Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Samsara in a Bottle

Big Sur serves up Fire like no place else on Earth. There's the epic grandeur of the destruction, framed against ocean and sky. Giant flames that dance like demons through the forest, racing towards your home. You already feel you're a tiny part of the cosmos here, and that sense is amplified by the terror of fire. 

Of all the possible rock-bottom, soul-twisting life events, fire comes near the top of the list. As several of my dear friends learned this past month, great loss and radical shifts of perspective go hand in hand.

Sometimes those shifts are subtle, like a whisper, other times stark and in-your-face, but the gifts fire brings are always profound.

Life turns on a dime, as my Dad used to say, and the fast-moving Pfeiffer Fire which began just before midnight on December 15 was a shattering example of this fact. A few key individuals who happened to be awake, who saw flames and smelled smoke, sounded the alarm that saved several lives. People fled with the clothes on their backs and nothing else. 30' flames in driveways and gardens led to emergency convoys over back roads and down the mountain to safety.

So many acres, so many homes, so many people displaced, disasters are always reported with numbers, as if the numbers can help us to digest the event and somehow convey the power of the story. Those who are living the reality of losing, almost losing, or fighting to save their homes, know that integrating this particular fire into their personal experience is going to take the tincture of time.

And then, the soul gifts, just in time for Christmas: 

We are connected, none of us is really alone. The Pfeiffer Fire produced an outpouring of love and support, donations and concern, bringing all of us closer into the circle of community. Also, we are stronger than we know. Especially I think of my friend who fought the fire for hours in her flip-flops (and probably could have done it in her heels.)

You are not your stuff. What an amazing feeling it is to walk away from a lifetime of collecting belongings and know that you really only deeply miss one or two, or well, maybe, 3 or 4, things. And what you miss takes on a special significance. Your favorite painting. The silk robe, the teapot. Grief over these losses is offset by the simple fact that you and your loved ones are alive.

Renewal and rebirth really happen. As hard as it may be to believe at first, bit by bit we come back to our selves, transformed by fire into something stronger and more brilliant than before. We know our depths - everything is more precious to us - and so we can re-create our lives from that place. Spring is coming, and with a little blessed rain, it will be magnificent.

Shortly after my 30th birthday my home burned down in the Oakland Hills, part of an urban firestorm that took thousands of homes and 25 lives. For a time I lived in a state of grace, where every person and object seemed to glow from the inside, reverberating with light. I had just begun to learn about Buddhism, and the concepts of nirvana and samsara were fresh in my mind. 

One afternoon I found myself fascinated by the contents of the medicine cabinet in my friend's 1940's era apartment. Everything I looked at during those days I saw simultaneously whole and exploded into ash. Peering behind the mirrored door of the cabinet one item jumped out at me from the middle shelf, a small perfume bottle, labeled in red: Samsara. Samsara, the turning wheel of existence, the world of suffering and desire. 

Days before the fire, I recall stopping and really looking, almost absorbing, the fresh blooms of the Lily of the Nile in my garden. I treasured that moment for years, and still see it as a way to step off the merry-go-round of suffering, and into the richness Life offers us every day. 

Now for another gift that fire brings: a deeply felt conviction that we have only this moment, and that living fully in each moment brings us peace. May this peace be our New Year's wish for our neighbors recovering from the Pfeiffer Fire, and for all of us in the years to come.

Pfeiffer Fire photo by Linda Sonrisa

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Playing with Time

All my watches are broken. They sit in a bag in my closet, waiting to come back to life.  This past Sunday as Daylight Saving Time concluded for the year, I found myself pondering Time.

As a chronically tardy person, arriving on time would be a breakthrough, while arriving early would be revolutionary.

It's a comfort to know that I share this condition with others. The moral superiority of punctual people is lost on us. We dash off to each date with the high drama of the White Rabbit.

As the pendulum swings from the to-the-nanosecond accuracy I vow to follow with each time change, my clocks creep forward. The timer on the microwave is 20 minutes fast to keep me moving out the door and into the world, while the car clock is a quarter of an hour ahead, to keep me from driving like the proverbial bat out of hell down Highway One.

Playing with time, I hope, eternally, to arrive on time. (Only my wall clock is stopped at 4:20, in honor of the dear friend who bequeathed it to me, his time having run out.)

Unless I am at work, where I confess to being a bit of a clock watcher, I guess-timate time throughout the day. Perhaps the garden needs a sun-dial, the original clock,  to monitor passage of that big ball of  fire in the sky. Maybe I should acquire that most poetic of timepieces, an hour-glass, and watch the grains of sand slip away.

Right now, as I write this, the sun filters throughout the leaves of the elm tree above me, and I imagine it's after noon, but not by too much.

