Sonoma Mountain Road

Just like children sleepin’
We could dream this night away.
But there’s a full moon risin’
Let’s go dancin’ in the light
– Neil Young, “Harvest Moon”

My husband, son and I are on our way to the home of a family we do not know, a friend of a friend, for Passover, and everything about this drive is new. Three weeks ago we moved to California and our skin still stings with newness. Dry air collides with damp cool coastal wind on the precipice of what rainy season exists in this region, and the chemistry of our bodies is a mixture of exhilaration and nerves and exhaustion that makes us feel sad and vulnerable and present at once.

Sonoma Mountain Road is like so many in this area, one that seems like it wouldn’t be there at all, or that it would find its end, but it just keeps going; it buckles and narrows but does not yield. We pass through an extensive redwood grove, bouquets of moist ferns at the base of ruddy trees, that appears as swiftly as it’s gone, a stark contrast to the rest of the open landscape and bare rolling hills and vineyards. Was this once all redwoods? And then we pass through an oak tree forest, almost as startling to us, with thick low branches that spread out like open arms inviting children to scale their way toward the sky.

After the winding vertiginous road, we disembark as though stepping off a skiff and see children run in a hilly open landscape that has its own slopes and valleys, like a human body, its own array of ecosystems. Old vine grape vines slant further down in a dip, and there’s a prolific vegetable garden with raised beds and wooden box frames up on a flatter bit of land closer to the house where a jungle of nasturtiums makes an attempt to escape.

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The air is cool and fresh -it’s the first month of spring- and many of us wear down jackets and scarves. Our boy quickly joins the other kids – and there’s something about the children scattered like chess pieces, or bunnies here and there, haphazardly running, zigzagging, that is chaotic and orderly at once. They are like every child since the beginning of time who has found joy in sprints of complete abandon, red-cheeked in the cold spring air at dusk, completely lost in their imaginations and the wilds of the outside world which is the greatest playground known to man. Who needs a jacket when you feel this alive, their uncovered bodies seem to say as they move continuously.

Soon the adults call the children to gather at the elegantly arranged outdoor table, set for fifteen, where green bouquets of parsley wade in glass jars on a white table cloth.

“Where’s your other boot?” my friend, who has hardly aged a day since college, many eons ago, asks her son, Z, a lively five-year old boy with dark brown eyes and loose short curls that go from brown to gold at the tips.

“This is honestly the fourth pair of boots I’ve bought him this year,” she says, exasperated and amused in equal measure.

Then my friend’s daughter, a five-year-old with white-blonde spiral locks, is upset as we sit down, something about the colors she used in her Haggadah coloring book. Her irritation develops into a full belly cry in seconds, but her tears are soon quelled by the many eager adults looking for a way to appease her, and before long the first glass of wine is poured and the Seder begins.

My friend’s daughter has a beaming smile now as many adults make a point to say l’chaim and smile warmly in her direction. The children cheers with grape juice and the contents of at least one child’s glass spills across the table.

“Would you like more wine?” my husband asks the hostess.

“Go ahead and keep this thing full all night,” she quips, her attractive big blue eyes beaming.

Each adult, and the one child old enough, reads a portion of the Haggadah clockwise around the table.

The adults assist the youngest child in singing: “Ma nishtanah ha-lailah ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leilot?/ Why is this night different from all other nights?” And we sing “Miriam’s Song,” “Whoever thought the sea would part with an outstretched hand/ And we would pass to freedom and march to the promised land,” and “Let My People Go” with as much passion as we can muster.

The life of Moses is brought to life by the hostess with finger puppets and the children gather around her and the heating lamp, faces turned upward, rapt, as though listening to a storyteller around a bonfire in some other century. Baby Moses is set in a basket and floats down the Nile river, as the story goes. . .

I spent the day of the Seder, during meals and other activities, prepping my son, who turned three the week before, about Passover and Moses and Pharaoh. Was I really telling him about that big and horrible word – slavery; this word belonged to a long list of other words which described things I wished did not exist in the present as well as throughout history: genocide, holocaust, war. I could feel the density of these words like a crushing weight that would begin to corrode the carefree joy he easily tapped into daily. Could we not just skip this part about the human race for now? But I was doing it, I would tell him the story of Passover, or at least a cliff note version designed for a three year old.

For many days after he would ask, “Tell me the story again about Moses and Pharaoh,” already so naturally drawn toward the tension and drama in stories of good and evil or the gray areas in between. His question was followed by passionate commentary, “I don’t want to be a slave, I don’t want to live in Egypt, Pharaoh is mean! Let my People Go!” he would say.

