Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Derive happiness in oneself from a good day's work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us.
--Henri Matisse 

I awoke this morning to find the entire San Joaquin Valley filled with fog, like a great inland sea, with this mountain rising out of it like an island. While I have deepest sympathy for those who must live beneath this yearly inundation, sudden captives of Neptune, I revel in the glorious sunlight that saturates the fall leaves, here. Every tree is aglow, incandescent, beneath a cloudless, deep blue sky. As I brewed my coffee, a flock of wild pigeons suddenly burst from the slumbering woods of the eastern valley, rose into the morning light and threaded as one through the pines, like pure exaltation unleashed.  With the annual coming of the fog, a deep peace descends on this mountain, announcing the coming of the holy days. It is happiness itself to work in the radiant coolth of the autumnal sun, and I wish each of you a day of such usefulness, lit from within by the sun of joy.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Quote of the Day

The divine manifestation is ubiquitous,
Only our eyes are not open to it.
Awe is what moves us forward.

Live from your own center.
The divine lives within you.
The separateness apparent in the world is secondary.
Beyond the world of opposites is an unseen,
But experienced, unity and identity in us all.
Today the planet is the only proper "in group."
Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world.
We cannot cure the world of sorrows,
But we can choose to live in joy.

You must return with the bliss and integrate it.
The return is seeing the radiance everywhere.
The world is a match for us.
We are a match for the world.
The spirit is the bouquet of nature . . .
Sanctify the place you are in.
Follow your bliss.

--Joseph Campbell

Signs of Life:

Speaking of following your bliss, check out the video of the World Solar Challenge 2011, a race of solar cars from Durbin to Adelaide, Australia. If you think the world is never going to make it, think again. These young people are our hope, a joy and an inspiration!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Risk -- eh?

Risk can be an erotic experience. Risk is a thread that runs through many of my narratives about my home in the mountains, my pioneering upbringing, of eating stewed porcupine from Limoges plates or defending the firewood with a shotgun. Today’s story draws from that same well, knowing that, to a great extent, the place where our life energy pools is where we can find ourselves and our myths most accurately reflected.

One of the best features of the house where I live is that the eastern and southern walls of the bedroom are floor-to-ceiling glass, giving a panoramic view of a 200-mile stretch of the Sierra Nevada crest.

One night, several decades ago, as I was sitting in my chair by the woodstove in the living room, I had a thought: all that stood between me and that magnificent view was one wall which created both the back of my bedroom and one half of a narrow constraining hallway. If I could remove that wall, I could enjoy the view and stay warm by the stove, at the same time.

This idea attacked me with ferocity and would not let me go. Even though the hour was late, I found myself becoming more and more energized, until I realized the inevitable: I must remove that hateful wall NOW! I leapt from my chair, went out to the shed and returned with my chainsaw.

I started up the saw, laid the tip of the blade to the place where the wall met the ceiling and began cutting. Periodically, I would take breaks to pack the freed lumber out of the house onto the porch. By 2:00 AM, the wall was gone. I swept up the sawdust and went to bed.

In the morning, just as I had imagined, I brewed coffee, started a fire in the stove and sat in almost unbearable joy and satisfaction, with the splendor of the Sierras before me.

Later that morning, my father happened to drive by and, spotting the boards on the front porch, came in to investigate. Proudly, I showed him my night’s handiwork, the resulting spaciousness of my abode and the grandeur of the now-revealed panorama.

He viewed everything with respectful approval. He made murmurs over the improvements to his real property. It was, he conceded, just what the house had needed. Then, there was a small pause and I watched his tongue sorting over words, looking for just the right ones.

“Of course,” he said at last, a bit wistfully, “that was the bearing wall.”

My joy crumbled. Immediate visions arose of the entire two-story structure collapsing around me, complete with groaning timbers and clouds of smothering dust. Historically, people like me graced castle great rooms, wearing pointed caps sewn with bells. I was a ruinous Fool.

But my father assured me not to worry. He left and returned a few hours later with 8X12 beams. With these he created a post and lintel construction to replace the missing wall. The house is still standing today, these many years after my father no longer is, its view of the Sierras intact.

