I am awoken early. A dear friend panicked that her house is in imminent danger. She is in the US on holiday; her beautiful A-frame timber home in far northern New South Wales, Australia, is at risk from the prolific bush fires. The house is usually nestled in a lush subtropical rainforest. But today it is parched and surrounded by giant trees shedding their leaves in an attempt to stay alive. The water-tables are also drying, the creeks usual roar is an inaudible trickle. The crisp dead leaves rustle in the breeze fooling the brain that it’s Autumn. It’s actually the beginning of Summer and this drought has only just begun.
As I get up and open the windows I can smell the fires. The smoke is hovering around having made its way twenty kilometres towards the coast. It’s eerie. The news is terrifying. New South Wales and Queensland are in flight or fright. So many fires out of control. Homes lost. Lives lost. Animals and habitats scorched into smouldering wastelands. A pre-apocalyptic tension informs our next few days. My friend’s house has been given an evacuation order. It looks bad. She gives me a list of things she wants from the house – the numerous items that are ‘important, valuable, and/or sentimental’.
Man sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then his is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present … he lives as if he is never going to die and then dies having never really lived. — H.H. the Dalai Lama
I jump in my car and drive the thirty minutes towards the fires. I am not in danger. The real threat will arrive tomorrow when the strong hot northerly winds blow over the embers carrying embryonic sparks looking for crisp, dry foliage. All fires start small. One flash of flint can consume thousands of hectares. One careless garden fire can decimate a community. There is a total fire ban. The majority of people comply.
The daily News is disruptive; partly doing its job disseminating facts and government advice, partly mobilising people with fear and worse-case-scenarios. Busy raking up past fire traumas to ensure the point is driven home: “leave your homes … put your human life first.” Trying to breathe, acting with as much grace and drama-less swiftness as I can, to simply retrieve the items on Alima’s list.
Naturally, I am curious about what she insists on saving. I’m intrigued at the, ‘if there’s room’ list. And fascinated at what she is prepared to let go of … what she’s happy to let burn. My job is to follow her wishes. And I do. And while I am doing it I am making comparisons and judgements around my own inventory of what is valuable to me. Who we are and the family we have shape and determine our legacy. Alima is 77 years old without children. Not many relatives but many friends. She is self-sufficient, independent and she’s made sound investments. And her house is insured. She’s been canny and lucky. I reflect on how this shapes her list of what is valuable.
And then I scratch beneath my shallow summation. The main driver for Alima’s list is a genuine state of acceptance that she is not her body, not her things, not her legacy. She has led an impassioned life of self-enquiry, a spiritual quest as a seeker of the truth. Right now, in this state of emergency, she is accepting that she could lose it all. Perhaps the distance filters the urgency. Perhaps she’s genuinely arrived at a place whereby at this stage of her independent life she can truly let go of worldly things.
The most valuable person is the one who cherishes the value in others. — Ron Kaufman
What Would I Take?
As I placed her most valued treasures in boxes and suitcases I made a mental list of what I would take. I made a promise that it would be kept to the bare minimum: the dogs and their toys, my intellectual property by way of computer and hard drives, a few necessary items of clothing, a couple of pair of shoes, credit cards, money, bank stuff and proof of purchase for insurance etc, my Will, my car. I was feeling akin to Alima. Happy with my ‘enlightened’ self. That was until I got home that afternoon and saw all the things I’d forgotten: the mementos, the knick-knacks, paintings, artwork, old album covers, objects of art, books … ah … all the books, and the list kept growing.
What was this … this attachment to things? How is my identity formed around them? Who am I without them? Why do I actually care?
I shifted gears. Got tougher on myself.
“Okay, you are suddenly exposed to danger, you can pack one carload only. And only all you can grab in twenty minutes. What will you take?”
My list shrunk backwards. Then it became easier … when push came to shove I would take only my original first list. I began to sink into a murmuring place of relief. An almost spiritual challenge and joy at having to begin at a new beginning. Burn the old me. Wait for the phoenix of myself to rise from the ashes. It started to feel liberating. All the old clunky identity, the ‘me’ that I think I am could be reborn, start again … not make the old mistakes. I’d live more simply, live in a smaller place, have less stuff.
Before I knew it I was feeling lighter and lighter. This felt in more authentic alignment with my values and philosophy of right now. Who I am right now would not acquire all this stuff. So why do I believe I need it right now. It was a brilliant insight. And yes, I am aware of the luxury of place that I undertook this exercise. Nevertheless, it revealed a lot about who I am and who I was. And how often my personal possessions tug to keep old versions of me alive in the present.
Then in a quieter place, after a cup of tea and a decompress from all the rush and push of adrenalin, from the smoke and fire, doom and gloom and climate change hysteria, I asked the deeper question in my own self-enquiry practice: ‘What is truly valuable to me?”
I came to a sweet list for myself:
The strength in my vulnerability.
The orchestra of nature with no human voice-overs.
Kindness to all sentient beings.
Rising in love above falling in love.
To be a better son, brother, friend, lover, care-giver.
To dedicate myself to altruistic authenticity.
To inspire through honest writing that helps raise consciousness.
To own and learn from my mistakes … no matter how small.
