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

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