The children make jokes and giggle and chime in soberly on the Passover story while taking little tastes of this and that from the Seder plate: hard boiled egg, charoset, matzah, horseradish. They dip parsley in salt water, until it is drenched and dripping, and you can see delight on their faces the moment they taste the briny bitterness.

After the majority of the Haggadah is read (we never do get around to completing it) we eat matzo ball soup with barley and beans, kugel and salad, which the children barely touch because they are full from their Seder plate snacks and are off in search of the afikomen. Z has found it for the past couple years and the adults are rooting for a new winner this year, or for a girl to win, as they head off in little search parties, working together, so eager to find their treasure.

I never do see which child finds it, but once it’s found, they proceed to hide it again and again, creating an all together new game that they don’t tire of for a good long time which allows the adults to have that rare indulgent pleasure of being able to speak more candidly for a while.

“Are you going to have more kids,” someone asks me.

I’m not sure,” I say, “I haven’t decided, but it’s decision time,” which is what I always say so generically when I am asked this question (and I’m asked this question quite frequently . . . How long can I say that for?) And then that question is usually followed by the question, as it was on this night, “How old are you?” and when I tell them they respond with, “Oh, I thought you were so much younger!”

“I didn’t think I would have another, but I’m so glad I did,” a woman with an eight year old and an 18 month old says. Her new baby is an absolute delight.

“I’m just starting to miss babies again,” my college friend says, “now that the twins are five.”

Conversation continues about where everyone’s from and where we moved from and how I know my friend who invited us here tonight, about Prince who passed away the day before and Purple Rain – how old we were when we saw it, about the rising real estate values in various Northern California towns, about the Green Gulch Zen Center and Sausalito and Fairfax, about mountain biking and beaches, and more wine is poured and bottles are drained and the hostess is lovely and hilarious, the more so with each glass of wine.

The hosts’ daughter, a blond lightly freckled five-year-old, continuously picks up our son, to his dismay, and brings him into her room where the children have gathered to put on performances for the adults.

A few of us clean up the table, bring plates and silverware and empty wine bottles into the kitchen,  and the wood stove in the living room warms our bodies after an hour and a half of cool spring zephyrs.

Every now and then the audience breaks into laughter and exuberant clapping, “Encore, encore!” a dad shouts.

After a few more show stoppers, the guests trickle out toward their cars and the ritual veil of the holiday begins to wane.

Reveling in the warmth of the evening we walk outside, with gifts of chocolate dipped matzah in our hands, serene and happy.

At the horizon an extra-large ochre full moon levitates above Sonoma Mountain like a gift from space we weren’t expecting and we pause as though we have never seen a full moon rise over a mountain before we give hugs and say au revoir to our new friends.

In this moment all is perfect: the company, the aftertaste of good wine still clinging to our mouths, the sky, the light of the moon, the first stars. In this moment it even feels right that we moved, that we’re away from our beloved friends and family in North Carolina, that we’re in California, that we’ve uprooted our whole life and stand in the balance of a foreign equilibrium where we find our way anew each day, with each new experience and new friend we make.

On the drive to the farm house in Valley Ford, where we’re living for the month, a special Prince tribute is on the radio.

“Prince is one of my favorite musicians, he was an amazing guitarists and a great song writer. He was a poet, an incredible artist,” I tell my son in the backseat.

“Prince died?” My son asks.

“Yes,” I say.

“I miss Prince, but we can still listen to his music,” he says optimistically.

“Yes, that’s true, we can still listen to his music.”

One of my favorite songs comes on and I turn up the volume:

“Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life, Electric word, life/ it means forever and that’s a mighty long time. . .”

We dance in our seats, only confined by seat belt and car seat and the metal of our new charcoal gray Prius that moves quietly down the road.

“Are we going to let the elevator bring us down/ Oh, no! Let’s go crazy!”

“I really like Prince’s music,” he says, before the next song, another favorite, “Raspberry Beret” begins.

“I’m glad. You have really good taste in music,” I say.

As we drive into the blackness of the asphalt onto Highway 1, the illumination of that Sonoma Mountain moon seems lost in the rear view mirror as the coastal fog moves in like a presence to be reckoned with.

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Home Sweet, Nebulous, Home

Looking Homeward“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Loss is nothing but change and change is nature’s delight.” – Marcus Aurelius

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood . . . back home to the father you have lost and have been looking for, back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time–back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” – Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward Angel

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I.