To be healthy so when I leave this body I make generative compost.
To leave this world more beautiful than I found it.
To be a ship sunk in love. (see poem below)
The only choice we have as we mature is how to inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance … — David Whyte
When I sink deep into Rumi’s poem (below); this giant of a reminder that there is only one true answer: That it is only Love that is valuable. Love holds all things within and of itself. Love is the only constant. Love is the container of all things … the un-personify-able.
I thought about humanity, past, present, and future. People all over this planet facing flood, drought, fire, famine, war, the inability to forgive or let go, etc. etc. etc.
We are all irreplaceable in this life tapestry.
Every single thread has equal importance.
Every single thread is valuable.
THE SHIP SUNK IN LOVE by Rumi
Should Love’s heart rejoice unless I burn?
For my heart is Love’s dwelling.
If You will burn Your house, burn it, Love!
Who will say, ‘It’s not allowed’?
Burn this house thoroughly!
The lover’s house improves with fire.
From now on I will make burning my aim,
From now on I will make burning my aim,
for I am like the candle: burning only makes me brighter.
Abandon sleep tonight; traverse through one night
the region of the sleepless.
Look upon these lovers who have become distraught
and like moths have died in union with the One Beloved.
Look upon this ship of God’s creatures
and see how it is sunk in Love.
As within this article; picture a scenario whereby you have to flee taking one carload of your belongings and with only twenty minutes to pack. Make a list of all that is around you and within your home. All the time asking the bigger question, Who am I? And the more interesting question, What is worth saving/keeping? This can be quite a process, an enlivening experience, it may bring a multitude of conflicting values and self-identity clashes. Explore them gently … then, when the time feels right, ask the bigger question;
“What is truly valuable to me?”
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In 2003, the home we rented burned down in a forest fire. Fires would break out in our wilderness, but they were always brought under control by air tankers. So when we received the notice of evacuation, we treated it more as a precaution, believing the fires would be extinguished as in previous times. This belief very much influenced what we gathered to take with us that late evening with the power out.
We gathered only the essentials, the “just in case” items… Pets, legal docs, computer, photo albums, some artwork, and overnight bags.
A day or so later the entire house and all that we owned was destroyed. We were homeless over night. For about a year it felt like a death in the family.
But several things came out of that destruction and having to let go of those possessions.
We were able to become debt-free thanks to the insurance pay out (no more college loan and car payment!)
We were able to receive the love & generosity from friends & family and complete strangers.
But most importantly I was shown that it will be ok in the end. We lost everything, but in a year’s time we had all that we needed… We had come back from nothing – It was going to be alright. This feeling and understanding became ingrained in us so much so that a few years later when a different fire threatened the area we moved to, we were not overly concerned about losing our stuff again. We had less attachment to our things (it’s just stuff) and we had already seen that we could start from nothing and we’d be fine.
Lastly, the fire and loss profoundly presented me the choice of victimhood or personal responsibility. At first I very much felt a victim, but this left me powerless. When I chose to take responsibility for my choices (I chose to live in the mountains, where forest fires occur), I now had the freedom to let healing & forgiveness happen vs blame and pity.
Blessings to all of you who went through this big tragedy whether through fire or water. I wish you receive from the Abundance of Life, everything you have lost and even more and restart a new Life Sacred and Blessed.
I have the very strong Impression that I would stand in front of the house watching everything without interfering. Would I really leave everything behind? I can’t think of anything that would really be worth taking out of the house. I love our home and the rooms and the things inside them. But they are things. Only things.
I would really make sure that the family would be fine (dog, cats, chickens, ponies, kids, husband). But things?? I can’t imagine what I would take with me. Rather leaving everything behind than having to decide upon every piece…
With lots of Love,
I have just been through this exact and frightening experience. Lost everything in the recent New Year’s Eve bushfires in Australia. My sixty seven years of my life was is that house but what I wanted to get out of the dangers of that exploding fire event was my grandchildren, the dogs and my daughter and her husband. The mother and father of those three children. And we did all get out to safety. All we have was what we grabbed and it fitted in the boot and back seat of my car. No photos, no precious collections. None of the ‘stuff’. But we have memories.
I went through a similar process for Hurricane Florence. My children had asked me to take the family photo albums, which always spark lively conversations and fond memories. We had a dog at that time, so of course he came. My husband took his guitar and I took my latest knitting project (these activities soothe us), overnight bags of seasonal clothing/toiletries, paperwork and tools/safety equipment that would be useful to help ourselves or others upon our return. My husband struggled the week we were gone, I enjoyed an unexpected holiday with my parents. I walked away from a home I have lovingly purchased and furnished surprisingly peacefully – as I am generally the more materialistic/acquisitive between us. We were fortunate to have someplace to go. When we were able to return I was grateful to see my things, and have settled into possessions again, but I stand by my list and will repeat the same sequence of preparation for the next one. The dog has since died, but there is nothing that needs to fill this empty space yet….we are all going to need to be more flexible as the climate crisis rises and changes everything else.
‘A Ship Sunk in Love’ is one of the most profound pieces of wisdom and awakened consciousness that I’ve read this year. Thank you from my heart Paul C. Pritchard. Namaste.