Going Home: leaving the Centre of the World

mountain 3Air Canada has generously allowed me to change the return date of my $1700 ticket for an additional $210 and I am returning to Toronto -in the comfort of the economy class cabin- on Monday. (As constant readers know, serious illness here in California kept me five months instead of two weeks.) The ticket was bought two hours before I flew down, ergo the high price. Yes, I paid for insurance, which refused to pay out because I knew there was an emergency when I left, and extra for luggage. I intend to thwart the airline of an additional $75 for a second bag by mailing my summer clothes.

Having dealt with that business, I have moved on to emotional impact.

First of all, I have to leave paradise, what I called Shangri-La in May posts, when I first visited and which I later called the Centre of the World, as the Chumash tribe does.

I have talked about the 3 year long drought, bears prowling the village, wildfire on the mountain and early snow. There is potential for large animals on the winding mountain roads as well as ice. There are signs that say,, “Expect to use chains at any time”, amusing enough when the temperature is 100 degrees F. but inĀ  dead earnest. I haven’t mentioned that our ultra-friendly village sits in a valley shaped by the San Andreas Fault.

But I have also talked about the clear mostly silent skies , blue by day and unbelievably star-filled by night. There are no street lights and there is an ordinance against light pollution. Trees, mostly pine, climb the 8500 ft. peak of Mt. Pinos as well as the lesser slopes of the San Emigdio Mountain range and their breathing purifies the air. Here at 5500 ft. the aspens and poplars are florescent yellow now. The house in the pines is under a steep slope above a pond. House and pond are darkening by 4:45.

When snow fell on Hallowe’en, flocks of birds came down from the mountains. One morning there were many Brown Thrasers and others looking for food on the ground. The Stellers Jays, which amused me in May, flit back and forth between the trees, entertaining Clara and me when we drink our morning tea on the deck of my other, hillsideĀ  home. Woodpeckers search for grubs, head down on a pine tree. One jay likes to land on the deck rail and stare at the open door as if waiting for breakfast. But feeding a bird is inviting a bear. A hawk sat in a tall tree at the house in the pines this morning. Yesterday, the family golfer saw an immature condor. His first clue that it was an enormous bird was the slowness of its wings.

There is a horse trail that runs 3 miles down to an immense pine, over 20 ft around and 600 to 1000 years old. There are many other hiking trails. The Chumash Wilderness is accessible only by an ancient trail, which the firefighters had to use to get to the fire and crush out the spots the helicoptered water didn’t hit.

Our patient can do the 6 1/2 mile hike to the big tree. I cannot.

There are other amazing things about this place, for example, I can leave here in my fur-hooded jacket in near freezing temperatures and drive to Bakersfield where it is 90 degrees -altitude and an hour’s driving – north.

Not a bad place to find yourself marooned!

Then I will be leaving behind the close companionship that developed in the family as we struggled with a potentially fatal illness. At first we were united by grief and fear and general angst and now by joy that we have found a way to manage the disease. Our patient no longer needs constant care, even though she is still recovering.

Then there is the actual arrival home to deal with, walking in the door of my home. I confess I am afraid of that. I am told that since no one has lived there for 5 months, the dust will be only a light film not the greasier stuff that cooking and shedding skin cells produces. I did ask my sister to make my bed. I leapt out of it on June 4th when I got the phone call and started booking my ticket and throwing stuff into a suitcase. It’s as if I feel that the place is going to reprimand me for neglecting it.

I visualize it, the pictures on the walls, most of them painted by friends, except for the large photograph of the Seine by night, the Fiestaware cups on the sideboard, the bright rugs, the big rocking chair, so I will be familiar with it.

I have made about 55 trips to Southern California, two of them for several month’s stay and I always find the adjustment back to a long distance relationship with my family here difficult for a few days, not to mention adapting to Toronto, a colder place in every sense of the word.

This time, however, I will be taking back a different self, one more confident in support that transcends earthly connections, comforting as they have proved to be. I have the beauty and peace of this place securely memorized. I will have the memory of sitting alone, tearing a baguette for croutons, and suddenly feeling that I really was at the centre of life, at the centre of what Greek legend calls Eros.



Bulletin from Shangri-la #5: village life

Village in Sierra MountainsMy mother was gravely ill for several years before she passed. She took comfort in the idea that God never closes a door without opening a window.

My own experience was summed up in a recent cartoon. Two women are lunching. One says to the other,” I find that when God closes a door and locks all the windows, I can still squeeze in through the dog door.”

But black humour aside, great misfortune often produces blessings.

One upside to the economic crash is that my family and I found ‘Shangri-la’, a mountain village in the Sierras. (Notice how canny I am about not naming it or providing its co-ordinates. Get your own great misfortune.)

For all I know people may live to be several hundred years old here as they did in James Hilton’s fictional paradise in Lost Horizon, high in the Himalayas. Certainly there are a lot of older people here, retired cowboys, architects, doctors, executives. Many working visual artists and an unusual number of professional musicians surviving the music industry’s transition. They can’t seem to get even free beer for plying their craft, but it doesn’t stop them from gathering and playing their hearts out.

After a previous -but lesser- misfortune, I moved to a country village in Ontario, Canada. For one thing it was cheaper there and things were on a human scale. You could park anywhere at no charge. I was right at the centre of town, a no-stop-light intersection, beside the church and the post office and across the road from the only store. I could walk out to the country in 4 directions in less than 15 minutes. One Christmas Day, I picked up a parcel from Belgium. My Newfie dog could wander in the field behind me at will. I went to buy a saw at the store one day. The Korean owner asked me what I needed to saw. I said ” A piece of wood this big.” I was mending a door frame. “Take it and bring it back when your done,” he said. The guy in the Mt. Albert hardware store always understood what thingamagig I needed and generously explained how to install it. I even had my own barn. Lots of storage there. And the tallest TV antenna tower for miles around. It soothed my soul. And set me up nicely for the real estate crash that coincided with the necessary selling of the house.

But it wasn’t Shangri-la. I was an in-comer for the entire seven years I lived there. The long term residents still mistrusted me, although they welcomed me at church. Like the other in-comers I commuted to work, although unlike them, I did not drive a big rig. Some of them thawed when one of my seven cats took to following me and the Newfie every time we went for a walk. “Oh, you’re the woman who walks her cat…”

In this Sierrra Shangri-la, everyone speaks to us. Getting croissants or the mail has to be leisurely. Dogs and people waylay us. It’s true that my son-in-law knows all the musicians and golfers, my daughter knows the musicians and everyone who goes to the daily tai chi and yoga classes, they both know all the artists, and the Vegas mother-in-law talks to everyone in the casinos, so of course she talks to everyone in the village. You simply do not pass anyone without speaking.

Worn out by the short walk “downtown” -it is high, remember- I collapse into the big chair, my feet up on the big hassock. The door is open to the breeze on this warm day. The pines are sighing, whispering, a song of deep contentment that I have brought with me from my childhood when we picnic-ed under them.

Life on a human scale! This is bliss.