Saturday, November 19, 2011

What inspires you now?

One of my Muses asked me this highly stimulating question yesterday. As winter approaches and coldness seeps into my house on a Saturday morning, I find that my wood-burning stove inspires me.

Creating heat in my bedroom by crumbling paper, stacking kindling and logs, torching it all and then sitting back to watch the flames (blessed moment!) comforts me.

My cats, assuming double-decker placement on my lap and thighs (what my husband calls my kitty lap-dance) inspire me to sit on my cushion, and eventually, meditate.

Watching Pearl Grey neatly wash Minnie's face as they're curled together on the wool blanket at the foot of my bed, soothes me. As does their abundant sisterly attention for each other and the way they look at me when I interrupt them with a kiss, one on top of each furry head.

The stack of unread spiritual books below and above my bed whisper to me to be still, and to finally read them in the coming month(s), thoughtfully, with my orange highlighter pen, over many cups of tea. Or coffee. Coffee inspires me, warm, sweet, hot and forcing me to recognize yet again the hamster wheel that is my brain.

Sheepskin beneath my toes under the covers of my bed makes me dream of ancient tribal royalty traveling via caravan across Mongolia. Bells tinkling around my ankles, wrapped in colorful fabric, I dance beneath the enormous skies of the steppes, or on top of Partington Ridge, in the sharp winter morning light.

Sapphire blue ocean, tranquil, so deep, reaching to where it meets the sky, topped by a wave of cumulus clouds across the horizon. Emerald green grass swoops downhill from my door, each blade illuminated from the east. Wind-chimes bouncing from the Datura branch, singing an almost bird-like song. Hummingbirds appear, and perch at their feeder, what I think of as their "table for six", inhaling nectar.

The Datura blooms outside my bedroom door inspire me. Miraculously, four or five blooms are opening even now, in mid-November. At night I stand on the deck and lift the most open golden blossom to my face, drinking in the amazing delicate scent. Datura perfume and winter skies filled with crisp stars, Milky Way flooding my soul.

The fascinating contents of my fridge call me to cook up something tasty on a cold winter morning. My happy dog rolls on his back in the grass and stretches, arching his tummy up to the sun. The laughter in my little sister's voice on the phone brings me home to myself and who I really am, or was, back in the beginnings of my life. But now is better. Now is always better.

The landscape before me breathes and vibrates with sacred life, more vivid to me than ever before, perhaps because I am simply receiving this vision. The holy work of genuinely accepting the moment, other souls (and myself) just as we are, right now, constantly inspires me and, when I have succeeded in savoring a tiny taste of this, contented tears flow from my heart.

Photo by Linda Sonrisa

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Float with the Flame

As death is the "change agent" of Life, as Steve Jobs observed, then fire is a growth agent, causing people to pop open like the seeds of certain plants, germinating fresh life. I must be of this species of plant, since fire transformed my journey powerfully on October 20, 1991, in Oakland, California. Yes, twenty years ago this month.

Fire brings a spiritual re-alignment, a crackling pop of a psychic chiropractic adjustment. There is an Aha! of what is really important, and what is not.

The Oakland Hills Fire revealed my ultimate priorities. It gave me the courage to leave my cozy burrow in the hills above the romantic city and migrate to a better place. A friend who also landed here in Big Sur afterwards commented, "That fire was one of the best things that's ever happened to me." I would have to agree.

One of my favorite stories is from my neighbor who, after jumping through flaming hoops to get home, realized just as he came through his front door that nothing in the house was important enough to take. He walked away from it all, and then in the end, his home was safe.

When you lose all of the personal items that somehow define who you are, you release an anchor chain that stretches to the bottom of the sea. That chain, swirled in tendrils of green muck, drops to the floor as the ship sails free. Instant lightness of being. Your focus is freed up to be in the moment as there is less care and feeding of "the stuff".

And then, something magical happens. You see all living things in a new light -- and all your experiences become filled with wonder. For about a week. That state of grace which I enjoyed after the Oakland Fire made me fearless about facing a crisis, and left me floating upward, with the alchemical flames, into a new life.

I can still see the word Samsara almost jumping off the perfume bottle at my friend's house a week after the fire. Of all the assorted toiletries in the medicine cabinet "Samsara", a concept I was just beginning to grasp, was suddenly as crystal clear to me as the label on that glowing vial.

In dreams, my missing cats reassured me that they were napping in the sunshine on the other side. Years later I learned my future husband had stood beside me on that nightmarish afternoon, watching news broadcasts of the disaster at a pub in Noe Valley.

The fire taught me that the capacity for grief is directly proportional to the capacity for joy, that there is always a blessing hidden in tragedy, that angels do, in fact, watch over us all.

