Monday, December 22, 2008

Spiral of Light

Imagine a rainy December night in Big Sur, guests driving down muddy roads through forest and cattle paddocks to enter a large, cathedral-like structure in a spacious meadow.

Glowing candlelight and the smell of hot spiced tea beckons us as we remove shoes and coats in the foyer. Amidst the paintings, Native American rugs and sheepskin draped furniture, we chat with our neighbors. Laughter, hugs and ginger snaps fill the half hour or so before we begin an ancient and uplifting Winter Solstice ritual.

Pagan ceremony gave meaning to our ancestors, by connecting them with the seasons of the Earth and of their lives. European winters, with hardships of cold, famine, and darkness, would bring reverent pre-christian folks together for practical reasons: to share food and light, and to warm their hearts and bodies through celebration.

We hold hands in a long line and walk upstairs to the second story. In complete darkness we slowly form an oval shape around the center of the room. Our leader, a lovely sprite of a woman, quietly lights a square votive candle sitting on a redwood round. Then we see the wonder: branches of redwood, bay and cypress, circling out from the candle in the center to our feet. The beginning of our Spiral of Light.

With the one candle lit, our guide returns to the entrance to the green labryinth and begins to sing in the darkness. This is the first of several rounds we will sing together as we walk the spiral this evening, from Latin hymns to bits of American folk ballads. As our song fills the high-ceilinged room, individuals, couples, and parents with their children, receive candles and follow the path to the center of the spiral, lighting their flames from the central one.

Each celebrant then places their small, lit taper, mounted on a round slice of tree, amongst the greenery of the spiral. Everyone's procession to the light is different: young people walk fast, goal-oriented, while older folks stroll more thoughtfully. Some, like myself, prance a bit on the walkway. Some light their candles simultaneously with their spouse or child, others solemnly light their flame separately.

When we've all had a turn, the effect is kind of like an enormous Christmas tree, laid out on the floor, sparkling with each individual's light. Light will return to us on this darkest night of the year. We will move forward into clarity and joy.

Our guide had said the Light Spiral ritual is transformative. I recognized that truth as my throat caught, holding my husband's hand approaching the circle. As I walked out of the spiral through the candle-lit forest on the floor, I felt the release of weight, a momentary spiritual lightness and ease. This feeling was echoed in the smiles on the faces of my neighbors, and the way we gently brushed each other's hands as we returned to our seats.

On Summer Solstice of this year, we dealt with fire in a very different way, slashing down trees and brush to stem its flow over the mountains and to our homes. This Winter Solstice evening of gently lighting candles, of singing as a community, was a way to experience fire differently: As a force of nature honored by our ancestors, and as a symbolic guide for us and for our children.

My favorite song of the evening:

Though my soul may rest in darkness
it will rise in perfect light.
I have loved the stars too fondly
to be be fearful of the night.

Happy Winter Solstice to All!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Holiday Estrogen

For me, the holidays are the time to take to the couch, cuddle up with a soft blanket, plug into the old movie channel and cry. What a year we've had, and how ready I am for it to be over, already. Going back to the 1940's, with its cinematic themes of sacrifice, disassociation, and pluck, is somehow comforting.

In the last month of our beloved nonagenarian neighbor Bob Nash's life he told me he'd heard the song, The Bells of St. Mary's, in his head, all night long one sad evening when he was ill.

Tonight this wonderful time-travel piece played on our satellite. Those rich dulcet tones of Bing Crosby's voice evoke his era (and the season) to perfection. When he and Ingrid Bergman sang the theme song with the sisters, I sobbed and thought of Bob, and his last days on the planet. I miss him. He was my ballast, a part of my heart. I know it was "his time," but so what? It is a loss I honor, every day.

Seeing the dewy skinned and trembly voiced Ingrid in a nun's habit mystified me. Bing, with his Roman collar and boater hat, worked behind the scenes to make the nuns' dreams come true: the local tycoon (Henry Travers, Clarence Odbody to fans of It's a Wonderful Life) donated his building for their school. When the rich man finally gives in, a mongrel terrier he's befriended yelps and yawns in the pew just behind him. (I think the dog inspires his benevolence more than the church and the beautiful nun, but that's just my take on it.)

Yes, just transport me to the mid-1940's, when life was so much clearer. This time of year, the weepy hormone, Estrogen, gives both sexes permission to shed some tears remembering our dreams of holidays past. Call it a massive, culture-wide, anniversary reaction to our dysfunctional world.

So what can we say as we approach the end of this annus horribilis? Well, we learned a lot, our souls pressed to the windshield of the speeding car headed into the bottomless lake. Our hearts grew, as we realized we were surviving, not crumbling. The only way to do this in difficult times is to expand, not contract. And that means pushing our hearts to the breaking point, filling them like grand balloons, almost to bursting, but not quite.

