Dale Westbrook

Dale Westbrook

In the spring of 1991, my old world was in its death throes. I dreamed of ghosts, graveyards, and severed heads. A wildfire at my heels, in one disturbing dream, I moved as fast as I could but was not sure where to run. No new world in sight, I was neither here nor there, and terrified.

At 45, I’d lived in Oakland 20 years, owned a home, commuted to the same job, and grown older with close friends. Then, all that was richly rooted and cozily familiar began to unravel as I completed a doctoral program in clinical psychology, took a leave of absence from my school psychologist job of 18 years, and sold my home. One by one, I exchanged old friends for new. And the growing certainty that I no longer belonged in Oakland reverberated in my heart and head like an emergency fire siren.

For a while, I rented a spacious, light-filled apartment near Park Boulevard with a 180-degree front view of the Peninsula, San Francisco, and Marin. From the back window I could see the Oakland hills. In August, daytime fog encircled my view and created a womb in the apartment, silent and solitary. I had meager savings, no income, and bills to pay. And my night dreams of being a ghost in a graveyard only intensified the longer I stayed put. Yet I resisted cleaning, sorting, looking for jobs. Days passed without calling friends or talking to neighbors. In one three-hour nap, I dreamed of writing a book on death and dying, while in the same dream I prepared potting soil for tiny growing creatures, hidden under hunks of peat moss.

As August reached its end, I noticed an inner stirring, a flicker of light. Then a counselor suggested that I “try on” new places to live and work, the way you go about shopping for shoes or a coat. I started with Aptos, near Santa Cruz, where I discovered a coffee-brewing cafe, a bakery, and a homey bookstore. Later that fall, I attended a dream workshop in Santa Cruz and found myself going to dinner and folk dancing with a new friend, then staying over at her home near the beach. In the mid-afternoon, I headed back for Oakland. It was Sunday, October 20, 1991.

Stairway to nowhere. Photo by Raphael Shevelev.

At 4 p.m., as I approached my turn off of Highway 580 onto Highway 13, I noticed an immense, saucer-like black cloud hovering over the hills and stretching towards the Bay. Outside my apartment building near Park Boulevard, neighbors told me that a huge wildfire had been sweeping the Oakland hills since late morning. Many homes had burned down and whole neighborhoods were being evacuated. An acrid smell saturated the air and I hurried inside my apartment.

Friends and family called with concern and offers of assistance. “Are you safe?” they asked. The answer: I did not know. When a television commentator reported the evacuation border had reached Park Street, I leapt to my feet and started packing photo albums, papers, and personal items into suitcases. Then I realized that Park Street was not Park Boulevard. I stayed put, waking the next morning to the news that the fire had been contained.

Remains of a jungle gym. Photo by Andreas Jones.

With the firestorm, my feeling of not belonging in Oakland, of yearning to relocate to a home in a new city, was put on hold. Suddenly, all the Oakland losses I was grieving in the foggy summer months of hibernation intensified as I viewed the scarred hills and empty lots of streets where I’d gone to dinner parties, visited with friends, enjoyed a Viennese art class in the mansion of my college professor. Now, his entire home was ravaged by the fire. I cried for him and his family.

The Sunday after the fire, I stood holding hands with members of the Montclair Presbyterian Church. As we listened to a 12-year-old girl sing “Like a Bridge Over Troubled Water,” I felt intense reconnection to my beloved neighborhood. My midlife search for an ideal home in some distant city by the sea or college town in another county came into relief as I reconnected with my roots and love for Oakland. Paradoxically, I was now ready to move on. After all that had gone before—hibernation, “trying on” places, and clearing the path—in nature’s time my new world came to me as easily as the final turn of a kaleidoscope when the colorful bits fall into place.

—Dale Westbrook

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