Saturday, March 29, 2014

Puppy Love and Poison Oak

Well, here he is, now ready for prime time, Mister Leonardo Jones. A little hesitant, looking up at me from Mom's hallway, but perfectly suited to the warm tones in her carpet. Perhaps it is a magic carpet, that will fly a little dog back to Big Sur, minus the three hour car ride?  

Rescued from the Monterey SPCA, Leo was part of their outstanding Take the Lead program. He came with "papers", notes from the at-risk kids who reported that Leonardo would be "as good as he could be" and assured me that he would always comfort me through tough times. 

Leo survived Parvo and institutional living for the first 8 months of his life, to land on Partington Ridge as my companion animal. And that last bit he takes quite seriously, giving him what my dog trainer friend calls "velcro dog" status.                                                                                          

When I met Leonardo, my heart was still bruised from the loss of wonder-dog Kipling. But when this gawky little guy tried to climb up into my lap at the shelter, I melted and the pain around my heart lifted. This is not a metaphor, but was a tangible experience. I felt a genuine out-breath escaping my body in relief. Love.

And then, the adventure began. Too nervous and young to be left at home alone, Leo joined me in the office at first, barking frantically when I left the room, chewing up papers, and everything else, with abandon. Clearly, more SPCA training was in order, where a fellow dog-mama asked me if Leonardo was "as smart as DaVinci". For weeks, my wonderful work colleagues patiently shushed him, fed him treats and generally found him to be adorable, even when he jumped up on them. The words Off,  and Leave it! became staples of my daily vocabulary. 

As a cat lover, Leo's perception of my furry-booted friends as intruders and / or prey, was disturbing to say the least. Months of associative learning, "Good dog...nice kitty. Treat!" followed. Now, I'm quite proud to say that, unlike husbands, dogs, as least, can be trained not to chase pussy-cats. I had my doubts on that one. 

After swabbing the inside of his cheek and sending the results to Wisdom Panel, I learned that Leo is a Cocker Spaniel, Toy Fox Terrier mix. I was hoping for Appenzeller Hound from the Swiss Alps, but then, there aren't that many of them running around Central California. This mix explains his sweet face, hunting instinct and delicate build. 

While I trust him to run the coyotes off the property, he also could be vulnerable to their charms: A couple of weeks ago a coy wolf, probably female, showed up around 3am right outside my bedroom door. She was just looking, and perhaps coaxing him to come out and play. About the same size as Leo, her wildness was immediately apparent. A dog - coyote party is never a good thing, so I was glad to hear him growl as I sent her on her way with a blast of the BB gun.

In the last month, Poison Oak has blossomed all over Big Sur. Big, pale green leafy branches of burning venom. As Leo has now graduated to being the property dog-in-charge, a relatively smooth transition from more fearful pup, he has run through the forest and collected oak oil on his soft coat of sleek fur. Which I managed to pick up on my hands and, woe is me! my face. After weeks of experimenting with several treatments, my skin has more or less returned to normal.

What can I say, the little guy is worth it. The best part is when people, usually children and older folks, gasp with delight when they see Leo. Hearts open, lift and soar. Puppy equals goodness, like warm bread baking, fresh cool milk (with cookies, of course.) To this feeling of goodness I'd add the scent of just bloomed flowers, fresh cut grass, and the innocence of morning birdsong.

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