Thursday, February 26, 2009

Oscars on the Mountain

Every year, on a Sunday evening in February, we host an Oscars party that has ranged from the raucous to the intimate. We hand out ballots, dress up, drink bubbles and dish on the celebrities. Empress Sula clues us in on each star’s astrological sign, and gives pithy commentary on the state of their relationships. “Ha, Brad and Angelina just had a fight,” she surmised, to general amusement.

Even where we can see the celestial constellations so clearly, Tinseltown’s stars have their appeal. We joked that we would spray paint a path from the front door to our couch, Partington Ridge's own red carpet. This year's show seemed homey and kind, and as the six of us noshed our way through delicious homemade lasagna and swilled champagne, there were a few tears as well.

Toby dressed in his tux, (his best "up yours Daniel Craig" look) white shirt open to the waist, bow tie dangling from the collar. I wore tight pants and a push-up bra under a slinky top, going for that starlet look. Our best girl (and singing instructor) Lisa G. (who I coaxed out of her cabin fever by belting out the theme song to "Cabaret") wore her Snow White dress and we giggled all night.

Our lasagna chef won the prize for guessing the most correct winners, happy that his favorite "WALL-E" received the golden statuette. Other favorites of the evening were Penelope Cruz, Mickey Rourke and the courageous Sean Penn. Our exclusive Oscars party continued until late evening, complete with dancing (yours truly demonstrating her just-learned Flamenco moves) more laughter and a pause to admire the real stars outside, sparkling above us on the dark carpet of heaven.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Long Drive Home

If you live in Big Sur, you pretty much have to enjoy driving. (You also have to have a reliable vehicle, and after 15 years here we have some hair-raising tales on that subject.) There are lots of different strategies for making the 80 mile round trip excursion to "town" i.e. Carmel / Monterey, for grocery shopping, doctor's visits, classes, and social events.

Some folks make once-a-week "town runs" and are content to curl up on their mountain-tops, working in their gardens and hiking up and down their ridges for the rest of the week. Others drive to town twice a week or more for work or personal reasons. We are the road warriors. Good music is required, or as our postal worker says, you can just "listen to the sound of the rubber on the road," which has its own hypnotic power.

I have noticed a migration of certain fortunate neighbors to second homes or studios outside of Big Sur. They create "love-nests" or art-work spaces or rent houses so their children attending Carmel schools don't have to get on that bright yellow bus at the crack of dawn each weekday. Some are bona-fide nomads, "peripatetic" as my friend Archie says, making their living in places far and wide, in California and across the country. They return to their sanctuaries in Big Sur to re-charge their batteries, to rest, to touch the earth again.

For my family, it seems to be about driving. Lots of it. Three years ago when both of our used vehicles died spectacular deaths (our pickup truck lost its steering and we plowed into an enormous poison oak hedge) we bellied up to the bar and bought much newer and safer cars.

Each bend in the road has a name, each spot its special beauties and hazards. There's "Old Faithful" where the big rocks explode down the cliff face after winter storms; there's the curve of pristine Little Sur, marked by a cross where a young man flew off the edge some time back, 200' down and into the river below. Suicide? Or just late to work? We'll never know. Cows sometimes cross the road at Lighthouse Flats, and cattle have actually become an "in-joke" as the excuse for alcohol-induced rollovers. "I swerved to avoid a cow," people say.

But that part is really not funny, since drinking and driving (a clear no-no given the nature of Highway One) is an unfortunate behavior that has hurt many local people. There's no late-night police presence, we know the roads, we're immortal. This past year has offered up some sobering examples of how this is definitely not the case. Today we see more "dry" weddings and parties, more car-pooling, more conscientious bar-tending. The community here is growing up in that regard.

But back to that long drive home. Once a week or more, late at night, with my car full of groceries and my body happily aching from a couple of hours of dance classes, I follow the winding road down the coast back to Partington Ridge. Carefully dimming my brights at each approaching car, listening to wild music (or not), singing to myself (or even talking to myself—I confess, long conversations of the things I'd wished I'd said, or want to say, kind of a psychic dumping process) I make the drive I sometimes feel I could do by heart.

If only our cars were horse-drawn buggies. We could relax the reins in our laps and let the confident horses take us home, to their beds of straw and cups of fresh oats, us to our hot toddies and futons overlooking the sea. The trip to Big Sur was done this way by the pioneer types many years ago (more or less) but you can bet that they weren't doing it twice a week, or in order to take a yoga class.

When there is no traffic but me upon the road, and the moonlight shines on the ocean to my right as I drive south, I become aware that I am the only person on the planet in this moment to be sliding down the edge of the continent, like an ant traversing a rolling glass globe, slipping down the surface of the Earth to my home. I wonder about what all the other souls on Earth are up to, and meditate on the enormous geographical solitude of my long drive home.

Jupiter reflected on the Pacific Ocean
(photo by Toby Rowland-Jones)

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Let's Celebrate the Safarians

Ronna Rio is Big Sur’s most inspiring metaphysical guide, and her medium is oil paint, shamanism and the human spirit. Her mission is to give her painting students (she has mid-wifed scores of them over the past 15 years) a deeper sense of their own divinity, by claiming their creativity in relationship to this land. “The painting process heals," she says, "and offers us the opportunity to transform matter into spirit, spiritualizing our instincts."

Ronna’s mother was an actress as well as a speech and drama teacher in Hollywood, a Scandinavian beauty who gave her daughter a sense of wholesome glamour. She began painting at age 10, and like many little girls, painted horses, going on to ride and jump these creatures in equestrian events. A Catholic school girl, she created altars of flowers and sequins, dedicating them to her favorite goddesses, the Virgin Mary and Marilyn Monroe.

Majoring in Art, Art Education and Psychology at San Jose State University, Ronna also studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. She then pursued a dream and trained wild animals with “affection trainer” Ralph Helfer, creator of Marine World / Africa USA. Working with animals— giraffes, water buffaloes, monkeys, lions and bears, gave her the deeper wisdom needed to work with people.

“I understand that, like with the animals, the most important thing for my students to overcome is fear. Learning to trust their imagination sets them free." Her grounded, confident approach to teaching helps her students understand that, “Being artistic is not necessarily a ‘gift’ but something we can learn and develop.”

Ronna began her career as an art teacher at Lake Tahoe’s Sierra Nevada College, where she taught design, sculpture, pastel, watercolor, and oil painting. She also obtained another degree while there, in Environmental Science. She currently teaches her students the design principles of painting, but the style is decidedly Expressionist. As a dynamic instructor, what she offers is always growing and changing.

One of Ronna's first students, Sula Nichols, credits her with teaching her how to use color. "Color is like learning a language. You look at a color and learn how to mix that color for the canvas, so that you can best convey what you feel. Ronna is also a supportive teacher, whose confidence in her students gives them confidence." Long-time student Marlene Adair adds, "I've studied with her for almost 10 years. She often says to me, 'Flame out, and let go! It works."

The Safarians, as Ronna's women's painting group is known, attend two series of classes year-long, one in the Fall, one in the Spring. The Fall series, which runs 14 weeks, is titled Painting Altars of Gratitude (An Inner Life Refuge.) This Spring's upcoming 12 week series is titled Tuning into the Immortal Rhythm of Nature's Forces. Students will paint Expressionistic landscapes of Big Sur's power spots.

The Fauves (French Expressionists of the early 1900's) is the school of painting Ronna identifies with most, and perhaps it’s no accident that Fauves means Wild Beasts. These painters went into new, colorful territory, much like her Safarians do now. Other influences she cites are Carl Jung, Eduard Munch, D.H. Lawrence, Joseph Campbell (whom she studied with at Esalen Institute.) She adds her mentor, local painter and writer, Carolyn Kleefeld to her list. Carolyn, Ronna says, "has no inner critic, she is pure creativity, and it simply flows out of her."

In her classes, students discover their mythological journey, by painting and dialoguing with archetypes and symbols, discovered in a Jungian collage process. Ronna has developed what she calls "Matrix Painting." This is an autonomous method that begins by moving the paint playfully on the canvas, evoking and intuiting images from the unconscious for personal and planetary wisdom and healing. "All the transformative forces of nature move through us, both destructive and creative forces," she says. "As artists, we’re constantly destroying and creating, responding to these primal energies. We are Nature."

Living in Big Sur is the perfect laboratory for this life process. The contrast between epic natural beauty and pioneer style hardship (fires, snakebites, mudslides and all the rest) calls forth exponential personal growth.

During a snowstorm in Tahoe 20 odd years ago, her husband Michael Emmons called her to ask if she'd like to move to Big Sur. Curiously, she was reading Henry Miller's "Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch" at that moment. Ronna and her husband lost their studio during the Basin Complex Fire last summer, but their home is still standing proud on the edge of Partington Canyon. "We have to practice radical acceptance no matter what happens," she says, "this is how we overcome fear."

“As Safarians we are nomads, and aren’t afraid to get lost. We explore new territory, making multi-dimensional discoveries," Ronna says. "Our map is oneness with the Divine in our creative process, and our paintings are like our journals and dreams, showing us the deeper meaning in our lives." She adds, "To honor the Divine within ourselves is our goal."

For more information about her classes, please contact Ronna directly at her Big Sur Studio: 831 667 2133.

All of the completed works by Ronna Rio shown above can be found at the Big Sur Gallery in Carmel.
Rio's work can also be seen at the Del Campo Gallery in Big Sur.
Ronna working at home, on Threshold.
Genesis of the Feminine
Worship of the Morning Star
Heading North in Paradise
Ronna with Twinkle

Monday, February 9, 2009

Yahrzeit for Bob Nash

February 10 marks a special day in our home, and in our lives, from now on. It's the day that our beloved nonagenarian, Bob Nash, passed away last year. A friend of ours recently told us that in the Jewish tradition, the death date of a loved one is marked by an annual memorial ritual called Yahrzeit.

While we won't be saying the Mourners Kaddish prayer for Bob tomorrow evening, we will light a candle and place it in front of his picture at Deetjens Inn's family dining room. Several of Bob's friends will be there, people who played with him, made art with him and took care of him during the past couple of decades here on Partington Ridge.

Yesterday afternoon, I said to my dog, Kip, let's go to Bob's house, and he trotted away down the path towards his shack without any hesitation. I sat in his "enlightenment chair" on this cold day and thought of the many hours he'd spent meditating there. Kip lay down at my feet, just as he did all those years while I'd read to Bob fairy tales and news of the world.

The flame of the Yarhzeit candle symbolizes the human soul, always dancing towards the greater light. We think Bob would like that. We also plan to call his spirit to us with our laughter and stories of his life. We will raise his famous toast: May your hearts be filled with love, with rainbows and with fragrant yellow roses.

While many of you who loved Bob can't be with us tomorrow night in the physical realm, we'll be sure to bring you into our circle in our hearts.

And we will recite these beautiful words of songstress Camille Bright-Smith:

The day you died I had a dream
Of lines like feathers shifting
Of two paths intersecting
Of faith like simple melodies
Of butterflies and spiders
Of silken webs and flowers
Of fine white hair flowing
Of you and Rosa glowing.

We love you, Bob.
Photos of Bob by Toby Rowland-Jones, Dick Sonnen