Saturday, June 15, 2013

On A Lighter Note

Everybody has a story. A time and place from whence they came. Mine happens to begin in the mid-1970’s in California. Before then, I generalize my immediate family as having two origins on their path to America. One is of old England, to the Virginia colonies of the 1600’s, to the great state of Texas, and finally to the Bay Area of California. The other is of old Italy. Riding a great wave of immigration by way of Ellis Island in the 19-teens, then straight out to San Francisco. My parents were second generation Bay Areans. Mother from the big city, and father across the water in Oakland. Mine being a large valley which used to be a large inland sea at the base of the Sierra’s.

This Bay Area is not of my origin, but it is the home of most of my relatives who I’ve personally known. I am drawn to it and have loved it since I can remember. There is something there from either my childhood, or something that just seems part of my very core. Be it old scents, or muted earth toned sunset lighting dreams of long ago. It is a strange force.

The region has gone through many changes in relatively recent history. From the ancient Native Americans who first inhabited these hills and wetlands. To the Spanish and then to the wave of others in gold rush times. After wave, after wave of migrations to this great bay, it constantly bekons for others to join it in it’s rush to the sea. It’s beauty and possibilities calling for more. More recently known for Kerouac and the Beatniks, to the Grateful Dead and the Hippies. To the Black Panthers and Hell’s Angels. To the Silicon Valley geniuses, and to the Hipsters with their skinny jeans and all, heh heh ;) One thing is for sure, with such a large diverse population, many very colorful cultures have emerged and melded.

Well, this weekend was the wedding of my brother and his new beautiful wife. They live downtown in the City, but the ceremony was held in Ross, north of the Golden Gate. A grand ceremony full of gardens, fountains, wind sculptures, flower necklaces, good food and wine, close friends and family, and above all - Peace and Love. Couldn’t have asked for a better weekend. Congratulations to Adam and Arielle!!

One thing I realized on the drive to Corte Madera the morning before the wedding, was that the name ‘Corte Madera’ sounded familiar for some odd reason. Then I remembered it was from one of my favorite books. ‘The Dharma Bums’ by Jack Kerouac. He had stayed on a property in Corte Madera before he headed up to work as a Forest Service lookout on Desolation Peak in the northern Cascades. I wondered if I could find that piece of property since I was gonna be in the area.

‘The Dharma Bums’ is a wonderful piece of art by Kerouac who freely flows between thoughts and discussions on Zen Buddhism, raucous drunken parties, and the freedoms of the 1950’s for a certain circle of Americans as they find their way in the world. Hitching from Santa Barbara to San Francisco to join in the beginning of the beat movement. To discussions of Buddhism in Berkeley that lead to climbing Matterhorn Peak on the northern edge of Yosemite Park. Then riding the rails to his mother’s home in North Carolina to spend some time with her and to meditate and find the meaning of everything.

Hitching back to Corte Madera where he stayed in a shack up the hill from a cabin of some friends. There he “studied” Zen and other contemplations before moving on to the fire lookout station to live alone for the summer. I learned where the property was, and on Sunday morning, drove up the steep hill and took some photos. Not wanting to trespass, nor disturb the residents of the manor since it was 9am on a Sunday morning, I just humbly took some quick photos and moved on after visiting a grove of redwoods at the base of the small valley now filled with million dollar homes and beamers. Nothing wrong with either of those, it’s just kinda contradictory of the setting in the in which one meditates on the release of all worldly possessions. Things were different back Zen I guess.


     “If the Dharma Bums ever get lay brothers in America who live normal lives with wives and children and homes, they will be like Sean Monahan.

      Sean was a young carpenter who lived in an old wooden house far up a country road from the huddled cottages of Corte Madera, drove an old jalopy, personally added a porch to the back of the house to make a nursery for later children, and had selected a wife who agreed with him in every detail about how to live the joyous life in America without much money. Sean liked to take days off from his job to just go up the hill to the shack, which belonged to the property he rented, and spend a day of meditation and study of the Buddhist sutras and just brewing himself pots of tea and taking naps…”

     “….When I arrived there at noon that day, getting off the Greyhound bus and walking up the tar road about a mile, Christine immediately had me sit down to hot soup and hot bread with butter. She was a gentle creature. ‘Sean and Japhy are both working on his job at Sausalito. They’ll be home about five.’

     ‘I’ll go up to the shack and look at it and wait up there this afternoon.’

     ‘Well, you can stay down here and play records.’

     ‘Well, I’ll get out of your way.’

     ‘You won’t be in my way, all I’m gonna do is hang out the wash and bake some bread for tonight and mend a few things.’ With a wife like that Sean, working only desultorily at carpentry, had managed to put a few thousand dollars in the bank. And like a patriarch of old Sean was generous, he always insisted on feeding you and if twelve people were in the house he’d lay out a big dinner (a simple dinner but delicious) on a board outside in the yard, and always a big jug of red wine. It was a communal arrangement, though, he was strict about that: we’d make collections for the wine, and if people came, as they all did, for a long weekend, they were expected to bring food or food money. Then at night under the trees and the stars of his yard, with everybody well fed and drinking red wine, Sean would take out his guitar and sing folksongs. Whenever I got tired of it I’d climb my hill and go to sleep.