This was not the first time that I had made sudden decisions that radically altered the direction of my life. Why do I perform these seemingly self-defeating behaviors, again and again? Each time, it is because my psyche demands an expanded vista, and the risk involved in achieving it is exceeded only by the absolute inner necessity to have it.

So, once a metaphoric wall is down, what exactly can I see from here?

Partly, it’s a fleeting glimpse of the wild Muse who is a family familiar. When a small mountain range stood between the family ranch, La Panza, and the closest town, San Luis Obispo, my great-grandfather built a road over the top of it, to get there. When my father needed a house for his growing family, he built one, despite having no money, from hand-hewn timbers and nails salvaged from a burned cabin. No one consults engineers or architects, goes through planning reviews or takes out a permit. The Muse tap dances on top of their heads for a day or two, and that’s all it takes.

Having inherited my family’s house and grounds, along with this unruly Muse, I find the place is a portal through which dangerous ideas like removing the bearing wall come flooding irresistibly. Dangerous, because inspiration is like radium – it’s a high energy source and must be handled with caution and delicacy. It can open huge vistas but can also bring down the house.

For me, as a writer and artist, to follow inspiration is often to give up all manner of security, all semblance of a settled life and any hope of approval from the so-called normal world and its official representatives -- like the Building Department, for example. But it also opens the portal to the most marvelous things!

It also dredges up new and often alarming and seemingly indigestible material. Therefore a life lived in continual proximity to the Muse, whose dwelling place is the unconscious, is a life of risk and even of danger. There are no easy answers nor guaranteed solutions, only the ethical responsibility to attempt integration of the new. One courts disaster, madness, legal entanglement and even death. Poet Carolyn Forché says of this, “All art is the result of one’s having been in danger.”

Yet to live this way is enormously freeing. Traditional boundaries are surpassed. One ventures into the field of possibility and potentiality. Rumi says of this:

         Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing
         There is a field. I’ll meet you there.

         When the soul lies down in that grass,
         The world is too full to talk about.
         Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
         Doesn’t make any sense.

I adore that field where nothing makes sense. It’s erotic and risqué, there. One senses oneself to be palpably naked. I will risk everything, again and again, to arrive there. T.S.Eliot says of such a journey that it involves a detachment from expectation, a willingness to forego guaranteed outcomes, “A condition of complete simplicity/ (Costing not less than everything).”

The travel to that field is hard travel. The ego will never undertake such a journey of its own accord. Rather, one is called by a power and a love which cannot be ignored: an encounter with the Self which, as Jung noted, is always a defeat to the ego.

One is drawn out of familiar routines and territories, “through the unknown, remembered gate,” through the portal between the mundane and the extraordinary and,

         With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
         We shall not cease from exploration
         And the end of all our exploring
         Will be to arrive where we started
         And know the place for the first time. (Eliot, Four Quartets)

This knowing for the first time is the return to our original state of wisdom. It is a walk through the blooming field of the potentialities of the Self. So, let’s reach to embrace our wild Muses and enjoy the risk – eh?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Quote of the Day

We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.
--Winston Churchill

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

You have been telling the people that this is the Eleventh Hour.

Now you must go back and tell the people that this is the Hour.

And there are things to be considered:
Where are you living? What are you doing?
What are your relationships? Are you in right relation? Where is your

Know your garden.
It is time to speak your Truth.
Create your community.
Be good to each other.
And do not look outside yourself for the leader.
This could be a good time!

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there
are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They
will feel they are being torn apart, and they will suffer greatly. Know the
river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push
off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above
the water. See who is in there with you and celebrate.

At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally. Least of all,
ourselves. For the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey comes
to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves! Banish the
word struggle from your attitude and your vocabulary. All that we do now
must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we've
been waiting for.
--The Elders, Oraibi, Arizona Hopi Nation

