always have to see a heartache coming long before it knocks on the door? They knew their children’s marriage was grief in the making. But they promised each other to pray long and hard, to do all they could to help it last.

And so began a lifelong pact between two remarkably dissimilar women, a silent but mutual agreement of the heart to make something good out of nothing. Between them was a strength sufficient to move mountains, but it was not enough to keep my parents together.

The marriage lasted eight years. When it ended, Neta and Grace continued their pact for the two things they still had in common: My sister and me.

I was 2 years old. It took no effort on my part, none whatsoever, to become both women’s favorite granddaughter. (My sister claims she was the favorite, but trust me, I know better.) Their constant and abiding love for me was a gift, free and clear. It was also my first lesson in grace, and to this day, I count it a blessing.

From the time I learned to walk until I left for college, my favorite place on Earth to be was with either of my grandmothers. As it happened, I spend much of my childhood with one or the other. I don’t know whose house I loved more.

One lived in a small town, surrounded by people, where she could know all there was to know _ who, what, when, where and how much they paid for it.

The other lived on a mountain, surrounded by nature, where she could know all there was to know about plants and creatures, the changing of seasons, and the quiet reassurance of living close to the Earth.

But here is how they really differed.

My mother’s mother was preacher’s wife who seldom set foot in church. A mischievous woman, a steel magnolia, she wore white gloves to go shopping, played cards with abandon, and swore under her breath like a sailor. She loved her husband almost as much as she loved Jesus. But she could not abide, she said, certain members of the congregation, or any other fools who thought too highly of themselves. Being with her was pure adventure and a whole lot of fun.

My father’s mother was a farmer’s wife who seldom left the farm except to go to church every Sunday. She traveled through the pages of National Geographic, and with the turning of leaves, the migration of geese and her own vivid flights of imagination. She grew tomatoes and dahlias, hiked for miles to pick blackberries, read novels, wrote poetry and painted sunsets on stones. She made everything better, from doll clothes to biscuits to loneliness. Being with her was pure adventure and a whole lot of fun.

But growing up in the care of two such women had an odd effect on my nature. I inherited both women’s characters, not necessarily their better traits. Like two sides of the same coin, both are who I am. But you never know which side will turn up. It drives my husband and children crazy.

I’m neither alto nor soprano, can’t hit the high notes, can’t touch the lows. But sometimes, when the music gets too hard for me to follow, the notes will start to dance, rearranging themselves, until I hear myself singing with a entirely different voice, a three-part harmony all my own. And it doesn’t sound half bad.

“The Road Home,” Sept. 1, 2020

Sometimes, when the road ahead is littered with our fears, the best we can do is to keep moving, knowing the worst may be waiting around the bend, but hoping and praying for the best.

I hope you’re better at that than I am. Two weeks ago, when we saw smoke boiling over a ridge behind our house, my husband and I started packing. Wildfires move fast, and we aren’t as quick as we used to be. But we were mostly concerned about breathing the smoke.

Another fire had broken out not long ago, so close we could see the flames. But in minutes airtankers were circling it, and pretty soon, it was out. We felt sure this one would be, too. But the smoke kept getting worse.

My daughter’s family lives a few minutes from us. When I phoned to warn them, my son-in-law promised to be careful.

So my husband and I zipped up the emergency bags we keep packed with necessities for a few days. We stood for a moment by our car watching the smoke and praying for the firefighters.

Then we left our home in their beautiful hands and drove into town to my sister-in-law’s place. We took no keepsakes or other treasures. We thought we’d be back soon. We were wrong.

The following day, evacuation orders were issued for several areas, including ours. The road was closed. We couldn’t go back.

My heart ached for all the things I wished we had taken with us—things I might never see again. Then I looked down at my wedding ring and smiled. When we left home, I almost forgot to take it. But something reminded me and I ran back to grab it off the sink.

Two days later, my daughter and her family were evacuated and came into town to stay with us. It helped us to be together, poring over news reports, laughing at 8-year-old Henry’s jokes and trying to stay positive.

