Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Armageddon cigarettes

I fell off the cigarette wagon on Wednesday, July 2, the day Big Sur went into mandatory evacuation. Yep, I'm a closet smoker, have been for years. I quit, with much ceremony, 6 months ago, saving that final butt in a Veuve Cliquot matchbox, tucked into my jewelry box.

But when the flames were coming down the mountains, I bought a pack of American Spirits (the good cigarettes) and proceeded to smoke like a fiend, air quality be damned. Then I gave away the pack, keeping a few in my glove box as my "Armageddon cigarettes," you know, the ones you smoke when the world is coming to an end, or your world is anyway.

If only it wasn't so bad for you. When I'm smoking it's usually just a couple a day, but there is no really sane justification for the act of inhaling tobacco. I began while a college student in Madrid, and so smoking reminds me of black coffee in cafés, train rides, and coyly asking the nearest attractive man for a light. "Tienes fuego?" "Do you have fire?"

Both my parents smoked when I was a kid, but quit. I succumbed to peer pressure because, hanging out in nightclubs and cafés in Spain I looked even more Californian /American as a non-smoker. I remember people proffering cigarettes from their packs like sticks of gum while standing around, drinking "copas." I had a lover who smoked "el tabaco negro." He was from Cataluña, and is probably dead now, or very sick, he smoked so damn much.

So, smoking recalls my mis-spent youth. I imagine it confers an erotic elegance to my persona, and is my comfort when the old hand to mouth thing kicks in when I'm sad or nervous. I should have kept sucking my thumb instead. Then there's that subversive urge to say, the hell with it, who wants to live a long time anyway? Old movies were also my downfall. Watching them now I marvel at the complete abandon the actors have in smoking (and drinking.) Lucky sods. Until they got old and had to breathe out of a tube.

In Japan, it seems the population's longevity adversely impacts the universal health care system. Hence, the amusing tobacco warning on packs there—"Please, try not to smoke too much." Long, lonely drives in my car were always a problem, the siren call of the cigarette louder than usual. Plus I have probably risked my life digging about in my purse (while driving) for a mint or a stick of gum immediately after smoking, to "cleanse my palate" so to speak.

I'm of the tobacco smoke screen school, using it to shut down feelings, and gather my thoughts instead. Like any addiction, it's being intimate with a habit instead of with myself or other human beings. Having a smoke is just so much damn easier than that.

Sometimes I take tiny cocktail straws, those itty bitty ones, and breathe through them, since someone once told me the experience mimics emphysema. OK, OK, so I'm quitting again, this is the point of this post, to really "grow up," bust myself on this nasty, secret habit and come clean for good.

Let's take a poll: Will I succeed this time? What will the last cigarette be like? Will I have a ritual and burn that last pack, or ask a friend (again) to store it in her kitchen drawer, 40 miles away from me? Will I lament losing my sense of immortality? Will I keep one or two hidden ones back, to enjoy without guilt when I find them weeks later? I've given up on my Birthday, and on New Year's many times over. I've pondered that last cigarette, infusing it with all kinds of meaning. I will remember everything in that moment. I'll be like the Indian (on the American Spirit package!) smoking my peace pipe one last time.

I'll tell you a secret: what works for me now is not concern for my lungs, but for the skin on my face. I love my face, and as I approach (finally) maturity (the half-century mark is looming) it is falling, just a bit. Smoking....get this...causes WRINKLES. This cannot be. I will fight crow's feet (which I can see) harder than polluted lungs (which I cannot.)

I smoked my last cigarette last night on Highway One, driving home after enjoying a cocktail with a girlfriend in Monterey. When I pulled over to heed nature's call (hey, it's something we Big Sur girls do discreetly outdoors, one of life's lesser known pleasures) I looked up to see something I haven't seen since before the fire: the glorious Milky Way. YES! The Moon and the Milky Way, the real reasons I live on this coast.

You know the problem with the "Armageddon cigarette" approach? I always smoke that damn last cigarette before Armageddon, which of course is always just around the corner. But I'm going to make a public commitment here, to really stop. So Mom, if you're reading this, that was my last cigarette at 10:30pm last night, driving over Bixby Bridge. For real.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Back in the Shire

We went on our "heart attack" hike this afternoon, so strenuous we always wonder if we'll make it to the top. Today it was kind of like bushwhacking through a big barbecue pit. Death Valley instead of Big Sur. The crematoria of the forest, full of silent, heavy energy. But tiny bits of green are popping through: ferns, bays and oaks. High up on the steep slopes the yuccas are coming back, white blooms like flags of surrender. Our boots slide through sand dunes of ash as we spot the few still smoldering trees off the trail. Predator scat and burnt carcasses are the only indicators of animal life.

