October 22nd, 2010
Six and a Half Weeks After the Fire
Tonight is the beginning of a big football weekend at CU Boulder. Chautauqua is booked up, and all the vacation cottages are rented for the weekend. That means people are arriving all night, car doors slam, and city folk talk in loud voices in the parking lot, unaware of how sound travels in this quiet foothills neighborhood.
It means that when I and step out my kitchen door to take Nellie out in the morning, there will be people walking by – going to brunch, visiting with their kids, dressed up and enjoying a Colorado vacation. I will stand with a leash in my hand, leaving them to wonder about the strange looking woman in her pajamas with the little dog. The other day, a girl walked by and sniffed to her friend, “Are dogs even allowed here?” while she gave me a sideways, disapproving glance. “In fact THEY ARE,” I called out as she walked away. “ESPECIALLY THIS ONE!” She looked back at me like I was crazy. The funny thing is, I didn’t care what she thought.
This is a new experience for me. I was raised to believe in appearances – Look Good No Matter What, was a family mantra. What other people thought was of utmost importance. Image was everything.
These days I am too tired to worry about what people think of me. There is a sharp, raw edge to everything, that seems to have temporarily taken away my Need to Be Liked.
All my life I have known people who didn’t care what people thought of them. I was envious. They seemed so out there, so free. I think that’s why I used to drink – to let loose some of that self-consciousness, some of that pride. Let it all hang out, we used to say in the Sixties and Seventies. Well, this fire has loosened the boundaries of my personality, and my inner self seems to be oozing out, splashing out, flying out all over the place.
When a friend sends me an e-mail that leaves me reeling at its callousness, I do not take three deep breaths. I do not write an angry email and then delete it. I write an angry email and then send it. Immediately. I do not regret this action at the time, and I do not regret it now. When she writes that she wants to talk on the phone I say No, thank you. I already get about 35 calls a day that I have to answer and I DON’T REALLY FEEL LIKE TALKING RIGHT NOW.
The Edge. This experience has put me on edge, on the edge, has made me edgy – in so many deep and subtle ways. Most of the time I forget to eat, or I’m too tired to eat, or too busy, or the thought of even microwaving something is exhausting. And then there are times when I take a bite of something, and it is the best thing I’ve ever tasted. Strawberry rhubarb jam on a piece of toast late at night. A square of chocolate that my friend Matthew left for me in the refrigerator. A glass of water.
At times, water from the kitchen tap tastes as sweet as a mountain stream after a long, hot hike. My entire body thrills at the taste. I sniff the glass, trying to figure out why the taste is so miraculous. What is it? The lack of chlorine? Is it well water? No, I think. It is The Edge.
I’m sure psychologists have some reasonable explanation for The Edge. Neurological impairment. Lack of sleep. Temporary Trauma Psychosis. I prefer to think of it as a Somewhat Mystical Experience. Something about this fire has put me closer to the reality of life, and everything seems in sharper focus, more real. The hurts cut deeper; the moments of joy are almost unbearably sweet.
I remember my first mystical experience as a teenager. I was on a small island in the Bahamas, on vacation with my family. I had ridden a borrowed bicycle out to the north end of the island and climbed up on top of a tall, sandy bluff. I stared out at the ocean for a long time, marveling at the dance of sunlight on the water, the cresting waves, the rhythmic sound of the surf as it beat against the nearby cliffs.
Suddenly I realized that something strange was happening – I had stopped thinking. I looked out over the ocean – it was so beautiful that I started to cry, and I realized that I was connected on some deep level to everything – the water, the sky, the cliffs, the birds. All of life seemed lovely and welcoming and part of my own Self.
And then it stopped. Thoughts crowded back into my mind, my vision shifted again, and the world went back to “normal.” The sea was just the sea, the sky was just the dome over the Earth, and the birds were just ordinary seagulls. I stared out at the sea in desperation, trying to recapture the experience. For a moment I had know the Truth of All Things — And within seconds, the experience had disappeared.
I spent years trying to recapture this experience; through meditation, silent retreats, by following spiritual teachers — with a bit of success here and there. I was searching for The Edge, that moment I had captured in the Bahamas, on that cliff top.
Who would have thought that running through fire, in some odd way, would put me back there?
What happens when that sharpness of vision comes unbidden, through tragedy and loss? What happens when the public part of you that you are so used to maintaining, that shell of civility, of pleasing others, of being nice and helpful and polite and looking good, is suddenly shattered by grief, burnt up by fire? It leaves you raw, on edge.
The Edge is also somewhat liberating. Right now I don’t have time to worry so much about other people. I don’t have the energy to look good. And the funny thing is, I do look good. People tell me, no pun intended, that there is a “glow” about me. I can actually see it in the mirror. My eyes are clear, my vision is sharp. Most times, I can hear the truth or falsehood of what people are saying in an instant. It is an odd kind of clarity, brought on by walking through fire.
When fire burns away all that you have, and in a way, all that you are, you begin to see what is Really Important. And I guess that’s what I’m here to find out. What is important? What endures? What is left after the ashes are cleared, the foundation is ripped up, and you step away from The Edge, as you inevitably will?
The Abyss? Enlightenment? Paradise?
I’ll just keep looking.
Wishing You a Good Night,