Sunday, June 29, 2008

Report from the front lines

As I write this on early Sunday afternoon, Kip sits beside me in the corner booth at Fernwood (which has Wi-Fi, bless them.) I've just seen an enormous plume of smoke above Mt. Manuel, behind Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Palo Colorado Road is under voluntary evacuation. What follows are a few thoughts, and some pictures (courtesy of fire-fighter, pig-rescuer, and intrepid photographer Toby Rowland-Jones.)

I have seen no better depiction of Mama Big Sur, ever. Here she is, yoni open, streaming her charge into the ocean, intent on her healing work. Purify the forest, blast the mountains, give us all a big, beautiful shock. Swirling blue ripples of energy, out and around and down into our core. From her soul, her center, to ours.

Empress Sula’s polarization— energetic charge and wild destruction combined in one perfect storm. And it is Sula who encourages me to make a run for it down to my house from the Big Sur Valley, coaching me how to talk my way past the sheriff’s roadblock. “Don’t be afraid, be clear and strong. And don’t be coquettish,” she admonishes. I tell the cop the truth: “My husband is fighting the fire on Partington Ridge. I’m going up to get my dogs and get out.” He says, simply, “OK” and waves me on. Shit, now I’m in for it, I think.

Rocks fall as I drive beyond Grimes Point, where the sheer rock face was dynamited to make the highway so many decades ago. Burning stones come tumbling down, loosened by roots that have released their grip, seared away after years of holding the cliff together.

Up at the house I make a mad dash for those few things I’ve thought about (wedding dress, extra photo books, laptop) and those things guaranteed to comfort me when I’m away (fluffy bathrobe, lingerie, love letters.) I work fast, and have time in that 90 minute window to say my prayers to Quan Yin, gazing peacefully over the pond and smiling dreamily by the bathtub. “Save this house, Great Mother, and I promise to believe, always, in Love.” Which I will do anyway, I realize, as the words leave my lips.

Cold beer in hand, I collapse briefly in the blue Adirondack chair, looking down the green swale of the lawn to the sea. A breath, a sip, a moment. Then I hear the forest service trucks and Toby arriving. With another handful of belongings I head towards my car, grabbing the SF Giants baseball cap on the way out the door. I hold it up to show Toby as he comes down the path in his “yellows”, the fire-fighter’s uniform, “Go Giants!” I deadpan, ashes falling around us. I get a brilliant smile from him instead of a scowl, since I am up here against his explicit orders.

I remember 89 year old Bob Nash responding to Toby calling us up to come watch the sunset, “Orders from Headquarters” he said. This makes me chuckle inside on this incredibly tense afternoon. Bob, the cosmic linchpin, who lived on this property for 35 years and was never touched this closely by fire. He held it all in balance with his mystical power.

Silver lining so far: Time spent with neighbors, over meals, wine and games. Conversations about what we treasure and fear, enthusiastic willingness, shared peaceful moments, laughter over the prosaic, embraces that comfort grief, this is what it's all about: authentic community, being in the inescapable moment, together.

How else would I know how my friends make their coffee in the morning? How they play cards with their son, how they cook turkey and gently sweep crumbs off the dining table? How they like a nip of scotch in a crystal tumbler or perhaps a glass of wine while knitting socks? The things we discover when we spend time together, time living, not time entertaining, but being. These are windows into who we are, an intimacy which is priceless to me.

Driving down Partington Ridge that Sunday evening, I see the unspeakable: three giant ridges, Graves, Castro and Grimes, on fire. Huge banners of smoke trailing out from each mountain, like three volcanoes in a row. The air thick, heavy with smoke, the sky gray, tinged with pink. The ocean slate blue, reflecting this nightmare that is not a dream.

"Welcome back to the fight." says Captain Renault to Rick in the final moments of Casablanca, "This time, I know we'll win." There is no greater love than to put your life on the line for a person, a cause, a place. Here all three converge: a community of souls that are spiritually fed by reverence for this land. Hiraeth, the Welsh call it, a longing for the land.