The illustration above was done by my friend Dave Ember, who worked as a graphic artist for the Oakland Tribune in 1991. He wrote a lovely poem on the original, which he gave to me.

"The flowers
of the future

spring forth from
the ashes of the past --

float with the flame."
--Love, Dave

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Me and my Ice Pack

Time to admire the flowers once more.

Life pushed me down on the playground recently. This is not a metaphor. I actually did fall and twist my ankle a month ago.

It felt like the school-yard bully, some mean girl, came up behind me and smacked me down onto the asphalt. I came up with those hot fast tears in my eyes that come with the question, “Who did that?” I may even have looked around, though I was alone.

Even though I had traipsed all over the rugged terrain of Esalen Institute the previous week (learning about my soul’s camouflauge) wearing these same, potentially deadly clogs, apparently I was due to have my own mini-accident, falling off of Highway One on the way to the Labor Day party.

Ah, the lowly ankle, so taken for granted, and so necessary to comfortable daily living. Unlike other joints, this one gets constant, weight-bearing use.

Anyone who’s lived in uneven rural terrain can tell you how important it is to have coordination, balance and sturdy ankles. Climbing over wood-piles, chasing stray goats, bush-whacking through forests searching for chanterelles, or lugging groceries down stone steps, are just a few of the tasks where losing one’s footing can be extremely inconvenient.

Deciding to practice stoicism (most un-characteristic for me) I didn’t go to the Big Sur Health Center right away. Since piggy back rides from dashing gentlemen only work for the first few hours or so post-injury, the following day I borrowed my husband’s crutches from his ankle cracking last year (a brush-with death-while-pruning event.)

Later that week a Qigong instructor gave me Taoist Liniment to apply religiously to my swollen foot, a dancer friend suggested an arch support, and my dear neighbors brought me a few blessed vicodin tablets. (These same neighbors loaned me a great book, “The Art of Racing in the Rain” a wondrous read for all us dog-lovers out there.)

Now, a month later, I am still hurting, and have learned to love my ice pack. Seems the universe is telling me to put my foot up at the end of the day. However, at this point I am beginning to worry about my caloric intake, since my general pattern of eating whatever I like and breaking a sweat a few times a week has been interrupted. Kind of ominous, as we head in to winter!
Hmmm, nuts and berries, hold the Deetjens Eggs Benedict, for a few weeks at least...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

It's 3am in the morning...

and my world is about to change, forever.

It's a hot summer night, one of the few we've enjoyed this year. Earlier in the evening I light a few candles in my bedroom, burn piñon incense, pray and dance.

At 3am, I decide to venture forth to our outdoor bed to gaze at the billions of stars in the Milky Way. I've left the bedroom door open, to better hear the crickets. (The screen door is broken.) As I get up to go out, holding my stuffed bunny, pillow and blanket, I notice my small Siamese cat, Minnie, peering into the corner of my altar, a low table in the corner of the room beside my bed.

Looking down with her, I think I'm going to see a mouse, or maybe a bat. But no. What I see is full-grown, darkly vibrating RATTLESNAKE, twisted around my sculpture of the Egyptian Goddess Hathor.

What follows next is a blur, even to me now, weeks later. (I'm still recovering.) I grab the phone and start dialing my husband (but he's out of town.) Then I call my closest neighbor Jim, and leave him a long, abject message. Suddenly I grab a pair of kitchen tongs, hearing my husband's voice in my head: "Man up, darling" I can handle this! Yeah right.

When I go back into my bedroom, tongs in hand, the cat is closer to the snake. I scream, and guess what. IT RATTLES. That DOES IT, I think. And I run out of the house into the warm meet Jim, who is running towards me down the path, to help. We collapse together, hugging. My head tucked under his arm, I hear his heart beating, fast.

"Let's go get Richard," we say, in unison. "He has guns!" So we do. We stumble down the path to Richard's tiny cabin. He's our local cowboy, and has taken on the mantle of Partington Ridge elder statesman, a deep source of local lore. He's sitting up on his cot, wide awake. "We have a situation," we announce, and as we give him the details, he picks up his shotgun.

"We don't want to blow a hole in her bedroom wall!" Jim says. Next Richard hands him an enormous machete, and says, "Good luck," to which I reply, "Oh no, you're coming with us, Mister Snake Whisperer!" Then he pulls a handgun out of the pocket of his work jacket. "That'll do it!" we say.

Jim (machete in hand) and I hurry back to my bedroom door, hoping that the snake is still curled up on my altar. It is, and I have moment of sadness for the poor beastie. Did not pick the right place to take a late-night nap.