The best part of the December holidays? January and the New Year is right around the corner, beckoning to us like the sweet nymph she is. And this year, on January 20, church bells around the world will ring out a new and beautiful song.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Chasing the Muse

My laptop hard drive died a glorious death last week. I found it, sitting on top of my bed in the afternoon sunlight, making furious popping sounds. Repeated attempts to shut down and restart were met with the dreaded flashing question mark. Worse, the computer's bones then burned up before my eyes like special effects in a movie, lines and lines of code splashing across the screen. As the words Complete System Failure sank into my brain I began to wail.

I have this awful habit of copying documents into different folders v. backing up the hard drive itself. DUH. So, a year's worth of writing, lots of drivel, and some bits I was happy with, GONE. I feel like I've had one of my organs removed, a kidney let's say, and am functioning at half mast. How surprising to learn that my words have become such a big part of my identity. Thankfully, I'd sent out a lot of "test balloons" (drafts of short stories) to friends, and so all was not lost.

Now I am chasing down my Muse, calling to her as she speeds over the hills into the back country of my mind. Wait, wait! I need to experience that grief, just one more time, to get the nuance of that bit of personal history I am trying to craft into Art. Show me your face, again, my Beauty, show me your tortured smile. I know there are jewels in your tears. The tears that heal romantic fools...and bring them back to the land of the living.

Anaïs Nin said, "We write to taste life twice," and there are some things I'd rather not taste again, thank you. But with my laptop I can. Composting life's pain into art is a joy and a practice. We must, as Pema Chödrön says, "Turn arrows into flowers by opening our hearts."

Photos by Toby Rowland-Jones

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Painting from the Inside

Painter, scholar and healer, Karuna Licht's life follows these three parallel paths. Her story reflects a special time in the world, and in our community. Big Sur is her muse, and her work is unlike that of any other local artist.

As a young girl Karuna lived next to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. At 7 years old, she saw a woman working in the pottery studio there, and knew she would be an artist. She began as a potter, and her father encouraged her to paint in watercolor as well. The German Abstract Expressionist Emil Nolde, who created miniature watercolors which he called his Unpainted Pictures during the 1940's, was also an early influence. She looked at his work and knew she could push the boundaries of her medium. Her paintings show a Japanese influence too, in their precision and Zen-like quality.

Karuna was a Fine Arts major at Hunter College, and came to California in 1965. She began working in her own studio in the Carmel Highlands, creating watercolors and abstract pottery. As a potter, Karuna explains, she "learned to meditate—how to be still, centered and focused." "Watercolors," she adds, "are for decisive people. You work fast. And with kids, it was easy to clean up afterwards."

At this time, she discovered Big Sur (like so many of us) via Nepenthe. Also, she read the Henry Miller (who also came from Brooklyn) work Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, and decided to build her life here.

Karuna practiced holotropic breathwork with Stanislav Grof at the Esalen Institute, an experience which led to deeper spiritual explorations. She, along with many of the movers and shakers at Esalen at the time, visited Baghwan Shree Rajneesh at his ranch in Oregon. To Karuna, one of his most appealing ideas was that the world will change only when women are in leadership roles, liberated both sexually and intellectually. (I'd like to think that's now coming true.)

She began doing Simkin Gestalt therapy and led Gestalt groups for women in Monterey County. At this time, she relates, women were just beginning to put into words their own psychology, asking the radical question: what if I put my own identity in the center of my reality and started looking at my life? At UCSC she entered the field of feminist studies. For the past three decades she has worked as a psychotherapist, having earned a Masters degree in the psychology of women, via an extension program of Antioch College.

Karuna's life and art have undergone a massive transformation in the past 5 years. She considered leaving Big Sur, but remembered what Ram Dass said about "only moving the furniture around, yet not changing the core. " Instead, she renewed her studies of painting, with Mendocino Abstract Expressionist painter Judith Hale, who encouraged her to paint in acrylic, which she now does exclusively. Her work can be seen today at the Del Campo Gallery in Big Sur and at the Valley Girls Gallery in Carmel Valley.

"I don't want to be only a landscape painter," Karuna says, "I want to paint what's inside me." Judith Hale suggested she paint with a 4 inch brush, the same instructions she'd received at Hunter College so long ago. "I gave myself 2 years to learn this medium, 3 years to have a show and 5 years to make it! And I did."

"Clarity" in acrylic
"Monet's Garden" in watercolor
An early piece done in a Stanislav Grof workshop
"Big Sur Fire 2008" in acrylic

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Give Thanks to Pacha Mama

Castro Canyon, behind Deetjen's Inn, has long been known as home to faeries, magical spirits of the land. Hit hard by the fires this past summer, winter rains now threaten its pristine, gentle quality. Redwood logs are stacked and chained together to block mud flow, and sandbags fill the gaps between dam and canyon wall.

Fortunately, we have among us some inspired practitioners of shamanism, Peruvian-style. These gifted women work with the living energy all around us to do wondrous things. They have traveled to the source, and studied with the masters of the craft, cultivating a primal yet playful consciousness.

Devotees of Pacha-Mama, Mother Earth, two of these wise souls led a small group of neighbors in a “Despacho” last Friday afternoon in the canyon. This ceremony is a gift to Pacha Mama. We give her our love, our breath, our prayers and thanks, in the hope that in healing her, she will heal us in return. She likes pretty things, heartfelt words, and chocolate!

