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'