Richard appears, in full wilderness gear, and pulls out the small gun. "Cover your ears," Jim says, and I stand outside in the cool grass and watch Richard fire several shots into the corner of my bedroom. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. There's no rattling so I assume he's got it. "Did you get it?" I ask, and Richard says, "" "WHAT? ? ?" I reply, astonished.

He begins to move the baskets under my altar with the machete. "Ah, I hit it," he says, and as I turn up the lights in the room I see a few drops of rattlesnake blood leading...behind my bed. The reptile seemed to know (horrors) where it was going. It's a captain's bed, so Jim and Richard pull back the mattress and Richard fires another couple of shots at the snake, huddled on the carpet, trapped between drawers...Finally, it's dead.

We carry it outside on the machete, which Richard uses to administer the coup d' grace. I carefully place it on the barbecue grill and close the lid. We stand around for a few moments, stunned. And then I say to them both, "You know, this is bad, but, um, I could really use a drink!"

Not missing a beat, Jim points towards my kitchen: "You've got some Jack Daniels there." So we open it, and drink a few shots together. "These are the times," Richard laughs, as he pours himself another tumbler of the golden liquid. As the laughter and the stories begin to flow, I realize how right he is.

I admit to them, "Don't leave me!" knowing it will be many, many hours before I can sleep again. As we decompress and share what's up in each of our worlds, I'm aware that these two crazy guys are really my family now. Family shows up when you're freaked out, takes care of you when you're threatened by your fears, and laughs with you to bring you back to more ordinary reality.

Later, I dance alone by candlelight as the dawn light gently fills the house. I'm wearing my gardening boots and pink sleep-shirt, and I stomp out a special (middle-eastern, of course) dance for my altar-snake. The primal energy of adrenalin still pulses through me.

When, a few days later, I ask my shaman friend what this episode could possibly mean, she looks at me searchingly, seriously, and says, "I think it means...keep your door closed at night." After laughing her wise-woman laugh, she adds, "That creature sacrificed herself so you can become more awake to the transformative mojo of snake medicine." To which I say, "Thank you, Madame Snake, for the powerful gift."

"Snake, come crawling
there's fire in your eyes.
Bite me, excite me,
I'll learn to realize:
the poison transmuted
becomes Eternal Flame.
Open me to heaven
that I may heal again"

---Jamie Sams

Photo by Linda Sonrisa

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Stop the World --

I want to get off!

This is the zeitgeist of Big Sur, the essential spirit of the place. Escaping here offers the hope of getting off the merry-go-round of Life, leaving behind the desperation and confusion of the mainstream world in order to find a little peace of mind.

Henry David Thoreau knew this essential mirage of the American condition, perhaps inspiring my friend Bob Nash, recovering from World War II when he bicycled from the Bay Area to Big Sur in 1951. They say Helmuth Deetjen (who founded the beloved Deetjens Inn in the 1930's) was running from the law when he built his home in Castro Canyon. And these are just a couple of famous folks from long ago. Ask any local how they landed here, and you'll get a story you won't forget.

Big Sur attracts entrepreneurs, executives and other Wall Street types as much as the more traditional bohemians: musicians and gypsies, sidewalk philosophers and bon-vivants. For decades now, Big Sur has drawn to her those
who want to re-format global consciousness, write the Great American Novel, or just lose themselves contemplating Nature.

The problem is that we are the merry-go-round, not Life. We carry around inside us the seeds of our personal chaos, as wells as the potential for our our unique fulfillment. We stir the pot, or Life stirs us.

It doesn't matter if we live in Big Sur or New York City, in a condo in Dubai or a tiny shack in the Andes. Whether we live alone or surrounded by others, it seems we're uniquely designed as humans to feel, at least from time to time, gnawing discontent with the way things are in our lives. And get this: you're luckier if you do feel this longing to escape than if you don't.

Still, it helps to live amongst the shreds of the counter-culture here in Big Sur. People at least understand that you are here because living in the "real world" drove you mad. They understand how being in this particular environment soothes your soul.

You can hike in the forest, walk along the beach, sleep under the stars. You can watch the sun "sink into the ocean, like an old man at a spa", to quote a friend. You don't have to suffer in hideous traffic jams, or spend your days interacting with dozens of people who may never know (or care to know) your name. You can leave your car un-locked, sleep with your doors and windows open. Owls sing you lullabies, little birds wake you up in the morning, everyone pretty much knows your name (though I seem to go by "Toby's wife" to many.)

And yet, it's getting harder for all of us seeking to live just a little beyond the bright lights of that vast amusement park called civilization. Jobs and housing are more limited in Big Sur than ever before, leading to more commuting, and more time spent in mainstream reality.