Next: Rebuilding the Shire...

Friday, June 27, 2008

Blogging from Fernwood

Well, we always heard it's not "if", it's "when" and boy has that come true, with a vengeance.

Lightning on Summer Solstice Saturday afternoon, June 21, sparked a fire that is Big Sur's worst in a 100 years. I'm sitting in Fernwood's lounge, drinking a beer, feeling like I'm sitting at the airport. Today I trucked another load of "one-of-a-kind" stuff to our friend's house in Seaside, my wedding dress and dozens of old books, belly dance gear, paintings and sculptures.

Talk about a roller-coaster the past week: going from all is lost and collapsing in very public tears, to dreaming that maybe we'll be all right, to obsessing about what the hell I should have grabbed and didn't Sunday afternoon.

Toby has yet to "light," i.e. be still for more than a few minutes, other than to sleep, in a week. He and several other renegade Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade members are wildcatting up on the ridge: even though the BSVFB has stood down for the fire due to US Forest Service involvement, these local residents are using their skills to assist the USFS strike teams in structure protection. They're putting out spot-fires, cutting lines around homes with weed-whackers and chainsaws, all day long in the smoke and flames. The goal: to drive the fire away from homes and back up into the wilderness, for good.

The forest service guys are doing backburns along Partington Ridge Road. The fire has now moved into the Partington Canyon to the south. We've lost two homes, Empress Sula's and the gracious Hopkins homestead, built in the 50's.

The good news: as of today our house still stands. At 6:30 am on Tuesday morning I called the BSVFB dispatch, to learn that they'd lost the battle for the house above us on our ridge. The USFS engine was leaving, and Toby was staying, to go down with the ship.

Panicked, I had them give him this message on the radio: Toby, get your Dad's sword and leave the property. Colonel Bones Rowland-Jones' regimental sword from the British Army would be important to him. Later they confirmed that he was safe. In my mind's eye I saw him springing off the mountain, flames all around him, sword in his upraised arm, eyes blazing as he flies directly to me!

The Basin Complex Fire is moving north, south and east. The folks who hosted us in the Big Sur Valley the past week are now packing their home up to leave. We have 793 firefighters, we need a few thousand.

More's not over yet, and there is a silver lining...

For updates, check out these sites:,

Coastlands view, 6/27/08
A nice, wet day on Partington

Monday, June 16, 2008

Birds gotta sing...

This year, tossing out my usual esoteric New Year's resolutions, I chose one of my fantasies instead: a singing lesson.

During my session with Monterey's flamboyant voice coach Linda Purdy, I realized that, like any other art form, singing means learning how to do new, strange things, followed by practice, practice, practice. That omnipresent formula: Hard Work = Transformation. I think I was secretly hoping for her to just hand me a microphone and I'd be off to the Grammys...

For the past few months, I've been repeating my vocal exercises like a good dilettante. Mostly, I drive up and down Highway One dropping my jaw, relaxing my tongue and making funny sounds.
I'm a grown woman (more or less), who's paid someone to teach her how to "motor-boat." Songstress Rebecca Sayre helped me out with this skill, revealing the mystery of how kids make those silly, explosive sounds. Having spent my childhood cringing at campfire sing-alongs, I'm still working up the nerve to sing in the shower.

My renewed interest in singing began last year, when life threw me a curve-ball. I began to hear a particular Linda Rondstadt song in my head, found it on CD, and began belting it out with her in the sanctuary of my moving car. Somehow it made me feel better. Guess that's where the Blues come from: sinking down so low you
have to make some kind of soothing sound, and in the process you resurface among the world of the living.

My new, Big Sur singing mentor,
Lisa Goettel, daughter of opera singer, Karla Goettel, says "When I was little I used to just walk around singing everything. My life was an ongoing opera - a constant, sung narration of my experience. When I do this now it has a pretty cool effect: a) it brings more awareness to me about what I'm doing - my relation to the present moment, and b) it lightens everything. It's kind of hard to take the propane bill so seriously when you're singing about it."

