Friday, November 26, 2010

Bolinas, Village of the Whales

In the early Seventies,my daughter Danielle and I made our first trip to Bolinas. It was the kind of day that makes you forget that there is any suffering in human life, a day defined by brisk air, big blue sky, and all the freshness and movement of early autumn. In our pale blue Plymouth Valiant with the word POETRY painted on the driver’s side, we came over the softly rounded bosom of Mt. Tamalpais, winding down the hairpin turns of coastal Highway 1 until we reached the curved shoreline of Stinson Beach. We drove along the edge of the limpid blue water of Bolinas Lagoon, where white egrets nested in tall eucalyptus groves in a nearby canyon and flocks of pelicans circled and dove into the silky water. Past the lagoon, huge eucalyptus trees lined the road on either side as we approached the town.

Once I saw that place, I was done for. I couldn't resist its beauty. It was the fairytale town I had always longed for. Bolinas had a wonderful scent, a perfume mixed of the sea, pungent eucalyptus, wet earth, chaparral, seaweed, cows, horses, fish and roses. Its tiny downtown boasted a charming white clapboard church. There was an old-fashioned general store, a small cafe, a hardware store, a library, a seedily chic old hotel, a small post office, a bar that never seemed to empty, and a surfboard shop populated with a panoply of beautiful young guys. Bolinas was home to many poets and a mecca for artists, musicians, healers, cowboys, fishermen, craftspeople and unique wanderers. From the start, I felt very much at home there in that village of 1200 people, called by some a hippie arcadia and by others a bohemian outpost.

Bolinas in the Seventies was a heady place. I've been writing about my experiences there in Songs of the Inner Life, my current book-in progress. As part of my research, I thought it would be instructive to re-read The Town that Fought to Save Itself, a book written by Orville Schell and published in 1976. Schell became quite a prominent China scholar in the following decades. Schell's Bolinas book (in which he calls the village Briones--Bolinasians like to hide their town's identity and whereabouts--often taking the road sign down so that motorists can't find the turnoff) chronicles the town's efforts to develop and maintain a zero-growth policy, something Bolinas has succeeded in preserving all these years--an unusual and marvelous feat, to my mind. Forty years later, nothing has changed much, thanks to that zero-growth policy. There is still plenty of open space, natural beauty and wildness preserved there. Nothing can replace that. I wish more towns would do what Bolinas has done. How different Ashland, Oregon the town I've lived in for over 30 years would be now if that were true. As it is, new townhouse developments and impressively large houses continue to be built in fields and on the hills, which changes the natural environment drastically. People who move here from LA and NY think it is a quiet, laid back place, but it is far more speedy, impersonal and congested than it was 30 years ago because of growth.

I've had a fascination with whales since childhood so it was oddly coincidental that I wound up in Bolinas. I didn't have any idea that the name of the village meant whale when I moved there, but when I discovered that, it made me happy. In Bolinas, I became involved with Project Jonah, the first environmental organization dedicated to saving the whales, before Greenpeace began. The time I spent in Bolinas was filled with unusual coincidences and magic, and I've been enjoying writing down the stories.

When I opened Orville Schell's book and discovered one of my poems on a page right before the Prologue, I was taken by surprise. I had completely forgotten that my poem appeared in that book. It's strange to encounter something you wrote a long time ago and forgot about. It's a bit like looking at an old photograph or letter from many years past. Here's the poem.


Words themselves are medicine.
By telling the events of our time
we give meaning to them.
Words themselves are medicine.

It was considered a sacred place.
The mountain is considered a sacred mountain.

It is said that they lived here peacefully
naked, that they hunted quail, rabbit, deer.
By the bay, in the village that is now Bolinas
the people lived. They are
all dead now, sang songs no one remembers
nor can tell the things they danced to
when time was called moon of the black cherries
moon when the ponies shed their hair
moon when the deer shed their horns.
Olema they named, for the coyote.
Petaluma they named, that means flat hill.
Whales, then many whales
swam past the coast in the time
of water, in the time of darkening
light, swam south to mate.

The Miwok tribe lived here.
Before the Gold Rush, before the
lumbering started, when the land
was still people with giant redwoods
when trees still spoke, were revered.
Before Spanish, Portuguese, Irish or
Italians, before Chinese or Japanese
came here, the Miwok lived here,
or near here. Some say this place
was such a sacred place that no one
was bold enough to live here, but
came here only to get strong, be healed.

The wind is blowing here in Ashland tonight. I guess we're in for some weather. I enjoyed hanging out with some old friends yesterday on Thanksgiving. I appreciate my old friends even more as the years go by. I hope you enjoyed your Thanksgiving Day, too.

Oh, I don't want to forget this marvelous item about Super Mamika, in which a photographer grandson encourages his 91-year old grandmother to dress up as a super heroine. Great photos! You will enjoy them, I am sure.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Call to Creativity

I used to say that Rolling Stones drummer Keith Richards looked as if he was preserved in colorless nail polish-- but really that description relates more to Cher, whose beauty has remained delightfully smooth and wrinkle-free thanks I am guessing to a fair amount of cosmetic attention. Whereas Keith Richards' years show on his deeply lined face. Richards' just-published autobiography has been attracting media attention, and Cher's role in the movie Burlesque has, too. But of course one does not have to be famous to continue to be creative in later life.

Creativity is a wonderful asset at any age; it provides a meaningful, passionate way to enjoy and engage. The older I get, the more true that seems to me. I have two big projects I want to finish. My involvement with them enriches my life. I have written about my musical revue on aging A New Wrinkle here over the past year. I am also working on Songs of the Inner Life, a book which I began when I was in my mid 50s. I have written several drafts. I wasn't ready to finish it all the intervening years, but now I feel mature enough, and want to complete the book by 2012.