The Internet has invaded our brains, the Siren song of so many distractions. Social networking makes us more and more like city folk in our ability to hear the mostly mundane, yet oddly enticing news from our friends in mere nano-seconds. Personally, I've grown over-fond of the "Submit" button, giving my poor little credit card an on-line workout.

A neighbor who is so unplugged that he checks his land-line phone message machine (remember those?) about once per week told me recently that he'd just finished re-reading Homer's The Iliad (in English, not ancient Greek, though he probably could have.) Others tell me of how they have technology-free days, especially for their kids. Stopping the world we know today, even if only for a few hours, allows us to hop off that painted pony and take some deep breaths in the here and now.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh speaks of lessons learned from her retreat in Connecticut in her much-loved book Gift from the Sea --

"The sense of values I have become more aware of here...are signposts toward another way of living. Simplicity of living, as much as possible, to retain a true awareness of life. Balance of physical, intellectual, and spiritual life. Space for significance and beauty. Time for solitude and sharing. Closeness to nature to strengthen understanding and faith in the intermittency of life. Life of the spirit, creative life, and the life of human relationships."

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A little bit lighter, a little more sad

Turning Fifty ? !

A few weeks ago I shared with a friend that I was feeling somehow different that day than from any previous one so far: "I feel...a little bit lighter, a little more sad." "Could it be," he asked, smiling, "that you're growing up?" "Oh no, not that!" I replied. "Anything but that

What makes you feel good about growing older? Answer the first thing that comes to mind. I asked this question to several guests at my birthday party, before the dancing and champagne drinking got really underway. "Being in your power," "Being in your prime," "Not caring what others think of you (as much)," "Being comfortable in your own skin," "Not having to go through again what I went through to get to this point..."

And my pal Lane, the original hot bunny winemaker, weighed in via email a few days later with, "We are sparkly wonderful balls of energy at the core and I am trying to see if I can get back to the state of clean and blissful." As the Body gets older, the Spirit becomes magically younger. This contributes to living Life a little lighter, a little sadder, and hopefully with more of that Holy Grail of Maturity: Presence.

As my latest mentor Eckhart Tolle says, "Awareness is the power that is concealed within the present moment...Only Presence can undo the past in you and transform your state of consciousness."

I survived a California "Mad Men" kind of childhood, a time in a world now gone forever. But since it is my own time I remember it fondly, with a kind of wonder. I had a sunbonnet, girls always wore dresses to school, my parents listened to Dave Brubeck and went to topless bars, you get the picture. My Grandmother worked for NASA, and when men landed on the moon in July 1969 we all cheered and cried in front of the television.

These past few days, as the smoke clears after my 50th "intimate bash" here on Partington, I feel again this lightness and sadness. Full and happy with so many memories, including the unforgettable start to the party: My husband in his pork-pie hat and Hawaiian shirt, blowing away a rattlesnake (that he was unable to trap) with my Dad's 38 revolver, itself a piece of history.

I feel I've reached a summit. I know that my life is immeasurably rich and full of love. Perhaps now I am descending from that peak, letting go, bit by bit, and feeling lighter and freer in this new process. Somehow, this feels right and good. Not that there will not be great dramas and adventures to come, but may they come (fingers crossed for luck) with more and more wisdom and gentleness.

May all of us spin lightly and joyfully into the next moments of Life!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Free Box Provides

Strange as it may seem, there are shop-a-holics in this town. Thankfully, if we become embarrassingly intimate with the hardworking UPS driver and the kindly Postal workers, there is the local Free Box, where we can deposit used items and, in exchange, "shop" for odd and wonderful things we never knew we needed.

The humble Free Box, (a community drop off for household and clothing re-cycleable items) lives in an open air hallway behind Nepenthe's historic restaurant. Here are a few free Box winners over the years: a leather jacket in good condition, jeans that fit perfectly, an excellent yoga mat, and Tiffany gold cuff-links. As well as some losers: an enormous stuffed bunny missing its ears, countless mis-shaped sweaters, fancy shoes that are really too big, cookbooks from the 1970's that we'll never read.

When I was a girl I rebelled against back-to-school department store visits with my mother, since the dressing rooms at the mall became another stage for our ongoing mother-daughter battles. As a coping strategy, I began exploring the local Salvation Army thrift store.

I ended up on the "most interestingly dressed" list at my suburban high school by wearing Chinese satin gowns with cowboy boots, flowing white poet blouses, faded jeans, and vintage pumps. With adolescent flair, I began defining myself as a fashion non-conformist, not knowing I would soon evolve into a grown-up "fashion victim". (Which I did, in spades, as anyone who knows me can confirm.)

