Friday, January 21, 2011

Ode to a Favorite Place

It's been a long time since I've written here: I've been preoccupied with promoting the Wildbranch anthology (several great book readings, in San Francisco and Portland), working on a new book of Buddhist koans and stories about women, and organizing and helping to lead a women't retreat up in Washington. It's been a project-full time!

But today is a fabulously beautiful spring day in Marin County. I walked downtown from my aerie amongst the oaks and the hawks, down through the dark, cool redwoods and the creek in Blithedale Canyon, then into the quiet village of Mill Valley. I saw a friend for green tea and apple pie, then walked back through the canyon and up the hill again. Although it's not yet the end of January, we're having true spring weather. The grassy hills are ludicrously green, daffodils are in bloom, and everywhere the spring annuals are sending up leafy shoots.

I'm often astonished that I am able to live here, even if I can only afford to be here for a few months out of every year. The beauty of this area has never grown commonplace to me. Every time I see the Golden Gate Bridge from the hills behind my place, miles away, fog drifting between the towers, I'm amazed all over again. Every time I look out my window to the peak of Mount Tamalpais, or get out of my car in the evening to quiet moonlight, I'm grateful.

And the people! Marin is still a place for eccentrics and artists and meditation junkies, surviving like relic trees amidst the Lexus SUV's, and I seem to have the luck to meet them every time I turn around.

What inspired me to write today is a quote in a book by Gary Thorpe, a sort of neighbor in Marin, fellow Zen practitioner, writer, and naturalist. I don't know Gary, but I feel like I should - we've probably passed each other on the trail and sat in the dark together at Green Gulch, never knowing it. The book is a collection of short essays about Gary's quest to see a mountain lion, Caught in Fading Light. Here's the quote that caught my eye:

"Marin County, where we live, is a wonderful place to look for something. It's a land of wilderness, parks, marine sanctuaries, farmlands, small villages, and manageably sized cities. Here one can find an abundance of wildflowers and mushrooms, along with meditation centers and ethnic restaurants. There are elephant seals, car dealerships, redwood trees, high-tech industries, rare falcons, and imprisoned felons, all sharing one of the loveliest landscapes and coastlines anywhere."

This quote reminded me of another paean to Marin Countyin Alan Watt's delightful autobiography (remember Alan Watts, the first popularizer of Eastern religions?), In My Own Way. Alan spend the last decades of his life in Marin County, some of that time on a houseboat in Sausalito, and here's what he wrote about it in 1972. Now, admittedly, Marin was a little bit wilder then (in every possible way) but I detect the same spirit even now, and many of the people who were here in 1972 are still here, tucked away up the canyons. Some of them are my neighbors!

"Here in San Francisco and Southern Marin we have succeeded, more than anywhere else in the United State, in curbing the White Anglo Saxon Protestant subculture of the nation, though our slight margin of victory requires incessant vigilance...By virtue of its hilly landscape, its redwood forests and eucalyptus groves, its wayward coastline, its liberally bohemianized population, the peninsula of southern Marin has attracted imaginative people from all over the has also become a powerful spiritual center of the nation, as befits the fact that its geographical center is a mountain holy to the Indians...Though not much more than twenty-five hundred feet high, Mount Tamalpais rises almost directly from sea level...Seen in the first light of dawn...the whole mass of hills, valleys, and canyons with their forests. groves, meadows and giant rocks confers an atmosphere of strange benificence.

Extraordinary people live upon it... There are mountain lions, bobcats,and deer galore, and wild goats and eagles and vultures and racoons and rattlesnakes and gophers... All these and many more wizards, yogis, artists, poets, musicians, gardeners and madmen cluster about this mountain."

So there you have it. My friends might wonder why I keep being drawn back to this place, so far from my home ground of the rainy Northwest coast. It's the light of the January sun, my 95-year-old neighbor who traveled the world as an adventuresome entomologist, the joy of walking beneath old coast live oaks draped in lichen, the library beneath the redwoods, the shorebirds by the tens of thousands, the Buddhist meditation groups in every nook and cranny (including my own household!), the beautiful white city shimmering to the south. And I do have a soft spot for mountain lions and vultures and wizards and poets and gardeners and madmen... (might even be more than a little bit one of the latter myself).

I've been thinking about gratitude, and its power to transform our habitually whiney minds into happy minds. Gratitude for place seems like a important kind of gratitude, at least for me. To bow down and kiss the ground, whatever that ground might be - granite or concrete, dirt or sand or duff or garden bed. Beauty everywhere.

And although it's true that I don't exactly live anywhere, I feel grateful for the many beautiful places that are part of my life, from the soft shoals and light of Willapa Bay, to the tawny slopes of Mt. Tamalpais, to the tremendous spaciousness and wilderness of the Mojave Desert. Even my hometown in the Midwest, with its gracious old houses and tropical summer heat, deep green - where in the world is there NOT something to celebrate of the place where you stand?

If you feel like writing a response in the comments, something about the place or places you love, please share.