Saturday, January 11, 2020

Black Phoebe

Winter is the time of platinum light here on the coast, and this is most clear on gray, cold mornings at dawn. We had several mornings like this at the start of the new year last week. I love the turning of the year, in this case, the decade, using this time for reflection and seeking a sense of renewal and peace.

There's a sweet little bird I watch daily here, a Black Phoebe, whose plaintive call, tee-hee, tee-hoo, is punctuated by her action of flying out from her perch, then back to it. She flies out, tee-hee, then flies back, tee-hoo. Pretty goofy, really. Apparently she swoops out to catch insects, then, conserving energy, flies back. It's kind of like what we do each day: we wake up, sit down for coffee, sing out, then go out into the work world to gather necessary insects, um, resources. Then we fly back home. At any rate, I feel like this is what I do, tweet the old-fashioned way, go out into the world, tweet, return home to my perch.

Call it reverse anthropomorphism, seeing our similarities with the world's fragile and precious creatures. I just finished reading The Bees, by Laline Paull. This is some of the most imaginative writing I've read, a complex page-turner told from the point of view of  Flora 717, a most daring and inspiring worker bee. The bees' hunger for community and devotion is as great as their lust for nectar; they live in an elaborate hierarchy but each, from the priestess to the sanitation worker, feels the unconditional love of the Holy Mother.

Winter time brings a level of quiet that is unsurpassed. Strong winds blow away the clouds and the afternoon light falls at an oblique angle on the land.  A few days ago, in the early morning, I spotted a devilishly large bobcat strolling up to the woodpile behind my house. Bobcats are the gangsters of the neighborhood, with body-builder shoulders, wide, sly faces, dramatic black fur tips on their ears, and undignified, stubby tails. We both did a double-take, and I said, "You're not my kitty..." She trotted away towards the meadow, and when I followed her I felt her watching me from the edge of the oak forest.

Now the leaves from the maples, sycamores and elms have all fallen, the shoes of the past year have all dropped, the verdict is in on 2019. As the days lengthen slightly, we make resolutions, the jonquils bloom, and it's bar closing time for the Great Horned Owls as they stop hooting and start nesting.

Sensing ineffable impermanence in the stillness of winter on the coast is a gift; it distills into daily life when we interrupt the frantic pace that can consume us.  Someday, each of us will "fall off our perch" as they say, and may it be in a fulfilled state, a blissful surrender to the light.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Liberty Seeds

Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.

Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching

Liberty seeds

The propane tank is at 25%, tribes of earthworms are emerging everywhere, and the cat had a seizure. I've stopped bothering to check the rain gauge. While we still have plenty of coffee, rice and beans, I’m afraid that we may run out of that vital supplement: chocolate. 

It’s been a rough month on top of a crazy year. Sixty inches (that's my height) of precipitation in two short months. In early January I made a trip  to my mother’s house and on my drive home a mud / rock / tree slide happened in the Big Sur Valley, closing down that stretch of highway for days. I spent a week with dear friends in Carmel and longed for home despite ongoing punishing storms.

I was willing to climb with a backpack over the rock slide at the bottom of the ridge to hide under the covers with my beloved, but decided to be prudent instead.

A month later I was about to head north again, and wisely re-thought the  trip after looking at the forecast. I also caught a nasty cold that kept me in bed on Sunday, February 12. That day the Pfeiffer Canyon bridge was designated as a serious hazard, thanks to the lucky observations of the man who spent considerable time under the span. 

So these past two weeks I have reveled in being here on the ridge and not on the “other side” despite hardships and anxiety. One morning we awoke to snow on the mountains and a bright rainbow over the ocean. We’ve enjoyed candlelight dinners and then gone early to bed, to sleep like little animals in a burrow. Again and again we listened in the darkness to pounding rain and howling winds, wondering what the morning would bring.

It’s felt like we were living at the bottom of an aquarium. Enormous trees tossed their branches like kelp fronds and even the air burbled and hissed with endless wetness. Meanwhile, the frogs were delirious, croaking epic operas all night long.

