Once upon a time, many years ago now, I decided I wanted a more peaceful life. So I put my stuff in storage and spent a year in the goldfish bowl at Esalen Institute, learning to cry, build healthy boundaries, and look people in the eye when I talked about my feelings.
Next stop was re-entering the world of work, again, but in a kinder, gentler way. I learned to make cappuccinos as a barista, and to curl ribbon as a shop girl. Stepping out of the corporate hustle that had been my professional life to date was a blessed relief.
Then, I found I was buying groceries on my charge card. Milking goats and making cheese wasn't ideal for retirement planning. So I dusted off my resume and jumped back in: front-desk jobs, librarian gigs, executive assistant, factotum. At one point, I worked three jobs for over a year.
When I joined the management team at a local historic Inn, I was thrilled to go back to school, earning a professional certification in Human Resources. Made sense, I thought, as so many of us spend our lives working for The Man (whether we know it or not). Why not make it a little easier and more respectful?
I loved understanding and implementing fundamental and compassionate workplace ethics. A community where work could really be "love made visible" as Rilke says. I breathed easier every time I entered the door, smelled the hearth fire and heard guests laughing over their breakfasts.
Today, I embrace again the path that recalls my original dream: a life that, with continued good luck, hard work and prayer, will grant me peace and success in this beautiful land. Nuestra hermosa tierra.
Big Sur is the Land of Point and Click, where simply holding a camera to your eye and pushing a button yields beauty. And beauty, to paraphrase Tolle, makes the mind stop. Which is also what gives this coastal community its endless appeal, to millions of visitors each year. When the mind stops, no matter how briefly, we find peace.
So here is another of my recent offerings to the tide of beauty that ebbs and flows in Big Sur, depending upon your openness to her gifts...
Saturday, May 28, 2016
Sunday, July 5, 2015
Daughters of the road —
We traveled far from frigid plains
to find sun-splashed beatnik beaches
in the wildest west we knew.
Orange groves and aerospace
set the stage for our Space Age.
We became Ladies of Lockheed, NASA's darlings.
Toiling at typewriters for bright, shiny paychecks,
tanning poolside at the Royal Gardens
just off the freshly-built freeway.
After work we drove our second-hand cars
on oleander lined byways in welcoming afternoon sunshine.
We danced at office parties,
Drank, and sent men all the way to the moon.
Mom followed us
from the farm with her escape plan.
rescuing kittens and a few lost astronauts.
Together we found
struggling scientist and wannabe hipster,
Casanovas of different stripes.
from the tips
of their cowboy boots
to the roots
of their pomaded hair.
Camp followers of Fortune
We marched new families through the years
of our youth.
Hearts fractured and fused,
crucified in the zeitgeist.
The men left
for other, newer women.
Children, bruised like flowers,
grew up and out
grew up and out
of tidy tract homes,
beside newly-hatched shopping malls.
We dangled our pretty bare legs
across benches at amusement parks.
leaving bright lipstick stains
On the lips
We’d landed on the moon
and splashed down
Saturday, June 27, 2015
After a wild and sleepless night, where Pepita, Javier and Felipe danced for hours, and where Mary learned the fine art of percussive flamenco clapping – palm to palm, loud and soft – they headed south on a morning train from Madrid to Sevilla.
Strolling through the streets of Sevilla’s ancient neighborhoods, Mary found herself in the old Jewish Quarter, a beautiful nest of medieval courtyards, homes of Spanish Jews not ready to convert to Christianity after Ferdinand and Isabella reclaimed Spain for the Catholics.
Lush orange trees in courtyard gardens filled with ponds, fountains and leaping golden koi and the quiet stillness found in the barrio on warm afternoons contrasted sharply with the festival sounds of Sevilla’s Semana Santa. One wanted to escape all the noisy Christian penitents, barefoot, chanting, carrying the statues of saints through the streets – followed by dancing and singing in the bars until the wee hours of the morning.
Mary had found a spot in the Barrio Judio that she made a pilgrimage to each day before her night-owl friends awoke.
