Sunday, December 20, 2009

Holiday Shrubbery

I follow Toby up the path on the side of the hill, turning to look at the panoramic view below and beyond to the gray, winter-day ocean. “Did you know this path used to be the Old Partington Road?” he reminds me. “Yep,” I reply automatically, as I watch our scruffy black and white dog, the neighbor’s chihuaha, and our orange kitten scamper up the hill beside us. The kitten is really scampering, hopping ahead, his fluffy tail waving proudly behind him.

Forgoing the $50 tree from the lot in town this holiday, we’re doing what we’ve said we’ll do for years: chain-sawing a non-native pine tree (well, bush, really) and taking it back down the hill to our living room. Christmas really begins with decorating the tree. Breaking into the box of last year’s goodies stored on a shelf, unwinding the strings of lights, seeing which of the ornaments have broken, or are just too terribly corny to use again.

The beautiful ones emerge to our delight from tissue and we remember, Oh yes, this is the tiny crystal globe that Margaret painted, with our dogs Kip and Mina looking at the Big Sur stars. Oh, here’s the blown glass Amanita mushroom! And the vermeil oak leaf from our trip to Yosemite a decade ago.

It’s our wild kitten Cricket's first Christmas, so the crinkly paper and shiny, sparkly, dangly things emerging from the holiday box are pounced on and purred over. The leaves are falling outside like snowflakes, and suddenly I see in my mind’s eye a 12 point buck walk past my bedroom window, but no, that was a winter day in the Oakland hills, almost 20 years ago.

The tide of the end of the year (and this time, of the first decade of our 21st century) draws us to contemplation, and a bittersweet sense of Time. The current we want to flow with, not getting stuck (for too long!) in the swirling eddies of life.

This morning I wrapped stocking gifts while listening to bluesy Christmas songs. Funny how so many of them are about Santa bringing “my baby” down the chimney, of rewarding good girls, of all I want is L-O-V-E for the holidays. As Ray Charles sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer I wonder, where did that red nose come from, again?

Since our home is more Pagan than Christian, we celebrate the ending of the year with deep breaths, kindness, winter naps, and the baking of many mincemeat pies. Then, a theme party with friends on the 25th—Champagne at sunset, good food, warm fires, dancing and laughter.

One year we wore 70’s outfits and danced to disco music late into the night, hanging mirrored balls on the tree. Another season was Spanish Christmas, with shawls, mantillas and our neighbor Jay in his running of the bulls costume from Pamplona. There was the Mad Hatter party, when we wore silly hats, drank lots of tea from mis-matched cups and changed places around the table during our feast. This time, it’s YO HO HO, a Pirate Christmas, with buckets of flaming rum punch…

After this year, and the end of a somewhat disastrous decade for the world, we all deserve a little Joy. While we’re at it, let’s hope and work for Peace on Earth—which, as Santa will tell you, begins at home, in our hearts.
Photos from Rowland-Jones' family archive

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hibernating with Rumi

I always know when I'm about to get sick: I start envisioning a nap (a long winter's nap, as the famous holiday poem goes.) This time it came on like a wave: chills, aches and tummy unease, dizziness and exhaustion. Boom! Instant winter cold.

Because we go inward at this time of year (conserving our energy to survive the elements, to renew our strength for the year to come) questions of contentment and belonging surface. Where are we happiest? Who makes up our community? (Even Mary and Joseph were looking for that as they traveled to their home town for the census. Remember they were told there was no room at the inn, perhaps the first documented case of holiday angst.)

Early Winter is a time when we should be hibernating, but instead we find ourselves going into a kind of surreal hyper-drive with the demands of the season. We cope with the stress of family expectations and excessive socializing by over-indulging ourselves, to top it off with dancing on tables at the office Christmas party. Oh, right, we should save that for New Year's Eve. The whole thing, while certainly enjoyable, strikes me as a massive, culture-wide anniversary reaction: each year is a touchstone, recalling all the holiday seasons of the past.

A day at home, sick with a tummy bug, gives me me the unexpected peace of slowing down, of stopping. Surrendering to the land beneath the covers, slipping into the quiet depths of the sheets, finally stilling my busy mind as I try to give comfort to my body. Sipping peppermint tea with a mindfulness I rarely experience when I'm in full swing, reading until I surrender to the aches and slumber deeply, all day and into the night. Guilt-free enjoyment of total sloth.

Other things comfort me in these times too: my cat sprawled at the end of the bed, absorbing the heat from the wood-burning stove nearby, the neighbor's little dog looking up at me demurely from the sheepskin near the altar, my dog running up to the bedroom door, ears flapping and tail spinning, happy to come inside for a bit of bacon. Practicing the simplest of domestic arts: tending the home fires with the wood dutifully chopped (and hauled, and split, and stacked) by my husband.

After hours of delicious hibernation, medicated with pain pills and drinking lots of water, I emerge to another level of consciousness, which in my case, is always aided by a dose of Rumi's poetry. Something about being slightly broken lends itself to letting his words flow into my soul with a new, fuller understanding—

There's a path from me to you
I'm constantly looking for,
so I try to keep clear and still
as water does with the moon.

Longing is the core of mystery.
Longing itself brings the cure.
The only rule is: Suffer the pain.

Each moment you call me to you
and ask how I am, even though you know.
The love I answer you with

stirs like wind through cypress.

Your presence is a river

that refreshes everyone,
a rose-garden fragrance.

Don't worry about making doorways

between individual lovers when

this flow is so all around.

Some souls flow like clear water.

They pour into our veins
and feel like wine.
I give in to that. I fall flat.

We can sail this boat lying down!

Humble living does not diminish. It fills.

Going back to a simple self gives wisdom.
When a man makes up a story for his child,

he becomes a father and a child

together, listening.

You don't win here with loud publicity.

Union comes of not being.

These birds do not learn to fly,

until they lose all their feathers.

Rumi's words are from Say I Am You, the John Moyne, Coleman Barks translation.
Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Ratatouille on the Roof

My eyes opened wide when I looked out the office window that morning: 48' of billboard plastic spread across the front lawn. Going outside, I see three cartoon characters bigger than myself in action, the skyline of Paris behind them. One, a mouse, well, OK, an enormous RAT, wields a huge soup spoon, while the other two, a boy and a girl in chef's uniforms, gaze at each other with goofy smiles.

Whoa, this is going on our roof? Can we put it face up so the low-flying planes and helicopters looking for ganja plantations can spot a bit of Hollywood á la Pixar razzle-dazzle here on top of the mountain? Sadly, the top secret agreement via our friend and the billboard supplier, is no, all that happy color must go face down, onto the shingles, no longer serving as advertising, but keeping us from using our pots and pans to gather rain-water indoors during the Big Sur winter.