Meanwhile, I wrote a column about being evacuated and began to hear from readers all around the country who emailed or posted on my website or on Facebook to say that they were thinking of us, and praying for us, and wishing us well.

Never doubt the power of a few kind words and thoughts and prayers. To someone who is trying to silence her fears and hope for the best, they can mean the world and then some.

The big break came with a change in the weather. The forecast had called for more dry lightning, the kind that had set fires throughout California. But the storm missed us. And the fog rolled in from the coast and inland through the valley.

Two days after they were evacuated, my daughter and her family and their neighbors went home. We were thrilled for them, and hoped we’d be next.

Crews were spread thin with hundreds of fires around the state burning over a million acres. But they fought hard to keep the Carmel Fire from advancing to the Village.

We checked maps online daily and watched it inch to within a mile of our place—but never closer. Our neighborhood was spared. Yet, a few miles east of us, fifty homes were destroyed.

Finally, eight days after leaving home, we were cleared to go back.

Carmel Valley Road is a two-lane country highway cradled by rolling mountains, dotted with horse farms and vineyards and fields of wildflowers. Rush hour traffic is a herd of mule deer and a flock of wild turkeys. Those of us who know it well like to slow down and enjoy the ride.

It’s especially lovely now with makeshift signs everywhere shouting “Thanks, Firefighters!” from a close-knit community that feels so blessed.

I wish you could see it.

Tough times bring out the best in us. When tragedy strikes, a God-given goodness rises up to remind us of who we are and why we care for one another.

Fear can be a hard road to travel. But when paved with grace and lovingkindness, it always leads us home.

“Fire and Fear,” Aug. 25, 2020

It seemed like a typical family gathering with the usual chatter and teasing and laughter. My daughter, her husband and their 8-year-old, Henry, were joining my husband and me for dinner.

Lucky for everyone, Nan did all the cooking, serving up her famous chicken enchiladas, a salad and, oh my, a berry pie. My job was to toss the salad. I gave it my best.

Meanwhile, the menfolk sat on the deck solving the problems of the world. And Henry (after his mom said, “That’s enough, Hen, turn it off!”) quit his video game and began quizzing me with jokes.

“So, Nana,” he said, “what do you call a cargo ship that’s loaded with snails?”

I pretended to be clueless. I’m good at it. “I give up,” I said.

“Escargot!” he shouted. And we rolled our eyes and laughed.

We were trying, all of us, to make the best of it, to just enjoy our time together. And we were doing a pretty good job.

I wish you could’ve seen us.

But you might’ve been surprised by the elephant in the room—the fact that we were all wondering if our homes would still be standing tomorrow.

All around us, California was in flames with more than 600 wildfires, most caused by dry lightning strikes. Two were burning on either side of Carmel Valley, where my husband and I have lived for the past year.

Our neighborhood was evacuated a few days ago after one of the fires grew to within a mile of our house. Our daughter and her family, who live only minutes from us, were evacuated two days later.

Fortunately, my husband’s sister and her husband offered to let us all stay at a place they own nearby. It’s been in the family for years. In fact, it’s the house where my husband lived in 1987, when he and his family were evacuated from the Pebble Beach Fire that burned every house on the block, except for the one now sheltering us.

The mood grew quieter as we sat down to dinner and joined hands to take turns saying grace. I thanked God that all our family was safe. My daughter asked that our homes would be spared. My son-in-law gave thanks for the house where we were staying and for the family that provided it. Henry, bless him, prayed for “everyone less fortunate.” And my husband said thanks for the firefighters.

That basically seemed to sum up most of what we were feeling, both then and in the days since. We’ve spent a lot of time talking and messaging with family and friends who want to be sure we’re OK. We check constantly for updates on the fires, the latest evacuations and the weather that’s forecast to bring more dry lightning, along with the threat of more fires. The air has been too smoky to spend much time outdoors, but when it clears a bit, Henry’s mom takes him to the beach.

All things considered, we feel truly blessed to be doing so well.

My husband recalls how it felt long ago to leave his home, not knowing if it would be there when he came back. But for the rest of us, and many others, it’s a new and terrifying experience.

So we try to make the best of it. We keep close to those we love and try to remember to give thanks for our blessings, rather than give in to our fears. But we can’t seem to stop checking for any breaking news.

There are times in life when we close our eyes and see only the sorrow and emptiness of some unspeakable loss. I’ve done that. So have you. But for me, it’s always been for the loss of someone I loved.

Tomorrow, I could lose my home and all it holds. If my loved ones are safe, I hope I’ll remember that things are only things; life is all that matters.

I’ll pray for the strength and courage and grace I’ve seen in others and even in myself when I’ve faced loss by letting go, giving thanks and moving on.

But today?

There’s smoke in the air and ashes in my heart. And I just want to go home.

“Things We Do for Love,” Aug. 18, 2020

Fifteen years ago, I said “yes” to my former editor. Not to work for him. To marry him. Why? Who can explain the things we do for love?

We had worked together for 10 years, then dated for another five. It was a second marriage for us both. He was divorced, I was a widow. We knew the road we’d be traveling together.

But the strength of a marriage is not what you think you know on your wedding day. It’s how you deal with the nagging annoyances that pop up over the years like gophers in a bed of roses.

We’ve survived our share of gophers with no real regrets. We married, of course, for better or for worse. But our wedding vows did not cover haircuts.

One surprising side effect of the coronavirus quarantine is an increase in the growth rate of human hair. Especially for men. This is not a scientific fact, just a simple observation.

In the past six months, I’ve not set foot in a salon and my husband hasn’t been to a barber. In that time, my hair has grown a few inches. And his hair has grown twice as much as mine. I look like I need a haircut. But he looks like a stunt double for Bigfoot.

Or he did. Not any more.

We’ve each dealt differently with our bumper crop of hair. I put mine up in ponytail. And he ordered a set of hedge trimmers. I mean, hair clippers.

“How exactly will you manage to cut your own hair?” I said.

“I won’t,” he said. “You will.”

“HAH!” I laughed. “Not a chance! You would hate it and I’d never hear the end of it!”

He didn’t argue, just went back to watching a Giants’ game on TV, with cardboard cut-out fans in the empty seats behind homeplate. Then the clippers showed up and he tried again.

“C’mon,” he begged, waving the instructions. “I don’t care how it looks. It’ll feel cooler!”

Persuasive, isn’t he?

“Fine!” I said. “Go out on the patio. It’s gonna be a mess!”

I was tempted to start with the nose hair trimmer. Instead I used the attachment for the longest cut. Then a shorter one. Then the shortest.

Hair flew like peach fuzz in a packing shed, enough to line the nest of every buzzard for miles around.

“How’s it lookin’?” he said.

“Hold still!” I snapped. “I need to trim a little more off the back. And the sides. And the, uh, top.”

The clippers hummed like a wood chipper. Finally I stepped back to admire my handiwork and stifled a gasp: Bigfoot, bless his heart, had a buzz cut.

“OK,” I said. “You’re done.”

Running a hand over his head, his eyes got big as hubcaps and he ran inside to the bathroom mirror. I waited for a scream. Instead, when he came back, he seemed strangely calm.

“Well,” he said, scratching his prickly scalp, “it’s cooler.”

I expected complaints, but he’s been pretty good about it, possibly because we’ve had bigger things to think about.

Lately, our typically lovely Carmel Valley weather has seen temperatures climb to 107 or higher, and wildfires are burning all over California.

Last night a storm raged for hours with no rain. Thunder boomed, shaking the earth, and a spectacular display of heat lightning zigzagged across the sky and tap-danced on the hills. It looked like a battle scene from “Star Wars.” We kept watch for fires until 4 a.m., when the storm finally passed. More of the same is forecast for tonight.

Meanwhile, about 10 miles east of us, our neighbors near Salinas are fleeing from a fire that was started by lightning and is burning out of control, threatening lives and homes.