Friday, November 25, 2011

First Cup of Coffee, Post-Thanksgiving Morning

Thanksgiving’s here; we are excited.
The stack of cookbooks grows;
We want our guests delighted.
The grocery list’s extensive
And I have a hunch
The money we will spend on it
Would last us half the month.
We cook for seven hours straight.
The air smells just delicious,
And I wash every pot and plate
As we prep our meal nutritious.
I set the table with linens French,
With candles and with berries.
Most years, except in a pinch
Our guest list never varies.
We greet them with good cheer;
Try to keep conversation going;
Then begin to eat without a word
Our silence mostly owing
To a certain guest and his cats
With whose antics he regales us
From soup to nuts and after that,
With coffee. Despite the fuss
Of dirty dishes and empty bottles
His cat tales go on and on.
It’s a wonder no one throttles
Him. He gives me three words and a look
When I bring up my best-selling book.
The animals look on, woebegone,
Hopeful for a bone
While we begin to hope
Everyone will just go home.
I’ll wash the tablecloth tomorrow noon.
One last walk with Rover.
I say with gratitude, beneath the moon,
Thank God Thanksgiving’s over!

Addendum, after a second cup of coffee and a shower:

By dawn’s first light I entertain a thought suspicious:
Despite the work, despite the cats,
The whole day was delicious!
Although the strain and the cost were frightful,
The entire day, from stem to stern,
Was completely delightful!
And so, my final thought on this is,
Without a doubt,
Since all the cookbooks are out,
We may as well plan Christmas.

With apologies to our actual guests, who really are delightful! 
At noon, instead of washing the tablecloth, I'll be making turkey sandwiches on Kaiser rolls, with sprouts, avocado, salted sunflower seeds, cranberry sauce and cream cheese. I hope your post-Thanksgiving day is a fine one, despite my limping verse.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Quote of the Day

How good and how pleasant it is that brothers sit together.
--Psalm 133

To all our brothers and sisters everywhere, from our home to yours, may the blessings of this day surround you, may gratitude bloom from your heart and may you and yours be safe, well-fed and deeply loved.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Quote of the Day

Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.
--Teilhard de Chardin

At lights out, last night, the house was warm in spite of the driving and frigid east wind. In the living room, our fur children were all soundly sleeping -- Maclovio, the Chihuahua, had burrowed into the cushions of David's chair; Panda, his black and white cat brother, was tightly coiled in Maclovio's dog bed; and Sophia, our independent and aloof cat crone, was wrapped around the electric heater. I've always felt that the emotional state of one's animals indicates the emotional health of one's home. In which case, peace reigns over all, here on our mountain, and love abides. As we enter this season of holy days, we are blessed by love and peace, and this is a blessing we extend to you all. May your days be steeped in warmth and loving kindness, and your nights be cozy, and may you rest deeply in the awareness that you are loved.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quote of the Day

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.
--Albert Camus

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hail, Columbia! Part Three

A storm of short duration has swept through our area, turning the black oak leaves brilliant gold, filling the canyons with roiling mist and laying a distinct snowline across the eastern mountains. This is the time of year I love most in Columbia. The streets are empty, the buildings brood upon their darkened interiors and the smell of damp poplar leaves fills the air.

Wandering through town, I realize that each and every building holds an intimate memory. In the Wells Fargo building, for example, I had my first visceral experience of the Golden Mean. I was probably 11 or 12, the day I snuck under the counter through the baggage opening, and crept up the  stairs to the empty room at the top. To the right as I entered was a long, narrow window, set very low in the wall, so that a seated person could still see the street, below. The only other windows were in three sets of tall double French doors that stretched across the eastern wall, giving onto an cast iron-railed balcony.

I stepped tentatively into the room, trying not to make the floorboards squeak. The walls were plastered in a pale cream color and light flooded onto them from the hand-rolled glass of the doors. The room was square, almost cubic, because of its tall ceiling. There was not a stick of furniture.

I stood mesmerized by this simple space. I would swear, even to this day, that as I crossed the threshold I heard a distinct sound, like fingers being drawn over the strings of a harp. This was not a noise from the haunted past but a harmonic generated by the room, itself. Like a cat purring in the sunshine, the room was humming happily over its perfect proportions.

 I felt awed and yet embraced and comforted. It was my first inkling that geometry could so profoundly affect the human psyche. Many years later, when I began to explore the great buildings of France, I encountered this sense of perfect balance, again – and felt that those lavish Rococo rooms had nothing over a simple room, upstairs in Columbia’s Wells Fargo building.

