My city is a city of creatives, of political activists, of working people. We are home to one of the most diverse populations in the country, home to the Black Panthers and the Free Speech movement, home to Jack London and Gertrude Stein. We are no strangers to adversity. My city is a city of struggle, but it is also a city of triumph. We are Oakland, and we are mourning.
I’m a 33 year old creative, which just happens to be the median age and self descriptor for Oakland’s population. I’m not a native, as most of us aren’t, we are also often wanderers and outcasts, which I think is what unites us. Many of us left our homes, searching for our tribe, our truth, our shibboleth, and landed here in Oakland.
Even Oakland’s native sons and daughters fled something to create our community. Maybe they felt out of place in the wealth and shelter of the hills, or maybe they took refuge in the creative community after the devastating impact of the crack cocaine epidemic in the 90s. Whatever it was, whatever background one comes from, you are accepted and embraced.
I came to Oakland ten years ago, running from myself mostly and was accepted immediately. For all intents and purposes, I grew up in the creative community here. The dancers and sculptors, the painters and photographers changed the way I saw the world. The poets, writers and musicians changed the way I felt about the world. The activists and philosophers, the crafters and critics all changed the way I interacted with the world. I was forged in Oakland.
But I’m not interested in the beatification of our community, we are not without our warts. There are heroes and villains, just like any group as diverse as we. We are not saints nor sinners, but somewhere in between. We sometimes fight, we sometimes dislike each other, but like family we stand together to revel in our joys and mourn together in our tragedies.
And now, tragedy has struck so completely and so closely that many of us are shell shocked and as information has been slow to come to us, we are daily grieving fresh horrors, being notified of new losses to the cataclysmic Ghost Ship fire which has taken 36 of our family.
36 individual lives who had 36 individual stories. These are not angels, nor demons. These are not reckless drug fueled partiers nor are they hallowed deacons. These are real people. Our friends, our lovers, the fabric of our City.
I have now lost now five friends, people who have held my hand through breakups, people who have played music in my living room, people who I interacted with on a daily basis for years, but nearly all who passed have served me in restaurants or helped me in stores (or I served or helped them), or joked with me at bars, or marched with me in the face of injustice. And still, I consider myself one of the lucky. People have lost lovers, and brothers and sisters, chosen family and blood. People have lost entire social groups, yet we mourn together, as one.
And I find solace in that. Obviously, I am not speaking about the devastating loss of life, the emotional loss and destruction, or the inevitable impact this tragedy will have on a creative community already under siege by social and economic forces beyond our control; but the solace I find in our togetherness.
Personally, it’s been a very difficult year for me. I lost the man who raised me as a father, my sole male role model. A stoic wall of a man who clawed his way out of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl, carrying his ten siblings, tooth and nail. He rarely showed emotion, believing that a man must be strong under all adversity to lead his family to safety. As a man in a traditional family, the eldest son of the eldest son, with his death that mandate was passed to me. But I am not a man of my father’s time and I find myself unable to find safety in the stoicism of his generation.
I find myself questioning the validity of my grief. Is it ok to feel so scared and alone at the loss of the man who raised me as a father when friends have lost their actual fathers? Can I feel devastated at the loss of friends when the entire worlds of so many I know and love have collapsed? How can I be strong for those who need my strength more than I do?
The answer I suppose, is that grief isn’t binary, that you can be both in pain and be the strength you wish to be for others. That all emotional response is valid and as men we must not wall ourselves from our grief for the sake of tradition, but use our grief to affect positivity. Together, we can rebuild, honoring those we’ve lost where alone we may fail.
There’s a Wordsworth poem that keeps screaming in my head over and over that says: “That though the radiance which was once so bright be now forever taken from my sight. Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, glory in the flower. We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”
And my city is a city of warrior poets. We will carry on together, bruised and bloodied but not defeated. We are strong together. We are Oakland.