Place Where You Live:

San Diego, California

The Hope Is in the Flame

It’s cold waiting for sunset on Shelter Island in San Diego. The marine layer looms like the underside of a fungus shelf—brownish purple; like a secret bruise. In the East, late afternoon gloom shadows downtown—gray so thick the glassed high rises can’t catch the sun’s flare. When the sun slips behind Point Loma, a breeze slaps across the bay echoed by a seagull’s wings low on the water. I’ve been on this beach since 2 pm, bundled by a cold fire pit, surrounded by Christmas trees.

We burn trees here every year. It started with two families, but now many come, dragging their trees across the sand. Sometimes we sing; sometimes we dance; always we laugh as the flames from even a small tree surprises us, and we accordion-dance away from the heat then close again as the tree burns down.

I gather trees throughout my neighborhood, starting the week after Christmas. They lay splayed on the sidewalks, some mummied in plastic bags, waiting for the garbage trucks. I consider it a rescue of sorts. A small revolt against the forgetful consumerism we practice as a country—one more glorious repurpose.

The past few months have leeched the joy out of our nation; left our hearts bruised as we’ve learned we cannot take for granted any progress made for good. It feels cold waiting to see what the future will bring.

Burning Christmas trees on the beach is a redemptive act. They sing into flame a song of sizzle and flare. There’s the moment when it’s so dark, so cold, and you don’t think the fire is going to start. Then a hiss as flames leap about the tangled branches. Quickly, the frenzy calms, and we can see each needle lit red, writhing. Carl Sagan talks about how trees contain pieces of stars, that over the course of their lives, they’ve internalized the sun. Here with each molecule of tree a cosmos, I can see the truth in that. Though a burning tree soon ashes out, others wait to ignite the dark with the heat of the sun.