Saturday, July 19, 2008

The world is on fire

"Fire is important to this community because the tiny seeds of the giant sequoia must fall on partially burned or bare mineral soil to germinate successfully."

The scene was surreal, like something out of an action adventure movie. Standing on the cliffs above Santa Barbara, 1,000 feet up, we watched the flames shooting up into the air on a ridge just a few miles away. Bright orange, they licked at the smoke-filled sky, rising well above the tree-line.

The flames must’ve been 20 to 30 feet high. Smoke billowed to the left, following the direction of the wind, yellow smoke closest to the fire, gray and brown as it spread out, white like cumulus clouds as the edges as it dispersed.

We watched the helicopter swoop overhead, flying back and forth from the pond at the ranch where we were staying to refill a giant hanging basket with water, which turned to instant steam when it was dumped over the flames.

We were being evacuated from the ranch right in the middle of a six-day long silent meditation and yoga retreat. “Include this, too, in your practice,” my teacher, a long-time Buddhist practitioner, instructed us as we posed in lotus or yoga asanas on our mats, while the smoke filled the air just miles from where our studio sat, perched above the city.

This was not the first time I’d had to include fire in my practice of growing and evolving and walking through this life. Just three months beforehand, I’d gotten a phone call from my former next-door neighbors while enjoying a Mediterranean meal of lentils and veggies in a restaurant in San Francisco, where I lived at the time.

“Have you heard the news?” my neighbor John asked. John and his wife Joyce used to live next door to me in Troy, New York, and I still owned the home adjacent to theirs.

“No,” I said.

“Your house is on fire,” he said.

Three thousand miles away, I felt powerless to do much of anything, and so had to trust that everyone back in that community would handle it, that the capable fire fighters would put the fire out in time to save our house, that everyone would be okay.

Luckily, the fire crew did get there in time to save the first floor of our house, although the second floor kitchen was gutted and the walls throughout the second floor were streaked gray with smoke. Our tenants, a young couple with a baby, had put cooking oil on the stove, and then fallen asleep, accidentally starting a grease fire. Fortunately they were fine, if shaken up by the experience.

They set our house on fire literally two days after my ex-husband and I had completed our divorce proceedings, with the sale of the house as the last item on the checklist to dissolve our former financial partnership. I was, needless to say, somewhat shell-shocked, and could only shake my head and wonder at whatever greater powers are guiding the course of events.

God must have some kind of sense of humor, I thought, considering that this divorce had dragged on for three years, and that once it was complete, the fire happened 48 hours later. What’s the message here? I thought. What is the universe calling on me to learn? I’m a good person - Where the hell am I going wrong? Of course, rationally I knew that I wasn’t being singled out for punishment, that this wasn’t about anything being “wrong.” Everything happens for a reason, I believe this, and I trusted that the reason for this would become clear with time. Yet it seemed just absurd for this to happen now – of all things, a fire!

Interestingly, fire for me has always been a compelling metaphor and I’d even chosen, years before, the phoenix rising as my own personal mythological symbol. The phoenix is a symbol of resurrection, the bird of legend that would arise from the ashes after incinerating – and this metaphor had served me at an earlier time in my life when my world had collapsed, and I felt as though I was starting from scratch.

I’d also chosen to live in cities that had burned to the ground and been resurrected – Troy, New York which suffered through the great fire of 1862, when more than 500 buildings were destroyed, and San Francisco, which had been savaged by the earthquake and fire of 1906. Both cities had been rebuilt, with even more grandeur than before. I had rebuilt my life and was thriving. Yet now I was starting to question the wisdom of aligning myself with the metaphor of the phoenix, since I seemed to be manifesting fires all around me! What did I need to burn away? What, I wondered, needs to be recreated in my life?

Who really knows the “why” of why anything happens in our lives, yet I felt there was some symbolism here around me burning away old, restricting beliefs in my life, and recreating myself again, without limits. I’m someone who despite my worldly successes and achievements over the years − as a Harvard and Princeton educated strategic planning and governmental consultant, a writer, a community leader who had worked on countless urban revitalization projects in Troy, as a dancer, a loving wife to my ex-husband, a good friend, a devoted daughter − despite all of this I’d often questioned my own worth and sabotaged myself sometimes, in work, life, relationships. Something in my mind, some old pattern of thinking, wasn’t allowing me to fully live all of my life and be all the beauty, love and joy I know I am inside.

The fires seemed as good a time as any to take stock of what had held me back in life previously, and to generate a new life and vision for myself. I decided that it is time for me to believe fully in all the possibilities for my life, in love, work and general adventures. And to know that no fire, no loss of material possessions or even love lost, could take away from who I am inside, the burning passion for life at the core of me, or who I am in this world, which is a bright light.

Now, about the only fire I want to deal with is that of the fire in my belly when I’m taking on a project that excites me, and the fire I feel when I’m wild for a man who tantalizes me. There was a man once in my life whose presence was like a five-alarm fire from the day I met him, just constant heat and light and burning excitement. I like that kind of heat, would happily pour gasoline on the flames to fan the fire. The rest I feel ready to leave behind.

I think I’ll choose a new metaphor, then – the hummingbird perhaps which symbolizes resurrection, optimism, sweetness, a messenger and “stopper of time.” Or the deer, which can symbolize “love, gentleness, kindness, gracefulness, sensitivity, purity of purpose, walking in the light, meditation, longevity, wealth” – all lovely qualities to have in my life!

That said, I have to be grateful for the lessons of the fires. The Santa Barbara fire provided me with the gift of knowing that I could remain peaceful and grounded despite the challenging conditions that were arising. The house fire brought me back to New York to work on renovations, bringing me closer again to family and old friends in a tight-knit community that I lived in and loved for seven years of my life.

In times like this, I also remind myself that the California wildfires are actually a necessary part of the natural process, that the giant sequoia trees need the fire and ash for their seeds to germinate in the soil. I’m curious to see what will grow up next in my life, from the ashes of the fires.

© Lisa Powell Graham, July 2008


Ari Nessel said...

Wow, how ominous your symbol of the phoenix rising has been! It sounds like Dina is really encountering some impermenence in her life as well. I wish her the steadfastness in her devotion to the dharma during these challenges. I definitely look forward to getting an email of your photos at Laurel Springs. I can only imagine how red the sky got with all of that soot in the air! Thanks for sharing your blog with me. I feel like I have an insight into your soul, authentic and inspiring.

tc said...

Hey Lisa,

Your thoughts on fire made me think of Heraclitus, Greek sage, seeker and hard ass in the time before Socrates, who maintained that Fire was the elemental substance of the Universe, neither created nor destroyed & the life force not only of sentient beings but of every energy-action. Quoth He, "All things are exchanged for Fire and Fire for all things . . ." Heraclitean Fire ebbs and flows according to its own laws. Hard to believe, given the circumstances, that the house fire was an idle coincidence. Sounds more like an annointing of the Eternals. Fire was a key symbol for you, but looks like time's come for a new paradigm. Not rebirth, but lived life. How many times do we want to go back to square one?

I am enchanted by your blog and the places and faces you've seen. I hadn't checked out the site before e-mailing you back today, so thanks for the link. Hope we can catch up this weekend.

Lynelle said...

Keep up the good work.