Painter Branham Rendlen leads us in blessing this medicine space with the ringing of bells, and the spraying of scented water. She calls in all the major and minor deities, from Allah to Krishna, from Mary to Inanna, as well as the divas of this land. The Kintu, or gift, to the Mother, is really the creation of a tiny universe, representing all of Life's elements, sending love to Her in grateful prayer.

The childlike nature of the offering lightens our hearts: Seashells at the center, representing the womb of the Sea, Candies for our relations, our masculine and feminine energies, seeds for our creative force. Llama fat for the life force, feathers for vision, rice for fertility, sugar and incense for sweetness. We dip white carnations and red carnations (for mountains, for earth) into wine and sprinkle drops across the gift. We each sip a bit of the wine, which oddly recalls the more formal communion of the catholic church.

Then, best of all, we add our prayers themselves, rose-petals wrapped in bay leaves, each tiny package sealed with discreet puffs of our breath, hopeful kisses of thanks. A Pacha is also a cross, indicating an intersection in space and time. Time and space converge powerfully in ritual, and intention (also known as faith, or belief) is everything. We're talking about the power of prayer, baby.

Next we clambered over the dam and up into the canyon itself, where Deetjen's General Manager Torrey Waag buried our gift beside the stream. At the end of our ritual, we all felt the its unique power: the gift, built ceremoniously, wrapped in fabric and passed over our bodies, generated a surge of positive healing energy, which flowed out of our eyes and our hearts. We are safe! We love and honor our Pacha Mama, and She loves us in return.

Magical Canyon waterfall
Flood preparations
Our offering—in progress, wrapped for delivery, in the earth
Petals in the stream

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Joy of Stuffed Animals

As the season of giving approaches, I find myself thinking of the most simple of gifts: a Stuffed Animal. There is something deep in the human soul that needs to hold, to touch, and sleeping all alone at night is just not really do-able, at any age, perhaps especially in early childhood.

For children, the acknowledged wisdom is that stuffed animals are an important part of healthy psychological development. Yes, you can make a real difference in the world, by donating a stuffed animal or two to your local holiday toy drive.

When I was little, I had a stuffed toy named Bully, with a plush body and a plastic bull's head. I also had a favorite blanket, a baby blue quilt-like number with pink tufts emerging from the center of each sewn square of fabric. Holding onto these things gave me comfort; I could talk to Bully, and bury myself in the softness of my blanky at nap-time.

Today, I sleep cuddled against the warm body of my Welshman husband. We curl and uncurl around each other all night long, holding hands, rubbing feet together, caressing hips, and planting kisses on the center of each other's backs. When he gets up in the middle of the night, I sense the sudden solitude, and wake up. Him too, when I sit up to read or tap on the laptop.

They say that healthy adult love includes elements of nurturing often missed in childhood, and still needed at a profound level. I have single friends who wrap themselves around large pillows, or invite their cats and dogs into bed with them. Most of us, as "grown-ups" are somewhat shy about being partial to a humble stuffed animal, except in times of extreme stress and loneliness.

However, I have a theory that if all the world had something to cuddle with, we'd be happier all around and wake up smiling every morning. Holding onto to anything while we slumber takes us back to less complicated times, when just giving love nourished us, with no expectation except a small dab of comfort. The great mystery here is, that by just loving, even an inanimate object, we feel loved in return.

Does love make our loved ones more real to us? Absolutely. And this concept has never been better expressed than in the wonderful childhood story, The Velveteen Rabbit. I dare anyone, especially during the winter holidays, to hear this story and not shed a tear.

My elderly friend Bob understood this intuitively, when I gave him a stuffed rabbit to hold during his hospital stay two years ago. He missed his cat, so the white bunny from the drugstore it was. He resisted holding it, but when he put it on his lap and stroked it, his face broke out in a smile of understanding. Connecting with his love for life by feeling love in the simplest of ways gave him strength, no doubt.

So, don't be shy. Share a story here of the joy you find in a soft, furry toy. Let's create a love-fest of happy moments, of that sense of contentment that only holding and loving can give. To kick it off, here's a priceless pic of the long-suffering Welshman himself, cuddled with his new favorite.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Winter Reading

When I was a little girl, my mother was the Librarian in our town. I loved to visit her after school at the romantic old library downtown, built in the 30's. I'd find a dog-eared copy of Jane Eyre or Anne of Green Gables in the stacks and curl up on the red velvet couch in front of the fireplace and read for hours. Those afternoons were a blessed escape from a childhood set in the midst of the godforsaken 1970's!

Later, I somehow discovered Anaïs Nin, and then, Erica Jong. Delta of Venus and Fear of Flying were harder to read in public, but I devoured them secretly, filled with delicious, guilty pleasure. At about this time I also read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, as well as the usual trashy science fiction and historical romances bookish teenage girls always seem to find.

