Thursday, January 31, 2008

OK, let’s let a shoe drop, a little bit…

Those of us who tough it out in Big Sur year after year have collective amnesia for the days and sometimes weeks of the winter when it’s so frickin' cold that living without central heating really begins to feel barbaric. This time of year I start to think about finding a nice big bear to make me a warm fur coat. We have to haul wood (in our wheelbarrow!) into the house every few days, and pick up pine cones in the forest for kindling, like characters in a medieval fairy tale.

In his un-insulated shack, geriatric neighbor Bob practically lives under his electric blanket. If the power goes out, he stays with us. If I’m home alone, dinner becomes leftover pasta and a big hot cup of tea (it's freezing in the kitchen) then to bed at 8pm, wearing flannel pajamas, a heavy sweater and socks. Being part of a couple is highly practical when it comes to stoking the fire in the middle of the night. Sitting in a heated car is a relief. In short, it’s simply too damned COLD.

I have a single friend who left Big Sur, after loving it for a decade, because she had HAD it with chopping wood and making fires in the winter. She'd sit on a big pillow directly in front of her wood-burning stove, smoking cigarettes, drinking red wine, and powering on her bellows. Now she lives with a thermostat she’s in love with and we have her handy dandy bellows. I think I’ll go use it right now, to see if I can warm up this room…

Hint: Lighting candles can create the illusion of warmth. So can drinking wine, and having one’s friends over to dance madly in the firelight.

The other pain in the ass about living in Big Sur is getting your car repaired. Basically, you’re sunk, since even “reliable” late model cars have problems. The nearest mechanic is 40+ miles away, so you can count on one very expensive towing bill should your baby die on you down the coast.

Like doctor’s appointments, car repairs can mean missed work/income, and imposing on your friends to make the long drive to or from the repair shop. In the event of complete mechanical failure, you’ll need that special friend who lives in “town” i.e. civilization, who can put you up for the night when your car craps out on you there.

I know this sounds like so much ungrateful whining. I can hear, "but you live in PARADISE!” in the background. But let’s face it, even Paradise can have its sucky bits, oh, yeah, I forgot, its challenges.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Romeo, my Romeo

I miss his fur. I would bury my face in its warm softness, rubbing him against my cheeks, temples, lips, throat. So incredibly soothing. A deep, daily pleasure that made my world more harmonious and sensual.

He gave himself to me completely. Turning over and allowing me to stroke the orange marmalade fur on his tummy, I'd rake my fingers up and down his firm tender chest, and he would stretch out his legs in delight.

This was our ritual, every morning when I awoke, and nearly every evening. On Sunday afternoons he'd beckon me with his tail in the air, and we'd have our interlude of inter-species amour.

Romeo, Romeo, I need you to sleep on my face again. You showed me that compelling quality of the creature that lets itself be loved, and responds with undemanding, utterly complete love.

How I chewed on the kindly marrow of the comforting words friends gave me when he left, suddenly, one morning last spring, his amber body twisted slightly on the carpet, a little blood pooled below his mouth. My boneless golden god was gone, gone, gone.

I don't want to forget the bliss of our 14 years together, so perhaps, by choosing to keep his memory close, there's a part of me that never quite "heals." I don't mind. Romeo is worth it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Empress of the Universe

Sula and son Torre, 1993

Sula Nichols lives near the very top of Partington Ridge on part of the old De Angulo Ranch with her family of four children, three horses, a pony, one very old dog, several cats that come and go, and a bearded dragon lizard.

Empress Sula is deeply passionate, and a magnet for charismatic people. Planet Earth, she says, is the “opal of the universe” and many of the causes she espouses are about protecting our global environment.

Last Sunday afternoon I sat down with Sula at her kitchen table. Over a bottle of Piper Heidsieck Champagne we enjoy the afternoon sunlight, looking into each other's eyes, questioning and laughing. The incandescent champagne bubbles help the flow. Later, we nosh together on a plate of delicious pasta and crisp salad greens straight from her garden.

Her small, warm home bursts at the seams with a gallery of pictures of her children, siblings and self at various life stages, as well as the earthy landscapes in oil she's painted. Horse blankets, cowhides, a saddle, a piano, a white board listing to-do items, pots and pans and glassware and shoes and clothes and flower vases and more are scattered everywhere. This is artistic clutter to the 10th degree, factoring in four beautiful wild children and Sula's entrepreneurial spirit, in spades.