One morning several days into her visit there, notebook in hand, ostensibly crafting her piece on Sevilla for Send Off, Mary sat on the edge of a medieval stone fountain, her head clearing from the incense of the procession she had passed on her way there. As she listened to the soothing sound of the fountain a wave of dreaminess came over her. She watched her reflection in the water and felt herself hovering above it, closer and closer…
At that moment, she noticed a delicate, fancifully dressed little girl of about 6 years old standing right next to her.
“Senora, please be careful,” the small child in the white dress said, looking up at her with hazel eyes, soft white-blond curls floating around her pink-cheeked face.
Mary smiled, Why, she was fine, thank you…girl and woman smiled at each other. The girl held up a sprig of holly and moved it over Mary’s head and shoulders.
She noticed the detail on the child’s dress and the clear, calm light on her face. Why she’s as pretty as a painting, she thought - then realized she ‘d seen her before. She was the Princess, the Infanta Margarita of Las Meninas, only missing her royal entourage.
Mary stood up and took a few steps away from the fountain, away from this vision and the fear rising up in her belly. The she fell face down onto the lapis blue tiles of the ancient courtyard.
The last thing she remembered was the scent of orange blossoms.
Friday, June 26, 2015
The following morning, after Isabella left for the hospital, Mary ventured out into the neighborhood, where she saw old men playing chess at a small table beside the courtyard garden.
She purchased a café con leche and watched them in the sunshine. They wore black wool berets and took long drags on their cigarettes as they considered their next moves.
When she realized she’d been staring at them for about 20 minutes she felt as if she’d wandered onto another planet. She pulled a map of Madrid’s Metro from her purse and found the route to the Prado, Madrid’s famed national art museum beside the enormous royal gardens.
Shortly afterward she arrived at the massive stone building and headed directly downstairs to the permanent exhibit of Francisco Goya’s works.
The carnal, ugly images of demons, debauched clergy and souls burning in hell felt oddly comforting. Here were images of destruction found on the walls of Goya’s private home after his death, perhaps never intended for the public.
These nightmarish images felt familiar, direct from the terrors of childhood: Father Time Cronos eating the doll-like figure of his son, blood flowing from the decapitated torso. A goat drooled over a circle of women (were they nuns?) who sat around him in the forest, A scholar flopped unconscious over his desk, bats wheeling over his drugged body.
Feeling light-headed, she left the lower gallery and went up wide, cool marble stairs to the upper floors where she found the famous Maja Desnuda, the portrait of (perhaps) Goya’s benefactor’s naked mistress. Relaxed on a couch, the Maja looks directly out at the world with a gaze that is far from demure. In the early 19th century, this painting shocked the world as she flashes just the tiniest bit of dark curls below her milky white tummy.
At just this moment, Mary heard a familiar cough behind her.
“Ah, Mary Sparrow,” said Senor Felipe Huesos, clearing his throat at the end of that familiar cough and smiling a sparkling smile at her.
There was a large woman in a red dress on his arm. Despite her nod to the fashions of the city she looked like she would be just as comfortable pulling up potatoes in a field as strolling through the Prado on a weekday. She looked like she’d be at ease anywhere.
“Allow me to present to you Dona Pepita Risuena. She dances with me at Las Meninas and is a guest instructor at Amores de Dios.”
“Encantada,” said Mary, standing up a bit straighter in Pepita’s shadow.
“Charmed, as well, Senorita Sparrow,” replied Pepita, giving her a kiss on both cheeks.
“I see you have been downstairs admiring Goya’s terrible Caprichos,” Felipe clucked. “Now let’s proceed to Velasquez’ ‘Las Meninas’, which is the namesake of our club and an uplifting masterpiece.”
And so they entered the cavernous gallery that featured the 17th century painter of the Spanish Golden Age, Diego Velasquez. A self-portrait of sorts, as Velasquez is shown in front of his easel painting the royal couple, who are reflected in a mirror on the back wall of the room. The dynamic charge of the 10’ X 10’ painting is the presence of the small royal princess at the center, flanked by her two young ladies in waiting, the meninas of the title. Two dwarves and a dog play with her. A man stands framed in the doorway to the salon, observing the scene.
“How real they are!” said Felipe.