Reading has been my salvation—I've found some of my best teachers, healers and lovers in books. To disappear into the content of a story, any story, from fantasy to current events, makes me feel bigger than myself, connected to a community of human souls beyond my world.

When I'm troubled, I turn to books of poetry by the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi, the musings on love of psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, the compassionate detachment of Sogyal Rinpoche's Buddhist texts. While I can never fully assimilate all this wisdom (I often follow up a short read with a good cry and a cup of tea followed by hiding under the covers) I am constantly seeking more.

Perhaps it's not surprising then, that I would spend a few years working at the Henry Miller Library here in Big Sur, and consider it one of our community's transcendent places. Current Nympholibrarian Keely Richter reigns there now, in charge of archiving rare books. When I tell her of the secret union of Librarians she nods complicitly, hazel eyes laughing behind her glasses.

My latest book purchase? (From the Miller Library, of course.) The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Marion Meade. My favorite poem so far in this large tome of short stories, verse, and early New Yorker articles, is one which offers up these lines:
Yet this the need of woman, this her curse: / To range her little gifts, and give and give / Because the throb of giving's sweet to bear.

And it is.

Next on my winter reading list: MFK Fisher's The Gastronomical Me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Wrapped Road

I've been thinking about the globally known, innovative artist Christo lately, and that he should come and do a large scale environmental art project here in Big Sur, kind of like his 1.5 miles long, 1 million square feet of Wrapped Coast in 1969 in Little Bay, Australia. He also Surrounded Islands in Key Biscayne in 1983. Hey, it's only about 20 miles from from Lucia Lodge to the Nepenthe. It's worth exploring, don't you think?

A Christo coast would be an artsy rendering of Big Sur that could also prevent avalanches of earth and rock. The generally accepted viewpoint among experts and most locals is that we're (more or less) going to see Big Sur slide into the ocean with this winters's rains, shutting down the highway and trapping us here. Not so bad, you say, until supplies (and bank accounts) run dry.

This makes for an interesting quasi-PTSD experience to the Basin Complex Fire, which denuded the mountains of stabilizing flora, and promises to fill our rivers and springs with sediment from over 200,000 burned back-country acres.

I'm wondering how "erosion control fabric" (used in the Australian installation) fares against steel mesh in keeping the rocks at bay. I'm grateful for CPOA, our valiant non-profit community group that has worked tirelessly with an alphabet soup of government agencies to mitigate the upcoming hazards and educate our bilingual population about flood and landslide risks.

Also impressive are the construction teams who, among other things, are coordinating the massive project of helicopters hanging curtains of steel along the unstable cliffs, as if they're capturing some unpredictable animal beneath a net.

Yes, that's it, Christo needs to wrap our Big Sur coast in Cal-Trans orange, just in time for Halloween! The kind of saffron color he used in the Central Park Gates in 2006. (In the world of blogging fantasy, it can all be done by the end of the week.)

Think how beautiful the coastline would look at sunset, Big Sur dressed in flame-colored nylon, contrasting with the cobalt blue of the Pacific Ocean. We have a few years of potentially disastrous landslide scenarios. Let's get word to Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude about this. My bet is that they'll a) think we're bonkers and b) seriously consider helping out!

Wrapped Coast near Sydney, Australia
Recently scraped Torre Canyon cliff
O yeah, that will hold it
Road worker Cory, who says he wonders daily "how he'll make his first million $"
Central Park Gates, New York City

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Twins, Arriba!

A lifetime ago I lived in Madrid. I wore polka-dotted short skirts, tiny heels, and drank like a Spaniard in the city's many bars and nightclubs. I learned to speak Spanish, a fondo, with a petite bearded Radio Nacional disc jockey named Javier. Boy, did we have fun. I still grin remembering it all, decades later.

This was about 5 years after dictator Franco's death, near the beginning of La Movida, a riotous time of social, sexual and pharmacological experimentation by Madrid's youth, artists and intellectuals. Naturally I considered myself all three, except my art form was more of the, um, intimate kind.

Feria in Sevilla captured my heart, but even more, the impromptu Flamenco dancing I saw among men and women in their street clothes at the smaller village fairs. Those proud hips, arms and shoulders, that unspoken and delicious conversation! Not to mention the mesmerizing music and song, which in part derives from Arabic culture, an intrinsic part of Spain for 700 years (711 - 1492, yes, some things I remember from college.)

Somehow, I now find myself, via the wonder of email to my humble cottage on the mountain, (and courtesy of Santa Cruz dance teacher and choreographer Janelle Rodriguez) at a beginning Flamenco class at Pleasure Point Fitness Studio in Soquel, California.

Fourth generation Brisas de España Flamenco dancer and master teacher Carolina Lugo and her extraordinary daughter Carolé Acuña greet us on Sunday afternoon, two dynamic beauties patiently teaching a room full of mostly belly dance students. We begin with floreos, those perfectly formed twirling hands, almost like mudras, our wrists spinning around as we raise and lower our arms (elbows up!) in different combinations.

