Big Sur serves up Fire like no place else on Earth. There's the epic grandeur of the destruction, framed against ocean and sky. Giant flames that dance like demons through the forest, racing towards your home. You already feel you're a tiny part of the cosmos here, and that sense is amplified by the terror of fire.
Of all the possible rock-bottom, soul-twisting life events, fire comes near the top of the list. As several of my dear friends learned this past month, great loss and radical shifts of perspective go hand in hand.
Sometimes those shifts are subtle, like a whisper, other times stark and in-your-face, but the gifts fire brings are always profound.
Life turns on a dime, as my Dad used to say, and the fast-moving Pfeiffer Fire which began just before midnight on December 15 was a shattering example of this fact. A few key individuals who happened to be awake, who saw flames and smelled smoke, sounded the alarm that saved several lives. People fled with the clothes on their backs and nothing else. 30' flames in driveways and gardens led to emergency convoys over back roads and down the mountain to safety.
So many acres, so many homes, so many people displaced, disasters are always reported with numbers, as if the numbers can help us to digest the event and somehow convey the power of the story. Those who are living the reality of losing, almost losing, or fighting to save their homes, know that integrating this particular fire into their personal experience is going to take the tincture of time.
And then, the soul gifts, just in time for Christmas:
We are connected, none of us is really alone. The Pfeiffer Fire produced an outpouring of love and support, donations and concern, bringing all of us closer into the circle of community. Also, we are stronger than we know. Especially I think of my friend who fought the fire for hours in her flip-flops (and probably could have done it in her heels.)
You are not your stuff. What an amazing feeling it is to walk away from a lifetime of collecting belongings and know that you really only deeply miss one or two, or well, maybe, 3 or 4, things. And what you miss takes on a special significance. Your favorite painting. The silk robe, the teapot. Grief over these losses is offset by the simple fact that you and your loved ones are alive.
Renewal and rebirth really happen. As hard as it may be to believe at first, bit by bit we come back to our selves, transformed by fire into something stronger and more brilliant than before. We know our depths - everything is more precious to us - and so we can re-create our lives from that place. Spring is coming, and with a little blessed rain, it will be magnificent.
Shortly after my 30th birthday my home burned down in the Oakland Hills, part of an urban firestorm that took thousands of homes and 25 lives. For a time I lived in a state of grace, where every person and object seemed to glow from the inside, reverberating with light. I had just begun to learn about Buddhism, and the concepts of nirvana and samsara were fresh in my mind.
One afternoon I found myself fascinated by the contents of the medicine cabinet in my friend's 1940's era apartment. Everything I looked at during those days I saw simultaneously whole and exploded into ash. Peering behind the mirrored door of the cabinet one item jumped out at me from the middle shelf, a small perfume bottle, labeled in red: Samsara. Samsara, the turning wheel of existence, the world of suffering and desire.
Days before the fire, I recall stopping and really looking, almost absorbing, the fresh blooms of the Lily of the Nile in my garden. I treasured that moment for years, and still see it as a way to step off the merry-go-round of suffering, and into the richness Life offers us every day.
Now for another gift that fire brings: a deeply felt conviction that we have only this moment, and that living fully in each moment brings us peace. May this peace be our New Year's wish for our neighbors recovering from the Pfeiffer Fire, and for all of us in the years to come.
Pfeiffer Fire photo by Linda Sonrisa