Over coffee, we discuss the placement of the three heavy duty billboard tarps, which should last us 3-5 years, so our roof-tarping work parties will no longer be an annual event. Pity. The plan is to divide the roof in thirds, draping each sheet over the tippy top of the roof, like strips of wide pasta over and down, tucking them up under the eaves. Voilá, a leak-proof home! Now we sleep under the roofs of Paris, which will doubtless inspire our dinner parties and our dreams.

So far so good with our new roof, with tempest winds last night rattling the redwood strips (that help hold the tarps in place) just a little. Since I have a touch of vertigo, I was exempt from the actual labor (thanks to neighbors Aengus, Bill and John on that one) but did manage to climb the ladder this morning (had only a minor fainting spell afterwards) to take this snap of our neatly finished "Ratatouille Roof."
And here's the best part: we saved the billboard section featuring rat and spoon for use as a water slide at our next Easter Party...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A dream fulfilled

Last weekend marked the launch of the Big Sur Food and Wine Festival, brainchild of Toby Rowland-Jones, led to exquisite fulfillment by a local team of gifted and passionate food and wine professionals.

That's Rosalia Byrne, Matt Peterson, Toby, Aengus Wagner, Alicia Hahn and Adam Olthof, all happy as clams after their amazingly successful event. The weekend popped with sheer joy: Big Sur wore her warm, sparkling fall light, splashed across the mountains and ocean. Everyone present glowed with the pleasure that comes from good food, wine and communion with friends in a beautiful place.

Crafted as a fund-raiser for the Big Sur community last January, when we all wondered if a) the road would hold during winter storms and b) the economy would keep folks properly employed, the BSFWF brought together Central Coast winemakers, their many fans, generous business sponsors and a crew of indomitable volunteers.

Over the past year, I've discreetly observed these volunteers grow into themselves in new ways. Their strategic planning and communication skills soared, plus they managed to drink excellent wine at all their meetings, definitely an organizational plus. After the Saturday night auction at Ventana Inn, Rosalia and Alicia treated the crowd to a fire dance, Big Sur style.

While stress levels reached the stratosphere in the weeks right before the festival, in the end, everything worked beautifully: people dined in a variety of locales, experiencing the culinary richness and romance found here.

Under the 501c3 umbrella of the Big Sur Arts Initiative, funds were raised for community non-profits such as the Volunteer Fire Brigade and the Health Center, as well as for a culinary institute scholarship for local youth.

Last Sunday afternoon amid laughter and some tears, several of the planning committee members met beneath the small oak tree on the point that we call the "wedding tree". Here they re-affirmed their commitment to giving to their community in the way they know best: loving people by leading them in feasts and celebrations of the grape.

The Algerian singer Idir, from the Berber tradition of Kabylia, says this in his lyrics, "Sing, dance and make merry. This is the only time when God joins us here on earth. Offer up a plate of couscous, and put aside your problems. On with the music!" Please plan to join us at next year's Big Sur Food and Wine Festival, when we’ll call down the gods to play with us again on November 5, 6, and 7, 2010.

Group photo by Linda Sonrisa
Sunset group photo "Victory" by Rosie Kenworthy

Friday, October 23, 2009

Back to school

I've been a taciturn blogger this Fall, but I have an excuse: I'm studying, studying, studying, getting my mid-life brain into shape. My flabby neurons are huffing and puffing, jumping over synaptic paths long faded from disuse. I'm memorizing business practices, concepts and laws and re-acquainting myself with the horrors of formulas and charts. It's shocking to face the enormous mental challenge of actually remembering stuff after decades of living in the attention-span eroding school of hard knocks.

The subject: Human Resources Management. The setting: Brandman University in Monterey. The goal: Initials after my name! PHR. Professional in Human Resources. (I know there's some humor to be mined in that acronym.) The 4 hour, 225 multiple choice test is now just two months away. When stacked up in a neat (and terrifying) pile, the course materials measure 6 inches deep. I've befriended the campus coffee shop queen, Yvonne, at Cafe 316. I'm a regular, and she makes a killer double latté, with whipped cream of course.

I take comfort from what a fellow mature student shared with me after a mildly disastrous test, "Well, at least I'm learning!" There is the desire, as a colleague of mine has said, to simply "do it all with my heart" v. painstakingly reading and re-reading, creating flashcards, taking tests. Oh yeah, and did I mention, reading glasses? Let's not and say we did, please.

This morning we rang long-silent bells at Deetjen's Inn, where I'm known affectionately as "Ms. HR." ("Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings" says Zuzu in that masterpiece of Capra-corn, "It's a Wonderful Life.") We made a crown from the beautifully shaped vine cut out of the center of one of the bells, the beginning of a Halloween costume. The people at Deetjen's move my heart, every day. Yes, this is my chosen professional path, and I want to understand it completely, bringing all my wisdom to bear to make the experience of work (that four letter word) as fun, empowering and rewarding as possible.

As you might imagine, there's inertia lurking in the Big Sur landscape, as well as the powerful tranquility we wax poetic over. I remember a visitor who contributed nothing to the party, except his transfixed pose, seated on the grass, watching the ocean, all day long, all weekend. The bugaboo of procrastination stalks me every day now, as I try to move beyond the flight path of the normal working adult, and re-grow study habits.

My kitchen is cleaner, my closets more organized, fresh linens and clean laundry suddenly have a higher priority. I'm drawn away from my desk (which faces a wall) quite often by the compelling quality of light in the afternoon, the need to take a cat-nap, or make a snack. Yes, I'll take butter on that English muffin, then the peanut butter, please. Watching my kitten and our neighbor's chihuahua chase each other on the lawn is a passion.

But by far the best procrastination-excuse of all is blogging about studying v. actually hitting the books! "The way to start work is to start work," says James Tyrone Sr. in Eugene O'Neill's play, Long Day's Journey into Night. And so off I go.

Room photo courtesy of Deetjen's Inn
"The Chase" by Linda Sonrisa

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Painting the Fire

There’s a reason why, “At the top of the world” is also an expression referring to one’s state of mind. On the way to Branham Rendlen’s home last weekend, I remembered this. I felt clearer up there, happier. The healing power of the earth is more palpable when you experience her grander vistas, the ones that give you immense perspective.

This past year as we have healed from the Basin Complex Fire has been all about perspective. From shock and destruction has come new growth and beauty. We learn to believe, again, that happy endings are possible. "The fire," Branham says, "has become a story of watching destruction create healing, both in the land and in our community.

Painter Branham Rendlen lives at the tippy top of Castro Canyon, on the Old Coast Road, with a view of the Santa Lucia mountains that is out of this world. Last summer, her home was in the war zone longer and more perilously than most. During our visit she points out to me a small singed oak tree, about twenty feet from her front door. Without her husband on hand to put that fire out, all would have been lost.