The doors of that room looked directly across the main street and into The Rocks, from whence I could contemplate another of Columbia’s wonders, the people trapped in the marble. Depending on the angle of the light, these would appear and disappear, phantom-like. Here were caryatids and grotesques, dwarves and giants, faces bearing all manner of expressions, people bent under loads of the stone above them, and those, like the one pictured above,  stepping from the light of day into the depths of the rock, to hide their nakedness. There were animals, too -- a huge lion and an elephant, upon whose backs we delighted to ride, and more sinister creatures, unnamed and unapproachable. These days, I sculpt in marble and I wonder if it was not those forms, dancing through light into stone, that first inspired me to take up hammer and chisel.

The downstairs in the Native Daughters of the Golden West building used to house Columbia’s U.S. Post Office. I would wait there, after school, for my father to come after work and pick me up, for the long drive up the mountain and home. Because I spent long hours there I was intimate with the energies of that building. There, I did not mount the stairs to the top floor meeting room, because there definitely was a spirit who guarded that inner sanctum. I would make it halfway up the stairs and experience such a wall of forbidding  energy that I was forced to retreat. Only on rare occasions was that upper room opened, when Columbia’s NDGW ladies would arrive in their homemade taffeta formals and molting fur capes, to mount the stairs and disappear into their temple, there to perform their arcane rituals which were whispered by us kids to include a shocking veneration of the ancestors.

Here, too, I witnessed the daily arrival of the Columbia stage, a tick-shaped gray van from which the driver, Mr. Ponce, would pull the gray canvas sacks of mail and haul them into the post office. Rumor had it that he was the last man to drive the horse-drawn stage that performed the same daily ritual until the advent of the automobile. After making his delivery, he would walk, bandy-legged, down to the Stage Driver’s Retreat for his daily beer.

It was during these long afternoon waits that much of my social interaction with the Columbia kids took place, and here that I first played ball with mercury. Also known as quicksilver, mercury is an element used in the process of harvesting gold and, in my childhood, it was not uncommon to find softball-sized balls of it, rolling along the bottom of local creeks. We kids would fish these out and bring them to school, then spend our free hours happily breaking the balls apart, watching in fascination as they broke into smaller and smaller balls that rolled erratically across the floor, and as they merged flawlessly into perfect orbs again. It never seemed to occur to any of the adults who may have witnessed us at play that mercury is a deadly poison. That any of us survived our childhood is, I suppose, miraculous, since we would be munching treats from Eastlack’s grocery, all the while, our hands first busily shepherding mercury balls, then going straight to our mouths with candy or cookies.

Just a block away, at the corner of State Street and Parrotts Ferry Road is the Odd Fellow’s Hall. The IOOF was one of the fraternal orders of the Gold Rush, now sadly no longer active in Columbia. The upstairs of that building was used as a storeroom by the State, which took over Columbia and made it a state park in the early 1950s. There, when I was in my teens and working as a summer intern, I was ordered to sit, day after day, washing an army of high-buttoned shoes that had gotten mildewed. It was not an unpleasant task. In the dusky pre-electric quiet of the cavernous room, with a bucket of water and a can of saddle soap, I scrubbed away diligently, hour after hour, day after day. Slowly, a line of diminutive shoes, lustrous and proud, grew before me, as the crate of crumpled and musty ones emptied.

I thought about the women who had worn those tiny shoes. My own feet would not have fit in them, past the age of ten. I had already become acquainted with the corsets and dresses of the Gold Rush era, in the museum, and had drawn the conclusion that something strange and marvelous had occurred, making each generation larger than the last until I, even as a slender teenager, was a giant compared to my great-grandmother’s generation. Who had worn these delicate shoes? Were they housewives, shopkeepers and good church-going ladies? Prostitutes, washerwomen and cooks? Had they come around the Horn by sailing ship or across the vastness of the country in covered wagons? Whatever their individual stories, I was sure the sum of them was hugely diverse, intrepid and adventuresome.

Years later, when I was studying dream interpretation, I found that many women dream of black shoes—sometimes closets full of them, or masses of them in trunks, or even by the billions, circling the planet, like one of the rings of Jupiter. Something in the unremarkable everydayness of black shoes speaks in women’s psyches of foregoing generations, of women persecuted as witches or gassed in death camps, or simply working away the long hours of their lives in obscurity. Something in the collective unconscious was tuned in to the same kinds of thoughts I was having, during those hours scrubbing away with saddle soap.