     After eating lunch and talking awhile to Christine, I went up the hill. It climbed steeply right at the back door. Huge ponderosas and other pines, and in the property adjoining Sean’s a dreamy horse meadow with wild flowers and two beautiful bays with their sleek necks bent to the butterfat grass in the hot sun. ‘Boy, this is going to be greater than North Carolina woods!’ I thought, starting up. In the slope of grass was where Sean and Japhy had felled three huge eucalyptus trees and had already bucked them with a chain saw. Now the block was set and I could see where they had begun to split the logs with wedges and sledgehammers and doublebitted axes. The little trail up the hill went so steeply that you almost had to lean over and walk like a monkey. It followed a long cypress row that had been planted by the old man who had died on the hill a few years ago. This prevented the cold foggy winds from the ocean from blasting across the property unhindered. There were three stages to the climb: Sean’s backyard; then a fence, forming a little pure deer park where I actually saw deer one night, five of them, resting (the whole area was a game refuge); then the final fence and the top grassy hill with its sudden hollow on the right where the shack was barely visible under trees and flowery bushes. Behind the shack, a well-built affair actually of three big rooms but only one room occupied by Japhy, was plenty of good firewood and a saw horse and axes and an outdoor privy with no roof, just a hole in the ground and a board. It was like the first morning in the world in fine yard, with the sun streaming in through the dense sea of leaves, and birds and butterflies jumping around, warm, sweet, the smell of higher-hill heathers and flowers beyond the barbed-wire fence which led to the very top of the mountain and showed you a vista of all the Marin County area. I went inside the shack…..”

     “….I didn’t want to disturb anything in the house till he got home from work so I went out and lay down in the tall green grass in the sun and waited all afternoon, dreaming. But then I realized, ‘I might as well make a nice supper for Japhy’ and I went down the hill again and down the road to the store and bought beans, salt pork, various groceries and came back and lit a fire in the woodstove and boiled up a good pot of New England beans, with molasses and onions. I was amazed at the way Japhy stored his food: just on a shelf by the woodstove: two onions, an orange, a bag of wheat germ, cans of curry powder, rice, mysterious pieces of dried Chinese seaweed, a bottle of soy sauce (to make his mysterious Chinese dishes). His salt and pepper was all neatly wrapped up in little plastic wrappers bound with elastic. There wasn’t anything in the world Japhy would ever waste, or lose. Now I was introducing into his kitchen all the big substantial pork-and-beans of the world, maybe he wouldn’t like it. He also had a big chunk of Christine’s fine brown bread, and his bread knife was a dagger simply stuck into the board.

     It got dark and I waited in the yard, letting the pot of beans keep warm on the fire. I chopped some wood and added it to the pile behind the stove. The fog began to blow in from the Pacific, the trees bowed deeply and roared. From the top of the hill you could see nothing but trees, trees, a roaring sea of trees. It was paradise. As it got cold I went inside and stoked the fire, singing, and closed the windows. The windows were simply removable opaque plastic pieces that had been cleverly carpentered by Whitey Jones, Christine’s brother, they let in light but you couldn’t see anything outdoors and they cut off the cold wind. Soon it was warm in the cozy cabin. By and by I heard a “Hoo” out in the roaring sea of fog trees and it was Japhy coming back.

     I went out to greet him. He was coming across the tall final grass, weary from the day’s work, clomping along in his boots, his coat over his back. ‘Well Smith, here you are.’

     ‘I cooked up a nice pot of beans for you.’

     ‘You did?’ He was tremendously grateful. ‘Boy, what a relief to come home from work and don’t have to cook up a meal yourself. I’m starved.’ He pitched right into the beans with bread and hot coffee I made in a pan on the stove, just French style brewing coffee stirred with a spoon. We had a great supper and then lit up our pipes and talked with the fire roaring. ‘Ray, you’re going to have a great summer up on that Desolation Peak. I’ll tell you all about it.’

     ‘I’m gonna have a great spring right here in this shack.’….”

     “….All the logs that had been bucked had more or less of a crack in them, where you more or less inserted the heavy iron wedge, and then, raising a five-pound sledgehammer over your head, standing way back so’s not to hit your own ankle, you brought it down konko on the wedge and split the log clean in half. Then you’d sit the half-logs up on a block-log and let down with the doublebitted ax, a long beautiful ax, sharp as a razor, and fawap, you had quarter-logs. Then you set up a quarter-log and brought down to an eighth. He showed me how to swing the sledge and the ax, not too hard, but when he got mad himself I noticed he swung the ax as hard as he could, roaring his famous cry, or cursing. Pretty soon I had the knack and was going along as though I’d been doing it all my life.

     Christine came out in the yard to watch us and called ‘I’ll have some nice lunch for ya.’

     ‘Okay.’ Japhy and Christine were like brother and sister.

     We split a lot of logs. It was great swinging down the sledgehammer, all the weight clank on top of a wedge and feeling that log give, if not the first time the second time. The smell of sawdust, pine trees, the breeze blowing over the placid mountains from the sea, the meadowlarks singing, the butterflies in the grass, it was perfect. Then we went in and ate a good lunch of hotdogs and rice and soup and red wine and Christine’s fresh biscuits and sat there crosslegged and barefoot thumbing through Sean’s vast library.

     ‘Did ya hear about the disciple who asked the Zen master ‘What is the Buddha?’

     ‘No, what?’

     ‘The Buddha is a dried piece of turd’ was the answer. The disciple experienced sudden enlightenment.’

     ‘Simple shit,’ I said.

     ‘Do you know what sudden enlightenment is? One disciple came to a Master and answered his koan and the Master hit him with a stick and knocked him off the veranda ten feet into a mud puddle. The disciple got up and laughed. He later became a Master himself. ‘Twasn’t by words he was enlightened, but by that great healthy push off the porch….”
Little grove at the base of the hill.

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