Two things happened at the end of this summer that seemed irreconcilable. The first one is that in the midst of a historic drought, following months of record-breaking heat waves and a fire season that generally peaks in the fall but was already well underway in August, more than 1.5 million acres of California burned to the ground. “Every acre can, and will, burn someday in this state,” the state fire chief said. “Be ready now.” The second is that my boyfriend and I decided to remodel our kitchen in a house in a Northern California town that has a pretty good chance of burning down at some point in the not-so-distant future.
We know this because we have been breathing in smoke all summer and because we have been close to evacuating twice. We know this because after the catastrophic wind-driven Camp Fire in 2018, which destroyed the town of Paradise, about 70 miles from here, our town appeared on several lists of what towns might be next. A fire professional publicly confirming that fire risk is actually going to get worse and worse was no surprise. But hearing this the week we decided to put a new kitchen into our house, a week when many residents of this town entertained the idea of moving away, was certainly not on our bucket list. A new kitchen! I am provisionally, theoretically excited. Every time my boyfriend asks me a question about it—Stove next to the sink? Smaller refrigerator? Knock down a wall?— I am filled with ideas while fighting the urge to collapse in sobs. I want a new kitchen, but what I really want is someone to promise me my new kitchen will be there forever, and I can’t have this.
It is unclear if my kitchen will be standing in 15 years. I certainly wouldn’t bet on it, not without a point spread. And considering that it is early September as I write this and at least half the days since July in this town have had an Air Quality Index (AQI) over 150 (“unhealthy for the general population”), it’s very possible that even if by some miracle this kitchen is still intact, it will lack sufficient oxygen to support human life.
I grew up with an old kitchen. No dwelling I have ever called home has had a good one. Sufficient counter space? No. Attractive cabinets? Never. Drawers that actually work? Don’t make me laugh. The moment I have waited 50 years for is finally here, and it’s a black fly in my chardonnay.
Articles about climate collapse (I refuse to use the phrase “climate change” because it fails to describe what we are facing) often follow the same emotional trajectory: The writer begins in helplessness; the writer weighs the options and discovers that there really aren’t any—choosing either death or to keep living with fear, grief, and horror. Because the writer can strike this note but can’t possibly end on it, the story will say something like “Hey, I know this new kitchen isn’t taking shape in a perfect world. But when has the world ever been perfect? I’m going to cherish my new kitchen, knowing our time together will be short. Because really, we have only this moment anyway.” Another possible ending: “I remember that my family and friends are what matters and that home is not my kitchen; it is wherever those people who love me, whom I love, are. So even if my new kitchen burns down, the center of my home, which is love, can never be taken away.”
The first ending refuses to take into account anxiety or dread. Meaning, the expression “Be here now” is fine if you’re a dog, but I am not a dog. No amount of meditation will make me one, and frankly, I would have preferred a life in which every time I appreciated my beautiful new kitchen, I did not in the same moment also imagine it as a heap of ash. I will never have that life, and all I can say about that is that it fucking sucks.
As far as the home-is-where-the-heart-is ending, obviously I would rather lose my kitchen than my boyfriend. Ideally, I would like to feel secure in both. The sad truth is that nothing about where I live is secure anymore. I love my boyfriend, but loving him does not obscure the horror of the recent realizations that we are more likely to lose our home than we are to keep it and that I might spend my most feeble years going from place to place, seeking the sense of relative stability I had until the summer of 2021, the summer when no one could ignore that the planet was falling apart. So for now, home is the place where we are installing a new kitchen because if we didn’t, we would have to admit that we live in a world so treacherous that there is no point in remodeling a kitchen, even one this ugly. This might be true, but living with our ugly kitchen is so depressing, we can’t possibly take on more depression by being honest about the futility of building a new one. For now, we have a home. But we will never be able to settle into it. The fact that neither of us tries to make the other one pretend this isn’t true is such a relief that it feels a little bit like home. It’s not. But it will have to do.
Photo by: David Benjamin Sherry.
This article originally appeared in the November 2021 issue of Harper’s BAZAAR, available on newsstands November 9.
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