It took her months to venture back outside to paint the post-fire lunar landscape as it began to come back, and you can see some of those results at her online gallery, as well as at the Del Campo Gallery here in town. This is the third time she's felt fire so close: there was the '96 fire and the '99 fire as well. During the '99 fire she actually painted it plein aire style, setting up her easel on the road above her house, looking southwest into the back country.

She also contributed to "Recovered and Renewed — A Year Later” (which can now be viewed online) a unique show presented by the Big Sur Health Center and the Ventana Inn and Spa, showcasing the work of thirty Big Sur Artists, each having created a piece that reflects the surge of fire-inspired creativity. A founder of Monterey Bay Plein Aire Painter's Association (MBPAPA) she reminds me that they currently have a show at the Pacific Grove Art Center.

Branham has been drawing and painting her whole life, beginning by taking art classes with her mother at age 6. She has a Masters degree in printmaking from the University of Kansas, and received support for her creative development all along. She works now primarily in oil. She paints landscapes, and imaginative works like her Condor and Hummingbirds series, going where the artistic flow leads her.

A soft-spoken shaman, her message is simple and hugely powerful: Art heals. It heals individuals, and in doing so, heals us all. The brain-wave state of the creative mind opens the psyche. Using music or meditation to get to this place can help. She shows me Dr. Michael Samuels' book Creative Healing, which features her artwork.

"For some reason, making things heals people," she says, "Writing, music, painting, cooking, whatever, we can use that energy inside us to be either destructive or constructive, depending on how we choose to be with our feelings. Art can also raise consciousness individually and collectively, by bringing people joy and peace." To quote Dr. Samuels, "The moment you see your spirit is the moment your heart opens. When you glimpse your spirit you gasp and cry, you feel emotion, you know who you are. That is the moment you begin to heal."

Branham came to Big Sur in 1986 with a few dear girlfriends, and began to make her life here. It's one of those Big Sur stories where she was handed a job and place to live, boom. The doors opened and she couldn't say no, letting go of her vision of herself as an art school professor. We laugh at the notion that, as she predicted, she met a guy, fell in love and stayed. "It was the land that grabbed me," she said. "I'd lived in rural Kansas and grew up in rural Missouri, so I knew country. But this was something new, something deeper, for me."

As we conclude our coffee, cookies and conversation, we talk a little bit more about art and healing. “Through the artwork, I have come to understand myself as a part of this energy that heals, that is creativity and love (which I hope doesn't sound pompous)" she adds with a quiet laugh. "Basically, people are hungry for soul," she says, and Big Sur is the essence of soul in the land."

Paintings by Branham Rendlen:
Condors Configuration with Fire, 36" X 34"
Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Reading poetry on Mother Nature's lap

There's something about living here: waking up on a Sunday morning and rolling out of bed, standing in the wet grass, peering through binoculars at hundreds of dolphins in the ocean below us. Yes! As they swirl around, feeding, perhaps dancing, one or two jump above the waves, way up high, their silver bellies sparkling in the morning light. Worth the price of admission, as they say.

Big Sur is the stuff of raw poetry. These Indian Summer nights, crickets, and star-light on the sea, simply fill my soul. A friend from New Jersey once told me, complete with his salt-of-the-earth regional accent, "Here, God is knocking at your door, saying Hello." (Emphasis on the first syllable.) The Divine is with always with us, every time we stop, look around, and let it all sink in.

As my friend viticulturist Lane Tanner says, Big Sur is a huge negative ion bath, which is why, if we let ourselves be, we're just naturally more happy here. A few deep breaths of good clean air, and presence comes flowing in. Yesterday I took one of these baths, watching little birds taking turns at my bird-feeder. One of them lands in the elm tree overhead, and as I watch it fluff its tiny feathers, getting a firmer grip on the branch, I remember seeing a mighty hawk balancing on a power line. This elegant creature transformed for a moment into an old man in his bathrobe, hunched forward, talons splayed out like skinny legs. Nature can be comical, too.

Years ago, I bought a copy of the Tao te Ching. A pretty book for my shelf, intriguing, and unintelligible. Then, my house burned down in the Oakland Hills Fire of 1991. The first book I replaced was this one, from a spiritual bookseller on Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley. I was open, empty, in shock, and suddenly, all those words from Lao Tzu made perfect sense. Less really is more, and more is less. I got it. Free from desire, understanding is possible.

Since I am blessed with friends who read, write and share poetry, I’ve been testing my theory about a wild landscape (filled with negative ions) inspiring greater openness to the art of words. Can Nature, and Poetry, consumed together, lead to a nurturing stillness, a fuller presence in our beings? As Lao Tzu says, "The Tao is the Great Mother: Empty yet inexhaustible, she gives birth to infinite worlds."

For this Sunday morning, here are a few snippets of poetry that currently fill my belly with a comforting warmth:

From the ineffable Mexican Nobel laureate Octavio Paz:

Hands and lips of wind
heart of water
campground of the clouds
the life that is born every day
the death that is born every life—
I rub my eyes: the sky walks the land

Your hair lost in the forest,
your feet touching mine.
Asleep you are bigger than the night,
but your dream fits within this room.

Dear Dorothy Parker! Hardly upbeat, but wise:

The stars are soft as flowers, and as near;
The hills are webs of shadow, slowly spun;
No separate leaf or single blade is here—
All blend to one.
No moonbeam cuts the air; a sapphire light
Rolls lazily, and slips again to rest.
there is no edgéd thing in all this night,
Save in my breast.

And from 13th century Turkey, the much beloved Jelaluddin Rumi:

I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it's thirsty for!

Show me the way to the Ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.

All this fantasy
and grief.

Let my house be drowned in the wave
that rose last night out of the courtyard
hidden in the center of my chest.

Photo by Linda Sonrisa

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What we practice

is what we have. Or, the devil is in the details. Who would have thought that spending a weekend sitting under the Big Top with 70 people (yes, the Esalen yurt felt like a circus tent) breathing, and then reflecting on this process, would be so difficult?

At times, it was excruciating. I kept wanting to fall asleep, my busy life (and the late summer heat) catching up with me. The sound of the surf below us blending with Zen teacher, speaker and writer Cheri Huber's soothing voice...everyone quiet, pondering their "practice" — the ways we keep ourselves from being present with Life. (My specialty is the perpetual re-write, as I edit all out my regrets, large and small.) Then there are obsessive "mantras" — endless loops of distraction and self-criticism. Add to this mix residual emotions from the past, and worry about the unknowable future, and spontaneous joy withers.