There's something about loving the land right now that feels important. We are offering up our puny human love, our gratitude, to connect ourselves to it more deeply. I took a cat-nap in a friend's garden yesterday. Snapdragons amid a patch of grass, oddly surviving wooden bench overlooking the canyon and ocean below. The sun warmed my tummy and I longed to "ground" in that spot, for mutual healing, beloved soil mixed with a dash of my soul.

If you look carefully at our feet here on Partington, you'll find we have hair between our toes, we're Hobbits! We'd live in burrows with round doors if we could, coming out to tend our flowers, smoke our pipes, chit-chat and dance about under the stars. Nowadays we are busy here, gardening, organizing, re-modeling (I have a brand new kitchen, thanks to our friends and my industrious husband.) In between bouts of staggering work, we are drinking wine and laying about in the tall grass, breathing in the precious earth.

Sometimes I feel about 100 years old. When the air quality is poor it doesn't help. A sense of panic sets in when one can't take a deep breath. But those days are fewer now, and we're shifting our advocacy focus to the slides that are already beginning on the highway, and how to keep Big Sur from slumping into the sea this winter.

I want to say a special thank you to two men: John Knight, who gave me up to the minute, reassuring news on the fire on Partington when I was so fearful for the firefighters there, and Dave Egbert, communications man extraordinaire, who radioed Toby to take his Dad's regimental sword with him as he left the property. Here is a photo of the two of them, in calmer times.

We're taking it all a day at a time, hoping to keep having moments of that special contentment known only here. It's hard to concentrate, to be still. Tears come easily. Picture me, driving down the charred mountain, listening to Herb Alpert on my way to work (those goofy '60s Laugh-In tunes defy sadness of any kind.) That's the way to start the week!

Top of the Ridge
The Hobbit's kitchen
Sunset, dawn in the haze
John and Dave
Wounded forest

Photos by Toby and Linda Rowland-Jones

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Fire Gypsies Come Home

It's Sunday morning, I'm sitting in the blue chair, the wind chimes are tinkling in a gentle breeze. I awoke to lovely, wet fog, all night long it's damped down the smoldering trees above and below us. My dog is flopped happily in the tall grass, my tabby cat is meditating on the wooden table beside me, nope, there she goes, off the table to wander about again, so happy to be HOME.

How do you come home to a place you had consigned to flames? Very tentatively, heart opening slowly, not quite trusting, in a state of wonder. The simple joy of washing my hands at my own kitchen sink. Watering plants, pulling weeds. Hearing the hawks cry, the quail chitter in the bushes, watching the fog roll up the canyon. Everything is green around my house, but the ridges above us and the entire watershed south of us is black.

The forests of Partington Ridge are cleared of undergrowth, the ground covered in snowdrifts of ash. In some places only the redwoods, trunks charred to 20' or more, remain. Our house is surrounded by huge, and I mean huge, bulldozer lines, down and around, up to the water tank, into the greatly expanded paddock and meadow. One neighbor's skylight was splashed with fire retardant, giving the inside of her cabin a rose-colored hue. I've resisted using profanity in this blog, because it just works so much better in spoken rather than written form, but now, I think recent events merit this statement: Holy shit, we made it!

Firemen still show up from time to time, heavy trucks thumping down our entry road. They filled the pond with a fire hose two mornings ago, concerned about our koi. Earlier this week, a fire radio repeater appeared, a strange space age tower perched on the point. Last night the Sheriff waved me through on the Highway when I flashed my magic green piece of paper, my "resident's pass." From the thick of the fire-fight on this ridge, here is a brief movie, courtesy of professional firefighter Mike Hodges.

It's funny how suddenly fire is OK –at night we see constellations of orange stars in the forest, burning trees in already torched areas. This is good. On a more prosaic note, everyone marvels at how clean their refrigerators are, after a thorough scrubbing and throwing out of rotten food, just like new. The local "free box" is overflowing. "If I left it to burn, I don't need it," as one friend said. After three weeks of being a fire gypsy, schlepping clothes and belongings around, I marvel at how much crap I actually possess. Less really is more, a potent lesson deeply felt in these circumstances.

The weather conditions were so perfect for this fire: most important of all no wind, plus a marine layer of cool air hugging the coast for many days...almost like Mother Nature decided to do a nice, enormous controlled burn in the wilderness. This will only hurt a little, you can almost hear her say. Once again, Big Sur has come up smiling from devastation.