Lisa adds, "Singing raises endorphins in the body, and like yoga, helps move stagnant energies, oxygenates the blood and supports a healthy immune system. Plus it's primal: through breath we find our individual resonance, an intimate reminder of our connection to everything." She points out there's a whole field that addresses this phenomenon: You can get in touch with the gestalt of your voice at Esalen. Diane Austin, executive director of the Music Psychotherapy Center in New York says, "Nothing accesses the inner world of feelings, sensations, memories, and associations as directly as music does."

Singing along in Spanish is great fun, because of all the open, warm, round vowel sounds. Silvio Rodriguez, of Cuba, and Chavela Vargas, of Mexico, are my current favorites. Silvio sings pure poetry in his socialist ballads, while Chavela growls passionately about love and loss. To me, their music conveys the essential drama of Life: the search for justice, fulfillment, and peace of mind, pouring forth in full, lusty notes.

Then there's those melancholy, yet uplifting lullabies, this one perfect for the season. Sing along with our girl Janis...
Summertime, and the living is easy
Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high
Your daddy's rich, and your ma is good looking
So hush little baby, don't you cry.
One of these mornings, you're gonna rise up singing
You're gonna spread your wings and take the sky
But till that morning, there is nothing can harm you
With your daddy and mommy standing by

Photo: the young Chavela Vargas
Lullaby by George Gershwin

Sunday, June 8, 2008

A Day Off

"Anything's better than wages," said Montgomery Clift's character in The Misfits, but for some of us wages are our fate. Working in the arts means that I count myself lucky to be part of the 9-5 in a thriving business. However, there's nothing quite like that wonderful tingly feeling in my tummy and toes as the day before a day OFF draws to a close: Anticipation! A day of FREEDOM.

It's kind of like when you're a kid and school lets out for summer, although in this case it's just 8 hours of respite from the office, the phone, problem-solving and acquitting myself of responsibilities that primarily benefit my employer. That slightly seditious feeling of telling other worker bees, "Well, I won't be in the office tomorrow, so...tough it out without me." Adolescent rebellion or the eternal yearning of the proletariat, to realize that promise to "breathe free" ? Either way, an extra day of rest (or play) is good for the soul.

My loving husband is doing my car stuff on the magical day, so I won't be spending it running bloody errands, hooray! I hate doing car stuff, and once dreamed that being a married lady meant no more trips to the auto shop, those greasy pits of hell. The only scenario that works for me with mechanics is the hunky guy in the navy blue jumper, with the downcast, lascivious eyes. I don't run into him too often...and of course, he's usually married, like me! Oh well, a girl can dream.

A Day Off needs to begin, as all proper Big Sur Days Off begin, with a big, fat Gold Coast Margarita at Neptune's the evening beforehand. Don't forget to enjoy the deliciously guilty French fries (just a half basket, please) and of course the "view that changed my life" as many refer to the south coast vista from Nepenthe. Follow this with a dash down to Esalen for a soak and the sunset. I even did a little impromptu victory dance in the solarium at Esalen, post soak.

Then there's the thrill of sharing Big Sur with someone new, of experiencing a fresh viewpoint vicariously, but powerfully. My new friend and guest for the day, Linda Rosewood, is a writer, which makes our time together extra rich. I'm reading her work with delight, especially her short story about (what else?) pregnant teenage lesbians. Our plan was to hike, drink French champagne, and read to each other. We did all three and more, visiting gifted painter Sarah Healey and having a cup of tea with her in her garden.

Highlights of the day: laughing so hard I spit up my champagne, the feel of my silk robe as I sauntered about outdoors in the morning light, reading Kipling's Just So Stories out loud, and watching my new friend's eyes fill with tears as she watched a golden crescent moon (just like Artemis' bow) sink gently into the ocean.
Photos: Rowland-Jones collection