Many years ago, I lived in an old house on the side of a hill in a wooded valley. My boyfriend and I were restoring this old house, and frequently had heaps of old lumber to dispose of. There was a large field to the south of the house, and one autumn day we made a burn pile there.The wind was high, the grass was dry – and you can imagine what happened.
To our horror, our fire began to spread through the grass, the line growing longer and longer.We tried ourselves with rakes to stop the fire from spreading, but to no avail. As if to make matters worse, the wind picked up; the fire was now racing up into the woods, which were full of dry leaves. Being an intelligent and resourceful person, I had had few experiences of making a mistake I could not fix myself (and easily cover up), and this was a humbling and frightening experience. Obviously we had to call for help.
Fighting fire in a rural area involves men with tanks on their backs going where trucks cannot go. We had to stand helplessly by while the fire companies from all the surrounding communities sent their fighters up into the woods. There were houses up there. I will never forget the sick disbelief I felt at what I had done, and the anxious hours (yes, hours!) we spent waiting to learn if the fire was completely out, and wondering if we should have called for help sooner. To our great relief, nobody was hurt. No houses were burned. All the same, I spent weeks punishing myself for being so stupid, so careless, so – so everything bad I could think of, as if I were a person who was to make mistakes. I felt the shame that only a smarty-pants can feel when caught in a mistake, made even worse by knowing that shame had kept me from making that 911 call sooner.
What I know now, of course, is that none of us are free from bad decisions. Intellectual courage helps us to recognize when our brushfires are beyond our control, and ask for help. As my daughter approaches puberty and greater independence, I hope she will keep this story in her heart.