Nepenthe is tonight as it was yesterday as it was the night before, almost empty. It’s the down time, Felipe tells me. He says he’s glad for the quiet because the month before the restaurant was slammed with business. Thinking back to my own business (I was a businessman for eight years), downtimes always made me nervous, because I equated sales with success: if you weren’t selling, you weren’t producing and if you weren’t producing you were failing. I think of my father. He pushed me to new heights by offering no praise for a job well done. He critiqued with such silences they made the heart hungry for words, even if those words arose out of anger and disappointment. Sometimes I deliberately sabotaged things to get a rise out of him. I suppose I have lived most of my life in want of praise of one type or another, to be acknowledged, to be seen. And I suppose this is the essence of fame (not that I want it), to be visible before the eyes of everyone even if what they understand of you is an image.
Felipe asks me what I want to drink tonight and I tell him that tonight I’ll take a wine flight. I want to soar, but not too high. Drinking wine is like flying, but at a leisurely pace--a flap, a glide, two flaps, a longer glide. I say, winking, In Vino Veritas. He smiles, his upper lip twitching. He brings out the Pinot Noir he told me about the night before, Guaranteed, he says to make you feel friendly. I wonder if I am giving off an impression of unfriendliness? Can he see through me? Am I transparent? Does he see in me a reticence at best or at worst inauthenticity? He proceeds to tell me about the history of Pinot Noir and I listen because I am agreeable to learning.
To learn, I say to myself, is to be in love. The receptivity, the willingness. I think to learn is to be feminine--soft, watery, pliant. Rigidity resists learning. Age hardens a person to such a degree one resists everything new. My father, he struggles to learn new concepts, slipping into the familiar because the known is safe. At times I feel he lives in the past, relying too much on his past achievements, living inside the image of success. He lives in a past where he was a king of business. A successful entrepreneur, the American Dream came late in his life and when the dream ended, he found himself once again unseen--no longer a man with his finger on the pulse of the world, but a man out of touch with it. Say that he had never created his business (a business he worked to build up, he said, for our sakes--my brother my mother and I), and say that he remained the man my brother and I felt proud to call father, a man who took us on trips to nearby parks, who hand fed us, who wasn’t afraid or shy to take a dip in the ocean once in a while, a man who also helped us with our homework and offered us praise (not that he offered us much praise), for a job well done, then I would think I would have turned out a different sort of man than the one I’ve become. I would think I would have turned out to be the sort of man that prized the material trappings of success over making art, perhaps, living by skimming life’s surface. I would be a man in love with image and not with learning. I would perhaps worked hard to secure the type of success that others envy--yachts and jets, stock options, titles, a slew of fancy cars and a mansion overlooking the Queen’s Necklace in the LA Harbor. So, I suppose, my father, by sacrificing family for the sake of family, giving all his energies over to his business to secure a better life for us, was the kind of sacrifice made to create the type of man I have become--an artist. The father must die, I read once, so that his progeny can live. Perhaps my father sacrificed his role as a dad so the writer in me should live? I don’t know. Perhaps my view of what makes a father is too narrow. But what I know is this: my father is my obsession, as is home, as is family. I love my father and at times I hate him, like God, whom I love and at times hate.
Felipe has been talking to me but I haven’t been listening. Having one against my earlier thought of being agreeable to learning. He pours the wine and I sip it and it tastes sweet on my tongue. I nod. I drink. I am unable to understand why it tastes so good, but then everything here tastes good, everything I’ve taken for granted: coffee, chicken, broccolini, potatoes, even the air and water have sweetness to them that makes my heart quiver with pleasure.
I look for Angela and see her at a table in the center of the room engaged in a conversation with her manager. I feel guilty for wanting to speak to her; this desire to converse feels a little like cheating. But then again, I think, my intentions are innocent. Felipe doesn’t ask me what I think about the wine when I sip it; he sees what I think on my face. I would rather drink wine than talk about it. I finger the rim of the glass and it produces a sweet note and I think, how I would rather be a vessel in whom the world pours itself in. I want to swirl the pleasures around inside, wet my finger and circle the edge of my lips to issue forth singing sounds. I think of Angela and I think of Rilke. "Every angel is terrifying," he wrote. I couldn't agree more.
