Fleeing the Oregon Fires Forced Me to Rethink the Future


The exiled Israelites followed a pillar of smoke, one day at a time. Maybe I can do the same.

September 10 was supposed to be my first day of teaching online. Almost exactly six months before, I stood in a classroom and asked my students if reports of the coronavirus made them feel afraid. It turned out to be the last conversation we would have face to face. That evening, our governor canceled school, and the remainder of the year was eventually scuttled.

Last week was supposed to be a time to establish connection with a new crop of students and to usher in a new kind of normal with virtual teaching. But late Wednesday afternoon in Clackamas County, Oregon, the color of the air changed. I saw great orange-gray billows piling up over the roof, and the sun looked like a red eye blinking down through the haze.

The next day, smoke poured in, obscuring first the distant hills, then the nearer hills, then the trees at the end of our street. Finally, at 2 o’clock that afternoon, when local officials moved the boundary of the evacuation zone from five miles away to five blocks away and as ash began to drift down onto our laurel hedges, I decided to pack up my kids and go. I filled my car with birth certificates, photo albums, and computers and then drove away, trying to stay ahead of the encroaching flames.

The West Coast fires aren’t the first disaster of this year. As the calamities pile up, my friends and I keep saying to one another, “2020!” As if this year is a one-off. As if, when the calendar turns to January 1, 2021, our troubles will be over. But as the year drags on, I’m finding it harder to hope for the possibility of better times anytime soon. What if 2020 is not an anomaly but a bellwether? What if the problems accumulating now—climate change and racial reckoning, political division …

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