The Refinery

The Refinery

It stands on the edge of the 405. A steel eyesore. Smokestacks aimed at the sky spilling clouds of pollutants into the atmosphere for the benefit of millions of fuel-fed machines. A mess of metal platforms and stairways and cages and fences with a giant American flag slapped on the front, facing the freeway for the viewing pleasure of thousands of daily commuters. Environmental activists and public health groups frown at it in disgust, protesting the impact on the air and the well being of the community. And every time it comes into view, it comforts me.

The orange lights flicker against the night sky much like the flames that sometimes hiss from the towers, winking at me – reminding me I don’t have far to go.

When I was a little girl in the backseat, I pressed my head against the cool glass, searching the darkness for falling stars. When the lights came into view, I was captivated. I kept it in my sight until the road turned.

Even now, as we approach the eyesore I let my kids know home isn’t much farther. No matter the distance we’ve traveled, we can breathe easy now. We’re in the home stretch. And I watch in my rear view mirror as the refinery fades into the distance.

It calls to me. Every time. Hundreds of trips along the 405 and it pulls me in. I can’t stop staring.

I used to think it was just a landmark. But the overwhelming calm that comes over me in the presence of the metal behemoth has me thinking maybe there’s something more hidden inside the tangled steel tubes that I’m meant to see.

It’s strange being drawn to something that’s considered so unsightly. To be calmed by and oddly pulled to this massive metal and concrete structure in a way that is difficult to describe.

What is it about that refinery? Inside, crude oil is pumped through pipes, processed  through distillation, vacuum, and Fluid Catalytic Cracking units – blended and treated and refined into a perfect formula that is the life force of fuel-powered machines that are the means of survival for millions of people. It takes in the raw, the unusable, the crude, the unfit, and it transforms it into life-giving liquid-gold. Sure, there’s a lot of disgusting things in there – and it puts a lot of disgusting things out into the world. But with a lot of work and a little refinement, it creates something better.

Maybe that’s the parallel. Maybe it’s a visual reminder that no matter what kind of toxic load I’m given, I can process it and create something of value. Something usable. And it is a process. Sometimes I have to spew nastiness into the atmosphere. Sometimes I have to dig through the sludge. Sometimes my flames burn hot and my pollution pisses off my community. But it’s necessary to create something better, something life-sustaining.

I’m not perfect. Nothing ever is. But I’m going through the process and I’m in the home stretch. And that’s pretty comforting.