There are always bigger things to think and care about, if we care enough to think about them. A good marriage is like a good life, blessed not by a lack of annoyances, but by a practice of gratitude and an abundance of lovingkindness and grace.

If it’s 107 tomorrow, I might try those clippers on my hair.

“A Reason to Celebrate,” Aug. 11, 2020

Birthdays mark the passage of another year of learning, growing, laughing, loving, and best of all, being alive. They should always be celebrated—especially in a pandemic.

I grew up in a family that observed birthdays with only a cake. No cards. No presents. No parties. Just “Happy birthday, pass me a hunk of that cake.”

It was a good cake. My mother made it. Sometimes we cranked it up a notch with a churn of ice cream. No matter how other kids celebrated their birthdays, to me, a cake was enough.

Imagine my surprise years later to find my own children expected a bit more than a cake. After some discussion, we reached a compromise. They could invite only as many friends as would fit in our VW van. I’d take them swimming at an indoor pool that charged fifty cents per kid and had lifeguards to keep them from drowning. When they were exhausted from swimming, I’d take them to our house to eat pizza and cake (storebought, not homemade) and let the birthday person open gifts. Finally, they’d all pass out on the family room floor.

The next day, I’d feed them pancakes and send them home. Except my three, who stayed to fight over the gifts. We did that until the kids were teenagers, and preferred parties without my help or my presence.

After they grew up and had children of their own, the parties became real wing-dings. I’ll never forget my first grandchild’s first birthday. Randy stood surrounded by dozens of family and friends, and ate his first-ever cupcake.

I wish you could’ve seen him.

Red curls glittering like a halo in the sun. Hazel eyes wide with wonder. And a look on his frosting-smeared face that seemed to say, “What is this and where has it been all my life?”

In years to come, his parties would fill a city park with a bounce house, a face painter, a taco truck and a guest list that included all his classmates with their siblings and parents.

This week, Randy is turning 10. Ten is a pretty big deal. But his birthday—like so many other things that have changed in the months since the pandemic began—will be a bit different.

He’s not expecting a party, just a small celebration with family. When I asked what he wanted for a gift, he said, “I want to spend the night with you and Papa Mark, like we used to do.”

The last time he slept at our house was months ago, before we began “sheltering in place.” He has missed it. So have we.

“I’ll talk to your mom,” I said through a mask, and he grinned.

So I talked to his mom and here’s the plan. It’s a surprise, so don’t tell Randy. He’s having a “drive-by” surprise party. Carloads of family and friends will drive by his house honking and shouting, “Happy birthday!”

Papa Mark and I will be in the last car. Then we’ll take him to our house to spend the night. He’ll play checkers with me, and make music with Papa Mark. I’ll bake a cake. Or buy one. And I will whisper in his ear my favorite birthday wish: “I am so glad you were born.”

The next day, on his real birthday, he’ll celebrate with his mom and dad and brother and sister. It will be different from his other birthdays. But it will surely be a celebration.

A birthday is a gift, not just for those who turn a year older, but for those who love them. It should always be celebrated, especially in uncertain times such as these, when we need to remember what matters most.

But a true celebration doesn’t need a party or even a cake. It takes place on its own, with a prayer of thanks and a burst of joy, somewhere in the heart.

Happy birthday, Randy. I am so glad you were born.

“How to Travel a Hard Road,” Aug. 4, 2020

Have you ever noticed the places your mind will wander if you free it to do some mindless task like mopping or driving or watching another rerun on TV?

Wait. Driving is not a mindless task. I am always mindful while driving. And I certainly hope you are, too.

But sometimes my mind seems to have a mind of its own. Take this morning when I made the bed. You know the drill: Shake the sheets, smooth the covers, fluff the pillows and try not to tweak your back.

I’ve made a bed so many times I don’t need to think about it. I can do it with my eyes closed. In fact, somedays, I probably do.

Lately, after more than four months of “sheltering in place” for the coronavirus pandemic, I was starting to get, to put it mildly, tired of the whole thing.