Cheri, like so many of the enlightened ones, has a quick wit, and (dare I say it?) a wicked sense of humor. She's not invested in evangelizing Buddhism, "it's hard enough for those of you who are powerfully motivated," she says. Yet her organization, Living Compassion, works to make a difference in the world, most notably in Zambia, with her Vulnerable Children Project.

The big "A-Ha" for me was that I finally grasped the concept of the Ego. That creature that keeps us separate from life, stuck in our own movies, unable to fully feel and enjoy the world as it unfolds around us, moment by moment. The ego-centric conditioned mind that makes us suffer can be interrupted through awareness practice: understanding and compassion felt in the body through healing breath. This is freedom. This is where creativity lives, where wonder lives, and I want it!

So, are we now all ready to meditate 10 minutes a day? Try by just enjoying a few breaths, relaxing all your exhausted grey matter as you exhale. (Terrifying, isn't it?) Or, as Eckhart Tolle says, we can consciously ask ourselves, what will I think of next? Then watch that thought appear like a tiny mouse emerging from her cartoon doorway. Because a significant part my brain is actually an archive of black and white films, I think of Deborah Kerr, in Night of the Iguana, chasing away her "blue devils" with deep, restorative breaths.

Let's heal the world, starting with ourselves. Be in the moment. It's a good trick and the only game in town. We can begin to climb this mountain, right now. Ready, set, go!

We are shaped by our thoughts. We become what we think. -Buddha

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Rise up Singing

Last night, a year after I began to find my singing voice, I stepped up to the microphone and sang a tiny solo at the Henry Miller Library's "open mike." I am so very grateful to the angelic teacher I found right here in Big Sur: Lisa Goettel, of The Bird Sings.

Lisa's dream is to travel the world teaching people to sing, in the way of the Sufi poet Rumi, who says:
"I want to sing like birds sing. Not worrying about who hears or what they think."

Confident and charming, Lisa teaches at Esalen and at the Spirit Garden, and can travel to your town to guide you and your friends in song. A coltish beauty, she leads students in vocal exercises that expand breath, the key to vocal power. She encourages us to make funny sounds, and instructs us in the fine art of harmonizing. Her repertoire is vast, having sung before she could speak (Mom was an opera diva).

With all the chaos and distraction of life, it helps to sing. To hear and feel your sound resonating in your own body is a fundamental tonic. In addition to diluting the self-consciousness so many of us experience being fully ourselves in front of others, it simply feels good.

If, as another teacher has told me, your body is your designated toy, then the voice is the part that takes play to the next level. Everyone's voice is exquisitely their own, the primary expression of soul. More than just listening to music, making music with our voices can generate and release emotion, cleanse us and set us free.

Singing fills me with love, and the possibilities in song are endless. As long as we breathe, we can sing out who we are to the world. So, dear readers: here's a bit of music that comes to mind just now. I hope it will make you smile!

Photo of Lisa at Easter celebration by Linda Sonrisa

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A prom queen's (not!) rite of passage

Oh yeah, I'm never, ever, going to my high school reunion! I mean, why? I don't get it. What is this absurd American ritual, anyway? Eeeeeewwwwww.

I said this for years, without really exploring why I felt so strongly about it. I tossed the invites, never sent my forwarding address, even changed my maiden name (for other reasons, another story).

This summer, my mother sent me the fateful letter, and this time the number of years between then and now got to me. I started talking to people about reunions, heard their stories, their enthusiasm. Like Grace, who just had to go back and see what happened to the friends that helped her dig her retainer out of the cafeteria trash bins. Or Jay, who was in email contact with former classmates and contemplating going to his 40th reunion on the other side of the country.

Not letting myself think about it much, I sent off the check two weeks beforehand. Then, the day of, this strange thing happened. I began to understand why I'd been feeling so awkward, grumpy and over-sexed for the past week or so. This constellation of emotions reminded me of how I high school! Funniest of all was the sign-up form: in a space of about an inch we were asked to say what we'd been doing since graduation. Oh dear, where to begin?

Packing my bag, I struggled over that eternal question: what to wear? Then I realized that if I wore something that I felt made me feel unattractive, that would be the perfect reminder of my adolescent angst as well. (Yes, I know, it's pathetic, the grief of a mildly neurotic American teenager, 70's style.)

But we work with what we have, and this is what I got: Midwest to California diaspora of job-seeking soon to be divorce-seeking disaffected adults, tidy tract home, public schools, the suburbs, the malls, the funny hair and ridiculous clothes of the time. Aside from books, a few good teachers, and drinking ice tea with my Mom (sitting on the kitchen counter, dispensing advice at the tender age of 13) it, basically, sucked.

So, I didn't want to go back. But something magical happened when I did: it wasn't so bad. Ah, I thought afterwards, this must be the rite of passage part. I connected with a few people, some I remembered from before, some only when I saw them, wearing their name-tag pictures from years ago. We laughed, about who we'd been then, and who we are now. Add to this hugs, dry humor and storytelling and you get a night out that is refreshingly real.

Since I was a hold out, people thought I'd been traipsing about remote corners of the globe for decades, making films. "Didn't you do something with drama?" someone asked and I replied "well, I've certainly done drama in my life..." And again that familiar laughter. "Oh, I remember you, you were one of the super-smart kids," I said to a man who I recalled was also horribly awkward in those years, "Yeah, I think I peaked in 9th grade," he replied as we both sipped our drinks.

That part was fun, too. Hey, we can all drink like fishes together now, legally! The class photo was a bit eerie: all these same spirits together again, on a different planet now, in terms of life experience. Sad faces, thoughtful faces, glowing faces. There was that familiarity, that ever-so-faint whisper of who we were then.

Happy to have my husband with me, we began the evening on the edge of the crowd, looking in (another echo of the past), cracking jokes. In addition to an award for greatest number of children, we decided there should be one for, say, greatest number of sexual partners! Or extra-marital affairs, with bonus points for children out-of-wedlock!

And at the end of the night: pay dirt. A woman emerges from the crowd, and I recognize her first. I grin and watch her face change as she looks at me. "Oh, you brat!" she exclaims, "we were so close!" and we embrace. Her face is the same, her body, larger and softer. My husband sparkles at her, and I see a sudden kinship (she's Welsh, like him).

This is Julie, the pretty young woman I fell in love with when we were both about 9 years old. We were in Camp Fire Girls together, we had sleepovers, we went to Pt. Lobos with her parents, and tidepooling with them one Saturday morning stayed in my consciousness for decades.

We head to the bar together, order drinks, but don't get our talk in because one of those guys, the kind who ignored us when we teenagers but who can't get enough of us now, chats us up. You know the type: married but friendly and quite possibly available for the night. His senior photo on his name-tag literally sends me into a time spiral (or maybe it's the Tequila).

