For my dear friend, Barbara on this hard hard day,
Am I even allowed to be in such a beautiful place? Let's just start with I'm staying in a house that is a living, breathing, self-seeding, perpetual Easter bouquet. I am not kidding.
If you can picture the hyacinths, roses, geraniums, and daisies surrounded by lilies, baby's breath (I think), leche leche, bougainvillea, an actual live, baby bunny hopping around, blue jays pecking incessantly at the nearby seed, then you can get a hint about what I am talking about.
Sure, there are nice gardens in front of museums, and in some decadent neighbor's front patios, and on some very fabulous hotel grounds in Palm Beach, but this, this is just purposeful gardening on another level.
If you take what I just described and put it into a tight little basket, and added an entire back yard to it, and not just a section of a back yard, but a whole respectablly-sized backyard, and add about twenty, no thirty or more fruit trees in this basket, tight, so that every inch is covered in goodness and edible, ripe madness: three kinds of oranges to pull directly from the tree for breakfast or snacking, tomatoes getting close to being ready, grapes that are still teeny lime green bunches the size of peas covering the ceiling of this basket overhead, nearly ripe and therefore wine colored blackberries, lemons, limes of several fantastic and delicious varieties, and then, take a breath, climbed into this basket and looked out, THAT is what I am looking at right now in Santa Barbara!
The garden I am talking about belongs to my in sis-in-law's parents, who both passed within days of one another (yes, one of those love stories). Their garden is famous. People come by: friends, neighbors, loved ones call in to see and to "stroke the garden" and remember Mary Jane and Jude. Even their names form a love song, these two lovebirds, gone just a few months ago.
You walk into their the house and are greeted by a giant pair of crystal clear sliding glass doors. You are welcomed to a table set in lace with a tea service going. I am not kidding-- this is exactly what happened to my mom and me when we visited Mary Jane and Jude last summer, to pop in and send them big love from their daughter, my writing buddy sis-in-law, whom I had just visited with in Italy and who lives in London and who has a whole planet between herself and her parents.
You sit at said table directly in front of sliding glass doors for a cup of tea with milk, and you are face-to-face with the Garden of Eden: lavish bursts of colors, bright pink vinca, this kind of orchid, that kind too, (oh to have their names!) another kind dripping from some cool hang-y thing you have only seen in magazines drape down from the iconic wooden pergola. This deciduous love, in maroon, another in green, edged with pink swirls. What is going on, you say. It is over-the-moon-whelming.
This living work of art looks like an illustration, something clearly drawn by an idealistic fool who thinks colorful bursts of organically grown flowers can do all this showy performance blooming business at the same time. But here, in this house, they do. This picture outside their sliding glass doors is not a sappy, syrupy Easter card, though it looks like one, nor is it a chemically altered nursery hoping to get plants out before the crack they are on wears out, nor is it a painted canvas by some dufous who does not understand plants take turns to bloom and cannot actually do all of this at the same time. No. This is all alive, all happening, all done by an artist, an expert who wanted to make the most of her time on Earth, and she did. Mary Jane, with the help of Jude, who celebrated the miracle of creation, believed in sweetness, chocolate, charity, family, Catholicism, and an ecstatic and baroque celebration of color.
I need to remember that when I get down, frustrated, or lost, Mary Jane's and Jude's way of life is a teacher. Yes, they have six amazing kids who have brilliant minds and have traveled the world. Yes, they had many talents beyond gardening, but this impact they made on the Earth itself. This self-seeding backyard paradise, ecosystem, manna for my heart is alive, and thankfully, part of my family through marriage and something cooler than that: fate.
Can I keep going? This place is a flower-lover's paradise, a fruit-lover's paradise, an avocado and mint and tomato lover's paradise, an orchid lover's haven, and a toy store for all the salvia, sage, berry, begonia, and rose, chime, water feature and bird lovers. For anyone who is healed by nature, there is more than enough in this garden to make the world a better place. Just knowing it exists makes the world better. This garden deserves an academy award for best performance stems and their blossoms. This garden deserves a name, a commemoration, a mentioning in the Smithsonian, a Nobel Peace Prize for its great message: "The world is okay. Do not fret. Come and see Mary Jane's and Jude's garden!"
