Saturday, May 31, 2008

Sacred places in a small world

Two weeks ago, I stopped in to the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel to see the lovely and thought-provoking work of Mary Daniel Hobson. While there, I met a gentleman photographer who was discussing his exhibit, going up on Friday, May 30: Buddhist Earth: Sacred Places, Sacred Work.

The funny thing was, when I gave him my business card he did something people often do in my village when they learn my name—Oh, do you know Toby Rowland-Jones? Ah yes, my famous husband, Toby. Turns out that the photographer (and former oceanographer), Kenneth Parker, engaged in shenanigans with my husband (and thousands of other celebrants) at Burning Man several years back.

Ken Parker has this amazing job, the stuff of fantasies: he travels around the world, trekking and kayaking, photographing sacred spaces co-created by both humans and Mother Nature. Sometimes it's the Mother's hand alone that he gracefully exposes for us. All elements harmonize in his exquisite compositions, and his images etch themselves indelibly on your soul.

With boundless enthusiasm and a debonair smile, Ken loves both the work he does and the result: “When I see a look of sheer delight in someone who really appreciates and understands my work, I am satisfied in my core. I love that moment of understanding, transmitted cleanly and passionately. It’s a consummation of all that I do, given as a gift to another.”

He has mastered the subtle timing required to elicit intense color from the prayerful quality of perfect light. His technique is well suited to Tibet and Burma, where simply being among the temples, frescoes, and countryside inspire a meditative state. Ruth Bernhard, one of the last century’s greatest photographers, commented that, “The way in which he works with the light is simply inspiring. It feels as if he has an arrangement with God.”

My favorite part of the opening reception took place on the patio outside the gallery, where scores of people milled about, all in their finery. Three Tibetan monks, Dzogchen Masters from the Vajrayana Foundation, and their entourage, were there to bless the exhibit and talk a little about the frescoes. In their saffron and burgundy robes, small of stature, and smiling, they stand out in the crowd. Suddenly, I’m shy, but introduce myself to Lama Sonam Tsering. I try out his name a few times to get it right, and we grin sympathetically at each other. With that mystical happy presence monks have, I feel more seen by this man than by anyone else there. We could talk and smile together forever.

His home, the Pema Osel Ling Tibetan Center was recently threatened by the Summit Fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A few buildings were destroyed and they were all evacuated. The Saturday following the opening of Buddhist Earth, Ken arranged for them to spend the day at Esalen Institute, as visiting dignitaries in need of a rest. Sonam’s glass is empty, so I offer him some of the red wine in my plastic cup. Sure, he says, and smiles, but stops me from pouring too liberally. After shaking hands, and bowing slightly to each other, he goes inside to begin the ceremony.

The last time I'd chatted with a Tibetan monk was after a meditation session at a friend's home in Big Sur. As we enjoyed a delicious lunch together beside the pool, I asked him about the Buddhist concept of desire as something to be overcome. To me, desire is about pleasure and why should we let go of wanting pleasure? “Ahh,” he responded, “Pleasure is good. It’s fine to have pleasure, no problem. It’s when you desire your pleasures that you will have difficulty.” When I share this story with Ken and Dennis High, the upbeat, innovative curator of the Center for Photographic Art, they laugh, "Yes, we are all so busted on that one!"

Buddhist Earth runs at the Center for Photographic Art at Carmel’s Sunset Center through September 30. The Gallery is open Tuesday - Sunday from 1pm to 5pm. Prints of Ken’s photographs are available for sale at the nearby Weston Gallery. The exhibit in a way is a forerunner to his book, now five years in the making, about the Kingdom of Mustang (pronounced Moo-stang) and will show the Western world details of Tantric frescoes never seen before. Via the American Himalayan Foundation, the same Italian crew that worked on the Sistine Chapel has coordinated a massive, ten year temple mural restoration project, with teams of Tibetans and Nepalese removing centuries of yak butter soot from the frescoes with solvent and cotton-tipped swabs! The AMF is also working to preserve the centuries old Buddhist temples of Mustang themselves, crumbling from seismic events and advanced age.