So now, Julie and I are friends again. She has a 19 year old son, an ex-husband, and is about to go to Lake Tahoe on vacation. I have a husband, a great dog, and a wild life in Big Sur. Life, as they say, is strange, wonderfully so. Or, (and you've probably heard this before) as one of my classmates (who no-showed to the reunion) said beneath his photo in the senior yearbook: "What a long, strange trip it's been."

And a photo of me, on the edge of the crowd, (picture #2) big smile on my face (just like in 1979.)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A public service message

Last Tuesday, the Man and I had a little chat. Since there's no cell phone reception on top of the mountain, I make and receive a pathetic number of calls on my sexy red phone, and so I get very, very excited whenever it rings. Like Pavlov's dog, I always pick up the phone. Which is what I did, as I was waiting in the left turn lane, driving from Rio Road onto Highway One.

Whoops! Yes, that squad car is for me, I think, as I pull onto the side of the road near the picturesque fields stretching up and down the corridor of the Carmel Valley meadow. "So," he says, (blond, attired in regulation khaki, holding his clipboard, his shadow falling across me) "Can you tell me why I stopped you?" This is good, I think, as the wheels in my brain start turning, gauging the potential value of clever banter with a man in uniform.

"Um, my car is really dirty?" I ask meekly, glancing at the heavy layer of road dust on my wagon's rear window, the distinctive fan of clear glass shaped by my back wiper blade. Someone has drawn a peace sign in the upper left hand corner. "Nope," he says, "Try again." "Uh, I didn't use my turn signal?" I look up at him and squeak this out.

"No," he says once more. "You were talking on your cell phone." "I bought one of those expensive ear-thingies," I reply, "but I lost it..." "So, why don't you use your speaker phone?" Now it's his turn to sound a bit pleading. I grimace. "I can't figure out where the button is." He sighs. "License and registration, please." Dang. Then, I dive into the well of my passenger seat, digging about for my booklet with registration papers, etc. As I do this I realize my backside is up in the air, giving the cop a good view. This seems to have no effect, either. Oh well.

"Why don't you have your registration in your glove box?" (Like you're supposed to, he adds silently.) "Because I've got too much other stuff in there." Now I'm in the back seat, still looking. I show him a Dinosaur excavation kit I'd just purchased for a friend's 5th birthday. This gets a smile from him. "My life is chaos!" I confess, my car at times doubling as my suitcase, camping kit and mobile office.

As he writes me up, outside, beside his car, I wonder how many locals are observing my mis-adventure. In fact, since this corner of Highway One is the beginning of the main artery all of us use to travel down the coast, my story could make it back to Big Sur before I do. Or at least a version of it. (Yes, the following afternoon a colleague asks me, "Hey, what was up with you and the Sheriff?")

My day had been full of puddles of love. I had lovely exchanges with all the people I met as I took care of a variety of endless items on my many to-do lists. The lady I bought coffee from in the café taught me how to say good morning in Turkish, the sad-faced grocery store clerk and I chuckled over the horrors of holiday Musak, the man at the toy store told me he felt like Tom Hanks in "Big" and so on. Perhaps, in my golden, happy-for-no-reason day, I was due for a friendly interaction with the Law.

So, yes, it's very dangerous to talk (or heaven forbid, text!) while driving. Accidents can and do happen as a result, and often. Officer Dainty (I swear that's what his name looks like on my ticket) shows me where the speaker button is on his cell phone. As I sheepishly return to my dirty blue Subaru, parked beside the highway, broadcasting my rule-breaking to my neighbors, he calls out to me, "And hey, clean your car!"

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Short films under the stars

The Henry Miller Library's 4th annual Big Sur International Short Film Screening Series is drawing to a close this month, as Big Sur's cultural scene achieves its late-summer climax. Every Thursday evening, from June through Labor Day, we gather on the lawn for the best kind of armchair travel, into the hearts of people all over the world.

Who says we are stuck in the boonies, a bunch of hicks at the end of the road? It's certainly not the case this century. The Henry Miller Library and the Big Sur Spirit Garden make countless offerings to our community's cultural life all year long, but especially in the summertime.

Short films, Flamenco classes, singing lessons, concerts, open mikes, art shows, book tours, it's all here, on stages under the redwoods at the Library or in the mural filled sculpture garden at Loma Vista. Plus, in various locations, there are political discussion groups involving the ongoing advocacy of saving our state parks, local musicians performing at restaurants, and the occasional unforgettable memorial.

Since so many of us are now reading our emails, checking social networking sites and (god help us) "twittering", no one misses a beat. I remember asking my elderly neighbor what they did before radio down here in Big Sur, before satellite dishes, cell phones, the Internet. "Well," he replied, "there was always ice cream."

The ball is rolling now and most would say there's an ongoing spike in cultural choices throughout Big Sur, from the Soul River Studio's Film Series, to Big Sur Arts Initiative's Stagekids Theatre Program, to private dinner parties, pool parties, and theme parties involving copious amounts of Tequila (don't ask.) Well, sometimes it's a bit much (as they say on that tiny island in the Atlantic that my husband comes from.)

It's getting to the point where I feel guilty for staying at home and drooling in the sun on my yoga mat. I have so much to read, darn it, and so much to learn (and at this late date I have to learn fast) and so many, many distractions. Not to mention ice cream to eat.

That said, the lure of the epiphany of the short film (and the fabulous popcorn) draws me regularly to the Henry Miller Library series. Last week was especially gratifying: the closing film was Kroeskop (Absolutely Afro) from the Netherlands. Is it possible that my life could be forever altered in just 10 minutes? I think so, and this little cinematic gem did it. Just remembering its ineffable innocence makes me smile.

Then last night, I saw a woman emerge from a shining chrysalis, to dance on stage triumphantly in glowing, enormous wings (everyone should have a pair.) She recalled ancient Ma'at, the Egyptian goddess of Truth, and appeared in my dreams, of a golden summer season in the Sur.

The deliberately low-brow opening cartoon at the HML
World's BEST popcorn by "the popcorn girl"

Friday, July 31, 2009

And another thing I love about this town

There's something profound about living in a place that draws people, like the proverbial lemmings, to stare at the horizon. It helps to remember this in late summer as tourism reaches its highest (some would say intolerable) level. Inns and restaurants are full, hikers and campers frolic everywhere, and the traffic (on the mere two lanes of Highway One) is, as they say "challenging."

Free associating lemmings with tourists, I found an interesting fact: "Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groupings when population density becomes too great." Since I began my exploration of Big Sur as a tourist as well, naturally I can relate. The city is crowded and dangerous, and travelers need a bit of sky.