Sula grew up in Hydra, Greece and in Suffolk, England. At the tender age of 10, she developed a crush on an American GI stationed at a local NATO base. She loved American movies (from The Apartment to Easy Rider) and of course, that great American export, rock and roll. She was drawn to the dream of the flower children in San Francisco and the potential for continuing a bohemian life in a new world.

Noted anthropologist Giles Healey invited her to see Big Sur, after she met his daughter Kate in London. Sula heard the name as Big Sir, which she thought was quite silly. In her opinion we should call our home Grande Sur, as the Spanish did.

In 1977, Sula got her first taste of the American Dream in New York City and Hollywood, where she worked briefly as a nanny. She then took a Greyhound bus from Santa Barbara to Monterey, and hitchhiked down the coast to Big Sur.

It was foggy that afternoon as Sula’s ride took her to Nepenthe. While the restaurant's terrace was bathed in golden light when she arrived, the rest of the coast, north and south, was shrouded in heavy cloud.

Like the parties on Hydra she had enjoyed as a child, everyone who was anyone in those days danced their cares away at Nepenthe every night. Kate and her boyfriend welcomed her warmly, driving down the road together to Partington later that evening.

And then, the simplest magic: It’s warm at the top of the ridge, the night sky is crystal clear, she hears a symphony of chirping cicadas. The next day she sees the view, and vows to herself she will never leave.

I ask her what has sustained her over the past three decades on the coast. “The inability to take this place for granted, the weight of the continent, my love of the land. I've been to many beautiful places on the planet, but Big Sur remains the crown jewel. I can always pour whatever sadness I have into the ocean. She receives it, and gives me back a sense of calm, of happiness, of feeling complete.”

“I carry Big Sur inside myself now. It is the most powerful land, a polarizing touchstone, really. It’s a place to ground, to release and receive energy. There are two opposing poles of energy here, contrary powers of positive and negative, intensifying each other, yet in balance. In these conditions, there can be no denial of absolutes.”

In this vein of combining poetry and science, we discuss polarization, and prisms. When you look through a prism, the twist in the middle, where the light changes, is the most powerful point, where it’s most alive.

So, the polarizing energy of Big Sur creates the possibility of intense change. If you have something in you, you can see it as a blessing or as a curse. Here in the land of no denial, you must work with it.

At 21, Sula married Giles Healey’s grandson Lewis Nichols, obtaining both her visa and her beautiful first-born daughter Sarah. She has raised four children, now aged 26 to 13. I’m curious about what effect Big Sur has on family life.

“My children say it’s marvelous to have a place in one’s childhood that is magical,” she says. “And I believe that children, especially teens, need to get out of our little village in order to experience a different reality."

"It’s a beautiful point of departure, they learn how to be quiet in nature, but it’s so important not to get stuck here.” Happily, she’s been able to travel extensively with her brood, from Fiji to Mexico to the UK, and also has a home away from home in Mendocino.

“Growing up here my daughter Sarah appreciated the horses. My son Torre has great friendships, while Layla and Jasper connect with the land more.” We laugh over a memory of Layla, aged 8, playing in the waves at Pfeiffer Beach, in December, draped in kelp and wearing nothing but a Santa hat.

As the twins come tumbling into the kitchen, she says with a smile, “Here come the children, my terrible children." Later, reverently watching the sun sink into the Pacific, Scribe and Empress embrace in contented silence.

If you are curious about Sula's nom de guerre, here is a clue—

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Orion and me

© T. Credner & S. Kohle,

Many years ago, my beautiful dark-haired friend Nehama (an Outward Bound instructor) introduced me to Orion, on New Year's Eve, outside a honky-tonk in Flagstaff, Arizona.

As we looked up from the snow covered street she showed me a Native American warrior, chasing a buffalo across the mesa, his bright-eyed dog running behind him.

Orion is a huge celestial presence from Autumn to Spring. His belt, composed of three bright stars in a perfect line, is his signature. Find that, then you see the rest of him, shoulders, knees, club, bow (or shield) and sword.

Behind Orion is Canis Major, the great dog, in front of him Taurus, the bull. Sirius, the "Dog star" (named after the Egyptian dog-god Osiris) is the brightest star of the Northern Hemisphere. The V of Taurus' horns is obvious once you've seen it a few times. Dog, Hunter, Bull, moving across the galaxy, from eastern to western horizon.

