My House Burned Down

My house burned down
now I can better see
the rising moon

- Mizuta Masahide

In France last month, I attended St. John's Fire, a pre-Christian Solstice tradition of our Occitanian hosts. We were gathered near the entrance to a Neolithic cave, home to depictions of horses carved into the cave walls 15,000 years ago. The power, beauty and sophistication of the renderings left all those in our party awestruck. The cave lay at the foot of Chateau Commarque, a medieval castle, perched at the top of the cliff forty feet above us. It commanded the Beaune river valley below.

The bonfire was set ­to honor the four cardinal directions and the Tree of Life, an ancient practice being revived in this part of Europe. To indigenous people worldwide the four directions have typically represented the seasons, stages of life, elements of nature and the four intelligences. Once the bonfire was lit, our small group sat together at the fire's edge enjoying conversation, a glass of red wine and local cheese and sausages. Wonderful libations in good company "en plein air." Beyond the ring of firelight, the frogs were roaring. How many evening fires had been lit here over the millennia, I wondered?

I had come to Dordogne to see the region's famous painted caves and to grieve the loss of my mentor, Angeles Arrien. The previous six weeks were a blur of phone calls, emails and meetings with a shocked community. The passing of this beloved guide, teacher and friend to so many was a staggering blow. I could not fathom the future without the indomitable Basque wisdom keeper, my teaching partner for the past 20 years. She would have loved this place, I thought. It was just 200 kilometers from her ancestral homeland.

As I allowed the bonfire flames to draw my eyes inward, I recalled another fire. The year was 1996. Angeles was at her office on a multi-tenant houseboat in Sausalito harbor. I was in my home office in Toronto. We were talking on the phone, discussing the design for an upcoming workshop we were to deliver together. "Just a minute, Patxe ," she said in mid-sentence. "Somebody on the pier is waving and yelling." Then the line went dead. I redialed her number again and again without luck.

A fire had broken out in another unit and swept through the boat, burning it to the waterline. Angeles and her staff had been forced to leap into the San Francisco Bay. Everything on the boat - all the computers, databases, files, books, products and personal effects- burned in moments. Her whole business literally went up in smoke. Thankfully, no one was killed or seriously injured although Angeles sustained cuts to her foot when she jumped in the water and required stitches. She called the next day. "It's the end of a phase, Patxe," she laughed with characteristic good humor. "And, a new beginning!"

Where most people would be shocked and dispirited by such a disaster, Angeles had taken it in stride. She was already planning how to recover or replace the information that would allow her to resume operations. "I am going to move everything into my teaching room at Bridgeway Boulevard," she declared, referring to a space she had rented several months previously, and just down the road from the houseboat. Prescient.  

Angeles set to it without missing a beat. Her business and Foundation were back up and running in days thanks to an outpouring of moral and material support from her student and collegial communities. Even in the most difficult circumstances Angeles was able to maintain a sense of equanimity.

As I helped myself to another glass of wine and a slice of wonderful Jambon de Bayonne I thought about what allowed Angeles to meet difficult transitions with such grace and effectiveness. Instantly, her words sprang to mind. "Present-forward," she would say referring to her practice of learning from the past but not dwelling on the past. "The present moment is the only place where we can course correct the past and create our preferred future."

Angeles believed the past, no matter how difficult, was a road of initiation rather than victimization. "This shape-shifts our experience away from psychopathology to psycho-mythology. Much more empowering, Patxe," she suggested. "Remember, whatever you can face you can handle. Otherwise it wouldn't be there."

There it was, that indefatigable Basque spirit. Angeles always affirmed that people are well equipped to meet change and transition even when we think we aren't. She believed that gifts, talents, character and resourcefulness always carried the day. Even sudden changes could be opportunities for growth and strengthening, including a houseboat fire or a death in the family.

She was right. Even in my most difficult passages - moments of fear and uncertainty - a way always opened. The right people came along and offered support; hidden gifts emerged; along with the courage to face reality. "Where are you going to place your energy and attention," she would ask me? "On what has happened or on what you want to make happen?"

Usually I was in the pity-pot when she trotted that one out. It would often piss me off to hear it but it was the cold water I needed to get back on my feet and start again. Angeles wasn't one for false compassion. She could have the difficult conversations necessary to remind me of the power of personal responsibility and proactivity. In doing so, she also respected the need to grieve a loss and encouraged taking time to mourn and reflect. Ever the pragmatist, she believed one could grieve without becoming paralyzed by grief. "It's just a choice away, Patxe," she would remind me.

By the fire of St. John I began to realize just how well Angeles had prepared me for this time. I had all the tools, practices, knowledge and experience I needed to face the future as a friend rather than something to fear. In this spirited place of the first people and the animals they revered, I sensed my own journey had entered a new phase. I knew I was sufficient to meet it.

Posted on September 15, 2014 .