On my last trip of the year, through Sonoma County, I stood at the gates of Camp Newman, outside Santa Rosa. Fire consumed much of the property and the surrounding area. Yet, across the street, some properties operate seemingly untouched.
Now, instead of campers and counselors, its inhabitants are maintenance and security staff, EPA and insurance inspectors. No one is sure of the future of the camp.
Fire has nipped at the heels of most of my childhood retreats. Years ago, much of Camp SWIG suffered the same fate. It was sold off. The Yosemite fires nearly consumed Camp Mather, and Strawberry Bluegrass Festival may never return to that magical home. I remember when flames have threatened Brandeis-Bardein Institute in Simi Valley.
And in this year, fire has consumed homes of many I hold near and dear. Farms, animals, livelihoods. Some will rebuild. Some will leave it all behind. I weep for you.
These reflections, on physical space in rubble, weigh heavy on my understanding of Community. That is, the people that are bound together by some invisible or physical space: common belief, shared experiences, family bonds.
The most powerful of these forces is the physical venue. Shared space allows for repeated exposure, nostalgia. In the nooks and crannies of outdoor retreat, in particular, a sense of ownership builds a deep connection to the land.
Community, in the digital realm or ultra-temporal shifting festival circuit, lacks ownership. Rare is the place with permanence. Like in so many movements before us, the call back to land ownership is being answered all over the world (NuMundo catalogs so many of them including Heartland and Trillium).
But repeated fires remind us that neither land ownership nor standing walls protect communities from the wild. Ravaged, one day, it will all burn down. Through fire or erosion, we, and our memories, disappear.
In our earlier evolutionary states, we could not so much as leave a community without suffering a deep sense of loss, and potentially, death. To the modern observer, the idea of excommunication or exile seems a bit silly: just find a new home. It didn’t used to be so easy.
The state of being separate, Other, or cast away were once deeply traumatizing. It still is. So many of our decisions are based on avoiding the pains of Shame, Loneliness, and Disconnection.
When we avoid it, when we pretend like we are calloused from the pain of disgrace, we’re being delusional. We’re showing strength when what’s needed is weakness. The fear of loneliness, of being without Community, is built into our DNA, and when we deny its force, we delude ourselves.
Memory is not tradition.
When homes burn down, and especially the communal spaces that we return to in retreat, we lose a place where we feel welcome, where we can be ourselves, where we can reconnect with the selves that we discovered beyond our normalness. We lose the shortcut to center and we must start anew, often without the physical realms that we once traversed in our own personal journeys.
This is the place I kissed her. This is the place we fought. This is where we all held hands under the stars and I realized that I was one of many.
Now, our social networks give a sense of continuity: those that we knew one place are still in our lives. The memories, in pictures or thoughts, live on. They flood us in their significance, but they don’t sustain us. Memory is not tradition. One is past, one is present. You don’t mourn a memory, you mourn the tradition which is no longer available to you, to sustain you, to keep you at center.
Even if it was many years ago, the loss of physical retreat dizzies us. Grief is the realization that you cannot return.
The idea was always that you could come back and be reminded. But you can’t go back. You can only start over.