Fortunately, circumstances are not so dire that the tourist / lemming jumps off the cliff (though this does happen.) Apparently the tribes of lemmings that have been observed jumping off cliffs are not committing suicide en masse but are swimming to new territory. Hawaii is a long way away, so our beloved lemmings (I mean, tourists) are stuck on the tops of the cliffs, gazing at the sea and sky, awestruck.

There's definitely a magnet in that horizon, and seekers who feel (consciously or not) their divine discontent come to this dramatic landscape to find...something. I watch them this time of year, looking for answers in a sunset, a hug, or a romantic kiss just as the sun sinks slowly into the Pacific, like an old man at a spa (to quote a friend of mine.)

How many photographic moments have I witnessed, driving on Highway One, that go on to be enshrined on mantel or desk, recalling the bright happy day, the ocean, the smell of the surf, that kiss? It's an honor to quietly observe people making memories, each one unique, unforgettable.

In my new role at the historic Deetjen's Inn, I get to participate, one might even say, co-create, some of these memories. I remember the glow that I carried with me from Big Sur, when, after soaking in its raw beauty, I had to return to an urban world. To see people relax over a good meal, or sense the calm that emanates from them after a refreshing night's sleep, is lovely.

Here's an RX for civilization: a few days without computers and cell phones, time spent hiking up canyons or down streams to the beach, sitting in the sun on a deck under the redwoods, reading journal entries from visitors past, or just staring at a flower in a Big Sur garden with fresh eyes.

And then, after the photo ops, the stories come: Everyone has a story and this place is an Innkeeper's paradise in terms of the treasures people offer up to share, every day. It's a phenomenon I've seen with guests at my home too: something clicks in the soul and deeper truths emerge, easily, sometimes with humor.

Human perspective is granted as people observe the vast perspective of sea, earth and sky. It's as if the eye sees the view, and then, when the mind takes it in shortly afterwards, understanding comes. Big Sur really is a place to both lose and find yourself, and perhaps we can thank our primal lemming-like instincts for that powerful gift.

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Wedding on the Mountain

It's been a busy few months: I'm learning a handful of new jobs, studying dance more, traveling a bit and then, last weekend, we hosted the wedding of a gentle young couple, the son and now daughter-in-law of dear friends.

Without a doubt, the BEST part of living here is sharing it with kindred spirits, especially those under 10. The parents of the groom have 3 year old twins, Max and Chloe, and spending time with them prior to the nuptials was priceless good fun.

Ryan and Jami met several years ago in Big Sur at John's (Ryan's Dad) marriage to songstress Camille (Mother of twins.) My husband Toby was the first soul they told of their engagement (which also happened here) so marriage under what we've nicknamed "The Wedding Tree" felt natural.

On Saturday afternoon, a small group of friends gathered, and in a tender twist, the father of the groom walked the bride down the aisle, in this case a freshly manicured dirt path, with son Max tagging along beside them.

Veteran officiant Penny Vieregge, who's wedded dozens of Big Sur couples, held the space for a lovely ceremony. Much champagne was tippled, and happy, copious tears were shed during the big moment. Feasting, toasting and dancing commenced until the wee hours. Being a shutterbug, I took hundreds of pictures, thoroughly enjoying the process of documenting the joy.

Since we can never get enough of the Bride, here she is again, pre-ceremony, with that all important dress in the background...Doesn't she look like the cat that ate the canary? But then, all happy couples on their wedding day have that timeless, contented-cat glow.

Old chums Toby and Penny share a festive laugh under the elm tree. It doesn't get cuter than this: fire-fighters (Yes, Penny started the BSVFB Cliff Rescue Unit) all dressed up and having a ball.

Weddings are one of our most powerful community rituals, certainly the most enjoyable one. They're opportunities to express gratitude for family, to honor the cyles of life, to bask in love. With Dad also contributing the Christo-like installations down the bridal path, and with the Big Sur sun smiling down on them, Jami and Ryan were blessed with a beautiful beginning. We wish them much joy, always.

John and Jami Bright, July 18, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

My date with King Tut

Ever so often, we country mice make the long drive up to San Francisco for cultural events. Last Friday night, I had a date with King Tut, Egypt's oldest and best ambassador, courtesy of my dear friend Janet, who treated me to my ticket for my 39th (again!) birthday.

You might think I would be intimidated, what with him being immortal and all, but then, he was only 19 when he died, mysteriously, perhaps the victim of a wicked step-mother (Nefertiti) who wanted her way in the royal court. (Tut's death is one of the world's longest unsolved crimes.) He seemed to be a daring, ambitious and extremely fortunate teenager, the kind of charmer that always catches my eye.

Bright lights, big city, to use a now well-worn phrase. Yes, it has its charm and it draws me, a different high than the primal, majestic bliss I feel in Big Sur. House-sitting for a friend, I spent many hours on Saturday morning (in the fog) in the bath-tub in her garden, and in the dark wee hours of Sunday (watching the fog roll above the sparkling lights below.) And of course, in between walking the dogs (and following those nasty urban rules about you-know-what) I bought a pair of delightful new shoes. Yay!

But back to the magical evening with the King. Since it was a date, after all, Janet and I dressed up, and giggled together as we began our tour of the tomb, listening to Omar Sharif's sonorous introduction to the riches within. Something about the City makes me impatient, so while I mused over the relics relating to Tut's immediate family in the first galleries, and enjoyed the shabti, or funerary statuary of his relatives, meant to protect them and do their chores in the afterlife, I basically made a beeline to the heart of it all: an amazing chamber filled with the golden treasures of Tut's inner tomb.

Along the way, having forgone the audio tour, I enjoyed something I always love about museums: those casual contacts with fellow exhibit fans: the funny conversations we have about whatever comes to mind as we stare at 3000 year-old-plus relics, two kids sharing headphones bickering over which direction to go, or the way older people sigh as they pause in front of a brilliantly lit case, taking in some domestic artifact with a deeper level of feeling. Then there was the museum guard who was a dead ringer for Nefertiti herself. In the darkened funeral chamber, I could have admired her tranquil face and quiet smile for a long time, too.

While the romance and power is undeniable in the main chamber "Everywhere the glint of gold" as British archeologist and explorer Howard Carter said (thank you British Empire for creating a leisure class that could re-discover the ancient world for us) what really gets me are the more prosaic objects, those that tell a subtler story: The child's chair with the reed seat base slightly indented, the golden walking sticks, the game boards, head-rests and unguent bottles. Those objects that were part of daily life, that absorbed the energy of the people around them in a more familiar way.

