A teacher and student went to a house to make a condolence call. The student hit the coffin and asked, “Alive or dead?” The teacher responded, “I can’t say alive, I can’t say dead.”

~The Blue Cliff Record, Case 55

Last week, driving my old Ford pickup north through Santa Rosa, I turned into the lane leading to the Angela Center, a Catholic convent founded by Ursaline nuns in 1880 and the location for many of our Zen retreats over the last decade. For me, meditation retreats, with their deep and quiet inquiry, can sort of tattoo the heart with a memory of the community of people and things joined at that time. During retreats, ‘place’ takes on meaning; for me, Angela Center is one such place.

Early last October, the Tubbs Fire came roaring down from the north, badly burning the Center, which is now closed. I pulled over at the bottom of the long drive and hopping a chain barrier with its “Do Not Enter” sign, I walked up the hill to the burned buildings. Laying my hand on one of the black, charred walls, this koan rose in my mind: Alive or dead? How could I possibly say?

The above quote is a fragment of a longer story. The student gets angry and threatens the teacher: Tell me! Alive or dead? The teacher, again replies “I can’t say, I can’t say,” and the student hits him and then leaves. Some years later the student returns but the old teacher has passed. He asks the same question of the new teacher, who replies “I can’t say, I can’t say.”

The Tubbs Fire was only hours old when I drove into Santa Rosa that Monday morning. The Hilton hotel on the hill was still burning and big box stores and the rubble of 1,000 homes across the six-lane Hwy 101 in Coffey Park were still smoldering. I pulled up to Journey’s End trailer park, which was incinerated beyond recognition, and I knew that some folks probably did not get out. Yet on this most recent visit to the Angela Center, what struck me most was the thick green grass and yellow mustard that covered the hills like a healing scab protecting a wounded earth. The Mark West Springs neighborhood, only weeks ago a graveyard of charred trees, chimneys and burned out cars still parked in the driveway, has now been scraped bare, and here and there a pioneering new wood frame is rising. At the Center, a Komatsu backhoe has started to claw at the blackened walls, watched by bunches of bright yellow daffodils in the feral garden.

Alive or dead? I’m not sure that is really the right question. Walking through the wreckage of damaged memories and changed geographies, the sun shone through broken clouds as they shuffled across through the brilliant blue sky. Was anything out of place? I can’t say. I can’t say.