There were fires raging all across the hills around our house, and I was sitting in a downtown restaurant with my mother and Hiroko. I’d flown into Santa Barbara two days before, and, driving along the empty road that leads from the airport to our house ten minutes away, I’d looked up into the hills to where the lights of our home shine alone on our ridge, and my heart had stopped. There were two bright blazes of orange cutting through the darkness, with a speed and effi- ciency I remembered from the time when our home—in the same location—had burned down (with me beside it) some years before.
I accelerated wildly up the hill and started taking the curves along the mountain road leading up to our solitary house at a crazy speed. The air to the north was already red and full of smoke—infernal—and as I pushed the car to go faster, I saw sightseers along the side of the road gathering to watch the unearthly light show, great towers of orange, a hundred feet high, rising from the valleys just below our home and smoke turning the sky into a sickly pall.
I swerved, brakes screaming, into our driveway, and sum- moned my wife and mother out to see what was happening a mile or two away. It looked to be remote still, but I remem- bered how, during the previous fire, the flames had raced through the brush at seventy miles an hour, so that an orange gash in what looked to be a distant slope was suddenly a pillar of flames arcing over our living-room windows.
The next day we awoke to the sound of helicopters whir- ring overhead. The sky was a grisly blood-red color. The house felt hot already, and, although the smoke seemed to clear as the wind shifted and returned us to a placid blue midsummer day, as the afternoon went on the sky above the ridge next to us turned a hideous, end-of-the-world color, or discolor really, ash falling around us like snow.
I went with Hiroko down to the post office, and as we came out, after a short transaction, the whole suburb around us was black with coughy smoke. We looked up to the hills, to where our house and our far-off neighbors were, and all we could see were one, two, three slashes of orange angrily starting up across the slopes. We began to drive home and, switching on the radio, I heard that our house and the few up the road had been issued an “evacuation warning.” I turned into our little road and began driving up it, and the announcer on the local radio, frantic, said that the “evacuation warning” had been turned into an “order”: we had to leave now, or we would be forced out.
We drove the remaining five minutes at a crazy speed again, collected my mother, her dazed cat inside a little cage, gath- ered as many precious papers and photos as we could in five minutes and then tore down the road again, fire trucks coming past us in the opposite direction, plumes of smoke seeming to rise from all the valleys and the crevices in the hills, the air so thick we were choking already and driving out of what seemed to be an oven, the huge flames cresting above our house as if ready to engulf it.
Now, barely twenty minutes away, downtown Santa Barbara was dreaming through another placid blue-sky afternoon, a miracle of calm; the angry smoke and orange burns to the north seemed to belong to another universe. We had to go about our life as usual—the next day would bring a fireworks display along the beach, for July the Fourth, and the day after that, I was due to perform a wedding ceremony for a college friend who was flying over from England for the occasion. We needed dinner, preferably in some inexpensive place not far from the house where we were staying while technically homeless (the same building that had housed my mother and me for four months after our house burned down before).
“There’s a story of the Buddha,” my mother began telling us now, perhaps to take our mind off the conflagration, and I listened to her, though usually all the wisdom that came from her, a teacher of comparative religions, I tried to block out because I was a son. “When his closest disciple, Ananda, asked him what was the greatest miracle,” she went on, “walking on water or conjuring jewels out of thin air, changing the heat of one’s body through meditation or sitting undisturbed in a cave for years and years, he said, ‘Simply touching the heart of another human being. Acting kindly. That’s the greatest miracle of all.’ ”
“The church of humanity, in other words,” I said, “like Gra- ham Greene.” I didn’t care that I was citing the very writer my mother had liked when I was at school and I had mocked. (“You remember,” she said, not unexpectedly, “who it was who told you to read Graham Greene?”). “It was what he always believed in, the human predicament, the possibility for kind- ness and honesty even in the midst of our confusions and our sins. He could never quite bring himself to believe in God; God was the Other with whom he played his incessant games of ‘He loves me, He loves me not.’ But in humanity he had the strongest, if most reluctant belief. In our fallenness lies our salvation.”
The other two looked at me blankly, nonplussed by this explosion. “He never could have much confidence in faith and hope,” I said, concluding a sermon that no one had asked for. “But charity was the one thing he couldn’t turn away from. Many writers try to take a journey into the Other. But in him it becomes a kind of creed, his version of religion, even when he’s just traveling into the Other in himself.”
What I really could have been saying was that we were now in the world he’d made so real to me in his books, at the mercy of much larger forces, pushed back to essentials, without a home. The only thing you could possibly do in such circum- stances was see that so many others were in a similar predica- ment and reach out towards them; what you shared was not faith, usually, but unsettledness.
Up in the hills, meanwhile, the fires continued to blaze.
Copyright © 2012 by Pico Iyer. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.