And now, the light has moved again, as I sit under the trees and feel it on my back as it spreads across the lawn at an oblique angle. What a privilege it is to feel the sun move across the sky, to sense the hours of the day move forward, measured only by the changing quality of the light.

I hear sea lions barking from a cove to the north of here, the sound travels all this way.  In the dawn I heard the yipping of too-near coyotes and multitudes of chirping finches. Sometimes the canyon air carries the breath of spouting whales, from the ocean way below.

Raking maple leaves, I watch them fall delicately, slowly, around me. I take laundry off the prettiest clothes-line in the world: removing a sun-dried white sheet to see the coastline to the south, the fog hugging the ridges like a soft down blanket tucked up into each canyon, up against each cliff.

Perhaps knowing the accurate time is over-rated, another side-effect of modern life. Living in the present moment can be accomplished gently, too. Maybe all I need to remember is the line from that wonderful old song, "Enjoy yourself... It's later than you think."

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think
Enjoy yourself, while you're still in the pink
The years go by, as quickly as a wink
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it's later than you think

Saturday, September 21, 2013

First Rain

We are so happy when it happens, ideally on a sleepy morning cuddled under the covers. First, there is the sound, that gentle splashing of water on roofs, decks, lawns.

It begins slowly, and perhaps you think it's drippy fog. But no, this morning it was genuine, grade AA raindrops. Then, an hour into the moist symphony of sprinkles, the rhythm picked up and it is Rain, Blessed Rain, for real.

Little birds wake up and trill their delight, fluffing their feathers between splashes, feeding on freshly washed seeds. Each drop lands with a perfect still note, a precious daub of wetness touching earth, stream, tree and flower.

Precipitation is protection here, the beginning of the end of late summer when we review our valuables - packing them into boxes next to the front door for a quick exit in case of forest fire.

So the rain means freedom from worry, as well as a time to reflect on yet another turn of the seasons.

I sit up in bed, drink coffee and pet my cat, relishing a moment of domestic bliss. All the beings in the garden rejoice in the refreshment.

Now I must sacrifice comfort for adventure. Out the door to dance on the grass, to lift my head to the heavens, to wash my soul in the freshest, purest water there is.

and from e.e. cummings:

...nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals the power of your intense fragility: whose texture compels me with the color of its countries, rendering death and forever with each breathing (i do not know what it is about you that closes and opens; only something in me understands the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands -- from W, 1931

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

What would Kipling do?

It's an odd phenomenon that when friends go away, we can find ourselves integrating into our lives what they have taught us by example. It's a kind of psychic sloughing, where special cells merge, and some of their essence lives on in us. 

Our animal friends revel in the moment, which is their great gift. Their core simplicity can show us how to live and love, with compelling presence. 

Free of human passions like envy, deceit, avarice or doubt -  unworried by image, how many toys they have, or what it all means, they live full and contented lives. Sometimes you can see they are bored or maybe lonely, but they're always willing to respond to your attention.

I miss my four-legged friend Kip in the mornings when he would go out in the garden to gaze at the sea, or in the evenings when he would greet me with a big wet kiss. I miss him on long road trips when he'd rest his nose on my forearm as I drove for miles and miles. His soulful eyes are always with me, as is his canine smile. 

Once, when arriving at an exclusive spa south of Partington, that place with the sulfur baths, what's it called again ? ?  We were stopped at the entrance with a scowl, and were told that I could come in, "but not the animal". I looked at Kip in the back seat and I swear he did a double-take as if to say, "Who, me? An animal?" And then the guard recognized him, granting us access after all. "Oh, it's Kipling," he said happily, and that was all that was needed.

My goal now is to embody Kip's enthusiasm, simplicity and trust in life. His ability to drink in the beauty of where we live, his playfulness and his glowing, deep loyalty to those he loved. And Kip loved everyone. Some more than others, of course, but everyone was of interest to him, an opportunity to love and be loved. If he followed you with his eyes, greeted you with a lick, or sang out to you when you appeared, jumping up and down with joy, then you knew you were special. 

The mantra I use to keep him close is WWKD? What would Kipling do? And then I must act honorably and simply.

I still see him at the end of the driveway when I come home; in profile, his royal white ruff fanned out below his gently inclined head. Waiting for me. My most profound hope is that I get to see him again someday. We'll take a lovely stroll to our favorite spot, then sit in the sun on the grass together.

Kipling Rowland-Jones 1999 - 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Church of the Sunset

At the end of my days, will I say simply that I watched a lot of glorious sunsets? Could this be enough?

When I was a young thing fresh out of college running wild in the Berkeley hills I watched sunsets. A group of us met several times a week above the Lawrence Hall of Science to celebrate the sun sinking into the San Francisco Bay. We'd jump-start the evening with a splashy orange glow. A different sunset for every night.

