There's something so sweet about a new year. No matter how many times I've seen that ball drop, I'm not immune to the excitement that comes with the chance to start over. To change. For as many times as we heard the word in 2008, 2009 is the year to do something about it. The weather outside is undeniably frightful, but maybe it's grown dark enough for us to see the silvery opportunities lining those gray clouds.
Late November I was in San Francisco for a book reading. The book, "Submerged," is an anthology created to benefit survivors of the Gulf Coast hurricanes, to which I'd contributed an essay about my experience working with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans.
I traveled from my home in Santa Barbara, about five hours south, with Jenny, my best friend from college, for the occasion. The evening went well – despite the fact that I'd sooner take a stick to the eye than volunteer for public speaking. Later, Jenny and I and a couple other friends went to dinner.
At one point, I noticed my BlackBerry blinking at me. I saw I had five missed calls from my husband Ryan. And two messages. That's not like him. I stepped outside to call him; he sounded strange.
The news was dire. A huge fire had broken out in the foothills of Montecito, which we can see from our porch. The Santa Ana winds, blowing uncharacteristically late in the season – and particularly ferociously – combined with unseasonably hot temperatures, and my town was in flames, my street under evacuation. Those winds change direction unpredictably; there was no way to know if we'd be OK. Ryan had corralled the cat and the dog, and wanted to know what to take from the house. I said I'd let him know.
Back inside, I downloaded the news. Jenny, a left-brained attorney with control freak tendencies, whipped out a notepad and pen. "Let's make a list," she said.
I just sat there.
"Paperwork," she said, mainly to herself. "Pictures. Journals. Heirlooms? Jewelry? Do you have a 'stuff box?'" I could swear she even asked me if I had any doilies. Doilies?
Another friend, asked, "What about your passport?"
"Yeah," I said, munching on some pita. Jenny wrote it down.
The three of them exchanged looks. "She's handling it really well," somebody said to someone else.
Finally, I looked up. "It's so ironic," I said. Jenny put down her pen. With thoughts of New Orleans stirred up from the book reading, there I sat, on the brink of losing everything.
Ultimately, my passport was all I came up with for Jenny's list. Later, I thought of this, amused at my logic. So, in case my house burned down, I'd be able to get out of the country? But in the face of disaster and with no time to prepare, how do you choose? What do you take? At the end of the day, isn't it all just junk?
When the fire was finally out, our house – and our things – emerged unscathed. But many were not so fortunate. I returned to Santa Barbara, and watched smoke rise in the distance as I swept the ash from my porch steps.
When the holiday season rolled around, shopping felt strange, hollow. Lights twinkled from the shops as Christmas neared. Buy, the voice in my head said. How else are we supposed to get this engine turning again? But with the economy every bit as much a disaster zone as the smoldering hillside, who needs a new sweater? Corporations, industries are going under. People are losing their jobs, their homes. Everything we thought was secure isn't. Everything we thought we knew about the economy, security, our very way of life, might, in fact, be wrong.
The strange thing is, it wasn't panic behind my paralysis that night in San Francisco. It was something closer to its opposite, something more like calm. And beneath it, the comforting realization that nothing is permanent, that I am not my things (not even my clothes – a strange thought for me, a fashion columnist).
I realize those who lost everything are likely feeling anything but calm, anything but comfort. And yet. That moment had something to teach me. This culture, encouraging us to accumulate, to upgrade, telling us there is no such thing as enough, may be responsible for its own undoing.
And maybe the gift of disaster, of floods, of fires, of unprecedented economic unraveling, is the opportunity to start over – and to do it differently.
• Shannon Kelley is a columnist at the Santa Barbara Independent. She is also a freelance writer.