I love to shop. It's my drug of choice. I shop when I'm sad, I shop when I'm happy. I shop when I have money in my pocket, and when all I have on hand is my battered, woe-begone credit card. I shop to have a flash of that warm, sweet feeling of abundance and a kind of safety. As long as I have a new a) skirt b) boots c) set of linens d) baskets e) lawn furniture, etc. everything's all right, at least for a while.

This line of thought always recalls to me that 1970's song by The Tubes: "What do you want from Life?", that lists all the material things that American citizens are entitled to, ending with "a baby's arm holding an apple". A play on words, which, finally, after 30+ years, I just got.

I tell myself that like eating, drinking and finding shelter, in some ways we must shop to survive. Historic trade routes led to global exploration and empires. Marketplaces, like those in Ancient Greece, were public spaces set aside for vendors to trade and citizens to assemble. One could argue that commerce contributed to the birth of democracy. So shopping is not all bad.

However, at this stage of life it's time to begin purging from our closets some of the many possessions that simply don't make sense anymore, and here the Free Box comes in handy as well. So this is a Free Box alert! to all my neighbors. You know who you are. I'll see you in the that dark, magical hallway sometime soon.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Magical serendipity

Everyone has a personal tale or two about the road, and its role in the adventure of living in Big Sur. Mine is a story of serendipity.

Years and years ago, when I was a city-dweller, I would escape my cubicle and drive my little commuter car down Highway One to dip into the healing waters at Esalen, to hike steep mountains and dance on pristine beaches.

I'd drive up and down the highway, my arm stretched out the window, hand pressing against the wind. I would return to my city life restored, and perhaps just a little more present in my world.

A shutterbug, I snapped a shot of the often-photographed row of colorful mailboxes at the foot of Partington Ridge. A couple of years later I showed this picture to my fiancé, who'd been living on the Ridge the day I drove by. Tucked between the mailboxes was a bit of trash that he remembered picking up. Our paths had crossed -- him probably wishing he could scold the litterbug as I drove on down the highway, my camera holding an image of where my own mailbox would be some day.

Now I help others plan their escapes from the modern world to stay in the rustic time-capsule known as Deetjens Inn. As I speak with guests, I remember the fear and wonder we feel when we step into the unknown, even if it's only a 3 or 6 hour drive away. Our Inn guests are unique in their determination to have the experience Deetjens offers, of coming home to a more gracious, gentler world.

But magical serendipity, perhaps more abundant in Big Sur, does not protect us from the impermanence of life, whether we're meeting, almost meeting by accident, or parting ways. Last week our Deetjens community suffered a blow when the beloved Caroline Provost, who selected and arranged the Inn's fresh-cut flowers for over a decade, left us suddenly and too soon. She always gave her smiles and her love to us, and will be missed like nobody's business.

When we are surprised by the death of someone we love, the world tilts on its axis differently, as if a nuclear bomb had just detonated underground, changing the landscape we walk on forever. What can we do but send our prayers after the one who has gone ahead of us?

Caroline the Queen of the Flowers gave us a priceless parting gift: a deeper knowing of how little time we have, and how important it is to meet each other in the moment with all the love we have to give.

Mailboxes by Toby Rowland-Jones
Toby and Caroline in happier times --

Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Wedding Tree

All right, I'll admit it, here's one of my secrets: I have a special, very feminine tree that I like to hug. It comforts me to tuck my head against her tree belly, and look up and down the coast, peeking out at the world as if from behind Mama, holding onto her skirts.

This small oak grows on the point below below us, on a finger of land forming the side of one of Partington's many small canyons. She's been festooned with prayer flags and slightly pruned for a nice trim shape. She's witnessed the words of lovers, sheltered sunset watchers, and been the subject of many mystical landscape paintings.

Big Sur's mountain ridges spread away from her to the north and south, her backdrop is the ever-changing ocean and sky. From under her branches, I feel a frisson of vertigo, as if I was a red-tailed hawk swooping down towards the sea.

Probably the most interesting (and most often commented on) aspect of the Wedding Tree is that if you look at her with soft eyes, she is in fact a woman, her torso plunged into the land, legs reaching up into the air. She has an upside down "muffin top" and a serious belly button. The question, as my painter friend wondered, is whether she is diving down into the earth, or jumping up out of it.

Maybe she's doing handsprings, leaping from ridge to ridge over the ages, or maybe she's an Esalen tribal princess, transformed into an oak in some ancient, indigenous fairy tale. Either way, she is our Tree Goddess.

One morning last week I woke up like the rest of the world: after listening to city sounds in my bed, I drank a cup of coffee, walked out onto the street, got in my car and drove to an office building, where I talked about the business world all day.