Infinite combinations of clouds, sun, moon, stars, and jet planes echoed the dramas of our small, ever-changing group of friends. We called ourselves the Sunset Club.

One friend from that time, a lovely lost Irishman who came to California by way of Liverpool, had a trove of poems he shared. One fragment stays in my mind, written to his wife: "To find you I came this far, to where the sun sinks into the Pacific like an old man at a spa."

Now witnessing the timeless passage of the sun below the horizon is a life-long ritual, my Church of the Sunset. And yet I ask myself, on quiet evenings, is this pleasure perhaps, too simple?

Sensing the  planet turning away from the sun is essentially passive. You have to stop, be present, maybe enjoy a glass of champagne, and express gratitude for the day. It would seem that there's not a lot of action required to observe nature. And yet, cultivating stillness is a major achievement in a world where we are quite possibly more distracted than ever before.

Do I go outside to see celestial bodies at dusk or dawn? Or do I turn to the internet for pages of news and gossip? It's a measure of how pervasive contemporary gadgets are that even here in Big Sur we face these questions.

These days, I find I watch the sunrise as often as the sunset, mysterious but true. The pink light of dawn  floats at the horizon, above the fog rolling in from the sea. This tender display gently caresses me awake, leading me outside. My feet touch the cool grass, my cats nap on garden chairs, birds chatter and sing out, hummingbirds zoom up to the feeder. The day begins.

And I remember another poem, this one by Rumi -

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you:
Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don't go back to sleep.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

There, and Back Again

A wonderful way to feel greater presence is to buy a ticket, take a trip, and enter a new world. So my journey to Bali this Spring, after a transformative year, was a delight. 

As I re-enter my world after visiting another one, I remember the story of the famous home-loving Hobbit who travels to an exotic land in search of dragon's treasure. There, and back again.

Now I'm back again, but I am still absorbed in There.  Beautiful Bali, oppressively hot, teeming with tropical life,  and filled with tender people engaging each day in reverent ritual.

Letting go is part of the key to enjoying new experiences, and good travelers know this. You must strike a balance between attachment to your goals (what I call the checklist) and relaxing into whatever is happening. Otherwise you’d spend the afternoon drinking rum down the road from the temple or shopping in markets instead of climbing the volcano.  While either option is good, you do need to choose - inspired by the knowledge that, as in life, your time is limited.

Travel teaches us how to handle curve-balls like tummy aches and bug bites, lost phones, long lines, getting hustled or downright ripped off, or just feeling unsettled and standing out in a crowd like a, well, a tourist.

Here's the secret: it's All Worth It. My treasure, found in a temple complete with a dragon: Sitting on the stone before the altar, breathing incense deeply, flowers behind my ears, hands in prayer pose against my forehead.  

Naturally I would get the smart-ass Hindu priest, who smiled down at me and asked, "American?" and when I nodded yes, he laughed and said, "For you, just make a wish, OK?" 

Sitting alone with this priest and my guide at Besakih, the Mother Temple, praying beneath the volcano on a muggy overcast day, I was at peace with myself for one blessed moment. My spirit woke up, saying to me, "Ahhhhh, This, now this is what you came here for!"

Then the priest poured holy water into my hands to drink (it tasted sweet, like lychee fruit) and daubed my forehead with a pinch of rice. "For prosperity, " he said, and my guide laughed and added, "Now you look Balinese!" 

Riding side-saddle on the back of a scooter, learning to make Banten offerings, and otherwise ever so slightly morphing into the culture through respectful action, words, posture and dress is my favorite part of travel. I admit, I like to "go native" as much as possible, and why not?  

The reverence that the Balinese bring to so many details of life reminds me of what the lady caretaker of a simple 13th century church in Tregaron, Wales, told me: "God is in the little things." This is my belief, too. Whether shooing sheep out of the cemetery or making coconut leaf flower baskets, presence arrives by paying attention.

And now, as my beloved traveling companion told me upon our return, the goal is to "keep the Bali breeze in the belly," despite the fevered rush of our contemporary Western lives. In America, we pretty much find, or invent, our own way. There is no national formula for achieving peace, and fewer common threads of community and ritual. With abandon, we make it all up, and muddle forward with as much graciousness as we can.

Yet, my trip to Bali taught me something vital: the power of reverence. All I need  to do is sit in stillness, hands in prayer, maybe inhale a little sweet incense, and magic happens.

Mt. Batur volcano, with swallow
Blogger at Besakih
Banten offerings
Lotus at Ananda Cottages, Ubud

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Here she comes

Last week I arranged narcissus and pale pink gardenias in the Deetjens Inn office. Yesterday, the tights and boots came off and I wore a dress and flat shoes to work. This morning I woke knowing that it was time to place the fuschia silk cloth on my altar.