Slowly, too, I noticed that I was feeling more and more unwell. One day, mid-pair, I became faint and nauseous and barely reeled down the stairs into the sunlight. My mother, concerned, took me to the family doctor who declared that I was experiencing a reaction to exposure to mold spores from the shoes. My boss at the park thought I was malingering, not realizing that I actually enjoyed the quiet hours in the upper room. To this day, exposure to mold makes me sneeze, and I can faintly hear those legions of ladies whose high-buttoned shoes I honored respond in unison, “Bless you, dear!”

Right across the street from the IOOF building is a small wood-frame building that used to be the office of our local dentist – He Who Did Not Believe in Novocain. I will not dwell on the torments we kids endured at his hands, except to say that I would leave sessions with him with bruises on my jaws, where he had taken a death grip on me. But behind his place was a far more delightful one – the field where the gypsies came to camp.

About two acres in extent, this field is home to a grove of Osage orange trees, the fruits of which, with their thick crinkled skin of bright poison green, look like little toxic brains and are said to be poisonous. We kids would handle them, throw them at one another in mock battles, but always wash our hands afterward – something, by the way, which we never troubled to do after handling the mercury balls.

Periodically, this field would suddenly become home to the gypsies. Without warning they would arrive in their lumbering old cars and pitch tents there, transforming an otherwise unremarkable space into a tract of exoticism, overnight. One gypsy man had a van, tick-shaped and gray, much like the Columbia stage, from which he sold all manner of goods. He would even wend his way up the mountain, where my mother would stand with him by the open rear door and delve into his wares, buying needles and thread, knives and pots, yardage and rickrack, but never the rarer offerings of perfume, bottles of rose water and rose petal jam, and sandals of stamped red leather from Spain. He was a tall man with long jet black hair and the wild, piercing eyes of an ascetic and, even though he tried to lure me with candy, I would hide when he came, in terror. Nevertheless, as far as I know, no Columbia child was ever ferreted away by the gypsies.

So I bring to a close this long reminiscence about Columbia – even though, as you may have guessed, I could wander on through town in this manner for days. Growing up in Columbia was a passage through multiple dimensions and times, a revelation of things not generally known and a most joyous adventure. Today one of my childhood friends, Walter Diaz, sent me the photo, above, to show that he, too, had encountered a ghost in his camera lens, in Columbia recently. The town has not lost its mystical resonance. It is simply that we, caught in the vortex of adult lives and compelling duties, have largely ceased to attend to the voices that still summon us to witness that past and present share a confluence in Columbia. In all the years of my wanderings and explorations there, I never found a single flake of gold. I have come away, nevertheless, with something far richer and more valuable and equally imperishable. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Quote of the Day

Vocation is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.
--Frederich Bruckner

Signs of Life:
Solomon, in the video below, has clearly found his vocation, and so have the people who run the animal sanctuary and all those generous folks who contribute to it. Prepare to be moved!
 Elephants Reunited After 20 Years, at

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Quote of the Day

The poet and the baker are brothers in the essential task of nourishing the world.
--Isabel Allende
Photos from last year's community potato harvest, at which 8,000 pounds of organic potatoes were dug -- certainly one way of nourishing the world. Another kind of community harvest is happening, today, as Alexander Chow-Stuart holds a writers' Webinar, at 
See you there!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

Where there is no strife there is decay: the mixture which is not shaken decomposes.

All thanks and honor to #OWS people, in my town, in your town, and around the globe, who are shaking up the stag-nations of this world.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Hail, Columbia! Part Two

My little excursion to Columbia, last Sunday, had a profound effect on me. Although I pass through town often, the street I travel only skirts the edges. It had been years since I actually walked through town and into The Rocks.

Now, The Rocks are eternal, or as much so as anything on this planet can be. In my youth, they ringed Columbia, stark and white as the closing jaws of a Great White shark, stripped of all vegetation. But something was wrong when I followed one of my usual trails, at the south end of town, into the labyrinthine ways of The Rocks.