How blessed I felt when the very next morning, wearing only my bathrobe, cowboy hat and sturdy shoes, playing pied piper to my three eccentric cats (who go on walks with us) I began my day leaning against the Wedding Tree's warm tummy and soaking up the strength of her primeval thighs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Quiet Days in Big Sur

The road is quiet. It has a stillness, like an empty stadium after a big game. One wants to walk slowly around its curves breathing deeply, stand in yoga poses at the vista points, and dance along the tops of the stone walls that stare down at the sea.

Without traffic (and there's been almost none at all this past week) Highway One invites contemplation. This quiet feeling permeates our daily lives right now. Perhaps the landscape's level of grandeur needs an empty stage to remind us of the solitude it lived in for so very, very long.

The ancient, enormous forces that shaped this land are more evident when we're shaken out of our daily routines. The road has a secret, which we are distracted from learning when it's busy with tourist traffic: this ribbon of road is the edge of the world as we know it.

Friday evening, as I drove home from the valley towards the ridge, my pickup truck was the only beast on the road for some ten miles. As I dimmed the headlights on the straightaways, the slopes of the cliffs transformed into sleeping animals, while pine trees loomed large along the asphalt trail. The flashes of darkness, then silver moonlight, recalled earlier times when night travel happened only when the moon was full.

Recently, Big Sur folks have made "border crossings" over the slide twice daily, a source of annoyance, but also of amusement and community. As the rains have slowed, people have reported enjoying a brisk morning walk beside their neighbors (even in an un-caffeinated state!) while helping each other push carts full of groceries back up and over the collapsed road in the afternoon.

Since the walkovers have been carefully timed, I learned a new expression in Spanish while driving my friend Mary to the bridge at 6:40 am: "Písale!" (meaning "Step on it!" ) she yelled over the roar of my truck careening through the Big Sur Valley at just over 60 mph. As I watched Mary walk towards the bend in the road, her pack on on her back, I found myself thinking about refugees crossing a mountain pass, leaving Shangri-la...

All of us living here have our road warrior stories. Title this new chapter the "Rocky Creek Slide" and add to it another chapter, begun two days ago, "Alder Creek Monster Slide" which we're told will keep Highway One to the south of Gorda closed for a month. After seeing this photo, you'll believe it.

As of April 15, the only way into Big Sur is over Nacimiento-Fergusson Road. A 2-3 hour detour which begins in the basin of the Valley of the Oaks in Jolon. Now here's more good news: tucked into the corner of this valley is Mission San Antonio de Padua. Built in 1771, it contains countless timeless pieces of the past in its small museum. There's also a wine press, a millstone, and as my young friend Nigel demonstrates here, a 200 year-old olive tree.

Visiting the Missions has always moved me, maybe because they remind me of my 1960's California childhood experience of struggling to build them out of sugar cubes, cardboard and clay in elementary school.

Saint Anthony is the patron saint of lost things, the one who guides us to hidden treasures, so it seems appropriate to visit him on your way to Big Sur. This route to the coast has its share of surprises too: perhaps you'll see the mysterious herd of thundering elk, smell the grape jelly scent of fields of lupine or feel a calm sense of awe as you come to the crest of the mountain above Lucia.

As the Buddhist teaching goes: Impermanence is the essence of life (or as my Dad used to say, The only constant in life is change). On this Friday, April 22 Highway One will re-open at the Rocky Creek Slide. This latest news proves again that it's possible to simultaneously feel great relief and nostalgia for difficult times.

Nigel at the Mission Olive tree photo by Margaret Goeden

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Here we go again

Just when we think we're really part of the 21st century here in Big Sur (cell phones, satellite TV, internet cafés under the redwoods) Mother Nature comes along and whompers us.

This is what She did last week, the day before St. Paddy's Day. The fields and mountains in Big Sur are shamrock green, while the earth is wet and getting wetter with the Spring storms. Last Wednesday the southbound lane on Highway One, between Rocky Creek and Bixby Bridge, collapsed in magnificent fashion, beginning a decisive slide down a 200' sandy cliff towards the sea.

I snapped the photo above while crossing over the danger zone the morning after the event, carrying bags to our car in the bright cold sunlight on the "other side". Since it's a tiny dinosaur of a cell phone camera, I had to get very close to the buckling asphalt, to the concern of those around me.

"Honey, it's not a screen-saver," my husband said. Wait, holding a camera makes you a superhero, right? Walking back across the damaged road without shielding myself with technology, the scene somehow became more real.

I asked the two gentleman standing above the gaping hole that was once a highway, "So when are the engineers showing up to fix this?" "Engineers don't fix things, we fix things!" they said emphatically.

"What about putting in a one-lane road over there?" Playing the know-it-all local, I pointed to the empty flat space next to the northbound lane. "It's not so stable," replied the Sheriff standing nearby. So I jumped up high, landing firmly on the pavement, just to see what would happen. "Good thing you're little" they said and we all had a good laugh in the early morning sunshine.