We translated middle-eastern dance moves into their Flamenco variations, worked on some complex footwork and challenging spins, moving into intense combinations. Soon, those of us who dream of undulating in the desert to a swirling violin see ourselves instead in a candle-lit tavern in Andalucia, snapping our skirts to a dramatic guitar.

Flamenco feels staccato, strong, a study in contrasts, the powerful arms, the delicate handwork, the concentration in the footwork, the serious faces, all of the energy pulled in tight, close to the body, inward.

"Your back ribs meet your front ribs," says Carolina, "shoulder blades down and moving towards each other. And what does this do?" she continues, with a broad smile and thumbs up gesture, "Yes, the twins (our breasts) Arriba! (Up!) and proud." This is the only dance form where women, she adds, have balls. And with all that stomping, they hurt!

Attending a new dance class always takes me back to the first grade. Some amateur dancers are shy, hiding in the back of the class, working out the moves, eternally grateful for the teacher's guidance. Others with more experience help lead the class by example. We ask questions, smile sideways at each other, gasp with exasperation. There is courage here, and a deep desire for real beauty.

The community of dance never fails to make me happy. Carolina introduced students to perform the famous Sevillanas folk dances at the end of class, with a beautiful singer as well. Suddenly I was in the countryside outside Huelva, (where some of my Spanish friends lived and where Columbus, having recruited local sailors, departed from) watching teenagers in jeans dance perfect Flamenco. I can still see them, downing shots of local sherry and laughing in the sunshine.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sleeping under the stars

These crisp fall nights are magical, with our cricket choir, and soft breezes tickling the wind chimes. “We should sleep outside tonight,” says my husband, and, since he has the soul of a weatherman, I listen, and we trundle outside in our fleece boots with our flashlights. Soon we'll be taking down our screen doors, building fires in the stove and putting warm blankets on our indoor bed. Summer nights outdoors become a memory.

One of the best things about sleeping outside under the stars is waking up in the morning, with the coral pink horizon fluffed out along the line of the slate blue ocean, paler blue sky above. It's kind of an inverse sunset. Instead of dramatic orange and magenta flames where the sea and sky meet, these gentle morning colors, seen through the floating veil of the mosquito net, give the day a calm beginning.

How many of us in our modern world are able to see the sunrise, flashing at the ridge-top, brightly transforming dawn into day? The theory that much of the human race’s alienation is a result of our lack of connection to the rhythms and beauty of the natural world makes perfect sense here in Big Sur. Humans naturally relax in nature, feeling a deep trust, born of a millennia of nurturing by this planet.

Waking up to songbirds' dawn chorus is pure delight. Sometimes flocks of doves swoop down from the ridge line above us, headed off for their morning meeting in the trees below. Or sleek crows sail by, powered by their melodious wing-beats. They always seem like they’re talking to each other. They’ll chase red-tail hawks away from their nests, two or three of them bird-dogging the larger bird, shrieking their disapproval.

Every vision has its price, of course. There are restless nights when we inadvertently open the net and mosquitoes bite our fingers and faces. Those ace pilots of the wee hours, strafing us, alerting us with their unmistakable high-pitched whine. Fortunately I find it humorous to smack myself repeatedly in the dark, with little or no success. Sometimes we turn on the flashlight and hunt them down against the netting.

A touch of insomnia is a good thing outdoors: we wake to watch the Milky Way, which stretches from the ocean below to the mountaintop behind us, slowly moving across the heavens during the night. Orion returns this month, emerging from the south flank of the Partington watershed, at I’d say around 2 am. We watch the phases of the moon for optimal sleep quality, a goose-down feather new moon is best, not the overpowering street-light full moon, though it can produce epic dreams.

Initially, sleeping outside by myself was a little scary. The bed is appealing— sturdy pine beams beneath a sheet of plywood, mattress topped by a cushy feather bed, soft jersey cotton bedding, yet it sits on the point of the hill, and feels exposed to, well, the entire universe.

It’s not that I fear wild animals, though barking coyotes can give one pause, and the stray rattlesnake on a hot summer night can give you a huge shot of adrenalin. It just feels so very solitary: me, millions of stars stretching out above, the huge mountain beneath and behind me, and the endless ocean, which sometimes sparkles with reflected starlight.

“Lord, your sea is so vast, my ship is so small,” as the old saying goes. Sleeping under the stars is glorious and daunting. And, then, there’s always the aliens who visit from the far reaches of the galaxy. (But that’s a subject for another post!)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Frida and Friends

There's nothing like a day with one's friends, doing something you never get to do together. Putting ourselves in a new environment, each of us taking our separate paths to arrive at the appointed time (more or less), with the twin goals of experiencing something new and appreciating the novelty of another way of life.

Two Big Sur bumpkins, one Santa Cruz gal and two City sophisticates (one of them 7 months pregnant) meet to enjoy a morning at San Francisco's MOMA, two days before the close of the fabulous Frida Kahlo exhibit.

Since I've left my laptop power cord in a San Francisco café, (there's a song there somewhere) there's been a bit of a delay in my sitting down to blog. I've also been basking in the joyous memories of such delicious friendships, pregnant bellies, soccer games, and cups of tea followed by glasses of champagne.

