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To the sky,
You’re back, finally, but for how long I wonder. A few days? A few weeks? Forever maybe? Actually, if memory is anything to go by, then I’m just being naive. You’ll be gone again soon enough; the forests are still burning up and down the West Coast. Washington, California, and yes, Oregon, have turned into one great, big, broken smoker. And it’s odd, but I can’t quite remember when you first left, nor can I remember if this is the first time you’ve tried to come back since the fires started. Maybe you’ve been back longer than I thought, or maybe you’re already gone again.
No, wait, I can see you out there. You are back now, and that’s all that matters I suppose. You’re just as I remember you, if a bit dirty. All bright and blue, extending endlessly over the horizon. Always there, the background for life itself and the pinnacle of happy summer days. Though, to be fair, it’s not like we’ve had many of those this year. Even if we did, those times are over: the cold is coming, and right on schedule, too. At least something has gone according to plan—it is 2020 after all.
All right, I’ll try and cut to the chase. I do, in fact, remember when you first left. I was working that day, bringing carts inside from the Safeway parking lot. You were a little smoky at the time, but I thought it was mostly clouds. I remember going inside, chatting with a co-worker in the entryway. I looked outside and … where the hell did you go? One moment you were there and then, just like that, you were gone, replaced by a suffocating gray haze. Everyone I talked to sounded just as confused. “Where did the sky go?” “Is it safe to breathe?” “How long will things be this way?” Of course, we knew it was inevitable, what with all the fires. But your departure was so fast, so abrupt, and kind of scary to be honest. The world seemed to be falling apart on my doorstep, and I couldn’t do anything about it. Sounds dramatic, I know, but there are some things in life that I always expect to be just … be there. You’re one of them.
This wasn’t the first time you’d left, not by a long shot. Wildfire season is a thing and you always skidaddle when the West Coast smokeout starts. Sometimes you leave for a few days and sometimes for a few months, but always around this time, like an absentee parent on a “business trip.” I can’t blame you for wanting to get out of the house, given how crazy things have been (trust me, I wish I could have run away from all this). But I remember, oh, about five years ago when you went on your longest, most expensive trip. I remember the fires being close to home, as in, two miles from my home. I remember my family loading up the car with as much stuff of value as we could. I remember watching the horizon burn as we sped toward the sanctuary of my grandparents’ house. I remember seeing the entire tree line lit up with an almost supernatural orange glow. I remember seeing nothing but a dark haze as I gazed up, searching for you in desperation. And I remember sitting on my grandma’s couch, listening to our cats howl with anxiety as I came to grips with the fact that my childhood home might burn to the ground. The entire situation was unreal, like a bad dream spawned from a late-night disaster movie. I was just waiting for the traumatic climax, the slow drive back through the scorched and twisted forest, the sight of our house and shop reduced to smoldering piles topped by buckled metal roofs—the final realization that things would never go back to the way they were. We got lucky. The fires died back, we went home, and the nightmare never fully materialized. Eventually, I woke up and you came back as if nothing had ever happened.
What’s different this time is that your return doesn’t signify the end. Regardless of your history of pulling the good ol’ Irish goodbye, we both know the situation isn’t getting much better. Even looking at you I can still see a fair bit of smoke and haze. I said you were a bit dirty, but hell, you look like you just finished a fourteen-hour shift in a mine and got your nice denim uniform all covered in coal dust. And if you haven’t noticed, it isn’t just the fires running amok right now. The list of what’s gone wrong this year is longer than a NASA technical manual. A pandemic, riots, vandalism, violence, intimidation, and total lack of trust and acceptance. Heck, I remember a few months back when panic spread over a rumor that a planned peaceful protest was actually a plot by left-wing activists bussed in from out of state. So as much as I’d like to put on that song by Electric Light Orchestra and rejoice that the worst is over, that the sun is shining, and that it’s a beautiful new day, we’re still in it for the long haul as far as I can see.
So, Mister Blue Sky, you might ask if I’m being dramatic. Well, of course I’m being dramatic—I’m an English major after all. But after taking a step back, I know I don’t have it as bad as everyone else. My home is still standing, I didn’t get laid off, my campus isn’t completely shut down, and I don’t really mind being cooped up for the sake of public health. But as I think about all that’s happened, I realize, in an odd way, that I sort of asked for this. I enjoy bad weather and gray skies. I long for days where you go away and leave behind a deluge of rain or snow, the kind of relaxing trip where somebody tells me when you’re leaving and when you might be back. And it’s not just you I prefer gone, but everyone else as well. That sounds harsh once I say it aloud. It’s more like I’m fine if nobody else is around, at least for a time. I’m introverted is what I’m getting at. I find an odd bleak joy in your absence, and I almost feel guilty for it. Looking outside at the haze you left behind, day after day, knowing I couldn’t go anywhere—I got exactly what I wanted, but not in the way I wanted.
Yes, I’m overthinking this, but if you’ll spare a few moments, I’d like to overthink one last time. As I take a break from marveling at you, I realize I’m not the only one to make lemons into a sort of choked-out black lemonade, and it scares me. It scares me in the same way the fires did five years ago. Not in the sense that I’m worried about when I can go outside or safely breath in public again (though that is a given right now), but because I don’t know what’s going to happen, and the possibility of things resolving peacefully is growing slimmer by the day. I long for the confusion and hatred of this year to stop in the same way I longed for the smoke to clear. Despite the clearing skies overhead, a more unsettling haze has settled over the rest of the country. The physical haze caused dimness, confusion and fear, and the fire, destruction, death, and terror. This metaphorical haze does the same. This time, however, it’s our own fault. We started these fires. We started fighting and killing one another in the streets, spreading lies and misinformation over the air. We are suffocating this nation town by town.
You wouldn’t believe how many times a week I hear or read things like, “Hey, maybe the president will die of Covid,” or “Maybe they’ll finally bring in the military to gun down the protestors.” I see people wishing for death and harm upon others under the guise that it’s the fastest way to make things better. Making the best of a bad situation is one thing. Trying to use misery to your advantage is plain immoral, no matter how much of a misery surplus we have right now. I found an odd comfort imagining the smoke was rain clouds and fog, but these psychos are fantasizing about people dying.
Well, I’m not one for ending on doom and gloom, so sky, I’ll shift gears before I let you go. Despite my disappointment in you leaving so abruptly, your return is still beyond welcome. You came back just as fast as you left. It was not so early in the morning that it was dark but early enough that it was still cool. I let the dogs outside and there you were, smiling down with a bit of soot on your face. I was surprised, even more so than when you left. Just the other day I made a bet that you wouldn’t come back for at least another month, and yet within the week you graced us with your presence. Right when I had given up hope of ever seeing your magnificent shine again, the haze cleared away, and blue stretched from mountain to mountain once more. I guess I’ll just say, though things can go to hell quickly, things can get better just as fast. There is a certain level of stability and familiarity I’ve come to expect from the world and society, a sort of chaos threshold. Losing something that’s supposed to be perpetual is devastating, even world-shattering, but knowing such a loss can be reversed, at least in some circumstances, gives me more hope than you could ever imagine. Yes, I’m still stuck at home, the virus is still spreading, and this country is still full of hatred, but goddamn, you came back. That means something.
I don’t expect everything to get better tomorrow, next week, or even next month, but I expect something will get better when we need it most, or just when we’ve given up. Misery under an open sky is still better than misery under a polluted one. Things are bad right now, Mister Blue, but I’m pleased, at least, to be with you.
Oregon East Magazine
Hoke Center #328
Eastern Oregon University
La Grande, OR 97850
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