What does it mean to leave everything behind? To leave one’s home thousands of miles behind. So far in the distance it cannot be seen only remembered as though it were an island you once passed by on a ship at night or a place that was part of a long elaborate dream that caused you to smile upon waking.

And like a dream, that home is intangible – has become intangible now that you are not within it – a place in which you have stopped the momentum of its essence into your psyche like a high speed train suddenly emasculate on the tracks so a haggard man with ruddy skin and ghostly hair can stumble vertiginously back into the darkness.

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And it will never be the same. Now that you’ve left. It will always be a slightly foreign place. That home which once was a place where you lived with a slight level of unconsciousness – because you could – because you knew where everything was and how to get there, and you knew many of the people and their names and their children’s names and where they dwelled and their intimate stories – and you could make your way through the streets with a bandanna tied over your eyes.

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And in addition, you loved the city where you resided. Was there any place on earth like the Paris of the South?167

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And you loved the people with their fresh faces and audacious ideas, their ornate bicycles like whimsical piñatas speeding through the streets, their dense forest mountain paths full of fiddlehead ferns, trilliums and deciduous trees that in the fall look like the most extraordinary display of parrot feathers; their gypsy jazz and traditional Bluegrass, the rhythm of contra and clogging and hollers so green -so, so, green and contained content worlds in themselves- the youthful itinerant anarchists with their dogs and washboards and banjos, worn out fatigues and body odor; the woman who plays spoons on the street who would be beautiful were in not for her missing teeth, the persistent smell of hops and yeast with hints of citrus as the sort of eau d’ cologne and live bands of every sort in the street – 057Afro-pop, punk, experimental rock, electronica – the dolce vita flows as easily as the drinks and everyday life can be like the most gorgeous Felinni scene and just as surreal: an orgy of food and drink and friendship and fun, with an eccentric  purple bus that jets around its route each day, with laughter and music blaring from open windows, and a cross dressing nun on a tall bike as part of its shtick.

II.

In what felt like an instant, it would never be the same: the child’s bedroom, the family car, the dreams for the landscape we tended and pruned and poured over and petted for over a decade.

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We left our residence of eleveIMG_1949 (2)n years in a quick three and a half weeks: the house where we conceived our son, labored, planted fruit trees for him to climb and eat from (to nourish him) that we thought he, and I suppose we as well, would grow along side. Trees to grow old with, to love. To observe. To be in awe of how fruit grows from flowers where bees orchestrate their usual miracles.

The Buddha left his home and family to be unfettered. How would things have been different, or even the outcome of thousands of years of human history, had he taken his family with him, so that he would have been half-fettered or partially tethered? Could he have done it with them? Become enlightened that is.

I don’t stand a chance.

When I was eighteen a boyfriend wrote to me in a postcard, “Home is where I set down my backpack.” Somehow I never forgot that line or the sentiment of ecstatic freedom I sensed he felt when he wrote it. The open road, no roof, few possessions, bringing him fully into present.

The places where I set down my bags, now, full of mixed-up wrinkled clothes that are thrown on hastily each day with little care or pleasure, do not feel like home.

If anything my body is the closest thing to home – the shell that carries me from place to place and allows me to embrace those I love so that I can feel my arms around them and squeeze them to bring us heart to heart, to feel the rhythm of the organ that pumps blood and warmth through us, to feel the tributaries, rivers inside our bodies that are the same as those outside in the landscape our bodies are moving in now.

There is a great wilderness, wildness, openness to the wide-eyed sky and Sonoma coast where fault lines remain invisible to the naked eye under the earth, under the sea from this vantage, where we stand now, rolling hills dotted with tribes of cows, so far from the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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When I was in high school my parents lost everything, our home and their livelihoods, in what felt like a sudden whoosh once the eviction notice was stapled to the front door. We drove around recklessly, we had no where to go: no home, no place, no money. We were looking for a miracle, a handout, a roof over our heads – who would be the benefactor of such a great act of compassion?

“Maybe I should just go the Yogi center and make yogurt,” my mother said as we drove down the bumpy gravel road in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, and I couldn’t stop laughing but I was so sad, and the dust of the road rose up behind us like smoke, and I felt elated and light like I was levitating above the gray-blue Volvo station wagon the further we traveled from the cherished shelter of my youth and all the memories that resided there – all the joy and everything else in between.