The Fire at Charlie's Place
Learning How to Lose
The Fire at Charlie's Place
The journey towards hermitage started in northern California and from there moved on to Kauai, Hawaii, and finally to the island nation of Fiji. One of our stopovers on the way to our final destination, the island of Naitauba (nye-Tum-bah), was “Charlie’s Place”. It was there that I just escaped a house fire.
I was 6 years old. This encounter with the threat of death showed me that life is precarious, and can be lost in a moment, without notice. It gave me a new sense of gratitude for life and for what is given. My memory of this event is detailed and vivid. I can see the moments as they unfolded as clear images in my mind’s eye. I can remember the feelings; the fear, and the lessons of this adventure.
It was the month of April in 1983. The island where we were temporarily sheltering was named Nananu-i-Ra, which means “Daydream of the West”. Nananu-i-Ra is 3.5 square kilometers, about 3 kilometers off the main island of Viti Levu. We were staying at Charlie’s Place, on Naivere Bay. It was a simple place, free of embellishment, with three cottages that stood a short ways off of the long, white sand beach. This secluded spot was only accessible by boat. I was at Charlie’s Place with my parents, Mulund and Katsu, and my brother Neem. We were part of a small group of people who were all there for the same reason. We had traveled to Fiji with our spiritual teacher and guru, Adi Da Samraj. He was in search of a hermitage, a place to do his spiritual blessing work, and to live with and teach his devotees. We sought a place where we could live cooperatively and peacefully, a place that was set apart from the everyday world.
Nananu-i-Ra had minimal facilities; no running water, and electricity only a few hours a day via a small generator. We used a well each day to wash dishes, do laundry, and shower. I remember drawing up the bucket from the well, and pouring the bucket over my head to rinse off the sea salt from the ocean. Sometimes we kids would take turns pouring the buckets over each other’s heads, making a game out of the showering ritual. The food was basic too; we had a steady diet of white rice, condensed milk, curried root vegetables, and the occasional piece of fruit. However, none of it and nothing put me off. It was all an adventure, and one that I was thrilled to be on.
It was joyful to be there with my lifelong friends, Adi Da’s daughters, Io, Shawnee, Tamarind, and Naamleela. The other members of our little tribe were Michelle, my younger brother Neem, and me. There were seven of us children, ranging from the ages of 2 to 8 years. We lived in a house just up the hill from the beach. The building had several rooms; each one was lined with our beds and a few possessions. The back room was mainly storage for bulk foods, and in a back corner was a large kerosene freezer.
We spent a lot of our time outdoors, exploring the island, swimming, and climbing trees. We slept in the house, and did our school work there. We also spent a lot of our time with the adults in the building that served as the common area. It felt to me like we lived in a village, everyone connected, and I liked that. Meals were eaten together in the large room that also served as a meditation hall and a place to gather in the evenings with Adi Da. Every morning we would meditate and do a puja together. Then Adi Da would join us, and we would all eat breakfast. Many evenings were spent playing twenty questions, or other word games. There was no television, no common modes of entertainment on the island, so we made our own amusements. Often Adi Da would stay in that room and speak about the Divine, about spiritual practice and the way of life that he called the Way of the Heart. Even though we were young children, we were also instructed by Adi Da. When we first got to Fiji he spoke with us about the idea of renunciation, of letting go of things, and knowing that we did not need “things” to make us happy.
Here’s an excerpt from the end of that talk, to give you a sense of it.
“Yes!” said Adi Da. “A lot of grown-ups are in trouble because of thinking they are un-Happy and thinking that they need things to make them Happy. They have the ‘I-gotta-getties’ and the ‘I-need-it-nowies’. But these people are only thinking they are un-Happy. So, what you must do is realize that you are only thinking that you are un-Happy. And instead of doing that, just remember that before you started thinking you were un-Happy you are already Happy. Already!” said Master Da loudly. Then he looked around at all the children.
“You can feel that right now, can’t you? That you are already Happy?”
“Yes!” they said.
“Well then,” said Master Da with a smile, “that is the practice!
Look at the Sunlight on the Water is what we kids were studying right before this fire happened. We actually had just finished a three-day silent retreat. On this retreat our admonition was to “feel the Mystery” or the “feeling of Being”. That is, to feel what I had already felt, which was happiness or joy, and to radiate that feeling to infinity; to simply feel and be, and not do or think much of anything. We took long contemplative walks on the beach, sat and listened to Adi Da’s teaching words as read to us by one of our adult guides, and spent a lot of time alone with just the feeling of the Mystery. The hardest part was staying silent, not talking to the other kids was tough, I had never been silent for such a long time. But as the retreat went on, I got used to it. I enjoyed the quiet; walking on the beach alone, or sitting and watching the waves roll onto the shore. I felt happiness in my heart when I sat there, and remembered the feeling of the Master, which was a feeling of love and radiance. Being near him, I felt drawn to this feeling that was hard to put words to, but was simply obvious and always there. I listened to his instructions, and felt the truth of what he told us about being happy, not waiting to become happy, or looking for things to make us happy. After the three days our retreat was over, and we went back to our normal daily life.
On the night of the fire we children sat in a circle in our room, eating ice cream. This was a very special treat in the heat and humidity of the tropical night. Ice cream was hard to come by, so we were all in a very festive mood that night. One of the men came in and refilled the kerosene tank of the freezer, but we didn’t pay much attention to what he was doing as we finished our bowls of dessert.
Soon after, we went to bed. We were small enough so that we could fit two girls in each bed, our heads at either end, our toes pointed towards each other. My brother, Neem, and Adi Da’s youngest daughter, Naamleela, were three years old. On this night they were sleeping in the back room closest to the freezer. I was sharing a bed with my friend Michelle. After crawling onto a mattress, which was laid upon the floor, we tucked the bottom of the mosquito net that was suspended over our bed deep under the mattress to protect ourselves from the mosquitoes that flew about freely in the room.
I woke up in the middle of the night to the smell of smoke, and saw a large glow of fire coming from the back storage room. I saw Katsu and Remembrance running through the house to wake us all up. They grabbed the two youngest children, Naamleela and Neem out of their bed just in time. Their heads were mere feet from the flaming freezer. After what seemed like way too long, Michelle and I freed the bottom of the mosquito net from under the bed. I jumped out from under the netting. It was time to go! But just as I got to the door I stopped for a second. I thought of my favorite stuffed animal, a softer than soft bunny rabbit with long floppy ears. The rabbit was in the storage room, and for a second I thought of going back to get her. But the fire was so big and the sound of it was loud. I was scared. I got to the door and leapt off the top step. I flew; I literally flew off the step. I was flying through the air, way past the cement steps that led up to the house. I landed on my bare feet twenty feet from the door, and in the same moment the freezer exploded and the house burst into flames. All of us were out. The last out the door was Io. I saw her flying off the top step just as the big boom happened. The explosion inside the house catapulted her through the air. We were all OK, and we huddled together and watched as the fire burned larger.
Then I saw Adi Da walking towards us from the main building. I remember him striding toward us. Seeing him approach, I was suddenly relaxed. As he got to us we gathered around him. I could feel his steady presence and calm, reassuring each of us wordlessly. The rest of the adults all came streaming over to our circle as we turned and watched the fire consume the building. I had never seen a fire up close before. The heat of it was strong on my body and pressed me back. There were large orange flames reaching up to the treetops above. The fire roared with intensity as it ran through all of the wood in the house. We were too isolated to have any chance of saving the building. There was no fire department on the island. I heard later that the fire was seen by the Fijians on the big island of Viti Levu, but they were too far away to do anything but watch the blaze. As the fire diminished, and it became clear that it would not spread, we walked to Adi Da’s house. We went into his room and he hugged all of us children in his arms. Hugging him was different than hugging other people. It felt like I would fall into him, and he was completely happy and strong yet gentle, with nothing ever held back in that love. There was an energy that vibrated and I would be immersed in that with him as his arms were around me. I trusted him, and hugged him back with my whole heart, feeling his happiness and my happiness, like there was nowhere better to be.
We children were tucked into improvised beds in a small room behind Adi Da’s room. Adi Da gathered with the adults in the next room. We could not hear what he was saying, but we could hear his voice. We later were told that he was speaking to the devotees about the fire. He spoke about how the Fijian spirits or “Vu” were very active here, and that this fire was a result of the spirits trickery to try and scare us away during his search for hermitage. As I lay in my bed I could still see the orange glow of the fire up the hill. The night felt surreal, it was a jumble of images and feelings, fear and the feeling of being saved. I remember that we girls whispered to each other about how we felt safe now. Adi Da’s voice through the wall calmed us and made us feel like we could fall asleep without worry or fear.
The next morning we woke to a bright and clear morning. Everything looked beautiful to me that morning. The sky was blue and the waters just off the beach sparkled turquoise and sea green. A little later in the morning we walked with Adi Da as he went to survey the site where the house had burned. There really was nothing left of the building. All that was standing was the cement foundation and the cement stairs up to where the front door had been. Ash was everywhere. Blackened bits of wood were strewn about. The smell of fire hung in the air. The plants and trees surrounding the site were crisped and singed. There were no belongings left. Some of the men sifted through the ashes and found melted pieces of jewelry, strange lumps of metal mixed with the ash. My plastic Hello Kitty sandals were two melted oval pancakes on the top step, unrecognizable as having ever been shoes. This house had served as the storage building for all of us there. Everyone’s passports, jewelry, extra clothing, and luggage were stored in that back room, along with the dry goods. We children had gone from having a few toys, and the clothes and books that we needed, to having nothing. It didn’t matter in the least. No tears were shed over what we had lost.
I was happy. All of us children were happy. We couldn’t get over the feeling of joy, the feeling of lightness that we had. I remember we talked about it amongst ourselves, really marveling about how we felt, and how it was not what we would have expected to feel after the fire. We were amazed and grateful to be alive. We walked around the village thanking our friends, and especially those who had helped get us out of the fire. We spent a lot of time with Adi Da in those days that followed the fire. We told him about how happy we were, and how we realized that we didn’t need any of those things in order to be happy. We told him with sincere hearts about how we felt grateful for that three-day meditation retreat just before the fire happened, and related how studying what he had told us about letting go and renunciation had prepared us for the fire. We told him that we felt grateful to be alive.
Smiles were on our faces night and day. We ran up and down the beach singing, cartwheeling, and dancing. We played with objects that we found; shells, pieces of wood, and plants became our toys. Everyone pooled together what we had left to make it work for everyone else. I didn’t have any clothes except for the Mighty Mouse underwear that I was wearing when I ran out of the burning house. Luckily one of the ladies had been doing laundry the day before. I was given a t-shirt from off the line, and had a makeshift skirt from a piece of fabric. None of us had shoes, but we did just fine walking barefoot and toughening our feet so that someday we could walk as strong as the Fijian kids that we had met and played with. Those days after the fire at Charlie’s Place were a special time for me and my friends. We went through an ordeal, and we had learned something from it. And we had come out of it happy and clear, grateful for life. This was the first time I felt gratitude consciously for my life, and felt that as love for everyone. I was shining with that feeling; we all were.