Now when I look at my cheap brass bangles they recall the designs of venerable Egyptian artists. I see the soft gold of my chocolate bar wrapper in a different light, imagining it to emerge from the depths of an as yet undiscovered crypt. The exhibit's use of enlarged black and white photographs from the 1922 un-veiling of the tomb are remarkable too: they give a sense of the suspense they must have felt, approaching the entrance in the Valley of the Kings, and the glorious chaos of what they found.

In the last gallery, I feel the sadness of it all. A photo of Tut's sarcophagus, with his X-rayed remains inside, revealing a human man, after all, underneath all the pomp and glory, gone. An untimely death, even one that happened 3200 years ago, still carries grief.

Then, in this last, stark gallery I hear the strains of joyous music and people laughing. We emerge to find children dancing, friends in the audience, a full bar and LIFE! This was the De Young's gift to us, their Friday evening program, this night featuring the Georges Lammam ensemble performing middle-eastern music. Rashid, a SF-style male dancer was introduced as King Tut (to the delight of the uninhibited little ones dancing below center stage) and later the lovely Shoshanna shimmied for us, dressed in a delicious pink costume that undoubtedly left many little girls (of all ages) dreaming of belly-dancing themselves.

Somehow being around death in this intimate, ancient way, left me feeling energized, alive, and more present. We are so very, very lucky to be here now, no matter what. As my friend, gifted drummer and Sufi poet Antoine Lammam says, "Short life or long life--good life."

Now, when I close my eyes at the the end of this long day, I see the golden statuary of the tomb of the tender boy king, and feel the cold of the mausoleum-like museum space at the De Young. These dark, mysterious images contrast beautifully with the golden mountains of Big Sur that live inside me too. Especially at this time of year, the north and south views from the top of the ridge, bright white sunshine on the gray - blue ocean, hills that flow down to the sea, the warmth of the earth coming up at me in waves. Magnificent death and life, in equal measure.

Don't miss it! See King Tut too, at the De Young Museum in San Francisco 'til March 28, 2010.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

How to start your day

Admittedly, you might not be as perky as you should be when you arrive at the office. But the sensuous afterglow of an early morning soak in our tub will be worth it. Just have that extra cup of java when you're at your desk, take some deep breaths, and quietly file away the sensations of your delicious outdoor tryst with the goddess of the bath.

Some time back, I was perplexed by a mysterious percussive sound I heard coming from the tub. Ping, ping, ping. What was it? Upon investigation, I discovered acorns, falling rhythmically from the oak tree nearby, landing against the fresh white steel of the claw-foot tub. Fluttering birdsong, the wind through the leaves, and ping! ping! Filling the tub with the makings of acorn mush.

Ahhh, being naked in the great outdoors, that most human of activities! At our house this experience is not restricted to those under 6 years old. Fresh air, hot water (in my case scalding) and bubbles. Slowly lower yourself into the magical brew of scented oils and exotic soaps. Let the amniotic waters of the tub take you in completely. Groom. Reflect. Soak everything in, especially the sea below you and the sky beyond.

Baptizing yourself as you sink to the bottom, hearing your heart beat, surfacing to the sound of the wind-chimes behind you. Start your day by washing away your worldly cares, scrubbing off any bad ju-ju from your dreams. Emerge from the bath like a freshly laundered god /goddess, refreshed and ready for another round.

Who else takes their binoculars into their bathtub? Watching whales, dolphins, orca, condors and hawks while sitting in a bubble bath can lead you to pinch yourself, wondering at your good fortune. (During a bath I enjoyed with my writing mentor Linda, not one, but two, condors flew overhead, We had the honor of hearing their slow, heavy wingbeats, just above us. "That's as close to angel wings as we'll get," we laughed.) Sometimes, though, the magestic vista is too much, and you may find yourself just watching the tiny birds at the feeder, or the bees on the flowers.

To clarify, it's not always perfect: you have to calibrate the hot water hose just so, in order to have a hot, not tepid bath, and in summer time you have to submerge yourself completely, like some strange fish, to avoid the swarms of mosquitoes. But then, just as you are about to surrender to the tiny flying beasts, a hummingbird will stop mid-flight and drink from the aloe bloom a few inches from your head.

You could say that I live in Big Sur because of a bath tub. Twenty some years ago I was on a wild weekend trip with an outlaw boyfriend. We ended up above Nacimiento Road, in a claw-foot tub clinging to the slope of a forested canyon. While soaking amidst the warm bubbles, I remember nibbling on mint leaves growing all around us. In some strange way I felt I'd arrived, and knew that I would be back for more.

Eventually that led to Esalen Institute and the famous sulfur springs, where my dream of living here percolated into the marrow of my bones. Outdoor tubs, like outdoor beds, just seem to go with the territory; it's a local tradition. When my dear friend Margaret migrated from our community some years back, we gave her a small claw-foot tub, which we'd used to ice champagne, for her garden in the Big City. Now she soaks there with her son, looking north to downtown, and they feel the magic of Big Sur.

After one of our Dionysian Christmas-past holiday dinners, our sweet neighbor Lisa and I escorted our elderly friend Bob Nash home, navigating the path to his cabin in the moonlight. With one of us on each arm, Bob told us about how much, after 50+ years, he still appreciated living in the mystical kingdom of Big Sur.

Giggling, we riffed on how living here inspires you to soak up Nature, absorbing it deeply into your flesh, your spirit. As we looked at the moon low in the night sky above the ocean, Lisa and I came up with a phrase that sums it all up: "I feel like a tea-bag steeped in God!" Yes. It's not "Let us pray," not here. Rather, it's "Let us steep." Let us steep deeply in a hot bath in Big Sur.

Champagne tub shot by Kevin Whan

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Happy Anniversary

And Happy Summer Solstice. Today, the sun shines longest and brightest, then begins its slow decline to winter. It's a good day to contemplate the end of a cycle, and to review future opportunities that are always emerging.

Last week we walked to the top of the ridge, and the photo to the right recalls a year ago today, when calamity struck Big Sur. As in childbirth, the shock and pain are gone, thank god. Instead we wonder at what we went through, and at how the hell we did it!

A special thanks from the bottom of my heart to the brave men and women who stayed on Partington Ridge and throughout Big Sur to battle the fire, working behind the lines and counter to accepted official wisdom to secure the resources needed to save this precious bit of paradise.

Today, all is calm, soft breezes, sunshine alternating with waves of fog. A time for quiet healing, a beautiful Sunday in the country. Our community is stronger and more creatively vibrant than ever before. We are grateful.

This time last year, and today....>

Photos by Toby Rowland-Jones

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Drawing Cats

The mysterious Japanese fable, The Boy Who Drew Cats, made a big impression on me when I was a kid. I'd hide in the backyard with my book of fairy tales, eat graham crackers coated with peanut butter and honey, and ponder what it meant.

