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