Sometimes life can almost instantly go from the sublime to the terrifying.
On a beautiful day a few weeks ago, I was at Valley View, one of my favorite hot springs campgrounds in Colorado.
There, naturally heated water flows from a number of hot springs. It is dammed and redirected into a common stream that flows first into a large swimming pool, then into a hot tub and finally into a hydroelectric plant that provides power for the campground.
It is a beautiful wooded spot with ample places to meditate, muse on nature's beauty and serenity and on how we fit into the universe.
The night before I had attended a Sufi ceremony, called a Zikr in nearby Crestone, a small town with a long history of multiple spiritual traditions.
The ceremony, which included singing, chanting, dancing and a short homily on love by Shaykha Fariha al Jerrahi, was followed by whirling, a Sufi practice responsible for the term "whirling dervishes."
Shaykha Fariha is the spiritual guide of her New York-based Sufi community and graciously invited me to the ceremony.
The entire theme of the gathering was love and peace, beliefs common to both Islam and its Sufi mystics, and the bulk of my post-Zikr ruminations was on the belief expressed a while back by a Hernando County commissioner and supported by a member of Congress that Islam is a "hateful and frightening religion."
Any religion, no matter how peaceful, can have and, at times has had, its beliefs hijacked by some lunatic fringe — like the terrorists who have done just that to Islam.
Philosophical and spiritual musings are a great way to occupy oneself on a mellow summer day in the wilderness.
That ended as I worked my way down the mountain and back in cell phone range. Only then did I learn that my younger sister had been involved in a desperate flight for her life in the midst of a Washington state forest fire.
I had caught just a mention of the fire on the news, sandwiched between reports of larger and more numerous fires raging in California. I had called my sister a couple of times, getting only a dial tone. I wasn't really worried, just thought it would be a good opportunity for us to catch up.
When I did get through, I learned that she and her family were living in a hotel, and that she and her three adult children had just barely escaped the blaze that destroyed what had been a beautiful mountainside home in an area outside Spokane.
The area, where 13 homes were destroyed, is called, ironically, Valley View, the same as the place where I had been placidly contemplating my navel.
My physician brother-in-law was at work and my sister, her college-age daughter, and two sons, one of them autistic, had little warning before learning that they were surrounded. They and their two cats piled into their car with no time to grab anything, not even my sister's wedding rings or purse, and drove down the side of a mountain, watching trees around them explode into flame.
I reminded her that I am a Buddhist and we are about detaching from material things, although I am lousy at it.
"I have never been so ascetic in my life," she joked.
My sister is a gutsy woman, having been blessed with the best of the genes from our sometimes-questionable family gene pool.
I remember when she flew from Colorado to Florida, alone, with a knee so badly mangled in a skiing accident that it had to be replaced with an artificial joint.
And I have applauded from afar as she and her husband and two other children raised a non-verbal autistic son with unsurpassed love and understanding. A soon-to-be published book will describe that task with an eye toward helping other people in the same situation.
Later she found that her wedding album and a baby album had survived in a fire safe, and armed with only those reminders of their past, they have found a new home and are putting their lives back together.
I will help out with family pictures and other memorabilia, but, as she said, "I already got what was important. Nothing else matters."
I contemplate the universe.
She understands it.