A young boy in rural Japan is too small and weak to be much help on the farm. He's sent to the priests, who attempt to teach him, but he has terrible study habits, preferring instead to daydream and draw cats, everywhere.

Kicked out, he travels to another remote temple because he's afraid to go home. He arrives late at night to this large, empty temple, and fills its tall white screens with paintings of enormous, mighty cats. When he's tired, he curls up to sleep in a cabinet, remembering the parting words of the elderly priest, " Avoid large places at night, keep to small!"

For some reason, this cryptic bit of advice pleased me, because I was sure (especially at 12) that I'd have little difficulty sleeping in a cupboard. In fact, I remember choosing which one in our suburban tract home that would work best for me, should I need it.

Late that night, our hero is awakened by sounds of a terrible battle: hours of screaming and yowling by huge creatures just outside his cabinet door. When the fighting stops at dawn, he cautiously emerges to find the floors of the temple awash in the blood of a gigantic , dead goblin-rat (as big as a cow, my version of this oft-told story states) and the mouths of the smiling cats he's painted wet with goblin-blood. The boy goes on to become a famous artist.

In schools today, this story is taught to children as an allegory about tolerance. Those who are different can also be heroes, nice to hear for those of us who feel our alienation at a tender age. It's also said to be a retelling of the early life of 15th century Japanese ink artist and Zen Buddhist priest, Sesshu Toyo.

Perhaps I find myself thinking about this tale these days because we have a new kitten and there's suddenly a lot of hissing and scratching going on in our house. This tea-cup sized baby orange tabby is engaging in battles with our elderly cat, feathered toys, and our fingers and toes late at night, when we least expect it.

Today, I see in this story even more meaning: Being true to ourselves is the best path, even when it is confusing, or causes problems. Listen to the wise ones, and hold their sometimes puzzling words close. Trust that who we are is exactly who we need to be. This is the time-honored way to triumph over our demons, and fulfill our hidden dreams.

Illustration by Gordon Laite

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Earth Artist: Cynthia Johnson Bianchetta

One of the first things I respond to when I meet with Cynthia Johnson-Bianchetta is her beauty. I know this is probably not "politically correct," but it is a real reaction on my part. She is lovely, and that loveliness is something one feels to be true both of her physical presence and her spirit. It's something that others feel as well: charming men flock to her orbit, women respond to her Mama Bear warmth and artists of all kinds sense a gracious mentor.

Trained as a dancer and fine-art photographer, Cynthia came to Big Sur in 1984, to study healing work at the Esalen Institute, which she began with Stan and Christina Groff's holotropic breathwork. She’d spent the past three years creating the first international museum for film photography and video in San Diego, the Museum for Photographic Arts, as Assistant Director and Curator, and had been offered a position directing the Weston Gallery in Carmel.

Prior to her arrival at Esalen, she had experienced a deep spiritual opening in the midst of some powerful life changes. Like many others, her first thought when she saw the property’s magnificent green lawn rolling down to the cliff’s edge was, “I’m in Paradise.” So, in a state of fear and curiosity, she began a 25 year journey, becoming the gifted artist of today.

Through Christina Groff, Cynthia met her husband, photographer Daniel Bianchetta. “It’s been such an honor to have had such amazing teachers,” she remarks. She studied somatic movement with a variety of instructors, notably Gabrielle Roth, Anna Halprin, and Emily Conrad. “I see movement as a spontaneous meditation, a key part of our experience of being embodied,” she says. “Its subtle emphasis on the mind-body connection can bring forth untold creativity from our depths.”

In the early '90's, Cynthia co-founded Esalen’s Creative Arts Center, or "Art Barn," at the time a run-down structure recently vacated by a potter and batik artist. “We’re all artists at heart, and we need a space for this in our community,” she thought, and continued in this vein by working to create the dance platform next to the Art Barn, now a well-used performance space. Today, the highest enrollment in Esalen’s workshops are in the arts.

Many trips to rock art sites in the South West with her husband added another dimension: As Daniel photographed ancient petroglyphs, she saw her shadow fall across a rock in the morning sunshine, and began dancing with it. So began her “Earth Dances,” and more dovetailing of visual and performing arts. She built “Earth Altars” in the ruins and filmed herself dancing, or digging up bits of torn photographs buried in the earth, a primal woman finding shards of images in the dust.

“On a core level, dance is my way in to my creativity, which starts in my body,” Cynthia says. “When you’re moving, things move!” she adds. In addition to her own work as an artist, she has taught photography and painting in Big Sur and in Santa Fe, New Mexico. These days, she finds herself drawn more and more to her latest passion: painting with fire. “Listening to my creative voice has now led me to working with hot molten wax and blow torches,” she laughs, “a real girly thing to do!”

The 4,000 year old art of encaustic painting seems the perfect medium for her. (Ancient Greeks and Egyptians painted their mummies this way.) It is informed by the Earth: beeswax from bees, pigments from plants, painted on panels of wood. She uses mixed media to enhance encaustic’s translucent, sensual texture, bringing the everyday into the realm of the sacred in her work. For her post Basin Complex Fire show last fall, Smoke and Ash, she created a series of paintings using ashes from the fire. All the elements are present in this alchemical art form: Earth, air, fire and… water? “Tears of joy,” she smiles.

“Follow your bliss,” as Joseph Campbell said, and Cynthia remembers attending his annual birthday party at Esalen for many years. “To have a life of creativity is within the grasp of us all,” she says. “And for me, bliss is creativity. I mean, what more is there? That is the spiritual path. And if we get out of our own way, the source of inspiration can move through us and work with us.”

Cynthia has donated proceeds from her work to Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and, in last Fall’s Smoke and Ash show, to the Coast Property Owner's fire relief fund. She has a new studio in downtown Carmel, and her paintings are currently on display at Carmel’s Gallery North.

Starting this week, (and coinciding with the anniversary last year's fire) you can view her one-woman show in Big Sur, which includes encaustic paintings from the Smoke and Ash exhibit. Her work will be up for the Summer at the Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar Restaurant. (Please check back here for information on her opening reception.)

“My work has to be connected to something that has meaning for me, and delivers a message,” she says. “I want to keep listening with ease, and let these paintings speak for the Earth.”

25 years ago, Cynthia first heard this poem from a fellow seeker at Esalen. It's one of my favorites as well, and oddly appropriate for a woman who paints with wax:

Last night as I lay sleeping I dreamt,
marvelous error (blessed illusion)
that I had a beehive
here in my heart
and the golden bees
were making white comb and sweet honey
out of all my old mistakes.
-—Antonio Machado

Smoke and Ash, Encaustic, portion of 2' X 8' Painting
Charred, Encaustic, 4' X 6'