The Oak Tree, the Fire and the Illusion of Control

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Control is a funny thing; from my perspective it’s a means to an end that never works out the way you want it too. Most people use control to try and avoid something they find painful or to avoid something that frightens them. There are times when we “feel” we are in control but the truth is that’s just an illusion. This isn’t news to me, but in recent years I have come to know control or rather the illusion of it at a deeper level of understanding for myself.

My true awakening about “control” or really my lack of control – began one morning in November of 2013, with the “felling” of our huge, several 1000 pound oak tree. The tree had been dead for many years. My husband and I and our arborist had talked many times about taking it down. But the conversation always came back to – it was too dangerous to mess with and the best plan of action was none.

Well at first this seemed ok but as the years progressed we became more and more uneasy with the idea that the best plan of action was none.

So when the arborist came out in the summer of 2013 to survey the trees I told him I wanted to take down the big dead Oak. I was prepared for his refusal and instead he said sure! He was all for it, not a moment of hesitation on his part. All the years prior he had always said it was too dangerous to take down. I was quietly amused at our obvious personal growth in the same area – letting go of some control and the courage to take action.

So the felling of the big dead Oak was scheduled. I alerted all the horse owners who board on our property of what would be occurring and when. I moved all of the horses out of harms way. We made sure we had help to rebuild any fences that got taken out as the tree came down. We took all of the precautions we possibly could to ensure a safe “felling”. It felt as though we were in “control” of the situation.

In the minutes leading up to the felling of the tree I became terrified – all rational thought went out the window and fear completely took over my being. The level of terror coursing thru my body was interesting esp. when I compared it to the level of control I had felt earlier in the process of preparing for the felling of the tree. What was about to happen could end anyway Mother Nature saw fit no matter how much we had planned or prepared in an effort to be in “control”. I was highly aware in my moment of terror of just how much of an illusion my feeling of control had been.

As the arborist got closer and closer to making the final cut, the huge tree started to shutter. First shuttering slowly and then more violently until we heard a definitive crack. With the loud crack the arborist stepped back and huge dead Oak tree came crashing to the ground. As I watched the rotted wood literally explode away from what was left of the tree trunk, I felt myself let go of a lifetime of fear that had manifested in “control”.

At the end of the day Ken and I talked allot about how we had each experienced the felling of the big dead Oak tree. The experience was so monumental for each of us in many different ways. It felt like we had reached the top of a mountain and from that mountain top it would be a little more down hill than up hill from now on. We felt that the good outcome was due in part to waiting until the time was right to take the tree down and in the planning and control of the situation. We weren’t completely wrong, at least about the timing, as for planning and control 😉 For a moment we both believed in the illusion that we had been somewhat in control.

We decided to end or day with dinner at home and a movie. Ken left to go to the video store to pick up a movie and I got dinner started. I changed into my comfy clothes for the evening and sat down at the computer for minute to check emails. With in a couple minutes of sitting down at my computer I heard the loudest scariest knocks on our glass door. The knocks were so loud and brutal that they sounded as if the glass might shatter at any moment.

I ran to the door, my heart was pounding out of my chest. I truly had no idea what I would see when I reached the glass door. There stood a woman, she appeared frantic, her lips were moving and I could hear voice but I couldn’t understand her words. I opened the door and she screamed Fire! Get your shoes on and get out.

I was totally stunned, I barely reacted, she screamed louder as if that might help me hear. I was so startled and confused that I wasn’t moving at all. She started grabbing at me and then she literally pulled me outside. At first I felt and saw nothing until I turned the direction she was pointing.

What I saw next was surreal. It was like something out of a movie. The field along the entire fence line of our ranch was on fire. It was 6 O’clock at night, during the winter, so it was already very dark outside. The glow of the fire illuminated everything.

The flames were tall, 20 feet in some places. I was still momentarily paralyzed. She grabbed me again and pulled me toward the first horse. I haltered him and took him to the barn. I knew I would need to move all the horses to the open space behind our property but there were over 20 to move and it had taken me 60 seconds – 1 minute to move 1 horse and to come back for the next. That meant at least another 19 minutes to move all the others.

As I am running back to get the second horse I realized that Ken had driven out of the property just 15 minutes earlier and with in that 15 minutes the entire length of the 4 acre field became engulfed in flames I knew there was not enough time to move all the horses by myself.

So I stopped took a breath and thought what was my fire plan? I had always had a plan; I just needed a second to remember it.

I had always intended to call all the horse owners in the event of a fire or disaster but realized in the moment that I had to pick and choose which owner to call given the short amount of time so I started calling the ones who lived closest and could get here fast.

The other part of my plan had always been to get the cats into their carriers and get them in the car. So that when the moment came that I have no choice but to leave the property the cats will be in the car and we will go.

My entire plan proved to be very interesting. As I am trying to call my husband and my boarders and any one who can help, I am realizing that my heat sensitive I phone is virtually worthless in a panicky emergency. Each call took several tries as I am running to get the cat carriers out of the garage. When I got to garage there were no carriers to be found, I remembered that I had given them to my daughter to use for a while.