Last night we dined on sardines with wasabi sauce, served with a flair as “poor man’s sushi”. We’ve found the time to read, do yoga in the intermittent sunshine, to breathe and to think. I’ve finally opened Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and am finding inspiration in every well-crafted phrase.

We’re looking at several months to a year of difficult crossings out of Big Sur to the North. The exit South is un-traversable until a nail-soil wall is in place, the Old Coast Road is a river, and Nacimiento-Ferguson road over the Santa Lucia Mountains is crumbling.

It’s as if Momma Big Sur stomped her foot, took down her hair and did a full-body shimmy for weeks, saying “Enough is enough!” She has reclaimed her craving for chaos, her destructive power.

Perhaps she got tired of staying in shape for the whole wide world, constantly at her door, and decided instead to give us a taste of her sloppy, scary, gorgeous self. Now, as the storm cycle subdues, we feel her calm out-breath, and it’s delicious.

While repairs are forthcoming and the powers that be are strategizing, those of us on the ground here are also discreetly celebrating the solitude, the reduction in distractions, and the re-awakening of all the nature around us. When the rains stop, the birds sing.

Systems are falling into place, too. My poor gray kitty had a bizarre seizure. This taught me that trying to subdue an animal that is frothing at the mouth with my bare hands is not a good idea. After sustaining kitty stigmata in my right palm, I called our community’s Big Sur Health Center.

To my astonished delight the center's resourceful doctor put antibiotics on a helicopter headed down the coast that afternoon. I picked it from the pilot, who smiled at me and waved the brown paper bag holding the drugs when he landed on the heli-pad. It was a movie-worthy moment. (Note to self, next job – helicopter pilot?)

Due in part to the lack of affordable housing in the area, many of those who do important work in the kitchens of the affected businesses live outside of Big Sur. Instead of the grand tradition of restaurants opening their walk-ins to feed hungry, trapped employees and locals, they are simply closing down. On Valentine’s Day, we had one of the last ambrosia burgers Nepenthe will be serving for a while.

Anticipating this, many of us blessed enough to live between mile marker 29 and 45.5 have stocked our pantries in preparation for this kind of event. A bit of a doomsday perspective has helped, as do vegetable gardens, of course.

We slid under the wire on this one, as we acquired 20 cubic feet of dirt a week ago, filling our little truck. Just before we crossed Pfeiffer Canyon bridge, already beginning to look like a roller-coaster, we were informed that there would be no more traffic on it of any kind, ever. We felt like trapeze artists as we drove delicately across the middle of the sinking span in a lane marked by orange cones.

Driving down the rocky coast in the sunshine that day, we saw a painter friend at her easel on the wrong side of the stone wall, 500’ above a cove filled with barking sea lions. While some have hiked and ridden horses on the highway these past weeks, our friend informed us that earlier that day a young woman had sailed past her on a skateboard, completely naked. Brrrrr!

Today is blessed sunshine; the lights go on when you flip the switches, the washer and dryer are doing their holy work. Outside I pull up large swaths of tenacious scotch broom, freeing invasive roots from rocky soil that has become soft clay, almost butter.

Some time ago we bought several cans of “Liberty Seeds” from We have beets, cucumbers, corn, lettuce, kale, spinach, carrots, onions, peppers, and more - all in super-compact, not-yet-germinated, form. 

As soon as the rain stops for a few days and it gets a little warmer, we’re going to put dirt into two large circular canvas pots and sow these mysterious seeds. It’s a miracle that something so tiny will create a plant that we can eat in the months to come, and we are hopeful.

We're on a kind of frontier now, where communication, patience and self-reliance are all crucial. Simple seeds can provide freedom in the midst of chaos. We're looking forward to a sumptuous Victory garden, more appropriate now than ever. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Rain Drum

Our Round House
encircles us in the storm.

The ceiling flutters, then snaps taut
under thrumming raindrops 
that bombard us like endless thoughts -
pummeling us into sleep,
into dreams...

our canoe springs free as
poisons wash away 

we plunge into
possibility -

How much stronger we are
in this Rain Drum,

--for Torrey, on his birthday!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Alchemical Fire

And so it begins, I thought this past Monday as I woke to the chop-chop-chop of helicopters flying low in the early morning sky.

Then, at 9am someone flipped a switch somewhere and the power went dead. Good thing we'd checked with bloggers and to know the first back burn in our corner of the Soberanes fire was officially in progress.

The magical marine layer just off the ridge was the view downhill from the flames behind me, a comforting contrast.
"We breathe smoke and eat dirt" report the firefighters. We learned this from the fireman who drew sentry duty on the ridge one night, a welcome break from the Coast Ridge fire line. To keep him company he met a very special dog, who loves men in yellow uniforms, especially when they don't mind tossing the ball.

It's part of living on the coast, this crazy hopefully just once-a- decade ballet of fire, fire-fighters, equipment and community. Everything fuses in the crucible of adventure.

Forget about sleeping well, or pursuing any normal activities with single-mindedness. We are sensing each breeze, analyzing each column of smoke, studying topo maps and Google earth until we're bleary-eyed. We assertively inform each new batch of firefighters about our water tanks and hydrants, our clearance concerns and exit plans, if we have them.

But, because this is Big Sur, we count our blessings to be on this roller-coaster ride in a war zone.

On the southwest flank of the fire, we are lucky. Emoticons of four leaf clovers everywhere. We've had time to prepare in all kinds of ways. What we've waited for almost a month is now here, the  dreaded and welcomed back-burns. If all goes well, fire will meet fire in the canyon behind us and move far, far away...

The valiant fire crews, mostly rural people, are even greater heroes now as some have family near the Cedar Fire and other blazes across the state. Can you say "climate change"? I have it firsthand from the elder firemen, leading their young crews like gentle bull-elks, that yes, we have always had fire and yes, these monster fires are happening more frequently. Now unfortunately firefighting (along with yoga and cannabis) is a growth industry in California.

In times of stress, our usual distractions do not work to keep us out of the difficult present. Even the habits that we most enjoy fall by the wayside as we are given the opportunity to practice alchemy. We can make what is painful powerful, through a kind of active surrender. As the old song says, Que serĂ¡, serĂ¡, baby. The golden glow of the present moment is always with us, even as we wait for what will come.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Watching God

As I write this on Sunday afternoon here on the lawn, tendrils of fog float out over the sea. A spotter plane soars above, moving northwest, looking for sparks from the Soberanes fire, blazing about five miles away from us. Hooray spotter plane! It soars up and down the coast non-stop now, a comforting part of the enormous effort to control the wildfire which blasted into our world last week, changing lives forever.

White, with a bright orange stripe below its wings, the plane reminds me of the mango colored koi in my pond. What will happen to the koi should a fire come? Last time the firefighters took the time to refill the pond and saved them. The fishes’ element is water, so they are presumably safe beneath its cool, glassy surface. Our elements are earth and air, elements we pray will cooperate in keeping our homes safe.

Topography, wind, heat and water are all concerns as we move forward into the projected next few weeks of the 37,000 acre (and growing) inferno, so far burning slowly south and east into the Ventana Wilderness. Hooray also for the bulldozer drivers building a fire-break on the Coast Ridge Road! As oblivious tourists slip by in a steady stream on the  highway, dozer drivers move up nearby Torre Canyon to burrow great lanes of dirt that will keep the flames away.

Two days ago I wore a carpenters’ mask to clear my lungs of smoke. Unable to breathe, my impulse instead was to worry, throw away useless stuff (so much of it!) and take naps between gasps. Yesterday we weed-whacked the expansive meadow beside the house and moved underbrush out of the canopy of the forest. We've also hooked up hoses to fire hydrants, drawn maps, and stored valuables in town. The house has a Zen look, missing many works by local artists I’ve acquired over the past two decades.

How we love our firefighters and those who follow them! They are Earth-wise heroes who do the opposite of what normal humans do in fires. While we may hold the line as long as possible and then run to relative safety, they move towards danger, feel the heat, and outwit the flames. 

We've stocked the fridge with beer and bottled water should firefighters appear, but today I surrender and drink a pale ale as I make calls to see how my neighbors are faring. The talk is all of bulldozer lines, back burns (one scheduled for tomorrow 3 miles north of us, please cross your fingers) water tanks, hoses, who’s staying stoic (or not) and that ideal constellation of variables known as defensible space. 

It’s a “praise the lord and pass the ammo” moment. We pray to our many gods, pagan and otherwise, as the sound of weed-whackers and chainsaws fill the air. I water prodigiously, soak flowerbeds and lawns, mulch piles of leaves, then place flowers on the statue of Naga, Hindu Goddess of the Spring.  In the universal tradition, I light a candle each night before Blessed Mother Mary, and each morning I chant Sat Nam, visualizing protection from cold, flowing, sacred rivers.

Last night I read aloud a passage from a favorite novel to my husband. Facing a disaster (this one a hurricane in Florida in the 1930’s) the characters, trapped by circumstances and unable to flee, wait in their shacks in the Everglades as the massive storm approaches. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

We watch God here in Big Sur too, imprinting singular moments onto our souls.  When fire comes, and loss looms nearby, this spiritual practice is indescribably poignant.

Today the air is cool, yet each suspicious blast of wind brings dread. A momentary sirocco makes the neighborhood hawks circle and swoop, upsetting a family of woodpeckers wearing flashy red berets. They nod their heads and cackle thanks as I inadvertently spook the perched raptor out of the oak tree. A red-shouldered hawk, swift and sturdy, harlequin checkerboard of wings and pivoting tail.

This afternoon, shadows of the spreading elm tree's graceful branches dance across the carpet of springy grass. My dog pants beside me, begging me to throw his ever-present pine cone. My Siamese cat comes by meowing and demands a cuddle. All these living beings seem blissfully unaware of the danger possibly headed our way.

The sea, our ancient mother, is calm today. Gentle, rippling swells move south along the land’s edge. Hundreds of annoying insects, typical of the season, buzz by. Wind chimes ring peacefully from a corner of the garden as my bare feet relax, tickled by the warm grass, a moment of peace...

Cal Fire's plane flies overhead once more, engines whining as it heads southeast. The leaves of the trees sigh in the wind. Just now, a large flame-colored monarch butterfly swirls up and down, back and forth, against a backdrop of indigo sea, surfing invisible currents before my eyes.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Winged Life

"He that binds to himself a Joy
does the Winged Life destroy.
He that kisses the Joy as it flies
lives in Eternity's sunrise"  
                                          --William Blake

I've been listening to birds a lot lately. Watching them with fresh eyes, too, especially when they take their wee swims in the birdbath outside my door. A little water, a little green, a feeder or two, and you too may notice we are living in an aviary.

This Spring I heard Loons for the first time. Their melancholy evening songs unfurled over the lake as I almost missed the moment, running around trying to record their long moaning hoots and tremulous spiraling calls to each other.

The nickname of one of my favorite feathered creatures is the Be Here Now bird, also known as the Olive-sided Flycatcher. The more prosaic description of its call is "Quick Three Beers".  But if you are listening to him in the Springtime at Esalen Institute, you too might hear him singing, "Just Be Here..."

Recently I spotted (true words of a birdwatcher) a small yellow-chested bird with a beautiful song. She flitted, as only a tiny bird can flit, among the branches of a purple flowering bush, chirping in what was surely delight. Ah, the Lesser Goldfinch.  (Quick note, if you have cats, playing these recordings will drive them nuts!)

The Flicker gives a bark-like "Kyeer" call in the daily dawn chorus, sometimes punctuated with drumming on oak trees. This is the kind of sound that can make you laugh under the covers as you prepare to meet the day.  There are other members of the flock among us: Woodpeckers, Crows, Hawks and the unmistakable heavies of the bird world, the Ravens.

Birds have provided our philosophers, dreamers and lovers with poetic opportunities for centuries. From condors to hummingbirds, they spark our collective imagination as they lighten our hearts.  These angels of the animal kingdom are so far still abundant here in Big Sur, with its ample forests and meadows, along with (this past year at least) abundant rainwater blessing springs and streams.

A friend told me once over coffee that one of the best things about waking up spiritually was to finally, finally hear bird-song in the morning. Thank you dear friend whose name I cannot remember. Your words are with me still.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

In the Land of Point and Click

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...

With love,