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Ashes to Ashes

Few things make me question what I value more than a mountain of flame encroaching on my neighborhood.

For the past two weeks, my pocket of Southern California has been threatened by the Thomas Fire. Week One primarily threatened Ventura County; week Two, Santa Barbara. As of this writing, 270,000 acres have burned—an area larger than New York City—and the fire's only 45% contained. It's currently the third-largest California fire on record, predicted to reach number one by the time it's snuffed.

Not a record we're hoping for.

My girlfriend and I live one block beyond the current mandatory evacuation zone. Despite the valiant efforts of over eight thousand insanely brave fire fighters, we are at the mercy of fickle winds. Twice already, we have evacuated with our three cats to crash further from the source of smoke and ash and chronic stress. Our cars remain packed with a hodgepodge of necessities and keepsakes. And among those keepsakes are my books.

But not all my books. I only have room in my car for a fraction of them. A fraction of my movies. A fraction of my everything.

It's easy to know what I'd prioritize if I only had minutes to decide—my girlfriend, our cats, my wallet, the clothes on my back... and yes, my iPhone. In that scenario, I'd let everything else burn to hell. But I haven't had only minutes. I've had hours. I've had days. And therein lies the problem.

The flames have yet to reach us, so I periodically take another look at my belongings—among them, the precious books remaining on my shelves. I rationalize their loss by acknowledging I could always buy them again. In fact, I could repurchase the ones I've already packed in my car. Why did I even bother with those? I'm back to girlfriend, cat, and wallet—only now, with a touch of guilt. Because I've just confronted how worthless collecting all this shit has been. This future ash. This ephemera.

Although I like to think books are among the more worthy items a person could collect, I have mistaken the medium for the message, the plate for the food. I've been going about this all wrong. It's not the books that matter, but the stories that they tell. As long as I think fondly of them, they will never burn.

Besides. There's always the library.

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