On the edge of the Tibetan plateau, due north from Annapurna, the Kingdom of Mustang was a part of Tibet that the US-backed warriors of Tibet protected from Chinese occupation in the 1950's. Mustang, officially part of Nepal, juts into China; on a map one can clearly see the shape that is called “a thumb in the eye of the Chinese,” by many. China's brutality in Tibet has brought support for this culture to a new high, in part inspiring this exhibit. Independent Mustang was closed to the West until 1991, quietly following centuries of tradition unmolested by occupying forces, technology or modern commercialism. The Dalai Lama has praised the practice of Tibetan Buddhism there as the “best in the world.”

Not only that, but Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism, my personal inspiration for so much and whose presence I called upon as I began this blog, built the first Buddhist temple in Mustang.

Tashidelek (Tah-shee-delay, Peace) Ken. I'm sure the monks enjoyed their day at Esalen, celebrating the energy of another indigenous tribe, and soaking in the healing waters enjoyed by weary travelers for a millennia. Here, from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is the Padmasambhava mantra, ideal for "peace, healing, transformation and protection in this violent, chaotic age" :


Photos of Lama Sonam Tsering and Ken Parker by Toby Rowland-Jones

Monday, May 26, 2008

Painting at the Kitchen Table

Painter Celia Sanborn's garden echoes her exquisite landscapes: botanical details in the foreground, with swaths of forested canyons rolling down to the sea.

When she sat down to paint a hope chest for her niece 7 years ago, Celia had not taken an art class, or imagined she was starting a new chapter in her life. She simply bought the brushes and paints and began. Because she works in fast drying acrylic, this first effort caused frustration, and she almost stopped right there. But her husband Ray said, "No, no, don't stop. Let me sand it for you, and you can begin again." Finding her vision on that second attempt, Celia's new passion took her by surprise. She's created dozens of works since that day.

She began by painting chests, tables, benches and chairs. One day a friend who is a professional framer told her that what she'd put onto a table would be beautiful as a framed piece of art on a canvas. Though doubtful, she began, and we are the beneficiaries of the wonderful result! Celia's paintings take you deeply into them. The level of detail, painstakingly created, give them power. You are there under that tree, beside that flower, next to that sparkling wave.

For many of us not fortunate enough to be born in Big Sur, it's an image of the place that haunts us in the years before we emigrate here. A painting, poster or card depicting a little piece of paradise, soothing our souls before we realize, hey, I could live there. Then the real adventure begins!

For Celia, who has lived in Big Sur since she was a newborn, the landscape is her. This amazing life experience is now pouring out of her, with wondrous precision. She says she has something to express, but more than most artists, she is bringing forth a bountiful cornucopia of delight, of being in this land, savoring it, knowing it, loving it. You feel this when you look at her work, and that is the great, transcendent gift of her paintings.

Celia's parents, Selig and Helen Morgenrath, met during World War II in New England where Selig was working as a lumberjack in a conscientious objector camp. Helen, studying pacifism at Smith College, spotted him there on a field trip. They met again in New York City, married, and took up residence in Harlem, where they decided they needed to find a more rural place to live. They traveled across the country to Los Angeles, then, in 1949, went north, as Celia puts it, "Looking for trees." They found them in Big Sur.

The Morgenrath clan is famous here: builders, teachers, artists, firefighters, businesspeople. Selig Morgenrath built much of Esalen Institute, and Helen, now 82, still performs in Japanese Noh theater. Selig was born in a small village in Poland, where the men were weavers by trade. By all accounts, he was a genius, someone who could do anything simply by applying himself. Celia says she felt close to him when she began to spontaneously create, much as he did, sitting down at the kitchen table and simply beginning.

"My parents did what I feel parents should do: instead of only feeding and sheltering us, they were teachers." She learned about the natural world from them, and there were always materials in their home for art-making. Coming to her own fulfillment as an artist later in life, having worked as an innkeeper 6 days a week for 20 years at the Ripplewood Resort, as well as raising two boys, Celia is keenly aware of the psychological challenges of producing art.

Her process reminds me of the guidebook, Art and Fear, by David Bayles & Ted Orland, a slender tome which addresses the "perils and rewards of art-making." The uncertainty which assaults any artist is palpable, perhaps especially in a conscientious person like Celia. She bravely faces her self-doubts in exchange for her flashes of wonder. "My work is constantly evolving, and it's a mystery to me" she says, and in Art, like Life, you just have to fully embrace what is in order to gain satisfaction. Behind obstacles one finds treasures.