Our group contained two painters, a professional photographer, an entrepreneur and yours truly. Lots of stimulating commentary all around. I love the abundance of Mi Nana y Yo, My Nurse and I. Milk streams from the heavens as Frida nourishes herself at the breast of the great Mother. Her little body shimmers with power, lightning-like veins coursing through her dress. It bursts with erotic creativity and mystery.

The series of photographs of Frida's life—family, friends and events, was exceptional. One photograph, from her lover Julien Levy, is unforgettable. It's a small photo of a topless Frida, (the camera stops just above her nipples) with her hair down, wearing one of her signature heavy necklaces. Her right arm is bent upwards, hand resting on her head, she displays a bit of dark underarm hair. That faraway look in her eyes, which you see in so many of her paintings, transforms into something more dreamy than sad.

Each one of us shed tears at the film clip of Diego and Frida, the part where Diego turns Frida's sweet face to the camera, twice. She shyly tucks her cheek into his enormous paw, then takes his hand in her own and kisses it tenderly. Since we are all married ladies, we really get the authenticity of such domestic gestures, especially between battling, loving spouses.

One country bumpkin who will remain nameless was chastised by the rest of us for tugging on her underwear through her jeans while waiting for a table at the Samovar Tea Lounge. We can't take you anywhere, we cried, secretly delighted that she just didn't give a damn.

Before lunch, the non-pregnant city sophisticate proffered a special breath mint spray, given to her by another renegade mom. We dutifully sprayed the foul tasting green liquid (with the pretty hemp flower on the packaging) into our mouths. Results were disappointing, but the tea and delicious snacks at the Samovar were not.

I ordered the Russian Tea Platter, with the bottomless cup of black tea, which I filled many times from the enormous samovar inside the restaurant, both for myself and my luscious pals. We sat outside in the Yerba Buena Gardens, enjoying the bright sunshine and views of da big City. Later that day, we drank champagne and held our own salon on love, art, sex and death.

Frida would have approved!

Frida by Imogen Cunningham, 1931
Mi Nana y Yo. 1937
The Two Fridas, 1939

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Marvelous Mariah

When I first met Mariah Green she was a serious faced toddler with an abiding love for a very real looking, bald doll she'd named "Curly." Rescued from a relative's recycle bin, Curly and Mariah were inseparable for about 4 years.

As a little girl she would attend meetings with her Dad at the Henry Miller Library. These were strategic pow-wows filled with adults, debating how to best protect our coastal area, or designing a homeschooling program for local children. Mariah would sit patiently with Curly through the thorniest discussions, nodding and taking (pretend) notes.

Now she's 16 years old, and the cliché of blossoming couldn't be better applied: She's like a breath of fresh air, a glass of cool spring water. She has her mother's smile, her father's stride, and she is uniquely, utterly herself. Mariah embodies a reality that is felt, not seen, that is content, not form, coming from within, instead of structure imposed from without. Organic, at-ease, happy, calm, yet ready for the principled action of adulthood.

After our visit, I recalled a quote from the coming of age story within Shakespeare's Hamlet, — Polonius' advice for young Laertes as he goes out into the world:
“This above all: to thy own Self be true.
And it must follow, as the night the day,
that thou canst not then be false to any man.”

How does a young woman like this come to being in our Big Sur world?

Mariah Marlena Green arrived in Big Sur on Jan. 2, 1992, a Capricorn baby born to Laurie Celine Green and George Garner "Tim" Green.

Some of her earliest memories are of picking strawberries at beloved local painter George Choley's strawberry patch at Mucha Vista, going to the laundromat with her Mom, and hiding in the closet in order to eat as many chocolate Easter eggs as possible. She remembers carrying Curly around at my wedding, watching everyone celebrate.

Mariah was a Big Sur Charter School student until she was 9 years old, when she decided to go to Captain Cooper, the local elementary school. She appreciates that she was independent as a little person; with about 3 hours of school per day she was totally caught up when she went to regular school. Her Dad tutored her in math, which she loved.

Mariah started reading on her own at 9, and liked books she could relate to, like Julie of the Wolves . Her favorite times included community events and concerts at the Henry Miller Library, hanging out with friends Stefan and Kiley on the ridge, and, starting when she was about 6, helping her Dad build her room, as well as helping him maintain the ridge road with his stable of earth moving equipment.

Now a Junior at Carmel High School, I ask her about the differences she senses between Big Sur kids v. town kids. "So much of the focus there," she says simply, "is about what you look like, and what you have, not about who you are." She feels though, that her peers respect her because she’s not into status. Kids spend a lot more time on the computer in town, she notices, and have more of a hard time expressing (or knowing) who they really are. Hmmmm. Welcome to the world...

One way to make growing up in Big Sur more fun, she suggests, would be to have more community events, getting together to dance, watch movies, hang out. Young people are more isolated here, and would definitely benefit from this. Such a simple, basic concept. I make a mental note to pass this idea on to our local non-profit for kids, Big Sur Arts Initiative.