Where once there had been sheer walls of roughened marble, there were now lattices of wild grape. Blind alleyways that used to be excellent hiding places were now blocked by stout Trees of Heaven. Sloping boulders where we used to run and jump, safe on a skid-proof surface with a texture like coarse sandpaper, were now slick and un-scalable with thick coats of moss. 

 I sat in the depths of this marble fortress and contemplated the passage of time and the recidivism of nature. Already, The Rocks of my childhood were gone. Their ghostly white had weathered and oxidized to dark gray. Thick patches of moss and lichen further altered their color. Weeds and trees had taken root and their fallen leaves were filling up hollow spaces, decomposing, and making fertile soil for still more weeds and trees. Gradually, biomass was having a leveling effect and the The Rocks were being truncated by the debris at their base. In another hundred years or so, I suddenly realized, these wonders from the deeps would once again be underground!

I was witnessing a giant, terrestrial hour glass filling up, and I can tell you, there’s nothing like it for putting you in touch with your own mortality! When I rose from my ponderings and moved on, I felt a bit ghostly, myself.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that, at just this juncture in my wanderings, I should encounter my first ghost. At least, that is how I interpreted the sudden whited-out spot on my camera’s screen, which had been functioning perfectly before, and would function perfectly afterward.

I was in the vicinity of  some old timbers that seemed to indicate the former existence of a building, possibly a miner’s cabin, with which the whole area was once dotted. I liked the composition of dark, squared and weathered beams against the lighter gray, amorphous stone. I clicked away – but every picture was marred by a big spot where the color was leached out of the image. Thinking the sun was hitting my lens, I moved to a different angle, but with the same result.

I had experienced this phenomenon once before, at the bottom of Copper Canyon, in the early 17th-century silver mining town of Batopilas. In the church there stands a marvelous wooden image of la Virgen and I was deeply desirous of a photograph of her. However, try as I might, every single picture came out blurred in a strangely wavering way, like city lights spread across the surface of the night ocean. I changed my settings; I changed my position; I squatted down; I stood on tiptoes. Nada. Finally, I had to recognize it: this Virgen does not want to be photographed!
 Only, in this case, someone apparently did want to be photographed! They hogged the center of every image. Finally, I again had to realize: this situation was not going to improve. I left the area. My photos returned to normal.

Ghosts abound in Columbia. As a child I was aware of them; could see them flitting across my peripheral vision; felt their other-worldly coolth brushing against my young skin. The Fallon House, a hotel and theater in the old days, was so haunted that, despite my driving curiosity to explore its depths while my sister trilled away at her voice lessons next to the square grand piano in the lobby, I could not penetrate past a certain point. Here, the air grew suddenly cold and clammy and a deeper than black darkness descended on the already umbrous interior. The hair on my head would prickle and lift in alarm and, despite my best resolve, I would turn tail and retreat.
Like many of the old brick buildings, the Fallon House had been shored up against collapse by the addition of steel I-beams, during the 1950s. These spanned the second floor of the building at about knee height, meaning that to walk there one would take two steps, pause to step over the obstacle, take two more steps, stop and step over, in a laborious, halting pattern.

One night, I witnessed a group of adult friends, who had been chatting beneath the second floor balcony, suddenly look at one another in alarm. In an excited cluster, they dashed into the street and stood staring up at the balcony. They had heard, they told me, footsteps crossing the upstairs floor, then the balcony French doors opening and closing, and footsteps crossing the balcony to the railing.

The amazing part was, the footsteps walked across the floor unhindered by the I-beams! The balcony doors were not only locked but nailed shut. And of course, when they looked up onto the balcony, there was no one there.

Encounters like this are not exactly commonplace but they occur frequently enough that many longtime residents have had them. It is simply an accepted fact among locals that, in Columbia, the veil between the dimensions is thin and time present and time past are running contiguously.

Growing up in such a milieu marks one’s character. It gives a certain tincture of pond water to the aura; a certain level of comfort with the uncanny. It makes for a personal philosophy that stands somewhat apart from the average; for a personality that is – how shall I put this delicately – different. When others were playing with dolls or watching The Mickey Mouse Club, we Columbia kids were touching the foggy borders of time with tentative, curious fingers and drawing them back, marked for life with the indelible tattoo of Columbia’s strangeness.