This is my third time here to this house, and each time, after I, like anyone else who walks in the door, have conniptions that unfold into meditations on the miracles of fertility, beauty and creation itself.
Today, after that happens, we drive just ten, maybe seven minutes away to the Boathouse, a something something beach-love-fest, brunchy, cafe where the fresh squeezed orange nectar has got to have come from Mary Jane's garden because it is that perfect: free of plastic, chemical, artificial vitamins smells, free of other toxic preservatives, and it is the color of a glowing mango.
After, we take a walk on this lovely beach in the photo above, Burro Arroyo Beach, a beach Eileen visited often as a kid, her teenage hangout beach. And this makes me realize, "Oh, she is this awesome because she was born, like Venus, at the foot of paradise. Explains a lot!"
Why am I allowed to step into a glossy magazine and walk around? I know not all of California is like this. I know none of these cliffs and perfect seaside weather is real. It is TV, movies, Hollywood. Oh, yes, well, Hollywood is actually forty miles away, but nothing is this pretty, this perfect, this beautiful. Am I allowed to get this close to heaven while I am alive?
So yes. I have to say oh yes. The world is kind, the world does show up and kick ass. The world is nice to you, Natalia. You may never whine again.
And so I am lifted by the beginning of summer obviously. And yet today, we got some very very sad news about a friend who I also love, who my BFF Barbara loves, who many of my colleagues love, and who is so in love with the beauty and grace that is in the world, that this Mary Jane garden, and this Burro Arroyo beach can spontaneously pop up into her advanced imagination at the mentioning of the unadorned words, "garden" or "beach." These levels of beauty swim within her consciousness already. Her mind is like this bouquet I am looking at, this is a friend of mine who got very frightening news today. And I want to give her this garden, or bring her here to say, "It's going to be okay. Mary Jane got some bad news too, and look at her here. She has become this butterfly, this passion flower, this hybrid begonia that looks like it came from outer space, not that this would make my friend feel better, not that anything can make you feel better when you get news like this.
And yes, I am with my sis in law who I LOVE, and my brother in law too, yes, yes, a very cool Australian guy, my hubby's brother, who married a phenomenal woman thank God, Eileen Horne, a great writer, a solid creative, a perfect sister-friend, and now, a year after my trip to Italy last summer to do a writing retreat with her, my tour guide and hostess in yet another fabulous city, her sacred hometown, a town with the name of my office-mate and partner in crime at NVC, Barbara, (coincidence?), but I am thinking about our friend. What do I say to these hearts that I love, that are breaking as mine is opening into a million petals in Santa Barbara? How is it that grief and fear and mortality pair up with beauty and grace and eternity so often in my life, in yours?
I am in Eileen's home, her parents' sacred home itemizing their countless sacred belongings and readying them for donation into boxes 1- 13 because they moved on to the next world not long ago, holding hands, and we both lost our dads and our amazing mother-in-law this year too. Fuck, fuck, fuck. We are devastated, bruised, and need some of that self-seeding magic in Mary Jane's garden. We need it in a cup of tea, in a laugh about smoking weed, in mass at St. Anthony's.
It is funny to think all this is happening in Santa Barbara when I realize that Santa Barbara and I actually go way back. First, it was the source of a great seed of jealousy I experienced with my teenage boyfriend. We were on the phone in one of our long phone calls in 10th grade:
"But you wouldn't know anything about that because you are a virgin too," I said.
"Well, I said I was, but I'm not?"
"But, you said. But, what do you mean?"
"There was this girl I met in Santa Barbara. She was older than me before I met you."
"Like how long before you met me?!"
"I came to see the Olympics there in 84."
"You were barely in 9th grade. That was the summer before ninth grade."
"Her mom was totally cool with it, found me in her bed. It was no big deal."
"So, to be clear you're not a virgin You've been lying to me?"
Heart sliced open. I hated Santa Barbara! Santa Barbara raped my fifteen year old boyfriend with a cheap, sexy, long-legged, nineteen year old!
My husband-totally not the BF from 10th grade-- to me before we plan to surprise him for his brother's 50th in Santa Barbara:
"My brother is turning 50! I want to surprise him like he surprised me."
"We're going to Santa Barbara."
"Santa Barbara? I hate Santa Barbara."