Part of Mariah's lovely presence comes from the tranquility that country living brings. While she remembers being a little afraid of the dark when she was small, and has a healthy respect for Mother Nature's stronger moods, her storms and fires, she says she is "nature crazy" now, and wants to go to college in a small town in the mountains. Her family camps in the Sierras every summer, and it's her favorite time of the year. That was especially true for her after this year's huge fires.

Mariah easily expresses her gratitude for her supportive family. "It's great to grow up somewhere where you can experience everything and learn who you really are, v. living in pop culture," she says. This summer's fires came when she was in San Francisco with relatives, and while she was pragmatic about that, her scariest moment was when she learned that her Dad was leaving the ridge, something he'd never done during a fire before.

As you might imagine after all those years with Curly, she's a "a natural" with little people and is Partington's most popular children's companion. While she thought of being a kindergarten teacher at one point, all those hours each day in a classroom does not appeal to her.

Mariah's plan is to take a year off after graduation, then go to college in Colorado, Montana, or Arizona. She's interested in becoming an Outward Bound instructor, or doing alpine rescue work. She wants to travel to the Himalayas, learn more about Sherpa culture, which she finds fascinating, and to climb Mt. Everest.

With her strong sense of herself and her straightforward values, Mariah's adventures will be sure to bring her many inspiring challenges and much joy. We are eager to watch the next chapters of her young life unfold!

Mariah in front of her room in the structure she helped build
At Easter many years ago with our ill-fated wee bunny
With friend Chloe Bright
Curly and Mariah

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pass the Beret

Survision has been up in the blogosphere for almost one year! It's such a surprise to me that I've been able to do this, through a wild and woolly time, complete with sudden deaths, community-wide disaster, and ever more profound appreciation for this place I call home.

Blogging has been a wonderful, life-saving process for me. The feedback I've received from Survision readers has warmed the cockles of m' heart, as they say. What lovely souls you all are, thank you.

We're expecting an epic winter season, with mud-slides, flooding, and avalanches of rocks (check out this amazing "debris flow" You-Tube clip) thanks to the de-foliating power of the Basin Complex fire. Since I don't want to rely on unemployment, it feels like time to pass the blogging beret, so to speak.

Checking with the Big Sur Bakery, which makes the fanciest latté in town, I learned that the special local's price for this energizing libation is — $4.25.

So now, for the price of a once-a-month discounted coffee beverage, you can subscribe to Survision for ongoing news and whimsy from Big Sur!

Some of the topics I plan on continuing to develop include:

Profiles of our unique Big Sur children, their experience of growing up on the coast and where they're headed in the big bad world.

Our artists, painters, writers, sculptors, musicians and lovers: their inspiration, challenges and joys.

Big Sur Goddesses, some of the most awe-inspiring women around, full of deep wisdom and wild humor.

Celebrations of life in our majestic and sometimes demanding environment.

The beret sitting beside me on the Internet sidewalk is the bright yellow button to your left that says "Subscribe". It's just one tap of the mouse, there's that's it! Thank you.

Early morning fog tuck, Partington Ridge
Latté, Big Sur style

Aerial back country view post fire (the "O" marks our home)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Cricket in the House

In these last days of summer, I'm reminded of another reason (beyond the moon and the stars) that I live in Big Sur: the symphony of crickets that come out in the warm evenings to sing.

There's a huge community of serenading Gryllidae in our garden. Like La Tuna in Spain, they start up around sunset and go pretty much all night, chirping below our (imaginary) balcony.

I've always thought they harmonized beautifully: one group making a see-sawing chirp, the other a long, low hum. It's mesmerizing, soothing, the perfect lullaby for sleeping under the stars. The last time I listened to their concert this way, I saw a shooting star, truly one of life's great moments.

There's a tiny tribe that lives in the passion flower arch on our walkway. When we stand beneath it late at night, they give us an intimate performance, in surround-sound.

Last week, I cut some passion flower vines and put them in a vase above my bed. Late that night I was awoken by a lonely little green cricket, singing right next to me. It's considered good luck to have a cricket in your house in many cultures. It can mean the arrival of money (yes please!) or other good things.

So I did a little research on my insect friends. And, oh god, what did I find? (I should have known.) All those crickets are having sex (or crying out for it) especially this time of year, before the long, cold winter.

It's the males who sing, either to attract females (and repel other males) with the see-saw chirp or to broadcast their post-coital bliss to the heavens (the happy hum.) It's called stridulation, and they do it by rubbing their right forewing against the ribs on their powerful left forewing, kind of like playing a violin. Now that's exciting!

Where the crickets live

Monday, September 1, 2008

Be a Goddess

Or just move like one...

On my last day at Middle Eastern Dance and Music Camp in Mendocino this past week, I read this off the tiny skirt of the woman walking to breakfast ahead of me. I had to laugh. So that's what it's all about, moving like a Goddess, enjoying that siren song of immortal femininity. Moving like a Goddess will make you feel like one. It's true.

