Sixteen years ago, this week, my mother died in my arms. She was sixty-five, I was thirty-five. She was the first person I saw when I came into this world, and I was the last person she saw leaving it. It was 1995. I was living in California at the time, and two months later, still lost and stumbling and numb, seeking answers, or at least some peace, I drove up Highway 1 for a week’s retreat at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery I’d heard about in Big Sur. I wrote this essay during my visit.
The monastery is marked by a crude white cross, ten feet high, by the old Coast Highway. The air down there is silver, the fog drifts across the road from the sea. I can only see the nearest sliver of ocean. The rest is shrouded in sky, which is nothing but clouds. I drive up the winding dirt road four miles or so and the fog dissipates. No, I’ve climbed above the fog. The monastery rests high on a mountainside. The flora is scrubby around here, desert really. The air smells of sage and pine and sun-warm dirt. Benches, strategically placed, overlook the ocean of clouds, the snaky highway far below. A monk sits with a guest, or maybe she’s a retreatant, discussing theology, I imagine.
The compound is made up of several buildings, one level, low-slung and rather mod, Sixties-looking geometric shapes, a faded ochre color accented with dark wooden beams. Closer inspection reveals cinder block, all of it, the main building housing a small bookstore and the church beside that, open twenty-four hours, the check-in monk informs me. The Guestmaster, they call him. past the church are the monks’ quarters, off-limits to us. At the end of the driveway, down a slight rise and perched on the very edge of a cliff, the ocean beyond, are the guest rooms.
There’s landscaping up here, but its nothing fancy. Bougainvillia, fading like old crepe paper, mounds of sweet peas in full pink blossom, geraniums in the small plots outside each room. They are blooming, for sure, but they’re drooping and seem a bit neglected. There are nine rooms, a kitchen/library in the middle. To the right of the kitchen door, in the very heart of the V-shaped building, a two foot high statue of the Virgin Mary, her palms outstretched, keeps watch. My breath catches when I see that; my mother’s name was Mary. Someone has placed bright pink geraniums — these are healthy-looking, well-tended — at the statue’s feet.
My room is simple, a box, really. A “dead set,” they’d call it in the theater, except for the ceiling that slants down, raking toward the picture window on the far wall, the small scrappy garden outside, and the silvery sky. The sky turns out to be not sky at all, but sea, masked in gray clouds. Sunlight penetrates from somewhere and makes the room stifling hot by mid-afternoon. The carpet is brown, industrial, and the single bed has a crank at the foot of the bed, the kind of bed you’d find in a hospital. Maybe it actually is an old hospital bed. I’ll hit that crank every time I try to squeeze out the sliding glass backdoor that week. In front of the plate glass is a long table, perfect for writing. There’s an old lamp on top, Mediterranean-style, Seventies-Goodwill-thrift-store looking, and next to that, a Mr. Coffee on a smaller table, then an exhausted-looking mustard-colored vinyl armchair and an open-built armoire with a few beat-up hangers. In the small bathroom, atop the toilet, there’s a can of Clorox and a sponge dried into a curl. They expect me to clean up the place before I leave.
The whole place echoes the emptiness I’ve been feeling for that year, since Daddy died in April and Mother in July. My heart feel likes the tight bud of a flower in my chest, refusing to open. Beauty, the thing that has always sustained me, can’t reach me anymore.
The cinder block walls are bare except for two things: one, a plaque with “A Monk’s Prayer,” instructions from the thirteenth century outlining what a monk should do in his cell, which basically boils down to” “Do nothing. And wait.”
Why does this suddenly feel like the most difficult task on earth?
There are birds chattering in the scrub bushes outside, loud. I don’t know what kind they are and I don’t really care. And I don’t have the energy to slide the door closed. And its hot, anyway. I lay on the bed and stare, upside down, at the second thing hanging on the wall: a copy of an icon shellacked onto a shiny piece of beveled wood, nailed dead center above the bed. It depicts a man on his knees and another man with a gilt saucer of a halo standing over him, his hand flat over the kneeling man’s head. A female figure, winged, stands off to one side. They’re all stiff and flat-looking, but I know the figures represent ideas, each color chosen for its symbolic significance. This is an ancient sacred art, icon-making. I glance at this picture every time I pass that week. Finally I stop and stare. It is like trying to read Russian. The symbols won’t render up their meaning if I don’t know the code. It seems that Truth, the spiritual kind, should be more accessible than this. But maybe the rewards are greater if they are hard-won. I vow to ask one of the monks next time I’m out.
The monks, most of them, have beards and wear kindly smiles and sandals with socks. Outside, they wear either full white hooded robes (they all wear these during Vespers) or waist-length pullover windbreakers, dark regulation blue. The Brothers, they call themselves. They speak in soft, hushed tones. In the outside world, they might be considered wimps or nerds, men shyly requesting extra sprouts on their egg salad sandwiches, if it’s no bother, or happily offering to fix your pocket calculator at no charge because they simply love to take things apart like that. But here within the grounds, high up and set apart, clocks seem to run at a different speed altogether and the Brothers appear to be the sanest of us all. They seem to be at peace, which is what I want more than anything to feel again. They don’t seem to care too much for physical beauty, no stunningly beautiful, if simple, decor and gardens, like the Buddhist monastery up the road. Or maybe I just can’t see beauty anymore. This place feels like its run by a bunch of friendly college guys who have never heard of Martha Stewart, still decorating their dorm rooms in the sparest, most perfunctory ways. The Brothers have done just so much, and no more, as if their duty lies more in contemplation, in reading and discussion, and less in gardening and housekeeping. The physical life seems a passing thought to them. Beauty is found in other things, things of the mind, the spirit.
I sit up on the thin mattress, the old blanket worn smooth, and stare across the warm air at the shiny icon. I drift into random thoughts. Mother came to me in a dream the night before. And so the healing continues. A soft breeze passes through the open glass door, a little boy outside opens and closes the squeaky screen door to the kitchen, again and again. Joy follows quickly on the heels of sadness, so long I don’t hold so tenaciously to sorrow. In a writing class, I learned the importance of naming things, the way my mother loved to stroll through botanical gardens and recite, like prayers, the names of obscure wildflowers and shrubs: Wizard’s Cap, Stinging Nettle, Shooting Star, Monkeyflower, Johnny Jump-Ups. A dull blue bird with a white belly lands on the railing overlooking the Pacific Ocean, lets loose a loud “Cree! Cree!”
“Scrub jay.” My voice sounds loud to me, after days of speaking to no one.
“Good,” I hear my mother say, “You are paying attention,” and I smile. A grown man, I still flower under her strokes.