Mary agreed, adding, “It’s like a portal into another time.”
To which Pepita laughed, saying, “But it is, mi amor!”
Pepita had taken petite Mary by the arm and was alternately pinching her cheeks and chatting with her in rapid-fire Spanish. As Mary tried to keep up with the flow of conversation she found herself enjoying Pepita’s radiant self-confidence.
“And now, my charming friends,” said Felipe, “Let us go to the Plaza Mayor and then, later, to Las Meninas!”
Intrigued to see her new friends on the stage, Mary accepted Felipe’s invitation, boarding a taxi with them to go into the heart of the city.
Long late-afternoon shadows filled the enormous 17th century plaza. Ground floor cafes featured outdoor seating and above them, on all four sides, were floors of apartments with balconies looking down onto the center of the space.
The white steel folding chairs of the cafes looked like origami birds clustered in the corners of the plaza. Only a few tourists, unaware of the civilized Spanish custom of the siesta, sat at the small white tables.
“Here is where the Inquisition conducted public executions. You know, burning infidels and witches,” said Felipe, ever the cheery guide, even when the subject was torture.
“That was a long time ago,” Pepita added, frowning at Felipe.
“Let’s have a café, then show Mary the pre-show rehearsal at the tablao”
“Fabuloso,” agreed Pepita.
So they sat at the nearest café table they could find and Mary admired the beautiful facades of the apartments, each with a view of the executioner’s block.
Later they emerged from the plaza and headed towards the low, dark tavern of Las Meninas. They walked down a street with potted red geraniums in window boxes to a door with a golden cube of light shining through it. A tall, black haired woman threw open the door and swooped down on Felipe.
“Vaya, Tio,” she growled. “It’s about time you came back!”
Pepita gave her a nod and sailed past her holding onto Mary.
“Tranquila, Carla,” said Felipe. “We are here now.”
Carla pouted and flounced as only a 6’ tall flamenco dancer in full costume can do. After a brief tremoring rage at the door of Las Meninas, she strolled to the bar, where she talked to a man in dark purple keffiyeh.
As the trio walked past them, they watched Carla whisper in his ear and heard the man say, “Pero, digo No, mi perra."
Carla reached for his belt and he grabbed her wrist. She screamed, more in outrage than in pain, and slapped his face with her free hand.
He laughed, and then walked over to their table.
“Javier, my friend,” chided Felipe, “more women troubles?”
“I’m done with her,” he spat. “All I want is to go back to Cadiz and spend time with my favorite putas.”
“Ah, youth,” said Felipe.
Pepita scolded him,” You waste your talent on drama, my friend. Meet our new friend, Maria Sparrow, fresh from California.”
And Mary, loving the Latinization of her name and halfway through her glass of Rioja, looked up at Javier.
“You are right, Pepita,” said Javier. “Let’s all go back home to Cadiz for a few days, to feel the earth of home again.”
“You tempt me, Javier, you really do,” answered Pepita. “But I would rather take my new little friend to Sevilla and show her the sights, don’t you think?”
Dizzy with Sangria and anticipation, Mary watched the two performers debate their plans.
“Wait, Wait,” she interjected, “My magazine, Send Off, has asked that I cover Semana Santa, which starts next week. Can we all travel there together?”
“Well, let’s think about that,” said Javier. He stroked his beard and bear-like sideburns, then disappeared backstage, a wild creature seeking camoflauge.
As the stage darkened, a solitary man came on. In his seventies, devoid of any fancy dancer plumage, he took off his black gypsy porkpie hat and tilted back his head to sing, like a big, gawky bird. What came out of his mouth was the pulsing chant of Andalucia, the song of mourning, the song of love.
“This is the ‘cante jondo’, “ commented Felipe. “The deep song.”
And in the ululating baritone voice that was almost, but not quite, sobbing, Mary felt some of her own grief slip away; the grief she had carried with her for thousands of miles and a few decades, too.
Grief, like silver beads flowing off of a broken string, pooled one by one around her. This grief, that loss, that loss, that grief. This apology. The door slammed in your face. That person that laughed at you. How Life laughed at you. How the list goes on.