Those of us who were here for 1998's El Niño season remember months of an impassable highway, reduced employment, insanely long "town runs" for supplies. And yet, in light of recent global events, this one just doesn't feel like such a hardship.

"Hardship" is defined as "a condition that is difficult to endure; suffering; deprivation; oppression". What we are experiencing here, (as a friend said wisely as we conferred at the Post Office yesterday) is “inconvenience”.

It's dark, stormy, and cold this morning, but there is a songbird singing in the wet woods beside our house, high true notes, as if it were warm and sunny outside, singing for his mate, to help build his nest and comfort him on the coming summer evenings.

Did I say it was cold? People are beginning to get concerned with filling their propane tanks, and grateful for the wood they've held onto over the winter months. Fortunately, I am one of those who still find it romantic to build a fire. We are living like quasi-gypsies: flashlights, vitamins and overnight bags in the car, ready for a sleepover somewhere other than home, due to a downed tree, power line or slide.

Fields of lupin and poppies are on the way, early spring Daffodils are drooping but beautiful. A symphony of happy frogs, birdsong and pouring rain: it's Spring in Big Sur!

Itty bitty pictures taken by Linda Sonrisa on her cell phone

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Three Mouseketeers

You might ask: how did this happen? How did two dog and wild bird-loving grown-ups end up with not one, not two, but three cats?

Here are some possible anwers:
Mice and their large cousins, rats, are everywhere in Big Sur, happy rural rodents with big appetites and no sense of decorum (running across the dining room floor at dinner time, for example, or squawling and gnawing all night between the walls).

Kittens are irresistible. And when someone hands you the one you didn't choose, 'cause the one you wanted is playing hard to get, well, you can't say no, can you?

We actually have a secret craving to be mauled by furry creatures who climb on top of us in bed. Oh, wait, that could be, um, misinterpreted.

So here they are, the three mouseketeers, in their favorite team snuggle position: Lola Augustina, Lady Pearl Grey, and Minerva Minnie-Moo. Three great mousers who still regularly go through tubs of cat food and vats of milk. Lola is curious, Pearl is calm, and Minnie (the previously shy one) will be all over you in no time, just like the proverbial "cheap suit."

Our dog is endlessly patient, enduring their curiosity, sniffing noses with them and staring back into their feline eyes. He only snaps at them when they get too familiar with his food bowl.

We have been invaded by this trio, and find ourselves to be happy collaborators in the good life they're enjoying in our home. They are living art, really. You never know where they'll turn up in a domestic tableau: beside the vase of calla lilies on the dining table, stretched out on the sheepskin beside the altar, or perched on the yoga deck staring out to sea. They pop up everywhere, reminders from the animal kingdom to check in with this moment and purr with contentment.

To be honest, we have asked, "want one?" to a few friends, only to realize that we could never choose which one to part with. So, we have three cats. A trinity of feline love that graces our home. And when the three-headed cat stares down at us in the mornings, meowing for breakfast, we laugh. In this way we remember just how silly we are, and how blessed, too.

photo by Toby Rowland-Jones

Monday, February 21, 2011

Snow on the Mountain!

Brrrrr! If I was really adventurous, I would have hiked to the top of the ridge and jumped in the snow drifts there this weekend.

However, I have a life-long dread of snow. Which I think may be hereditary (my mother left Minnesota for the same reason that Sam McGee longed to go home to Tennessee). She taught me the Cremation of Sam McGee (a ballad her father used to recite as well) and told me to buck up on cold California mornings on my way to school: ("It's nothing like Bemidji, darling," she'd laugh.)

So, snow is very exotic in my world. I've never skied (well, cross country once, in high desert, not especially alpine snow near the Grand Canyon) and now that I'm edging closer to the age of well, let's just say it, frailer bones, I'm not interested risking it. Give me a cute outfit though, and I can do the aprés ski thing fine.

It was 30 degrees on Partington Ridge most of the weekend, and I enjoyed tending the home fires, doing yoga, reading the New Yorker and assorted creation myths I've just discovered in one of the many, many books I own that I have yet to read. A true bookworm party-girl of the old school, I enjoyed a glass of champagne while taking a very HOT shower Sunday afternoon, opening the window to yell at the cats who were circling the bird feeder hanging from the olive tree. Yep, I'd say that's eccentricity!
photos by Linda Sonrisa

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Coming home

Something we quietly acknowledge about living here in Big Sur, our sweet little secret is this: it's GREAT to come home, from anywhere. Whether from a day trip to Salinas or a month in Bali, as we drive back down Highway One we feel the magic.