She weaves a tapestry in her paintings, each one taking copious amounts of time to complete. She paints the foreground on top of the background, so the tree covers the grassy hillside as in real life. The intimate scenes and dreamlike landscapes are reminiscent of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, while her meticulous, layered execution recalls the 19th century Neo-Impressionist painter Georges Seurat. Celia dreams of eventually creating a children's book showing scenes of traveling through a pristine Big Sur, before there were roads, buildings or people. Here I think of Islamic art, which allows no representation of humans, just glorious repeating patterns, which, as in the natural world, give a soothing feeling of connection and harmony.

In Big Sur, you can find Celia's paintings primarily at the Del Campo Gallery, but also at Local Color. She and her husband Ray plan to craft a web-site representing her work. The business name they've chosen? Surprise Canyon Studio.

Photos by Ray Sanborn and Linda Sonrisa

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Big Death in a Small Town

Mike Breen 1953 - 2008

I can’t believe I just wrote the line above, your name and those dates. Yet every day, every moment, it becomes more real. You spent nearly 30 years in Big Sur. During this time you loved and helped your neighbors, married your beloved, and built a business. You created your dream homes, one a three story redwood wine barrel nest in the cypress trees, the other a Hobbit-style magical cabin in the forest on Palo Colorado road. People said you had nine lives—rolling cars, crashing bikes, loving wildly. To die quickly while sitting on your couch last Sunday evening feels both ironic and appropriate. Just way, way, too soon, my friend.

You gleefully embraced your honorific, "Mr. Mike" when your young nephew christened you more than two decades ago. You were a life-long member of an underground organization I’ve observed for years: The International Brotherhood of Sexy Short Guys. Just a few inches taller than me, you packed a lot of dynamic, intelligent male energy into your physical being. Members of the IBSSG support each other in many ways, primarily through their mutual understanding. They have a secret handshake, and sometimes have more than a passing interest in a certain 18th century French politician.

We spent the past work-week in the emotionally pummeling process of preparing your Irish Wake, attended by a few hundred of your friends as well as your family, at the Post Ranch Inn. All those phone calls were worth it, bringing in some of your long lost comrades out of the hills. People told stories, laughed and cried. Your altar held your ashes, photos, candles, and red roses, with your boots, motorcycle “skidlet”, and Harley-Davidson leather jacket nearby. I added the x-rated fortune cookies I bought you in Chinatown last Monday.

We got word of your death
from a brain aneurysm via cell phone in a Chinese restaurant, adding to the surreal quality of the news. One of life's rogue waves, it took me under for several long moments, and I emerged into the fluorescent lights feeling like a gasping fish, about to be tossed into the cook-pot.

Your tribute was a real Irish Wake, Big Sur style. It began with the ringing of shamanic fairy bells in each of the four directions, (some of us heard erections, not directions, you must have been playing with us) included a powerful crooning rendition of Danny Boy, and a traditionally costumed bag-pipe player outside on the hill. At the end, we all sang Amazing Grace along with your talented niece, who reminded us of the song's appropriateness for your life, and for each of our lives as well.

Your beautiful wife Mary spoke eloquently and proudly of you, a miracle in itself since she’d spent the days after your sudden death in crippling grief. Fifteen years of love, learning, travels and joy. Mary had clearly passed through the initial fire of your loss, and dispensed advice, “Don’t wait to enjoy each other, to travel and be together, don’t wait!” and humor, quoting the words on a ceramic mug made especially for them: “Mr. Mike rides a bike. Mrs. Mike holds on tight.” Since we all get to experience profound loss in our lives, let’s be sure to have heaps of joy and love as well. It helps. So does a community ritual which sets the tone for healing. Facing grief with grace, if done from the heart, can put a positive spin on the whole process.

Mr. Mike, my Zen master of the workplace, your joy and kindness brightened my life for nearly a decade. Two weeks ago I admired you zipping down the hill in your asphalt gray Lotus Elise sports car, and driving home last night I burst into tears as a Harley motorcycle rider rounded a corner in the opposite lane. I teased you the last time I caught you washing your cherry red Harley, on company time.