The Disney version

Supergiant stars hundreds of times the size of our sun make up Orion's body: In his left shoulder you see the red star, Betelgeuse (bay-tel-juice); in his right knee the blue star Rigel (rye-jell.) Bellatrix, in his right shoulder, is known as the Female Warrior Star. The sword below his belt is in a "nebula" or cosmic cloud where new heavenly bodies are born.

The famous "Horsehead Nebula" courtesy of the Anglo-Australia Telescope
Here's one of many Orion myths:
Artemis loved the handsome Orion, a lover and hunter of great skill, but he was arrogant and annoyed the gods. Apollo deceived her into using Orion for target practice, and Artemis killed him with her arrow. In her grief she enshrined him in the heavens.

When I step outside my bedroom in the wee hours I can see them all, directly ahead of me, above the ocean. On some magical nights, Sirius illuminates a path from the edge of the sea where the world ends, to the bottom of the cliff and my door. I kid you not. This subtle beauty reminds me that life's many, many challenges are a fair trade for these astronomical moments of wonder.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Da Big Storm

Photo by Winston Boyer
“A storm of historic proportions” crows my husband from our office, where he is reading the online weather reports. The last “big one” was 10 years ago, in 1998, closing Highway One for 3 months.

That afternoon it begins. Walking to my office I see the first sprinkles appear amid the leaves at my feet. It's colder, and we're all a little more keyed up than usual, discussing the forecast.

Driving south on Hwy One I turn up the volume on my Circus Contraption CD and loudly sing along to charming ditties about burning witches and slaughtering cows as the storm swirls around me, gusts of wind blowing the rain sideways against my car.

All night we are pelted with big raindrops and howling winds, snug in our bed, the wood-burning stove keeping the bedroom warm. Once at a winter wedding we imbibed some special punch and came home to de-construct the colors (and feelings) of the raindrops. If they slid along the window, they felt sad, like melting yellow lemon drops. If they plopped on the roof they were cheerfully orange, if they hit the wall sideways with a strong wind behind them they were icy blue and reckless.

Being a sensualist, synesthesia is a condition I'd love to have. Why settle for one physical sense at a time? Or, merge an emotion with a sensation, for an even more powerful experience. The sense of touch seems to be this way. We shake hands to show friendship, and kiss to make up. When we hug each other, we engage our hearts.

Candle-powered reading
Reading in bed by candlelight is something I recommend that everyone do often. Restlessness ceases as you quietly absorb words in the still, gentle light. No where to go to, nothing you're missing. Accept the limits of the sun's daily transit, and just read, as your ancestors did. Here's a recipe for a night of peaceful, unbroken sleep: raindrops, reading, candlelight, and holding your lover.

Next morning we intrepid worker bees decide to make a run for it, down the hill to our place of employment. Traveling together in our pick-up truck, we stop to chainsaw one tree on the road with a neighbor’s help. I say "we" but I must confess I sat in the cab quite cozily, watching my husband and neighbor buck up the fallen bay tree.

Emergency tree trimming
As we pass our leaf-splattered neighbor, I take some teasing. “Were you comfortable and dry in the truck, my lady, drinking your coffee and watching us work?” His red jacket is covered with pulp from the tree they've just demolished. A twig sticks jauntily out of his white goatee. “O yes, that was lovely! Thank you,” I smile sheepishly.

Farther down, we dismount from our truck and help a sports car driving neighbor push an assortment of rocks off the narrow paved road. Beautiful clothes soaked through, kicking stones in her high-heeled boots, smiling broadly. “Remember, they can still be falling,” cautions Toby, “so don’t park under the falling rocks!” We move on as quickly as possible.

Yes, this can happen...

At work, one generator sputters to an unexpected death, the highway shuts down in the Carmel Highlands, the winds pick up, and after making our case to close down for the day we depart, buy some gas in the valley, grab a quick lunch and head back to the ridge.

We arrive to find a neighbor with earth-moving equipment tidying up a slide, and take sober note of the large, pointy rocks that have landed from above, now sitting by the side of the road.

The storm continues. 7.5 inches of rain in less than 3 days here on Partington, with 40-70 mph winds. 200,000+ people in Northern California without power. The fish in our pond may soon be swimming in the paddock.