I thought fine, I will just grab the cats out of the house and put them in the car. As I continued running and making calls my asthmatic lungs did their best to keep up. My asthma was in full roaring force just like the fire and it only complicated matters further.

When I made it into the house to grab the cats that’s when I remembered that I had no car to put them in. Ken had my car with him. His car was in Houston where he had been working that November.

With the realization that none of my emergency plan would work I walked outside toward the fire. I needed help, I could not move all the horses fast enough and I really didn’t know what to do with the one totally blind horse that lived here. And what about the chickens and the llamas and the out door cats. That’s when I began to fully comprehend that I was in control of Nothing!

In that moment of understanding my lack of control over this situation I realized all I do was surrender. I tried to have faith that help would come and I prayed for the courage to survive the aftermath, what ever that might be. As that level of surrender began to wash thru my body, my husband Ken came flying down the driveway. It was odd because I felt very little as I watched him approach. I really understood in that moment that it was an illusion that either of us could control this event or its outcome. Something bigger was at work here.

Ken and I exchanged a few words that I do not remember and then he took off. I saw Ken running around near the fence line for a moment and I then I saw him start the tractor. He drove the tractor toward the fire and disappeared out of my sight.

I walked into the arena and watched the eucalyptus trees began to go up in flames, my daughter called me back at that exact moment. She said she was on her way to the property with cat carriers and her fire fighter husband to help us. In that moment the help I realized I needed most was to not be alone as I watched the fire burn and threaten all I had come to love.

One of my greatest fears in life from as early as I can recall is the fear of losing it all. All you have worked for, all you have loved and maybe the ultimate loss of your own life. My own effort to control had always been about trying to keep my self safe from that fear of loosing it all.

As I stood in the arena praying crying feeling hoping and talking I knew that no matter how this turned out it was always the plan. I think this fire had been scheduled to occur since before my birth. As awful as it was it also felt in some strange way to be right – a terrifying healing of sorts.

As I spoke with my daughter the fire was beginning to die down, the fire fighters were getting it under control. I was still physically alone at that point standing in the middle of the arena. I started to feel some hope and got off the phone with my little girl. I took a couple real deep breaths and as I did that the fire right in front of my eyes exploded back to life.

The wind that night was warm & crazy and it totally reminded me of the wind during the Oakland Hills Fire years ago. As the wind whipped the fire in front of me into a frenzy, my feeling of hope left. My heart sank to a depth I had not known before. It felt for a moment that all hope was lost. I ran towards the fire, I could see the headlamps of the fireman between the flames.

That shitty little voice we all have inside our heads that speaks to us unkindly sometimes, started saying don’t bother the firemen, you are being dramatic and you are being needy. I found it interesting that even during such an intense, real and terrifying moment that I could still hear the shitty little voice. I noted that interesting fact in my mind and choose to ignore that voice and refocus on what was happening in front of me.

I didn’t understand why the firemen weren’t trying to put out the fire in the trees that had just started back up in earnest? I started calling to them thru the flames – is anyone there?? Can anyone hear me?? I called out louder and louder and then the tears of terror began to flow once again. One of the firemen finally answered me back. All he said was “yes we are here” but his words felt very wrong. Something was so wrong!

I called ken on his cell phone and he answered. I told him that the fire had seemed under control a moment ago but had just started burning again and was now climbing up the eucalyptus trees at the arena fence line. He calmly said that he knew this and that the fire trucks had run out of water and they left to get more. With that I hung up the phone and just cried. I thought we almost made it out of this ok and now no water.

I looked toward my garden hoses and headed that direction for a moment until I realized that the spray from my garden hose was no match for the flames.

As I stood there alone in the middle of the arena crying my daughter called and said she was almost to the property. I lost it. A lifetimes worth of emotions began to pour out of me, the feelings of sadness, fear, pain and helplessness. Something had taken over me and on this night I needed the help. I understood that there was nothing I could physically do to change or control what was happening.

I got off the phone and stood quietly for a moment and watched the bright orange flames crawl up the tree in front of me and that other little voice in me head, the kind one, my intuition – the one that points me in the right direction – said to me, turn around and look at the horses. I felt as though someone gently took me by the shoulders and helped me turn my frozen body around to look toward all of the horse paddocks. I heard that little voice ask me “what do you see?” What I saw explained allot to me about that night. The horses were all calm. Not one horse was running, moving or calling, they were all eating quietly, standing still and a few were watching me. I understood at that moment that they knew far more than I. Horses have always been my compass. They have always responded to the “truth” of a person or situation. So when they showed me that all is well despite my terror of the situation and my total lack of control over it – I listened. If there was something to panic about they would be panicking.

As I was standing in the arena watching the horses and understanding their message to me, the water truck arrived as did all of the people I had called. All at once I was not alone, the fire was not destroying our home, our ranch or the home of our neighbors, all at once it was going to be ok.

My day had begun with the illusion of control around the felling of the Oak Tree and my day had completed with the fire, the fire that wiped away any and all illusion that I had control of anything.

It was one of the most healing days I have lived thru yet.

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