Tired of feeling like a prisoner under house arrest. Tired of keeping distant from people I want to hug. Tired of fearing for the lives and livelihoods of loved ones and neighbors all around the world. And especially tired of wondering when will it end?

If you’re tired of it, too, let me assure you, we’re not alone. It’s so common there’s even a name for it: “Quarantine fatigue.” It drains us of energy for things we need and want to do—like laughing and loving, feeling truly alive. Worst of all, if left untreated, it can rob us of hope.

So this morning, I decided to clear my head of worry and fear by focusing instead on one simple task: Making the bed.

It worked. For about 30 seconds. Then my mind took off like a hound after a rabbit and suddenly I recalled a memory.

I was 7 years old. My parents were divorced. I’d lived most of my life with my grandparents. But my mother had recently remarried and we’d moved to a new town. I started second grade at a school where I knew no one. I missed my dad, my grandparents and the only home I’d ever known, the one place on Earth where I felt safe.

My new teacher’s name was Mrs. Harrison. A few days after I showed up in her class, she asked me to stay in at recess. When the class went out to play, she closed the door, took my face in her hands and smiled.

“I’ve noticed you don’t seem very happy,” she said. “Would you like to talk about it?”

I burst into tears. Bawled like a baby. Told her everything and then some. She listened. When I stopped, she took a clean handkerchief out of her desk and dried my face.

“You’re traveling a hard road,” she said, “but it will get easier. You can talk to me anytime, but always remember this: You are stronger than you know.”

She was right. The road got easier, mostly because she made school a pleasure. There’d be more hard miles ahead, as there are in every life. But her words would echo in my memory just when I needed to hear them.

In the four years my first husband fought for his life battling cancer, I often felt so weary I wanted to hide in the closet under a pile of dirty socks. But mostly, I wanted to be strong for him and our three children—and myself. Giving up was not an option.

Several things helped. First, coffee. I drank a lot of it.

Second, I knew my kids were watching me. I wanted to show them we could help their dad live his last days to the fullest, and after losing him, we could honor his memory by moving forward with our lives.

Third, I had an army of prayer warriors—family, friends and readers around the country—asking God to give me strength.

And always, I had this: Every time I felt like hiding in the closet, Mrs. Harrison would whisper in my memory, “You are stronger than you know.”

Sometimes, when we doubt our own strength, it helps to know someone believes in us.

We have never traveled a road quite like this pandemic. But we are traveling it together, believing in one another.

And we are stronger than we know.

“Sunny Days Ahead,” July 28, 2020

My grandmothers did a lot of lovely things for me. Both were fine cooks, specializing in all my favorite foods, cornbread and biscuits and cobblers. Both read to me, sang with me, and told me hair-raising tales. One made a doll for me that I still treasure. The other taught me how to cheat at cards.

But what they did best was simple: They both seemed to like having me around. For me, that was enough.

I often wonder what my grandchildren will remember about me? I’m not a great cook. I don’t sew. And I’m never much good at cards, even if I cheat.

But if they remember nothing else, I hope they won’t forget how much I love having them around, laughing, telling stories, reading or just being together.

One of the hardest things for me in the past four months of this pandemic is all the time I’ve missed spending with people I love, all the laughs we haven’t shared, all the meals we haven’t eaten, all the memories we haven’t made together.

That’s especially true for my grandchildren. Childhood is a sacred door, open only for a while. The bond between a child and a grandparent—like mine with my grandmothers—can be strong enough to last forever. But it needs to be forged early, while the door is still open.

Lucky for me, I have modern miracles that my grandmothers never dreamed of—videos, emails, texts and Facetime–to keep in touch with my kids and grandkids. Communicating electronically is a far cry from holding each other close. One is real. The other is a substitute until the real thing comes along.

We take turns calling, texting and sending videos. Content doesn’t matter as much as seeing faces and hearing voices. Connecting is what truly counts.