Being Linda and Toby, what do we do on the second night of a big storm and power outage? We host a dinner party! Well, we had plans to do so anyway, a special Twelfth Night celebration. But barbecuing a large beef roast under a gazebo-style umbrella, washing dishes and chopping veggies by candlelight? Why not, if it means we can open a bottle (or two) of champagne and wish each other Happy New Year again?

The following morning it hails, and rumors begin to circulate on the mountain of no power until 3-4 days from now. This is a sure sign, naturally, that we’ll get power sometime very soon. By 1pm we're back on the grid. Sadly, I put away our heavy-duty Bell Systems rotary phone, whose ring tone takes me back to 1975 (with better sound and reception than our portable plastic one.)

I always feel a little nostalgia when power outages end. While it’s no fun when food spoils and you can’t do the laundry, there’s something profoundly soothing about living without the electronic stridulation of appliances. No humming, buzzing or ticking, just bucketfuls of raindrops, the hissing of the fire, wind moaning under the eaves.

Sometimes the storm sounds are gentle, other times wild. You can feel like you’re living underwater, or on a big ship on the ocean. When the storm stops, it’s as if we’ve been tossed ashore after a shipwreck. I open the door to my bedroom on a new, wet, world, glittering in the morning light.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Is he still wrong?

Charles Atlas fans, circa 1950, my Pop is the guy on the far right

This last December I made a long overdue visit to my Dad's house. When he opens the door I hug him and he feels smaller somehow. He stoops a tiny bit and when he bends over slightly I can see the top of his head. Life sure is full of surprises.

There's something about being in someone's home which is intimate and important. You experience another level of character when you see what someone has created for themselves to live in.

My Dad was kinda scary when I was growing up; who would know that living by himself in his late 70's he would buy the cutest little tree and decorate it, or that he would put up those sparkly icicle lights around the patio outside his apartment?

He still has the prints of dancing Balinese women in his study, with their perfectly circular breasts, beads, patterned dresses, stylized oriental arms and hands that embarrassed (and fascinated) me as a little girl. His library is full of books on sailing, physics, the stars.

After dinner, my Dad's longtime girlfriend pulls out a file of old photos that I've never seen before. My parents' marriage was turbulent, my father's life before our nuclear-in-every-sense family a taboo subject. At the dining room table I see a picture of a my Dad, impossibly young, smiling next to a beautiful dark-haired woman. With a tiny baby in his arms. My half-brother, Jon.

So where is this guy? Dad lost touch with him a long time ago. Jon grew up in Oregon, so maybe he's living in the Pacific Northwest somewhere. What does he do? No idea. Where did he go to school? Nyet. How old is he now? In his 50's. gives me 136 Jon Simons' across the country. A discounted (for the holidays?) rate of $2.95 will give me addresses. gives me a name and phone number in Bremerton, Washington. Perhaps I'll gather my courage and make that call.

I do have a vague memory of meeting him once, when I was about 3 or 4. I'd gone to the doctors, where they'd given me a pretty balloon. When I came home, Jonny popped it. Big disappointment.

Another picture brought tears to my eyes, how is it that I've never seen this one? My paternal grandmother, holding my dad in her arms. Dora Bell Bledsoe of Brock, Kentucky, who earned a Bachelor's degree in Education from the University of Kentucky, followed by a Masters degree from George Washington University in DC, in the 1930's. She met my grandfather while working as a secretary in San Francisco, had three children, and died of breast cancer at 49.

Dora Bell and Dad

What happened to American families in the 60's and 70's? Was it the diaspora of people coming to the West coast, to California? The divorce epidemic dovetailing with the all-American desire to break with the past, to re-invent oneself, to play down family history and all its sentimental, painful associations? I think in my family there was a dawning awareness of what later generations would call dysfunction. We evolved away from our frame of reference because it was the only healthy option available.

For much of human history, "family" has been such a big part of who we are as individuals. To not know one's family, or to have no real connection with those who are related to you, seems more of a modern, developed-world phenomenon. Maybe we are more "free" — to create, to be ourselves — when family bonds are weak. Or maybe, having lost our context, we are left to float on a sea of genetic material we can't begin to understand.

At breakfast the next morning (bacon, eggs, strong coffee and sliced grapefruit slathered with sugar) he looks at us and grins wickedly. "A man goes into a forest, and he's all alone, all by himself. He says something. Is he still wrong?"

Dad and girlfriend Linda. Thanks, Dad, for giving me the comic timing.