One last story will suffice to demonstrate this. The old City Hotel was closed, in those days, and for some strange reason its lobby was used to display a horse-drawn hearse, the kind with thick, beveled glass all around and a brass bier for the coffin. It was all in black wood, heavy, massive and beautifully crafted.

I was probably around ten, one somber winter late afternoon, when I first discovered it, by placing my face to the glass of the tall double hotel doors and peering into the unlighted interior. Slowly, my eyes made out the looming shape of the hearse. Very gradually, my mind took in the use to which this conveyance would have been put. I was staring, rapt, at this harbinger of death when, suddenly – oh, God! – I saw that there was someone in the hearse! Instantly I was locked in a kind of paralysis of fascination and horror! I stared, mouth agape, too terrified to scream.

This poor, doomed creature had its hands up against the glass, as if pressing frantically for egress, and its face was frozen in terror. My lifelong claustrophobia may have had its genesis in that vision. Only slowly -- veeeeeery slowly -- did my mind comprehend that it was myself I was seeing in there. And only many moments after that did I realize that this vision of myself was merely a reflection.

During those moments of incomprehension, when the pale white face staring wild-eyed out of the hearse’s glass box was my own, my life was altered, irrevocably. Some children are scarred by learning too early that there is no Santa Claus. For better or worse, I had gone a few steps further and had my innocence ripped away to reveal the inevitability of death.

It is a message that the slow sinking of The Rocks reiterated, last Sunday. And yet, it was also revealed as a lie – otherwise, how could there be that white spot on the photos, those footsteps on the balcony, those sudden cold spots in otherwise warm rooms? No, the ghosts of Columbia will not let that lie stand – even though, doubtlessly, some of them, in the last life, loved their tall tales. Life, they announce by their very presence, never ends. And just like The Rocks, it is carried for a time in the deep darkness of mystery; surfaces into the light for a time, marvelous in form; then dives down again, to await the next incarnation.

Next time, we’ll take a ramble through town and I’ll share a few memories: the people trapped in the rocks; playing ball with mercury; barely escaping an army of high-buttoned shoes; and the gypsies who came a-calling. Until then, may you treasure the precious moments of your wondrous, light-filled life.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Quote of the Day

The mystery is this: there is one right thing to do at every moment. We can either follow or resist.
--Robert Johnson, Balancing Heaven and Earth

Tomorrow, Part 2 of Hail, Columbia!, in which ghostly happenings are revealed.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hail, Columbia!

In a very real sense, I was reared by ghosts. Down at the foot of the mountain where I’ve lived all my life, there is a Gold Rush town called Columbia, a collection of ramshackle brick buildings that, in my childhood, reeled toward various points of the compass and threatened to faint dead away into the street in complete structural disintegration. Immense old Lombardy poplars and elms lined the main street like flying buttresses fending off architectural failure. Amidst these derelicts lived a collection of ghosts—those already passed through the portals to the next dimension and those about to, who wafted through town on feeble legs and with the inscrutable eyes of memory.

In those days, Columbia was referred to as a ghost town, even though there was a substantial, if dwindling, population of perhaps two hundred souls. Among them were the last of the miners who heard Columbia’s golden siren song, ancient Chinese who had been bought and sold in Gold Rush labor markets, Miwuk Indians wandering dispossessed of their now mining-claimed and raped lands, a tiny merchant class who still sold dry goods or beer in musty, cavernous establishments along Main Street, and generations of pioneer families, many from Italy and Mexico, who terraced the surrounding hills for vineyards and whose native plants quickly naturalized -- Lombardy poplars, Italian cypress and wine and table grapes, in the case of the Italians; prickly pear cactus for the Mexicans. Tree of Heaven and opium poppies were another contribution, from the Chinese. 

Starting as a tent city that burned down numerous times, Columbia gradually became a town of relatively fireproof brick boxes, with tall doors, paneled at the bottom, glazed with wavering hand-rolled glass at the top and shielded by iron shutters. Lined mostly along one main street, the buildings often feature wrought- or cast-iron railings that attest to the skill of iron workers from Germany, France, Spain and Italy, who transposed the traditional designs of Old Europe to the hills of California, lending elegance and sophistication to otherwise scruffy digs. Lerner and Loewe’s musical Paint Your Wagon was inspired by the true story of Columbia, sent to them by their friend and our judge, Basil Leever, who based it on actual events. So rich were the deposits of gold around Columbia, Gem of the Southern Mines, that miners did not hesitate to tunnel under the town, causing some buildings to list or to collapse outright.