I'd accepted my dance teacher's challenge to spend a week in the Mendocino redwoods immersed in the scene: multiple classes a day, from Arabic singing to Persian dancing, with a full-tilt live music Middle-Eastern cabaret each night until dawn, no kidding. People of all ages and walks of life came to study dance, drumming, violin, kanun, zorna, nay, oud and more. My roommates were two little drummer girls from Santa Barbara and I felt like a shocked parent to hear them return each morning, usually, though not always, later than myself.

Watching Shoshanna, Ruby and Nadira dance the night away with their tribe of sisters, and joining in the joyous movement myself gave me some lovely, inspiring memories. Cabaret style belly dancers are truly the peacocks of the Middle Eastern dance world, and those of us transforming ourselves from ducklings to peacocks love the contact high of sensual, confident womanhood.

Men dance too! After Turkish dancer Ahmet Luleci's late-night cabaret performance, I teased him about his costume (or lack of one) "What, this Calvin Klein shirt's not good enough?" he laughed. While I may be a tiny bit biased, I don't think the men work as hard as the women at dancing...they strike magnificent poses, though.

"Translate the music with your body!" says renowned Arab percussionist and outstanding dance teacher Souhail Kaspar, (who reminded me a little of Yul Brynner in the 1956 movie The King and I.) "This is the way you can honor my culture." And of course, like learning a language, you have to learn it the way it's actually spoken by native speakers. To see the teasing between drummer and dancer was one of the best treats of my week. This kind of subtlety is lost when the dance goes completely fusion, with no consciousness of the art form's history, foundation or structure.

While American Bellydance specializes in a fusion of east and west, certain fundamentals of interpreting the music will always apply. That is, unless dancers want musicians to hear the metaphorical fingernails on the chalkboard when they perform in their luscious (and very expensive) Sheherazade costumes.

Dancers themselves are not necessarily passionately in love or more sensually fulfilled than the average Jane Doe. They face the same challenges as all women. But they are fulfilled in the dance, which is an expression of happiness within. They seem to live more in their womanhood. The body, after all, is often our greatest teacher. After much work and exploration, it is where our deepest truths can be found.

The real eye-opener (or ear opener) of the week was the beauty and power of dancing to live music. Lighthearted kanun player Hasan Issakut, with his million dollar smile (his friends say he's George Clooney's double) had no toys until he was 8 years old, when his gypsy Dad gave him a violin that became his “imaginary friend.” The first composition on his CD, "Joy Regardless" is titled, unabashedly, "I love you."

Lebanese-Palestinian violinist Georges Lamman, with his sweet pout and dour sense of humor, taught singing and violin. His students sang transliterated Arabic love songs, while he accompanied on his melancholy violin. A variety of drums kept everyone moving, the heartbeat of the week. The music is passionate, romantic, and festive. Passion, after all, is ultimately about pain, so much of the music is about lost love: I love you and I gave you my all, only to be scorned! Or dance and play now, these are the best times, when the Divine joins us on earth.

Yes, Middle-Eastern male musicians do have a well-deserved reputation. Not much drinking, but certainly a lot of focused appreciation for the feminine, fueled in part perhaps by all those ancient, seductive dance moves, mixed with passionate, joyous music. Find yourself in your body with the music and you will learn amazing things; about yourself, and about your community of fellow-travelers in this life.

A dancer, like an athlete, must do the work to create the high. It’s a practice art and even when the practice is boring, stressful, or disappointing in some way, we keep doing it. Through this work we reap the benefits of a healthier body and spirit. Constantly practicing the necessary mental and physical stength can eventually make the dance look easy. The true thrill is when that transformation takes place.

"Be a pretty martini glass," says Souhail's protegé Zeva, as we hit the downbeat with alternating feet, while Zajira of Black Sheep Belly Dance says she sees herself as one of those antique dolls with strings connecting rib-cage and pelvis. The pelvis hangs from those strings, which swirl around in our hip circles. The "urban tribal" dancers are the most committed in their way, with brightly colored hair and tattoos. It's a trance like form, with the leader guiding the troupe through spontaneous choreographies.

"What’s going on in my head is not always what’s really going on," says the beautiful Nadira, who gave a mesmerizing performance at the cabaret. Yet her internal state was quite different, critical, self-doubting. How funny! Standing in the bathroom, wrapped in our towels post-shower, we have a deep snippet of conversation about the nature of reality. Perception alone is not reality, instead it's a combination of perception and objective truth. The practice of this highly complex dance can lead one to think in these ways.

Dancers and musicians, like all performers, live most vividly in the Now, and understand that no one can do your work for you. This translates into a higher level of personal responsibility. While so much of what we achieve and learn happens in community, I alone am my pilot. No one’s coming to save me. Who'd have thought that this could be not only a liberating concept, but also an exciting one?

Gawahzee dancers of the 19th century
The divine Ruby
Ahmet in fine form
Ahmet & Hassan share a laugh
Souhail bangs the drum for Aisha
The lovely Janikea
Casbah stage
For more pics, go to my Flickr site!