Sunday, June 21, 2015
A few months later, Mary left Julio’s downtown Oakland apartment before dawn, easing her small blue sports car (her only remaining possession since the fire) into the sparkling colored lights of pre-dawn highway traffic.
The details of the fire and the weeks after were burned into her memory. In daily life, she focused on taking one step at a time. She had filled out paperwork, mourned her incinerated cats, and welcomed the love and company of friends. Her job was an anchor of sorts, too. That morning, as she entered the elevator, she felt her weight drop down to her toes as she rose to her office floor.
In her corner of the cube farm she sat at her desk and called Popcorn, over and over, letting the calm electronic female voice repeat the advancing time, preparing her for the client calls she knew she had to make.
She stared at the photo of her missing cats, who gazed back at her soulfully from beside the agapanthus blooms in what had been her garden. She glanced down to her company’s glossy travel magazine, Send Off.
Flipping through the pages she stopped at a photo of two full glasses of dark red wine on a wooden table, linked by a curling telephone cord.
“Spain is calling you” it said. She tore out the page and tucked it into her purse. The vision of wine and romance, in a country she’d longed to visit, snaked into her heart like the phone cord around the goblets.
Why not? Mary thought. Why not dive into a new chapter of my life, since I’ve been pushed off the diving board already. She began to plot her adventure.
Post-fire, packing was easy, and storage not necessary. She had the name of Julio’s friend Isabella in Madrid, and reasonable fluency in the language. Her putative task was to take the pulse of Spanish arts and culture, and submit a piece for Send Off on a limited but reasonable budget.
The night before her flight, Celia, Beth and Julio took her out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant in the Mission where Christmas was celebrated all year round.
“Time to start practicing your Espanol,” teased Celia as they ordered chimichangas and a pitcher of Sangria.
Mary downed the first glass of the fruity drink. “No quiero beber demasiado,” she said, already slurring a little.
Julio looked at her seriously from behind his cracked horn-rimmed glasses. “Please don’t go on a pub-crawl alone, Mary, not without the indomitable Isabella by your side.”
Celia draped her thigh over Beth’s, leaned close to Mary and said in a stage whisper, ”And be careful of the tortilleras,” she giggled.
“Tortilleras?” asked Mary, always fascinated with slang, especially spiced with innuendo.
“Yeah, you know, what ladies do together in bed,” and she slapped her palms together back and forth forcefully, as if she was making tortillas.
A burst of laughter erupted from their booth, causing other guests in the noisy restaurant to glance their way.
Later, Mary cuddled between Celia and Beth all night, visions of airplane flights and forest fires dancing through her consciousness.
The following morning, after tearful goodbyes, Mary boarded her flight to New York City. She loathed plane travel, and happily was rewarded with an uneventful flight.
During her layover at JFK airport, Mary resisted the urge to drink in the bar beside the boarding gate. She longed to numb herself for the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean, direct to Madrid.
She settled into first class and asked for a flute of champagne, which she drank deeply before nodding off in he luxurious, large seat.
During the overnight flight she woke several times to the subdued cough of the dark-haired man in a business suit sitting beside her. Finally she gave up on sleep, and stared out the window to the east. There she saw the golden sun emerge from the center of a bank of rolling snow-white cumulous clouds.
“Ah, el amanecer,” breathed the man, stretching out his long legs beside her in delight.
After drinking in the sight of the dawn, Mary dozed off again, pleased to be so far away from her routine morning commute to the office.
Later, when the attendant brought them cups of strong coffee and croissants, Mary’s seat mate turned to her and said, “Allow me to introduce myself, I am Felipe Huesos, Flamenco instructor, bound to the Amores de Dios school in Madrid.”
And Mary replied, “ and I am Mary Sparrow, travel writer in search of adventure.” She put out her hand.
For an awkward moment, she though Senor Huesos was going to kiss her palm, but instead he shook it briefly.
“Ah, these business-like customs,” he sighed, and smiled a sad little smile.
The airport in Madrid was conveniently located next to a subway line but since a group of ragamuffin Gypsy children were begging beside the Metro entrance, Mary opted for a cab instead.
Felipe carried her small bag to the door of the cab, and gave her his business card. “Call me,” he said, “You might want to want see a Flamenco tablao.”
He paused, looked down at her and quickly patted her cheek with his be-ringed hand. "Adios Carino," he sighed.
Isabella’s home was located in the Malasana district of Madrid. Malasana, once the home of patriots and martyrs, now the neighborhood of the ultra-cool. An art student in college, Mary had planned to travel here from the moment she saw Goya’s revolutionary painting, The Plaza de Dos de Mayo.
A man stands in front of a firing squad, arms outstretched. He wears a luminous white shirt and looks at his executioners, a row of French soldiers, anonymous in their uniforms. He has a surprised and vulnerable expression on his face. A painting that announced the modern world, mused Mary, as the taxi zipped through mid-morning city traffic to Isabella’s apartment lobby.
Green-eyed Isabella was a pediatric nurse in the big University Hospital nearby, and had met Julio while working as a nanny in the states. She opened the door wearing an apron covered in flour and Mary heard two small children screaming behind her.
“Calla!" she called over her shoulder to them, and then turned back to Mary. “My neighbors kids,” she said. “Sorry!”
With that she kissed Mary on both cheeks, leaving a smidgen of flour on each one.
“Welcome,” she said, and led Mary into the apartment, a spacious room filled with colorful simple furniture, children’s toys and dozens of potted plants that spilled out onto the balcony.
Mary marveled at the balcony as she stepped out into morning sunshine. From here she could see the tops of the early 20th century buildings of downtown Madrid, most notably a bronze female angel, bare-breasted, with wings spread wide out behind her.
She and Isabella sat on swinging chairs on the balcony and drank tea.
“Is that the Goddess Victoria?” asked Mary.
Isabella laughed, then said in the low gravelly voice of Spanish women, “Yes, you can see her tetas from here, can’t you? She is watching over us poor souls here in Malasana.”
Later, listening to the receding sounds of city traffic, children laughing and the splashing water of the plaza fountain below, Mary felt herself relax. In the quiet of Isabella’s guest room, she fell sound asleep, enjoying her first siesta in Spain.
Saturday, June 20, 2015
That morning, Mary Sparrow woke to the rousing bell of a trolley car sliding down Dolores Street in the City. It had been a surprising night: instead of catching a screening of Blade Runner in the Castro, Mary and her friends Beth, Celia and Julio had spent the evening bar-hopping with happy, drunken transvestites.
Mary dragged herself down the hall to the small railroad apartment bathroom and splashed water on her face, grateful to not be hung-over. Craving fresh air, she walked out onto the street, leaving her companions to sleep off the night’s debauchery.
When she reached the corner on Dolores street she looked east to watch the sunrise. The splashing white light transformed the sidewalks. Tall sunflowers waved at her from behind the low picket fence of a nearby garden.
Admonishing herself for yet another lost weekend, she pledged to head home early, have a swim and spend the rest of the day in her garden. Mary had lived in the forests of the Oakland hills for five years, thrilled to have green space on the edge of the metropolis.
In the East Bay Hills people loved to hide away from the world, where they could garden naked and watch city lights twinkle below them at night. The ever-present ocean roar of traffic traveled up from the highways, and the smog made for beautiful sunsets.
When Mary returned to Beth and Celia’s apartment, Julio pointed out smoke rising up from the hills to the east.
“Looks like a fire,” he said.
Mary replied, “They’ll take care of it,” gazing at what looked like a gentle smoke signal reaching up into the sky.
With that, they walked to the Noe Valley Bar and Grill to enjoy Bloody Marys and big egg breakfasts.
Mid Huevos Rancheros, an emergency news broadcast interrupted the football game on the big screen TV above the bar – “Fire in the East Bay Hills. Zero containment. Mandatory evacuations. Stay tuned.”
From the phone booth just outside the bar, Mary called her neighbors, who never watched TV or listened to the radio on Sunday mornings.
The old fashioned phone booth was cool and dark inside. It felt safe, like a confessional, and offset her rising panic as she searched her purse for coins.
“It’s a fire, coming fast, towards you” Mary told her neighbors. “You have to leave right away.”