I drink two more glasses of wine, eat an artisan cheese plate with blue cheese, olives, and roasted garlic, and feeling my mood at the right temperature, I thank Felipe and pay him. I approach Angela and her manager and say goodbye. She apologizes again for not having time. It is time that always seems in short supply. We never do what we should, act like fools, risk things, say what we feel. What can she sense in me? Desperation? Perhaps she sees in me a threat to her sense of balance. No, not that, I make too much of things.
Driving back to my cabin I feel a pull towards Pfeiffer Beach again. In the mood for doing something different, unique, risky, I decide to drive the narrow, winding road back to the beach. The sky is clear, the temperature cold, and I think to myself, I have never experienced the feeling of standing at the precipice of a cliff and looking down at raging waters.
The road feels different now. Everything under the cloak and dagger of the dark feels different. I feel I am doing something illegal, vile, perhaps it is by the standards of civilized society. I am driving by night on a winding road to a beach where I hope to sit silently on, gauge the roiling waves as they manifest themselves in the pale, blue, acrid light of the dark.
I park in the same stall from earlier this morning (hard to believe I was here earlier in the day) in the last space on the upper level. I find it ridiculous that just this morning I walked this stretch of beach, spoke to God in a ruined clearing. It’s hard to believe that today I drove for miles and miles to Whale Watcher’s Cafe in a journey without purpose, a journey without destination. Hard to believe that earlier this evening, I sped up Highway One, pushing my reflexes and my vehicle to its limits. I leave my Jeep and walk the dark path, a balustrade of seed pines arching over me, forming a domed roof, beyond which a few stars peek through. The luxurious smells of rich decay, of salt soaked sand, the creek to my left whose voice seems swallowed up by the sound of the crashing surf beyond. I can hear the ocean. I feel it in my chest. The darkness makes everything feel colder and as I trespass onto the beach head, an image of ghosts appears in my mind, ghosts touching my face with their spindly fingers, wings flapping cold air, the cool air from beating wings tickling the hairs on my head, and the moaning surf beyond like an army of tortured souls.
In the open, just the sky above and the ocean beyond, the bluffs to my right lay bathed in shadows, the dark muting the shrubs and bushes and vines. The portal (to where, to nowhere?) stands diagonally to my left in the distance and rings hollowly the music of the water. I cross the shallows of the creek. It looks deeper and wider than it did this morning, the water, earlier so silvery, now looks like silk. The creek cuts through the sand, sand like down, and attempting to jump to the other side, my boots suck into the water. The cuffs of my pants are wet now and I am thankful I wore leather boots. Crossing the sandbar I make for the rocks, my breath heavy, my heart pumping, my mind unsure of what to do. I cross several rocks then finding one that looks safe and relatively dry, I hop onto it. I am standing on this flat misshapen rock jutting out from a slag of rocks crumbled down from the cliffs, and I feel pleased with myself. But what to do now that I am here? It is too cold for a swim, not that I would, though the thought to strip naked and run the beach like a wild man sounds, because of the wine in my system, oddly appealing. I breathe in the night, smell the crash of surf, hear the light, feel the color of blackened moonlight against my skin. Miscible, I feel unraveled. I am slipping off the rocks and mixing with the cascade of salt rimmed waves. I feel broken up, or down, my incremental parts scatter. Raising my arms, making of myself an offering to the dark and that boundless stretch of liquid, reaffirms my smallness in this world. I raise my arms higher and tilt my head up and shout at the sky, the stars the mute witnesses of this act.
I feel I want to get closer to the water. It rises from the bellows of the ocean floor and curls then crashes against these silent black stones. So I venture out about fifteen yards or so, propelling myself forward by sheer will, until I reach a slick flat rock, draped in moss, and planting my feet firmly on its surface, wait for the water to heave and crash. It rises. What a thrill to see it rise and crash, cascading against the rocks that sit, protected by nothing, quiet sentinels to all this swirling, fearsome action. Feeling like a survivor of a species thought extinct, like an exiled member of some lost tribe, like a castaway, I shout to the sky. I want this feeling to last, this exhilaration, for that is what I feel, exhilarated, the cold air, the cold water, the cold rocks making me feel more than a man. I stand there shouting and singing until the moment passes.