In my childhood, the town had come to stand on a pedestal of land ringed by a moat of hydraulic diggings from which arose monolithic stones—native marble, sculpted by underground rivers into fantastic forms, and then exposed by the high pressure hoses of the miners. I wrote my first poem at the age of ten, about these fantastic revelations from the deep:

            The rocks around Columbia as memorials ever last
            To the miners who uncovered them in long years past.
            Like ghosts they waver, on dark and starless nights,
            Stark, still and ghostly, a weird and grayish white.
            There they stand in shrouds so tall,
            A memorial to the miners who heard Columbia’s call.

 The Rocks, we kids called them. Every child in Columbia knew the endless acres of The Rocks. In an apparent labyrinth of countless dead ends, we all knew the sinuous paths among the standing stones. Boys made forts in deep voids at their base, that once held pockets of gold. Girls had their meeting places, where gossip was exchanged and incipient crushes discussed, atop enormous platforms of marble. The Rocks were our playground, bulwark against adult intrusion and endless realm of the imagination. There were piles of fist-sized stones from the bottom of some ancient river, of types and colors unknown in our area; collapsing wooden flumes; caves; and, most intriguing of all, the entrance to an underground river which, during Columbia’s heyday, was a tourist attraction navigated in wooden boats.

At about age ten or eleven, I discovered an abyss out in The Rocks that had been used for a dump. From it, at peril to life and limb, I began hauling up treasures: rusted cans that I filled with hand-forged square nails, false-bottomed bottles, opium pipes and shards of blue and white Chinese porcelain. Most treasured of all were the mismatched door and top of two woodstoves, cast in iron with delicate floral and shell patterns.

I still keep these treasures. As potent as an alchemist’s prima materia, they summon up a lost world where old miners would periodically emerge from the hills, bearded to the waist. They used a variety of conveyances from boot leather to burro to ancient and groaning beetle-backed automobiles with back seats full of shovels, gold pans, pick axes, crates of dynamite, bed rolls and mongrel dogs. They would sit on the wooden bench outside the Stage Driver’s Retreat, one of two bars in town, and regale any passerby with stories of the current lode they were following, dragging quartz stones veined in gold wires, or tiny vials of gold dust and nuggets, from their pockets with gnarled and grimed fingers.

Yesterday, when I stepped from my own current conveyance onto Columbia’s street, I was overcome with a fragrance that immediately wafted me into another, earlier time. The top notes of Columbia’s perfume are dry wild grass, anise, cypress and ripening figs and wild pears, with heart notes of mildew, cat pee and cold iron and bricks, and, in all seasons, a sustained base note of damp, decomposing poplar leaves. Yesterday, the poplars soared like giant candle flames against a deep cerulean sky. Every gust of wind brought showers of golden leaves, like a miner’s dream of endless wealth. I stepped from 21st century reality immediately into the world of my childhood, carried on the sensuous stream of Columbia’s dreaming beauty.

My nerves were tight as a fiddler's strings from the drama of the weekend, as my book, Commune of Women, suddenly catapulted onto Kindle’s top 100 best seller list. I badly wanted and needed grounding and to get it, I turned toward the known mystery, the ever-shifting and alluring alleyways of The Rocks. In my next post I’ll share with you the revelations that arose there – not the least of which was the realization that I was reared by ghosts.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Quote of the Day

Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday, I spent the morning in  my native town of Columbia. Founded in 1850, during California's Gold Rush, it is a uniquely soulful place, tragic and haunted but also sublimely beautiful and picturesque. Tomorrow's post will reveal what I learned during my sentimental journey, through the viewpoint of the camera's eye. For today, I offer you catalpa and wild grapes, above, and fall leaves and grasses, below, and wish you a deeply soulful day.

Signs of Life:
And if you're impatient with having patience, here's a rousing call to action: