I suppose I have not yet written about it because it makes me feel ever so slightly sick when I think what could have happened. But for a twist of fate – or a moment of listening to my instinct – things could have been very, very different.

I have written often about my experience on May 3rd, but I have left out one pertinent detail: I was not supposed to be in Fort McMurray on that day.

Every few months I travel to Edmonton to visit a corneal specialist, a trip I usually combine with some shopping and leisure time; this spring, my appointment date was for May 4th, and I had intended to leave very early on the morning of May 3rd. My hotel was booked and I was ready to go – except that on May 1st things began to change.

I was working a shift at the Spring Trade Show on the Sunday afternoon, and as I walked back to my office after the trade show ended I noted the increasing smoke filling the sky. From my office window I saw the a bleak darkness beginning to form, and as I walked to the parking lot I noticed ash falling on my car; I didn’t even have a chance to start the engine, though, before I received notice that some of our neighbourhoods were being evacuated. And I was sitting in the parking lot of the evacuation centre. I pulled out my keys, tossed my stuff back in my office, and headed in to help in whatever way I could.

The next morning, when I returned to my office and a building which was now officially an evacuation centre, I went into my boss’s office and told her I would be postponing my Edmonton trip. I said it was because I felt it was not a good time to be away, which was true, but if I was very honest it was also because of my instinct.

There was a time when I ignored my instincts. I assumed that instinct was of less value than intellect. In recent years, though, I have learned to listen to instinct; those gut feelings were far more often right than wrong. I began to understand that my intuitive sense was stronger than I ever realized, and that it was tapping into something my conscious mind did not and could not. I had begun to not only listen to it, but allow it to guide my decisions, recognizing that even if my instinct was on occasion wrong that I would never regret having followed it; and on May 2nd my instinct told me that I could not leave on the morning of May 3rd.

I am not psychic, nor do I claim to be. I had no way of knowing what would happen on that date, but I sensed that I should not leave, and so I was here when things began to fall apart. I cannot imagine if I had been in Edmonton, hours away, unable to evacuate my dog and my cats. I cannot imagine not having been here for my colleagues and friends, and watching it from afar. While being here was difficult, for me not being here would have been far worse; and it could have easily been the case.

Instinct is a funny thing. We discount it readily, suggesting that intuition and instinct are not factual and therefore not worth weighing when we make decisions, and yet in my experience my intuition and instinct have been invaluable. They have helped me navigate tricky interpersonal experiences. They have helped to direct my professional writing career. And in May, 2016, they were the difference between feeling helpless and feeling like I had some control.

When I called my corneal specialist on May 2nd to postpone my appointment, the receptionist mentioned they had a number of people booked for May 4th from my community, and asked me if I thought they would make those appointments. I hesitated, and for whatever reason I finally told her I thought they should be prepared for some cancellations. Even as the words left my lips I had no idea why I believed them to be true, but I did; and the receptionist later told me that of course many did not make those appointments as they were flung far and wide on the afternoon of May 3rd.

My experience at the beginning of May solidified what I have suspected for a very long time: instinct and intuition have power, and we ignore them at our peril. Being in Fort McMurray on May 3rd was hard, but at least by being here I had the chance to rescue my cats and my dog, gather important documents and be there for friends as they went through the same experience. To have been hours away, for me, would have been pure torture, and it would have significantly changed my experience in the days after evacuation.

It was a tremendous lesson in learning to trust my instincts. Any doubt I have had in this regard has now been washed away, and I have begun to listen to my intuition even more keenly.

And now I share this story, because I think far too often we ignore or discount our instinct. We allow ourselves to be swayed away from what we know instinctually to be right or true, and we veer away from trusting the very abilities that have served us well since the dawn of time. While over our evolution we may have refined our speech, our intellect and our ability to reason, instinct has always been a guiding principle for the human species. It may not always be “right”, but it is always worth considering. And it may not be the ultimate deciding factor for everyone, but I suspect that if we listened to our instincts more often we would learn not only more about our world, but about ourselves.

On May 3rd, 2016, I was in Fort McMurray as it burned. But I wasn’t supposed to be. But for a sense – a small feeling in the pit of my stomach – I would have been far away, watching it happen as if it was some surreal dream instead of surreal reality. Perhaps others would have preferred to be far away; for me, though, being here, in the community I have loved for fifteen years, was the only place to be. And it is only thanks to my instinct that I was.

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