These two projects are very different. The musical revue is full of social commentary that is funny and sometimes scathing. It focuses on the value of aging as a stage of life and presents a more full, accurate view of the later years than our current anti-aging social perspectives allow. The book is much more reflective, exploring peak experiences, dark nights of the soul and persistent life lessons and patterns-- the life of imagination and spirit over time. Both projects are very exciting to me. I love working on them; the experience of bringing them to completion is quite thrilling, as it engages me not only with the solitary work of creating, but also with collaborating, meeting a steady stream of new people, and learning new skills.

It seems wise to me to continue to dream big, or if one never has dreamed big, to pull out the stops and go for it. What is there to lose?

I have a friend who is a dancer and she is holding a 70th birthday party tonight in our downtown community center. A vividly spiritual person who really comes from her heart, she teaches 4-5 classes a week, leads a dance company that offers regular concerts and does ongoing weekend seminars, too. Her engagement with her creative process and everyone she meets continues to be very alive. Her aliveness inspires us all.

The current blog post of IAHSA, the Global Aging Network, had a wonderful report on some older singers, one of them Chavela Vargas. "At 91 years old, Chavela Vargas, a well-known Costa Rican singer, continues to have a thriving music career. Vargas rose to prominence in the 1970′s as a singer of Mexican rancheras, boleros and corridos. These songs are like miniature operas, with over-the-top expressions of tragedy, heartbreak and redemption. For many, her interpretations of these songs are the versions that best define the power of these pieces." What a rich and powerful presence she is in this film clip.

As Gene Cohen wrote in his terrific book The Creative Age, creativity can have a Big C or a little c. The call to creativity embraces the whole spectrum, whether it's making jam, painting a room, writing a poem, praying or creating a pottery bowl. Creativity means opening our senses to the present moment. It gives us the opportunity to climb out of any boxes we may be habitually sitting in and simply play. Play and creativity involve spontaneity, letting go, being seen (to ourselves and others too), pleasure and enjoyment, a delightful bath in the immediacy of the moment. What calls you to creativity?

Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving time. There is so much I am thankful for.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Autumn Splendor

When I saw these gorgeous photos of Lithia Park taken recently by fellow Ashlander Jeffrey Weissler, I was so taken with them that I asked for permission to share them here, with Jeffrey kindly gave.

This photo at left is of the Japanese garden, beautiful gem set in Lithia Park.

I took a walk in the park today, since we were graced with another marvelous sunny and refreshingly warm day. The autumn foliage has already moved past its most showy phase, but in the bright sunlight one big oak tree's leaves blazed golden.

Autumn is often described as a melancholy season, but this one has defied that portrayal. Still, I can't resist sharing three of my favorite Japanese poems about autumn, just to honor the elegiac tone.

Autumn has come
to the lonely cottage
buried in dense hop vines
which nobody visits.
--the monk Eikei

In a gust of wind the white dew
on the autumn grass
scatters like a broken necklace.
--Bunya No Asayasu

Deep in the mountain
trampling the red maple leaves
I hear the stag cry out
in the sorrow of autumn.
---the priest Sarumaru

I am still not over the cold I caught a week or more ago and am headed to bed to read and rest. So enjoy these three wonderful images and poems until we meet again.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Recommended Reading: Two Memoirs on Aging

When Jungian analyst Florida Scott-Maxwell was 82, she began to write about the experience of aging in a notebook, not intending to share it with anyone else. Eventually, however, her reflections were published under the title The Measure of My Days.

I loved reading these ruminations, which are beautifully written and deeply insightful. "It has taken me all the time I've had to become myself, yet now that I am old there are times when I feel that I am barely here, no room for me at all..."

She notes, "So one has ample time to face everything one has had, been, done, gather them all in: the things that come from outside and those from inside. We have time at last to make them truly ours."

And in another note, she writes about the intensity of age. "But we also find as we age we are more alive than seems likely, convenient or even bearable." This book, published in the 1960s, is considered a classic. It gives a glimpse of the rich inner life of a very self-aware, spiritual woman as she confronts her experience of aging and mortality. Full of instruction.

Diana Athill's book Somewhere Towards the End, written when Athill was 91, is a vivid, compelling read. Athill talks about aging, illness, how the importance of sex declined for her. She describes wondering about when to stop driving, shares what it was like to care for her mother, describes relationships with old friends and what it was like never having children and talks about approaching death with a great deal of candor and humor. "Book after book has been written on being young...but there is not much on record on falling away," she writes.

For many years, Athill was an editor at a big London publishing company, and her clients included many famous writers. She didn't start writing herself until she was in her seventies. She has written several well-received memoirs. As soon as I finished Somewhere Towards the End, I read another of her books titled Yesterday Morning, which begins "Oh my God," said my mother, can I really have a daughter who is seventy? And we both burst out laughing.

In Yesterday Morning, Athill writes about her upper class English childhood from the vantage point of age. Both Yesterday Morning and Somewhere Toward the End are delightful reads from a very alive writer.

P.S. on The Artist's Life: Been feeling not very bloggish lately. Sometimes the darling blog just starts to feel too much like a duty. Know what I mean? I have been happily immersed in working on the manuscript for my book Songs of the Inner Life and am also working on another song for my musical revue A New Wrinkle, which I hope will be done by the spring. My composer collaborator Laura Rich just went to India for a month! What an adventure. Hope that you are all well and happy. Stay warm and enjoy this time of inner light and gratitude.