In Search of a Sense of Place
At Christmas time in the year of Our Lord 2009, I was still in the Napa Valley, in the city of Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, having lingered there longer than ever before the flight east. The only return flight I could get with my frequent flyer ticket was on New Year’s Eve; San Francisco non-stop to Dulles. My airplane caught a 125 mph tailwind on the way in, making for a four-hour flight from the West Coast. Upon arrival, I took a short cab ride on a rainy, cold night to one of those great Washington young people’s group homes that always throws a party on New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the evening with numerous people from one of two churches I attend here. Thus my transition from West to East was swift and merry.
Way back in April when I first arrived, people told me that if I wanted to really understand the soul of St. Helena, I should go over to Crane Park any week night and blend into the crowd at the eight bocce ball courts. I indeed found quite a crowd, not to mention picnic tables covered with cheeses, olives, spreads, crackers, cold cuts, pasta, flatbreads, salads, dips, elaborate desserts and, of course, bottles of wine; mostly from Napa, bottles from tasting rooms, bottles from private cellars, bottles with unusual labels, bottles with no labels at all. The Grgich Hills Winery team showed up once a week with an entire washing machine flat of stemware and a dozen bottles from the tasting room. Oh my. Strike up a conversation and soon a glass is placed in your hand, wine poured, delicacies offered. Mmmm. Such generosity with food and wine I have never before enjoyed.
Eventually I joined a team (sponsored by the Episcopal Church, which I often attend): The Holy Rollers. We weren’t particularly good, but we ate well, and improved as the season wore on, finishing sixth out of ten. The last evening for bocce occurred about a month ago. We lost the first two games to a much better team, but came back to win the last one, which was a kick.
St. Helena really is a friendly little town. One can walk into Cook, the small restaurant on Main Street beloved of locals, have a seat at the bar, and find oneself engrossed in conversation. One’s glass is not infrequently filled with whatever someone brought. The menu is rather limited, a simple, type-written sheet of paper, but I have grown to love the place. The chef comes to me for treatments at the spa and I know all the staff by name. Market, another good small restaurant with a longer menu, is up the street. Eddie, the greeter and seater, a peach of a fellow, will remember your name after a couple of visits. I have never lived in a place where it is so easy to meet strangers.
I have been blessed with wonderful clients at Health Spa Napa Valley, even though the economic situation has reduced the number quite precipitously. Most clients come in, say relatively little and get on the table. I breathe deeply and begin. I move my hands, forearms and elbows from head and shoulders down to the feet and back up. Slowly. Repeat. Breathe. I’ve decided that a good massage really is a work of art, something more like a musical composition than a medical treatment, a concerto for the human body in three parts, face down, face up and sideways. The tune we play together depends on the instrument: some people are flutes, some violins, horns, cellos, occasionally a bass violin or grand piano. Most depart with a thank you and a smile on their faces and I move on to the next, or go for a swim before heading off to the bocce ball courts, or Cook, for an evening of conviviality.
Sometimes something magical happens; a deep exhalation, a sigh, a release, a shudder. Clients occasionally teach me something, or reward me with something intangible beyond the cash payment. One client this summer was a defensive safety on a top ten college team in the 1960s. He liked to talk, so we talked football; and beyond football to sportsmanship, honesty, the life lessons taught by competition. I have done advanced academic work in the general field of moral philosophy, but he was the teacher in this conversation, as much by his attitude as anything else.
This season’s liturgical highlight was a Chanticleer concert at a big old Catholic church in Petaluma. They entered the darkened church in tuxedos, carrying lighted tapers and singing a Gregorian Chant, followed immediately by Josquin Desprez’s Ave Maria:
Ave Maria, Gratia, plena,
Dominus tecum, Virgo serena.
The darkened church, the illuminated altar to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the height and depth of the voices, blending, soaring, welling, gently but surely shaking the rafters and the foundation; thoughts of my mother, all mothers, all parents, the Holy Family, all families, all children, all caring, all loving, all yearning, all suffering, all striving . . . Somewhere deep inside the voices released the wellspring of tears yet made life a glorious blessing.
O Mater Dei, memento mei. Amen.
A few days later I drove down the coast to Esalen for Christmas week. A week at Esalen is always good, but this was even better than usual, a workshop called SoulMotion, led by Scott and Zuza Engler. For most of our six hours of “class” each day we simply moved to music, slowly working out all the kinks and tightness of our workaday lives. We ate good food, amid much exuberant conversation. We soaked in the famous hot springs perched fifty feet above the ocean. Periodically in class, we would pause to share in small groups or in the larger group. After a few days the sharings emerged from deeper and deeper places.
In an abnormally cold Washington this January, I am warmed by good memories.