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,

Friday, April 3, 2015

Romancing the Sur

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

Tuesday, October 7, 2014


The pump
and snap of modern life
charges us up
with relentless dreams,
infinite distractions. We strike
poses projecting purpose.

Escape: Tranquil ennui
on spur of mountain range reaching
down to the sea.
Hummingbirds dance to hurdy-gurdy music.
Rattlesnakes buzz a slow warning from
hidden places.

All night
Orchestral crickets sing a sleigh-bell song.
At daybreak
Endless flies whirl by.

Grasshopper days of summer draw to a close.
House filled with laughter now still in the heavy heat.
The dirt pants in thirst.
Scent of warm earth baking rises up in greeting.

Retreat to the land of sunsets
and flying saucers.
There’s nothing better, and yet
Every flight has its price.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Sharp Shinned

Sharp Shinned

I fly
      Wind lifts me
            Up warm spur of earth

I seek
   Light, water
      Small furry, feathered
           pulsing energies that flee –

To soothe my morning hunger

Thriving lush
           scent of water

Fluttering leaves scatter
          into bright dancing prisms

I fly
Strong steady beats 
      to rosy nimbus of flesh
            that stands near shiny upright pool

                Flash of light

Wait! Not right!

Strange aura deflects my flight
     Sharp unknown scent of human breath

                     I bank right
Settle in cool leaves

Watch her
 with my golden eyes.