Escaping the Sidewalk: How to find breath and inspiration

There is a saying among gypsies, “Stay where there are songs.”

gyspy_caravanFor most of my so-called adult life I’ve been something of a nomad, moving house every year or so; if not to an entirely different location then at least changing my actual domicile and address in the current area. Like the woven nests I find and that adorn my front windowsill, repeatedly I am building a new nest in yet another tree (read: town).

Admittedly, I’m not much of a city dweller anymore, those days are long gone. While I appreciate what urban areas offer in the way of arts and culture, restaurants, upscale markets and such, the city is not where I hear songs—only noise and commotion. I prefer someplace quiet where I feel an immediate sense of semi-wild nature; if not right outside my door, as in some of the places I have dwelt, then very close at hand and easily accessible. Nature is the song that I love.

About a year ago, through a series of unexpected turns, my painted gypsy wagon came to rest on the central California coast, amid these windswept Monterey cypress trees that have captivated me. My childhood and adolescence was spent in greater Los Angeles, a concrete sprawl studded with palm trees and layered with brown smog, and though in some ways I am a native to California, I never expected to return here to live. (I never expected to return to America either, but that is another story altogether.) There are just too many damn people in this state. The fact that I’m once again a Californian, well, the irony is almost laughable.

Yet here I am, tucked into a somewhat dated, very modest cottage in the ever alluring locale of Carmel-by-the-Sea. It is decidedly a tourist spot, and other than Thursday’s small farmer’s market near the park, I seldom venture into the town’s center—several blocks of Old World-style architecture that are home to quaint and overpriced shops, art galleries, restaurants, and wine tasting rooms (it’s California, after all).

On my early visits, I stayed with some dear friends in Carmel Valley, and as I fell under the spell of this beautiful area, I decided to rent a somewhat funky studio near their home. My shabby little pied à terre (“Le Petite Shack”, I dubbed it) boasted a lovely view over the valley, and there were wild turkeys about and gentle mule deer that slept beneath the gnarled oaks just off the deck. Except for the electronically amplified harmonica-playing landlord in the house next door, it was a decent little writer’s retreat. Yet the longer I was there, the more strongly I realized that I actually wanted to be directly at the coast, not in the valley. Like the graceful, wind raked cypresses, I needed to dwell at the misty threshold of sea and earth.

From my landing spot at Le Petite Shack, I followed nature’s song to the fog-shrouded Carmel Highlands, where I rented an enchanting poet’s cottage sheltered beneath the wide boughs of a towering Monterey cypress on an oceanfront estate. Seated in the alcove of front windows, or perched at the rusting bistro table on the stone terrace, I watched sea otters and seals in the flashing waters of the cove. “Magical” seems a weak description, and I spent timeless hours outside in the briny air, bundled up against the wind, gazing at the waves and writing, writing, writing. At the edge of a continent I apprenticed to tides and shifting moods of light and weather, while at night the primordial chant of the Pacific lulled me to sleep and serenaded my dreams.

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Cypress tree and Carmel Beach

As my soul increasingly felt the need to reside here more full-time than in Hawaii, for a half-dozen different reasons (including being able to bring my two English Whippets from the islands), a few months ago I reluctantly left the seafront poet’s cottage and moved to this slightly larger place in town. (Fortunately, it is also graced by a venerable Monterey cypress tree, whom I call the Grandmother.)

It’s an adjustment, being in a neighborhood. I cannot say that my wild soul is deeply nourished here as it was in the valley or the Highlands, but overall this is a good spot. It is an unusual town that prohibits neon lights, traffic signals, street lights, and fast food chains, where the houses have names rather than numbers (a throwback to the artist colony days), and mailboxes are banned. Not only is every tree is protected—it takes an act of God to cut or remove one, and there are more than a couple streets with trees directly in the middle of the road—but what I love about Carmel-by-the-Sea is that there are no sidewalks in the residential areas.

While I am domesticated in many ways (French-trained cook, oenophile, artist-meets-homemaker), my soul chafes and constricts when confined too long within the geometric grid of towns and cities. Straight lines do not exist in nature (or our souls), and having dwelt in many rural and semi wild locales where I was nourished daily by natural beauty, I’ve realized that I cannot live anymore in the urban hive or the bleary, illuminated zones of suburbia.

The breath cannot be taken fully in such places.

There is also an increasing buzz to our cities and towns; not simply noise, but rising electromagnetic pollution and EMF’s. For those of us who are electromagnetically sensitive, who feel the adverse effects of microwaves, cell phone towers, “smart meters” and WiFi, living amid the trees and close to nature becomes something more than just what is good for the soul—it is imperative for our well-being and health.

I’ll accept the convenience of a paved road (preferably a curved one rather than straight) but sidewalks, no. When you have rediscovered and reclaimed a bit of your wild, authentic soul, if you’ve lived close to the natural world and been enfolded by its healing embrace, our linear, manmade existence feels distinctly unnatural and at odds with the organicity of nature.

The dogs are here (a mother-in-law too, gods help me), and my beloved and I are somehow juggling the logistics of a life lived in two places. For now, as we navigate this current passage of work, family, and soul summons, I am mostly content amid the quaint cottages and quietude of Carmel. It’s a far cry from wild, but the trees outnumber people and autos by at least ten to one, and there’s not a straight-edge sidewalk hemming us into tidy grids.

I still need to get out and escape town regularly, wandering the scenic majesty and wilds of Big Sur just to the south (though the region is distressingly overrun by tourists in the summer months). Or I sit on the white sands of Carmel Beach at sunset, listening to the sea’s chant and watching the pelicans glide effortlessly over the waves with only the barest movement of a wingtip, and feel my breath expand once more.

It is always in nature—free of sidewalks and mechanical, modern noise—where I find my inspiration, solace, and well-being. It is there that I hear the music.

Wind song. Earth song. Sea song. Heart song. Each a voice of the soul of the world.

I long for the day when we can finally park the painted gypsy caravan beneath a noble tree and let its wheels rot off; that place where my partner and I are both drawn to put down roots, steward a patch of earth, create yet another soulful sanctuary for a life lived deliberately, and build a sense of community (both human and other).

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Misty morning outside the cottage

It will almost certainly be at the end of a lane somewhere, as all my favorite haunts and houses have been: on a wild mesa near Taos, New Mexico; in the wooded downs of southern England; amid the olive groves of Andalucia, Spain; a fragrant eucalyptus forest at the top of Olinda in ‘upcountry’ Maui; the misty Carmel Highlands. (My dear mate says my autobiography will have to be titled, “A House at the End of the Road.”)

Writing this post, I suddenly remembered a children’s book by Shel Silverstein, “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” Other than the front cover—a whimsical pen and ink drawing of an elevated sidewalk like a bridge that ends abruptly in nothingness—I don’t recall anything of the book’s story. Yet the title seems like the perfect directive as to where one might find a richer sense of self entwined with nature and soul.

Wherever I finally settle, there certainly won’t be a sidewalk out front. And the road, paved or not, will wind like a snake through the silently listening and singing trees. You’ll find me where my breath is easy and full, and I am inspired and uplifted by the wordless song of nature, striving to offer something of beauty to the ‘more-than-human’ world.

Yes, that is where you’ll find this gypsy, where I can hear the earth and trees… singing.

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