Yes, after the violent storms of this past Winter, Spring is gently, gently sailing into Big Sur. You can hear it in birds trilling in the trees, see it in daffodils dancing in gentle rains, smell it in cherry blossoms dropping their petals like confetti.

I hear the lupin are out in the back country, filling fields with the scent of sun-warmed grape jelly.

Spring, inexhaustible Spring. We die and we come back to life every year, such a lovely metaphor for our spiritual evolution.

Doing some much-needed Spring cleaning, I came across a postcard with these words of our "local son" author Henry Miller:

"Why then do we not give ourselves -- recklessly, abundantly, completely? If we realized we were part of an endless process, that we had neither to lose nor to gain, but only to live it out, would we behave as we do?"

Ah, Henry Miller, Hindu sage. It's all Lila, God's play. We exist to manifest God in a flow of spontaneous, creative vitality. An end in itself, this cosmic dance is why we are here, and we must join the party or miss out on what our souls need most.

Spring encourages us to give of ourselves, again. To jump back into the world with a shout, "I am here, so let's rejoice!" In a few days, I'm off to Bali, Indonesia, to sing and dance in temples, to ride elephants and pray under volcanoes. It's all part of the adventure of rebirth this Spring.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Partington Island

Everything changes. Nothing is forever. Mountains move, rocks slide, roads collapse. Sometimes, chaos and rubble rule. What we want to believe - that we can count on business as usual - is false. Security is not just around the corner, but change certainly is.  

Maybe this is not so bad.  Risk can generate possibilities. Westerners moan, “this too shall pass” but Buddhists call this impermanence and embracing it makes life sing.  Perhaps it’s possible to find comfort in change, to be nurtured, not wounded, by reality. It is as it is, baby.

The unforeseen and seemingly impossible can free you from illusions and put you on a higher path.

On Partington Ridge this winter though, we’d be happy with a new and improved road. Living in Big Sur means navigating some utterly unique episodes of destruction. The latest one arrived last month, just in time for Christmas.

Our beautiful old road, steadfast for 75 years, the solace of my morning commute, collapsed on December 23, two days after the Mayan Apocalypse.

An enormous weathered rock face, composed of dinosaur-sized boulders (and probably as old) rolled down the cliff in a prodigious rainstorm, destroying a 60’ section of the road. Rocks as large as the pillars at Stonehenge crash-landed on Highway One. It was a Biblical event.

 A triptych of boulders resembling Mt. Rushmore is just a little higher up the road, which raises the question, is there more to come? What I could barely conceive of has become a reasonable expectation. 

The frightening becomes “the new normal” as my neighbors, many no longer spring chickens, hike over the path they’ve carved across the slide.

Personally, I prefer the “back road” because that’s where my baptism into this adventure took place. After changing into rough jeans from tights and sequins on New Year’s Eve, I traveled up the Dubois-DeAngulo dirt road at 2am perched like a hood ornament on my neighbor’s all terrain vehicle. This required a serious grip and a good sense of humor. To paraphrase Bette Davis – talk about a bumpy night!

Thanks to my wonderful employer, Deetjens Inn, we now share a Polaris Ranger 4X4 between three Inn employees and Ridge neighbors on an as needed basis. We can travel down to work each day, and taxi neighbors up and down with groceries and supplies.

Partington Island may become a real “eco-resort”, where we pack everything in and out on foot or on 4-wheel drive quad vehicles.  As a friend of mine coined it, we could become “Quadlandia” and remain tranquil in the stillness of Nature.

Everything is somehow smaller and closer as we reach out to our neighbors to arrange rides, share supplies and drink wine together. We solve each problem the lack of road creates step by step, and build consensus over the best course of action for rebuilding it.

Like the shifting rocks above the road, we can’t predict what’s next with perfect accuracy. All of this has deepened my appreciation of survival basics:  is there anything more welcoming than the warmth of a wood fire when you walk indoors on a cold and rainy night? The glow of candlelight while reading beside the fire? Warm clothes, hot food, hugs, and laughter?

It is so very quiet now, delicious, primal quiet. All of us driving cars up and down the road, so necessary in our busy rural lives, has stopped. The relentless drumbeat of modern life slows, and we remember. This is what we came to Big Sur for, after all. We want to feel, as our ancestors did, that we are an essential part of the cosmos, supported by the web of community. 

While we learn to love our neighbors more as we help each other out, we are really a tribe of social hermits here. We treasure the views from our nests, the meditative state of calm that Big Sur brings.  While that deep peace can best be sensed in a solitary way, we are fortunate on Partington Island to share this feeling with like-minded souls.

If there is a creed in Big Sur, it is that this land teaches, heals, and answers prayers. The Esselen, who lived and feasted on this ridge for centuries, leaving hillsides blackened with fire-stones and abalone shells, had a mystical belief: Certain places on Earth transmit all that has happened there. All you have to do is touch them, and you will remember.