Sometimes I read to the little people, or they read to me. Randy, my oldest grandchild, who’s almost 10, FaceTimed recently to say he had a “special book” he wanted to share with me: “Life,” by Cynthia Rylant.

I gave him that book a few years ago. He knows it’s one of my favorites, both for Rylant’s beautiful writing and Brendan Wenzel’s perfect illustrations.

“I’d love to hear you read it,” I said. And so, he began:

“’Life begins small. Even for the elephants. Then it grows…’”

He read every word of it with great expression, stopping at times to turn the book around to let me see the illustrations. When he finished, we took a moment to savor together the joy of a good book well read.

He said he also read it to his brother and sister and they loved it, too. Elle is 5. Wiley is 7. Elle liked the baby elephant. Wiley liked the snake in the grass.

“What’s your favorite part of the book?” I said.

He thought about it, then nodded. “Remember how it says, ‘Life is not always easy,’ then it shows a wilderness?”

“Yes,” I said, “I remember.”

“Well, after the wilderness, it shows a sunny day and it says ….” Opening the book, he turned to find the page, then read once again: “‘But wilderness eventually ends. And there is always a new road to take.’”

Closing the book, he smiled. “The sunny day,” he said, “that’s my favorite part.”

“Mine, too,” I said, laughing, “but why do you like it?”

His smile faded, making him look somehow older, and I saw in his sweet face a tender boy who is wise beyond his years.

“I like it, Nana, because sometimes, you know, we get kind of…sad? And it helps to know there’s sunny days ahead.”

I pictured my grandmothers smiling down on us from above. I think they’d like Randy a lot.

In the wilderness of this pandemic, when the dark road seems never to end, I look into the eyes of my loved ones and see the light of a sunny day.

I hope you can see it, too.

“Packing up a Lifetime,” July 21, 2020

The fire started without warning, roaring like a ravenous lion through tinderbox brush in the canyon below our house. It was late afternoon, a beautiful day. Doors were open to catch the breeze blowing in from the coast. I was sitting at my computer, trying to think of something decent to fix for dinner, when my phone rang.

It was Henry, my 8-year-old grandson, who lives nearby.

“Hey, my darlin’!” I said.

“Nana!” he shouted, the way he always does when he’s got something big to tell me, “are you and Papa Mark OK? Mom and I can see a huge cloud of smoke! And it looks like it’s burning by your house!”

I took a breath and noticed a faint smell of … smoke?

“Thanks for thinking of us,” I said, “but don’t worry, it’s probably not as close as it looks. I’ll check and call you back.”

“Hurry, Nana!” he said.

When I stepped out on the patio, my heart begin to pound. At the bottom of the canyon, clouds of smoke billowed high into the sky. Then, I saw flames licking up through the trees.

My husband was in the garage.

“Fire!” I shouted, as I ran past him to the driveway to get a better look. He ran after me and for a moment we stood there together, staring at what could be the end of a home we loved and a lifetime of treasures.

“I’ll back the car out,” he said. “Go get what you want to take and let’s pack up.”

I looked down the hill and saw a neighbor, whose house was even closer to the flames than ours, loading up his truck. I waved. He waved back. Then he came up the hill to make sure we knew about the fire.

The next minutes passed in a blur. Never in my life have I been so glad to hear sirens and see tanker planes and a helicopter circling overhead.

I’ve always had great respect for those who risk their lives running toward danger so the rest of us can run to safety. But I had never felt that respect quite as deeply or as personally as I felt it at that moment.

I said a quick prayer for safety for everyone, then ran inside to pack. What do you take when there’s no time to be picky and not much room in your car?

We moved to this valley just over a year ago, knowing it was, like most of California, a high risk for wildfire. Last summer we packed “emergency bags” with clothes and necessities to keep on hand if, God forbid, we ever had to run for our lives.

Where did I put mine? Not in the closet. In the garage? No, under the bed! I dragged it out and unzipped it to add anything else that might fit. A few family photos. A book I published 20 years ago. My laptop computer and a copy of my will. Odds and ends, pieces of my life.