“What shall we get from your place?” came the question, and without pausing to think, Mary replied, “My cats, just please, please save my cats.”
The roads are closed going up to the burning residential neighborhoods. All Mary can do is wait for news.
Back at the table, her friends become a blur around her. Petite Celia put Bloody Mary after Bloody Mary down in front of her, yet Mary remained stone sober.
“It’s going to be OK, you are safe -that’s all that matters.” Celia said.
Their words flowed over her from far away. In her mind she was not in the small dark bar in the City, but standing alone on top of a tall mountain, powerful winds blowing over her as she struggled to climb higher and higher to find…what?
When she finally dared to walk outside into the light, chunks of ash fell from the sky, pieces of people’s lives skyrocketed up and over miles of land and sea to drift down onto the street.
Celia and her girlfriend Beth took Mary by the hand and led her back to their home. Cinders fell like rain.
Julio cried openly. “What a blessing that you are here, and not there,” he said over and over.
Yet all Mary wanted was to be at home.
Back at the apartment, they climbed the stairwell of the building to the roof for a “better view”.
The hard white concrete of the roof contrasted with the fading early evening sky. The City dropped away from the Mission towards the warehouse district, the shipping docks and the Bay. Beyond the Bay Bridge and up into the hills to the southeast, the fire raged. Mary’s pressed her hands, cooled by the steel stepladder, against her eyes before she could face the sight.
An enormous mushroom cloud, purple like a bruise, rose above the Bay, dwarfing two cities in the foreground. Ribbons of flickering orange burst from the center of the monster. It pulsed, and sent swirls of black smoke fanning out across the hills at the horizon.
As she saw what she could barely believe, shock and the morning’s vodka finally had an anesthetic effect. Silently, she turned back down into the soothing dark of the hallway. She watched the television news all night- aerial photographs of bonfires that were once houses – looking for her home.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Like a mighty ship of the high seas from centuries ago, those of us who live here refer to Big Sur as a "she". The curves of the landscape are her curves: mountains sloping down to the sea become thighs gently opening to incoming tides. Ridge top valleys rest in the afternoon sun like concave tummies, swelling hills are really high round hips, breasts and dimpled bums.
Loving this rough and tumble, wildly beautiful Big Sur isn't easy. She's tough, and she's worth it, but sometimes you wonder...
She's fickle, and when she does treat you right, there are no guarantees that her love will last. She demands real-world sacrifices, which you often make for years before clearly seeing your choices. She's touchy, and sometimes harsh, as anyone will say who's felt the sting of local gossip, or paid the price for a wrong move, especially on the road.
You're cold and out of firewood, and she doesn't care. You're lonely and far from friends, she laughs. You struggle in your daily life and party to forget your troubles, while she just goes on dishing out her own dramas, oblivious to yours. You watch yourself grow older in the comfort of her company, but you are always waiting for the other shoe to drop, too.
Devastating fires, treacherous rock slides and torrential storms contrast with gentle days that you wish could last forever, sunsets you'll remember on your deathbed and an existential solitude that heals your soul.
When she reveals herself, it's only in those moments when you are authentically open to her charms. She'll surprise you as you drive around a bend in the road: There she is, veils of mist swirling up to her sturdy knees, those classic cliffs plunging down to the ocean and receding down the coast, so beautiful that you just want to cry.
She'll seduce you with the lightest touch: moments of profound, eloquent stillness in the mornings. She takes your breath away with her baby pink dawns and scarlet sunset skies. Always changing, she teases with her great majesty, plays hard to get with her astonishing beauty. Now you see her, now, as you focus on your own puny life, you don't.
She is Queen of the sounds of silence: serenading frogs, whispering owls, rumbling surf, moaning trees, wing-beats. Most of all, she is a great teacher, probably more teacher than lover, really. When she gives of herself it is when we are ready, when we have done our work, when we have shared our joys, and pursued our passions.
The lunar Goddess must make her home in Big Sur, too. She rises full above the ridge-top, a redwood tree silhouetted against her bone white orb. She spills her bright light down canyons onto the expansive ocean, and we are transformed.
photo by Toby Rowland-Jones