I imagine I’ll keep expecting you to saunter past my office window at 9:10 each morning, that we’ll greet each other with our beginning-of-the-day hug, a prophylactic against the stress to come. How could I know that the last time you ticked me off at work would be the last time, ever? Your gentle face turning mulish, whether to get my goat or because you really had a point was always in question, you stinker. Even when powerfully annoyed, I would say, “Sheesh, Mr. Mike, it’s a good thing I love you!” And I did, so much.

It’s unbelievable to me that I don’t get to hug you again, or smile back into your twinkling hazel eyes. That I won’t see you read the paper in the sunshine, with your ginger cat Sasha in your lap, that you won't be building enormous boxes to ship art across the world, or hiding any more plastic snakes in my office…

Now, when we laugh together, I will see you only in my imagination. But I choose to believe that my dream of you is you, too. I’m so very, very glad I told you that I loved you, Mr. Mike. Your smiling Irish eyes are still with me, and with us all.

Somewhere out there
Is a workshop that needs some help
It’s dusty and messy
And nothing is right or in the right place
It’s beyond the help of mere mortal men
Who on earth could make it clean?
Don’t panic, don’t worry – it’ll be under control
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There’s a house half-built
Timbers all strewn about
And no one knows what’s what
Beams and girders, joists, brackets
Pipes, lagbolts, and tiles
All in a hellbent pile.
Hey don’t worry
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
They’re shaking their heads
How in the hell do I do this?
How does that fit into that?
What’s the thingy called to make this work?
Tempers are lost, things are thrown
Look, don’t worry
Mr. Mike is on his way

Somewhere out there
There’s a fleet of old Harleys
And beat up flatbed trucks
Sports cars that need some work
Idles to be checked
Plugs to be yanked.
But fear not
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
Someone needs some help
They need a guiding hand
Or perhaps just a good friend
Maybe they need some advice
Without being told what to do
With his knowledge and loving care
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There are gathered some folks
Irish and other eyes are smiling
Laughter abounds and love resounds
Though there’s something that’s missing
Or was until now
Haven’t you heard?
Mr. Mike is on the way

Somewhere out there
There’s a door that’s opened
Shouts of joy spill out
And right in the middle
Surrounded by new friends
And being himself, what else?
Why did you ever worry?
Mr. Mike is now here.

—Toby Rowland-Jones

Photos: Breen family collection.
Photo of Mike in Bushmills hat by Linda Sonrisa

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

I'm a Fan

Yes, I'm a Fan. Of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in San Francisco. We country mice do know how to live a little bit high on the hog, especially when we are celebrating our 12th wedding anniversary, and have a friend in the swanky hotel business.

My surprise began in the elevator, when Toby blindfolded me with my scarf as we zoomed up to the 43rd floor. I stepped carefully behind him down the hall, where the bellman opened the door for us and I felt the warm sun coming through the window at the edge of the room. Voilá! The scarf withdrawn I open my eyes to see the top of the Transamerica Pyramid glowing back at me, close enough to almost touch.

What to do first? I have one primary ritual for hotel rooms, which began in childhood: I jump on the bed. Though this time, following a long drive down from a birthday party at Orr Hot Springs in Mendocino, and after a few visits to Alexander Valley wineries, my jump was more of a bouncy roll across the 10,000 thread sheets.

The sheets are divine! So silky in feel they’re like cool liquid against my skin. My toes had tiny orgasms, my ankles had bigger ones, as I circled my feet in the depths of the bed.

We had dinner plans at Jardiniere, so took a quick tub that evening in the bathroom with the skyscraper view. We enjoyed another bath in the morning, complete with binoculars to take a closer look at the city’s mile-high architecture, freighters coming into port (the Maple Empress arrived early on our morning) and itty-bitty bird-life.

Thank you to General Manager Sal Abaunza, our dapper friend in the biz, who so kindly arranged our room for us. For years he ran the lovely, rustic, Ventana Inn and Spa, and we connected over our love of fine wines, old movies, and small-town community. We invited him to stay with his wife at our home, to sleep under the stars and watch the Milky Way move across the heavens.

Photos by Toby Rowland-Jones & Linda Sonrisa.
Ridge Geyserville wine Sal's thank you gift from us.