The truth, of course, is that we will all be tested by such experiences in our lives. Until we do, a couple of questions loom. How will we cope? How can we square these experiences, and move forward?
These are questions Jamie Brisick, my guest for episode 086, has had to face twice now in the last decade. The first time was when he was suddenly widowed. And now, having lost everything he owns in recent Woolsey Fires in Malibu, he is facing them all over again.
Like all true artists, he’s used these unimaginable losses as fuel for his work, channelling his experiences into a series of articles exploring the aftermath of the fire that rank among his finest.
I met up with Jamie in Malibu at the start of my recent trip. We recorded this episode of the podcast at the site of his former home, exploring in depth the emotions that such experiences bring forth – loss, grief, self-examination and, ultimately, hope.
This was the second time we’ve chatted for the podcast, but the first time we’d actually met, and it was a rare pleasure to meet somebody I’d long admired in person for the first time, and to share such a personal and moving conversation. Listen to the episode below:
The text message came just before 7 a.m.: “Mandatory evacuation for the entire city of Malibu.” I grabbed my car keys, wallet, phone, laptop, writing stuff, and a change of clothes. It was Friday, November 9th. I was not worried. Malibu gets a fire nearly every year. Never do they creep down the Santa Monica Mountains, leap the Pacific Coast Highway, and take out homes where I live, in Point Dume.
But this one did. And it took out my home with an almost personal vengeance. Watching KTLA news with a friend in his Venice Beach studio the following evening, he pointed at the screen. “That looks like your house.” The camera zoomed in. “That’s definitely your house.” The shot—a firefighter blasting water at my inflamed bedroom—would play on repeat throughout the weekend. I became a kind of poster child for the Woolsey Fire.
At first we thought the Harvey Weinstein costume was in poor taste
Then Wonder Woman showed up
Then Joan of Arc
Then Angela Davis
Then Anita Hill
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Then what we thought was Sinead O’Connor
But after hurling a bottle across the room was clearly Rose McGowan
I remember very little after that
A big dogpile
Lots of broken glass
I’m thinking about Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas, who shot himself in the heart in 1954; I’m thinking about Pepê Lopes, who died in a hang gliding accident while trying to win a second world title in Japan in 1991; I’m thinking about Aryton Senna, the Formula One racer who died on lap seven of the San Marino Grand Prix in Italy in 1994. I am not thinking about death explicitly, but death hangs over all of this.
It’s the year 2057 and from 1 million miles away Earth appears as a black-and-blue marble with wispy streaks of gray. From 10,000 feet, the Art House comes into view, a colossal concrete fortress complete with a miraculously green lawn, shimmering swimming pool the size of a small lake, and gleaming white patio that brings to mind the ice-skating rink at Rockefeller Center. The house sits on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, which is still as vibrantly blue today as it was 100 years ago. The surrounding area, though, looks like Aleppo circa 2016.
Malibu, you sucked on my finger, riveted me with your stories of handcuffs and hot chocolate, and left me lying face down in the sand.