When our awareness is forever altered, when our sense of complacency and safety is destroyed, it's a ripe time for learning new things, for powerful creativity, for healing. From destruction comes creation, the eternal law. May it be so for all. We are all of us fire gypsies, floating with the flames.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

In the Eye of the Storm

"Sanctuary," Charles Laughton called out sonorously from the bell tower of the Notre Dame Cathedral, a rescued gypsy woman in his arms. This scene in the 1939 film, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, recalls to me our home-spun cathedral, sitting empty on Partington Ridge, the activity of each day turning peacefully around it. What does the light in my bedroom look like now? Do the fruit trees need watering? How are the koi in the pond faring? Is the young rooster crowing down below, released from his coop in the forest? Is the crystal hanging in the window splashing rainbows across the living room?

I am so lucky to be able to imagine know that our house still stands, the backburns below and to the south of the ridge seem to have worked (we have no official word, but are hoping). We're all so disoriented, still and quiet in the eye of our personal storms.

Manufactured psychodramas feel minor as we call for relief checks, apply for unemployment, figure out where to stay for these next few weeks (expected end of the Basin Complex fire is July 30.) Those with emergency tasks of a tactical or administrative nature are better off than those of us spinning in the un-burned world. Those hardy souls who have stayed in Big Sur are frustrated by insufficient response to structure protection, and now, shamefully, martial law: leave the borders of your property and the Monterey Sheriff will arrest you. IN FACT, THIS HAS HAPPENED, HOMEOWNERS ARE BEING ARRESTED AT GUNPOINT FOR DEFENDING THEIR HOMES. SO MUCH FOR SUPPORTING A COMMUNITY THAT IS UNDER SIEGE.

Back in Soquel, morning sunlight streams through the French doors of our friends' Zen-like vacation rental. Birds twitter overhead, traffic creates white noise. Today is my birthday, of all things. I can barely notice. There's a Cassandra element in this for me, as I lost my home in the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. I treasure that I have my pets with me (I lost them then) and I have the luxury of regretting silly things like not taking my nail kit when I packed up to leave the approaching fire (no chance to do that last time.)

My poor dog is so tired of getting in and out of the car, that yesterday he gave me this direct gaze, as if to say, "Are we going home now? Are we, huh?" It was a bittersweet relief to see the contentment evident in every hair of his furry body when we finally reached the beach– nose up, eyes closed, the fresh ocean breeze washing over him.

Refugee behavior? I've noticed that at this stage we sleep a lot, and take bits of contentment and savor them like sucking free candies. Everything is in relief. I see things I don't usually see, and feel everything more intensely: the curly starfish on an altar, the soft sand around my ankles on the beach, the large hazel, tear-filled eyes of my sweet neighbor, bunked down with me in Lisananda's Retreat Center (what we're calling our Good Samaritan, former Big Sur girl's lovely Seaside home).

We spent a night in another friend's Victorian home, feeling the weight of the draperies and evocative art on the walls cocooning us quietly for a few hours of solitude. We've drank champagne and raised toasts to Toby, to Big Sur, to friendship. We've soaked in a hot tub, been fed home-made tamales in a claw foot tub, been cuddled and loved. Toby rode the roller coaster on the Santa Cruz Boardwalk (not me.) For me, Life is a big scary ride, who needs the roller coaster? I rode the bumper cars instead, all of us laughing like the goofy little kids we really are.

All I can do is pray, that someday soon now, I will sleep in the moonlight again, back home on Partington Ridge.
Sign on our road
Kip at Christmas
Lisananda and I in happier times
Moonlit bed

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What it takes

"Often, when following the trail which meanders over the hills, I pull myself up in an effort to encompass the glory and the grandeur which envelops the whole horizon… It was always a wild, rocky coast, desolate and forbidding to the man of the pavements… Tough, young, geologically speaking the land has a hoary look. From the ocean depths there issued strange formations, contours unique and seductive. There are no rains or relics to speak of. No history worth recounting. What was not speaks more eloquently than what was. Here the redwoods made its last stand… At dawn its majesty is almost painful to behold. That same prehistoric look. The look of always. Nature smiling at herself in the mirror of eternity…Peace spreads its naked wings. Was it ever meant to be otherwise? It may indeed be the highest wisdom to elect to be a nobody in a relative paradise such as this rather than a celebrity in a world which has lost all sense of values.

Peace and solitude. I have had a taste of it, even here in America. Ah, these first days on Partington Ridge! On rising I would go to the cabin door and casting my eyes over the velvety rolling hills, such a feeling of contentment, such a feeling of gratitude was mine that instinctively my hand went up in benediction. I blessed men and women everywhere, no matter on which side of the fence they happened to be."

—Henry Miller, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch