Whitesburg KY
Mostly cloudy
Mostly cloudy

Fires within



There are days when I feel like an old woman. My body hurts and my spirit sags. All the things I do to try to make myself look and feel young and full of energy leave me feeling exhausted and spent. Some days, and I am writing this from New England, where the leaves are dropping and the wind is whistling, I feel like nature must feel that way, too.

But I know better.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of the California fires, during those days of sultry winds and acrid smells, I wrote about my friend Deborah Szekely, and about one of my favorite places on this earth, a place where I go to restore my strength and spirit, the ranch that she built half a century ago – Rancho La Puerta.

At the time, the fires that started at the San Diego border had reached my sanctuary, which abuts the crossing into Tecate, Mexico. The guests had been evacuated to a hotel in Coronado. Rumors were flying about whether the Ranch, and the spirit of the indomitable woman who built it, ran it and continues into her 80s to be its CEO, would survive. The first reports were that 25 percent of the Ranch had been hit. What wasn’t clear was what that would mean, for Deborah or the Ranch, let alone for those who love it as I do.

A few weeks after the piece appeared, I got a message from Deborah. She thanked me for thinking of her and her ranch at a time when so many were facing such burdens. But there was an addendum I must add. The Ranch was fine. Only its parameter was touched. And it was tinged, not torched. Her staff came through magnificently – they had been trained for this sort of eventuality and dealt with it with common sense and courage.

Things were back to normal. Deborah was heading back to the Ranch that day from her home in San Diego, for her weekly presentation, a presentation that is in many respects the highlight of a week’s visit, the ultimate lesson in how to live from a woman who has not simply survived the hardships of life, but triumphed.

For a time, when her son Alex ran the ranch, Deborah “retired,” which is to say she pursued a million other goals and dreams. But when his melanoma came back, so did Deborah, and she buried her son and reassumed the reins. The night Deborah called me was the anniversary of his death. She would be home until 4, she said in her message, then she was heading to the Ranch, where she would mark the anniversary by sleeping at his grave. “Anyhow such is life.”

Anyhow such is life.

I don’t ever want to know what it is like to lose a child. But I have known sadness in my life, and loss. When I was in school, I lost my father, the same week my best friend lost her husband, the same week my mother’s husband attacked her and my sister left her marriage. I didn’t have a penny to my name, my home was a dorm room, I had five exams to take, nowhere to go, a younger brother who needed my help, and the responsibility of one of those “first woman” jobs that give you too much credit if you succeed but too much blame if you don’t. Alone, unable to sleep, broke, sad beyond words, I found a wise and generous therapist who taught me that it isn’t the hand you’re dealt, but how you play it. “Adaptation to Life” was the name of the book she told me to read. Its message was that even a hand full of jokers could produce a life full of joy.

In the wake of the California fires, there was the usual hand wringing, especially from people who live far away, about the foolishness of those who live in harm’s way. Forget about the fact that it was crazy criminals who set these fires. In some people’s books, it was our fault. Why do we live where we do, in the midst of brush, atop faults, where the winds are treacherous and disaster lurks, in the valley of the shadow of Death?

We live here because it is God’s country and we are God’s children. We live here because life takes courage, and because, thank God, we are blessed and taught by the example of those who have it. We live here because God has given us women like Deborah to light the way and give us strength when our spirit lags. The Ranch is fine. More important, so is Deborah.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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