As I packed up all that I could take, I felt painfully aware of all that I had to leave behind: The dining room table where my kids once did their homework. Paintings and photos and keepsakes that could never be replaced. My husband’s musical instruments. And more than 30 years of yellowed newspaper clippings of my work.

I grabbed my wedding ring off the bathroom counter, slipped it on my finger and told myself, “Take what you can, leave the rest, all that matters is life.”

So I picked up my bag and walked out of my house for what I knew might be the last time.

And then, I was given a gift, a finer ending to a story that could’ve been a tragedy. While my husband and I and our neighbors were packing up our lives, the firefighters, God bless them, had fought back the blaze.

The tankers were still circling. But the flames were gone. And the smoke was slowly clearing.

Only a few things remained for us to do: Breathe a sigh of relief. Be forever thankful. Unpack the car. And tell all our loved ones (and anyone else who might care) not to worry, the fire was out and we were fine, thanks.

I called Henry first.

“Signs of Life,” July 14, 2020

Somedays, when I’m feeling low, wishing the world were a better place than it seems at times, I tell myself that I’m alive and the best is yet to come.

I say that not because I have breath and a heartbeat, though both help. But life is a lot more than what goes on inside of us.

Look around you. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? Who do you love? What do you know to be true?

Signs of life are all around us, like billboards on a freeway pointing the way when we feel lost. Here are a few of mine:

Some mornings, my husband brings me coffee, creamy and sweet, just the way I like it. I take a sip and taste both the bittersweetness of the brew and the steadfastness of the love that has placed it in my hands.

Through a window, I watch purple fronds of salvia wave like banners in the wind. A hawk glides on the currents, looking for something to kill. A deer hops the fence on the patio. I clap my hands. It hops back out. In the distance, a neighbor’s dog barks like it means business.

I spend an hour reading emails and messages on Facebook and my website. Family and friends send their love. Readers (friends I’ve yet to meet) write to confirm what life and work have taught me, that we are all more alike than different, and we are all in this same leaky boat together.

I call my brother and listen, for the umpteenth time, to his recording on his voice mail. He’ll call back when he’s good and ready. Then I call my sister and talk for half an hour about everything and nothing. We always talk about the same things, my brother and sister and I, but we’re the oldest survivors of our immediate family, and for me, it’s a sign of life just to hear their voices.

Clicking off the call, I notice a new video of my 14-month-old grandson. He’s playing peek-a-boo for the camera. Thanks to videos, I’ve watched him taking his first steps, saying his first words and belly-laughing at his mama and daddy. My mother would’ve have lived ten years longer to see videos like that.

In the afternoon, I take a drive to visit my kids and grandkids nearby. Nobody’s home at Henry’s house. But at the next stop, Wiley and Eleanor run out to hug me. I’m wearing a mask, but they know I’m grinning like a mule eating briars.

Driving home, I listen to a CD my husband recorded with his music buddies. It includes a song he wrote for me. I like all the songs (even the ones about other women) but I like my song best. I wish you could hear it.

For dinner, I make a salad of fresh produce that’s delivered each week to our door: Gem lettuce, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, spring onions, basil and a handful of strawberries. I add some leftover chicken and toss it with a simple dressing. It’s two of my favorite things, easy and good. Just the taste of it reminds me I’m alive.

After dinner, my husband and I go outside for a “sunset ritual,” watching the sun bed down in a blanket of fog on the coast.

Most people like to see the sun set. They’ll flock to a beach to snap a quick selfie as the sun sinks into the ocean. But here’s a little known secret. Sometimes the sun saves the best for last, painting heaven’s doorstep with the most spectacular display, long after most folks have given up and gone home. I’ve seen that happen countless times. I’ll bet you’ve seen it, too.

Years ago, on one of the darkest days of my life, I decided sunsets are God’s way of telling us, “You’re alive. Be thankful. Don’t despair. The best is yet to come.”

The sun rises every morning and the old world becomes new. But the best shows up time after time when we least expect it. It’s worth waking up to watch for it.

What are your signs of life?