Crossing the beach, I venture towards the portal. It has been the subject of many a photographer’s pictures. But you have to be lucky and patient. During a certain time of day, during a certain month, when the sun sets in just the right spot and the light careers through the opening, making it look like an afterburner bathed in a cloud, you get the shot, capturing for posterity the unbelievable light--coppery gold. You have to be lucky, I suppose, or persistent to be successful. Last year I entered the portal’s mouth and waited for the waves to crash through and they did, pushing against me in a violent and happy cascade. But that was during the day. Now it is night, midnight. Here, now, risking everything (my past, my present, my future) I may lose everything--my life. But what life would I lose if I lost everything? If the water pulled me out into its depths, catching me in a riptide (me, a creature less defenseless than a skittering crab) I could make my final peace with all that burdens me. But what is it that burdens me? Expectation burdens me, the feeling of failing to measure up to standards I have set for myself, impossible standards, quest for my father’s respect. No, I think, I must let go of all that. Alone, caught in the afterglow of a great burn, like Icarus hurled to earth, a phoenix burned up by the beauty of Big Sur, ready to rise again, I am giving myself over to transmutation. The essence of creativity is to allow change, welcome it, and not resist it. That is what I am doing here, I think, looking for an experience that will change me so thoroughly that my past will feel vanquished.
I enter the portal now, carefully navigating the serrated rocks. I climb. Am I risking death? The rocks are cold and sharp and slippery and I crouch on the topmost edge of a boulder, ready to lunge at the waves crashing through with an intensity that defies what I’ve come to know of Big Sur: placid, a saintly calm, a regal standoffishisness. From a distance everything looks peaceful, almost at rest; but close up, that’s when you really see Big Sur--that’s when you see it suck and lick and bleed. The daylight hides it as much as it reveals it and at night, Big Sur truly comes alive.
I sit on the edge of the boulder watching the waves crash in, sprayed by the briny water, the briny air filling my lungs. And I sit and stare at the parade of briny waves coursing through this tunnel, briny white tongues, briny black fingers with briny white claws breaking off stones from the ceiling and the walls. The water rages, a giant engine grating and coughing, advancing and retreating, while the walls magnify a thousandfold the ocean’s insistence.
What are you angry about? I shout, then I shout other things, shouting things that no one must hear, things I will not, cannot repeat. As the moments slip past, I feel not even a part of this world now, but a hollow voice, a noise joining the noise of the current, a voice baying endlessly like a wounded animal at Orion, at the moon, at the unseen galaxies above.
Stop this, I tell myself. But the wind unclothes me. You are acting like a fool! But the stars that shine blink only for me. They are, in this quietude, mine now, reclaimed from the world and mine, all mine. The waves are mine, the cliffs, the air, the sand, the rocks, all mine. I know this is foolish to think, and I think the authentic experience sits in the center, like a seed in an apple, of another value: lonesomeness. So long as I am alone, the world is mine, I think, but this is solipsism, no? That sickness of mind that makes of the world my idea, independent of others. Here, I am connected, to myself and nature, but not to others, and isn’t that one of the points of living, to be connected not just to nature, not just to God, but to one another? Isn’t being a writer an exercise (more than that; it’s a life) in connecting work to people?
I inch forward, up another boulder, then turning my back to the waves crashing through, I start to laugh. Am I drunk? Am I an idiot? A fake? A fool? Yes, yes! All of it! All of it! I have a strong desire to jump into the water, but not to end it all, to test myself against current and cold. This is another risk, one too great, and I feel I have already taken too many risks today. Instead, I thank God again and I thank Him for things of which He has no provenance; but I thank Him anyway. Giving up, I cross the beach, limping (because my knees when it gets cold become arthritic), and cross the shallow freshwater creek, then I enter the forested exit that smells of wet sand and pine and I lumber back to the parking lot which is, as it was before, bathed in black.
I feel exhausted, but energized. Happy. I feel I have experienced something words cannot yet explain. I shiver. I smile to myself. I can hardly believe this day. Emptied of all emotions, I feel like that twined root I found earlier washed up on the shoreline, an exhausted creature of no known origin placed for view in a world of which it has no real understanding, waiting, just waiting for the next strong current to wash it back to sea.
(To be continued)