Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Afternoon Tea with Helen

Helen Morgenrath receives me in the sun room beside her garden, books of poetry, philosophy and religion all around her.

The windows make the walls in this space, letting in views of the redwood forest outside. The sun warms the tiles below Helen's feet as she sits in a straight-backed chair, working a puzzle in her lap. Brightly colored Tibetan thangkas hang between the windows and fresh flowers rest in a vase in the low table beside her.

At 86, Helen recently went through hip surgery and recovered remarkably well. Coming home is always the turning point in recuperation, and she's happy to be back in the cozy adobe house she and her children have built over the years.

Helen's daughter Tara lives next door and reports that she went out into the garden right away, to pick flowers and enjoy the sunshine. As Tara and I sit down with her this afternoon, Helen smiles and stretches out her legs toward the warmth of the wood-burning stove. Wearing gray sweat pants, booties and a cobalt blue sweater, she apologizes for being a little under the weather.

A Philosophy major at Smith College in the early 1940's, Helen Albrecht was already part of the avant-garde, with a seeker's heart and a dancer's love of self-expression. She studied traditional Hindu as well as modern dance, and spent many hours in the New York Public Library's Oriental Room. Here she became fascinated by the lives of Milarepa and Krishnamurti. Helen remembers that time: "Everyone was an eccentric."

Exposure to this world led her to craft a different kind of life: Looking at how a consumer-driven society generates a feeling of lack, Helen instead created a life of deep appreciation by making do with less. In the early years in Big Sur, Helen and her growing family lived without electricity or radio, and had one of Big Sur's first phones (4 digit number, party line style) at Krenkle Corners. Art, entertainment and learning were self-generated, with Big Sur's natural magnificence serving as inspiration.

Helen met her future husband, Selig, when she went to upstate New York to visit a conscientious objector's detention camp. "War just leads to more war," she says today. A hardworking, practical man who had emigrated from Poland, Selig disliked the city, leading Helen to suggest starting married life with an adventure: traveling out West, looking for an alternative way to live.

After giving away most of their possessions (except for the wheat grinder, in order to make bread) they travelled by bus from Manhattan to Southern California. They wanted wilder nature, not the tiny orange groves of Helen's cousin Mary's home in San Bernardino, so headed towards Oregon to look for what they called "the big trees." Someone suggested driving up Highway One, "'cause Henry Miller lived there somewhere."

"On May 21, 1949, we came up the coast and there was not a car on the road from San Simeon to Anderson Creek. A sign there said 'Stop -- Art Gallery' " "Stop," Helen commanded, her patience as a passenger wearing thin. At the open air gallery, they met Henry Miller's factotum, artist Emil White, and soon decided to build a home at Anderson Creek, from materials they found.

"What did you think of Big Sur, that day in May?" I ask. "God was knocking at my heart," she answers.

My first encounter with Helen was at a party at Pfeiffer Beach in 1998, during the El NiƱo storms which closed Big Sur to the public. She showed me a tiny goddess figurine she'd made from the cliff's rich red soil, art from the simplest elements. At the time I had a sense of a luminous woman who appreciated the world with a special delight.

After developing a siting meditation practice, Helen took her Tibetan Bodhisattva vows decades ago, formalizing her path: grounded in acceptance of life, and living in service to family, community and the world.

Over the years, Helen and her family lived in a variety of magical places, including Rocky Creek, where Helen taught dance at the little red barn school near Monastery Beach. During this happy time, Helen remembers lots of creative evenings, where families shared popcorn and apples, and watched the children's plays. They would travel back down to Big Sur proper with neighbors, who would also pool their efforts to buy supplies in Monterey.

The family home today (found with a dear friend who lives nearby) was built by Helen and her children, with Helen crafting the blueprints and using local building materials. In fact, they built the swimming pool first, hoping that the native soil might work as material for adobe bricks. The bricks ended up coming from the Central Valley, and the pool, shaded by palm trees and heated by the sun, has been central to festivities at Casa Morgenrath for many years.

Helen's adventurous life here also involves some of the luminaries who moved through Big Sur in the 50's and 60's. Alan Watts, his wife Dorothy and their four children came to stay with Helen, Selig and their children for a time at Livermore Ledge. "Alan had the biggest laugh," she recalls, a personable man who spoke to children like adults and had a wonderful sense of humor.

Regarding the founder of Deetjens' Inn, Grandma Deetjen (Helen Haight), Helen smiles and says, "Oh, how she loved children!" Then she tells me how she fed bonbons to everyone, (as well as her dogs) making her a favorite of locals and visitors. Grandpa Deetjen doesn't fare as well, as Helen confirms the familiar tale of him being a gruff old man.

She also found herself dining with Joseph Campbell, "I was a good listener" she says. Anthropologists Maud Oakes and Giles Healey were neighbors, and painter Sheila Healey is a life-long friend. Helen and her daughter Tara visited her in England recently, and at 90, Sheila took them for long walks and served them high tea.

Which brings us back to the lovely cups of steaming green tea and cookies which Tara carries to the sun-room on a wooden tray. As we take a break from the interview we sit and smile at each other, and my dog comes into the room, snuffling at our knees and licking Helen's hand. "He's laughing with us," Tara says, and we laugh back.

"What inspires you today?" I ask Helen, and she answers, "My children, grand-children, and great grand-children, of course. And, Big Sur's daily beauty and how it changes -- sunrises, sunsets, the symmetry of plant life, all the beautiful colors, clouds in the sky, the warmth of my stove."

She marvels at how fortunate she is to be in Big Sur, surrounded and cared for by family, and how this helps her appreciate life and feel inspired. "I wonder, if I had very little to enjoy in the way of beauty, if I was living in a 'home', for example, would I be able to appreciate life the same way?" And we all agree that living in Big Sur provides a kind of training for the eye and heart, leading us to see beauty almost everywhere.

Helen smiles her beautiful smile at me. Then we all take a deep breath, and enjoy our tea and cookies together in the sunshine.

Photo by Aengus Wagner