We have our special rituals, places where we stop, get out of the car, take great gulps of fresh air, reach up our arms and smile. Looking down that coast at cliffs, ocean, clouds, perhaps a condor or two, we experience the involuntary ahhhh of the exhale and mmmmmm of the inhale. If we're returning at night, there's nothing like that moment of looking up, throat open, wonder streaming down, as we gaze at the abundance of twinkling stars in the heavens welcoming us home.

Right now I feel like I'm in a state of grace. So this is what a week-long yoga retreat (in the jungles of Mexico) does to the soul. Four hours per day of yoga and meditation. Further enriched by connecting with our amazing teachers and with all of the wise and funny students, while enjoying delicious vegetarian meals. Now back home, all I really want to do is curl up in the sun, like one of my cats, and breathe.

From time to time I'll gaze out at the world from behind my fur, in great peace. I want to lazily watch the hummingbirds while listening to the breezes in the trees. Life has become one long shivasana (resting pose) interrupted by all the running around (work-errands-classes-relationships) that I have to do to keep it going.

One of the great gifts that guided introspection in a formal setting brings is the undeniable, undiluted fact that the answers to your life's questions can be found inside you. This is both blessing (ah, so simple!) and curse (good lord, look how I'm everywhere but there!) Yoga and meditation are tools for listening to one's higher self. Living in natural beauty (or consciously appreciating it wherever you are) helps, too. Breath, movement and nature are all teachers, it's just that really showing up for class is still hard.

Last night I admired the constellations of Sirius and Orion chasing the moon in the western sky. A silver column of moonlight stretched across the sea to the bathtub in my garden, and I thought, well, here I am. Perhaps all my questions, worries, regrets, even my great joys, don't really matter. Maybe even the "answers" aren't so important. What matters is having a life. And for me I'd add this to the recipe: sharing this journey with my fellow spiritual travelers.

Shivasana on the mountain, anyone?

Photos by Linda Sonrisa

Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Year, New Leaf

I've been trying to avoid this news for some time: it's really 2011, and time to get serious with all my New Year's resolutions. Not that I have that many, and I've made sure that they are achievable. It's just that last week marked the 12th day of Christmas on January 6, (also the Day of the Epiphany) and I enjoyed a "last hurrah" trip to the City to welcome in the New Year with a few dear women friends.

While most folks diligently turn their "New Leaf" on January 2, I like to wait, just a bit. To extend the afterglow of guilt-free holidays and gently ease into all those healthy, positive behaviors. How I enjoy giving myself permission, knowing that the new, pure me is about to appear within a few weeks. No more drinking champagne every evening and eating all the delicious treats that materialize and multiply all season long, just like frisky rabbits!

Which brings us to the next degree of possible procrastination regarding the New Year, New Leaf syndrome: the Chinese New Year, which begins on February 3. 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, a warm fuzzy kind of year, v. the Tiger, which we just completed. Think of a snarling, fur-flying year with a bite, one that woke us up to realities and forced us to face our fears. The Bunny year, on the other hand, will be full of abundant creativity, serene endurance and mellow loving fun. Sounds good!

In January, and again in Februray, the smooth ribbon of the New Year highway stretches out before us, no potholes, detours or Do Not Enter signs. Although disappointments soon begin to stack up, and our Happy New Year! wishes seem a bit deflowered, we hold onto the pristine dream that Life is better, simply because we've said so. It's a time of new vision, of letting go of clinging to the past. No more crying over spilt tiger milk, let's hop into the present instead.

What better way to celebrate than to continue to celebrate? In what we hope will become an annual event, my friends and I enjoyed San Francisco's De Young Museum's Post-Impressionist art exhibit last weekend, walking through Golden Gate Park wrapped in our winter coats, mufflers and hats. We strolled through Shakespeare's Garden, then admired the masterpieces of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne, Gaugin, Renoir, Seurat and more.

Later we had yummy coffees at the museum café, where another dear local friend joined us. We made a side trip to Thailand for dinner at Marni Thai's in the inner sunset neighborhood, then returned to Cavallo Point to drink champagne and watch a movie. Of course it was You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger with Josh Brolin, shirt open to the waist, cavorting about with other romantic nitwits. Like most of Woody Allen's films, it ended with that ice-cream on the sidewalk feeling. Then we read Tarot cards and drank scotch...

So, now, as you can imagine, I'm ready for 2011 (more or less). Below are the elements of my annual "New Leaf" program which I'm offering to the Great Rabbit --

  • Drink more milk.
  • Memorize and recite my favorite poems to my friends.
  • Hula hoop almost every day.
  • Cultivate reverence.
  • Dance, write, play, laugh, make love and breathe deep.