"No reason, just not a good feeling about it.
"We'll meet Greg's girlfriend! That will be nice. I think Santa Barbara is a pretty nice place."
Eileen and I meet online, fall to pieces for each other because we plan Operation Lemon Tree, a surprise bbq for Greg in the famous back yard:
"There is this garden here at my dad's house, and the lemon trees are amazing. You won't believe them. We will have a party, amazing food, waffles-- Mary Jane makes the best waffles in the world!"
We meet. We party. And I don't hate Santa Barbara because it looks exactly like Australia. And some imaginary part of Mexico. And San Antonio. And there are places called Arroyo Beach, Parejo drive, and there are tortillas, good ones, in the supermarket. And there is Fiesta and a Mission. And Santa Barbara is feeling a little like a humid-free San Antonio-Sydney. And there are eucalyptus trees and bottle brush and cliffs near the ocean, and there is this garden where my seven year old son eats blackberries and blue berries right off the vine in this very famous garden I've been talking about.
Eileen and I sit by the pool and bond. We get each other, we wear the same clothes, say the same things, and have so much in common it is scary.
"Will you and Greg get married?" I like her. I want her to be my sis-in-law.
"Never getting married again, no. Why would I do that?"
The next summer, they are totally getting married.
My hubby, like a good brother, wants his parents to meet his brother's finance's parents who live here in the US like us, only we live in Texas and they in Santa Barbara, and of course the Australian parents live in Australia, and Greg and Eileen, the soon to be married couple, live in London, so this is a big undertaking to get the parents to meet..
We are a family who survives on plane tickets, Skyping, planning, patience, and a fair amount of jet lag. But the parents have to meet. We know about their waffles, their lemon tree, their labels in the fridge, their sweetness. We've been to their amazing little paradise home. We all agree to get the parents to meet, and it is up to my hubby to make it happen.
I didn't come to SB for that, but I was here vicariously at lunch chatty chatty with this life-embracing family.
A year ago, Eileen and I decided to do a writing retreat together. She has a house in Italy, which is what happens when you are a former tv producer, editor, free-lancer, artist type in London. You buy a house in the sun. Umbria, and you look over the Umbrian valley at dinner from a magical place called Giove. (Yes, God, Jove, yes, it is totally historic and totally sacred, but a lot like a Mexican village in terms of size, quaintness, loving people, and all life within walking distance).
While visiting with her, and ahem, writing, I said:
"I'm going to California with my son for his summer holiday with friends."
"I'll be right by Santa Barbara. Shall I pop in and see your parents."
"Would you?" She looks worried. There are health issues in Santa Barbara. "Please? Mary Jane is on fricking oxygen."
"I would love to see them again. I love them!"
I pop in, they treat me and my mom, who they have never met, like we are the orchids they have always been waiting for. Mary Jane has oxygen tubes and a tank connected to her nose, removes her tubing, and steps outside with us to show us that patch of land she has nurtured into perfection for years. She gives us a deep tour of her garden I will never forget. She is terminal and staying home. She wants no more treatment, and her color is good. She is beaming with happiness as she describes the avocado variety, the cirtus variety, the lemons. The lemons.
She takes orchid cuttings and packs them for my mom who is grieving the loss of my Dad just a few weeks before. (I dragged mom with me-- could not be away from her for two seconds after he did that check out of this body thing I still cannot name).
Mary Jane offers me napkins from Amalia because I recognized the embroidery from my trip there with Eileen just weeks before, before Dad, before everything started go wrong. She and Jude send us off with figs in our bellies, stories, love, grace. We were totally blessed.
In just a few months they are both gone. Like that.
A year later, to the day, I am in their house packing their tupperware and photo albums, helping Eileen choose what to donate, what to keep,
We are kind of in a state of shock and some strange maddeningly beautiful thing will happen, keeping us going. Finding a tape of her from 1997 talking to her dad from her flat in London, finding baby pictures of her daughter she does not remember taking, finding a rag labeled "rag" because Mary Jane was in love with labeling her belongings. We have sobbed together a lot this year, and now I wonder about my friend Barbara who is sobbing as I write.
The creator of this garden in Santa Barbara, this a dream-house backyard meadow, a flower- fruit paradise, full of paths, blooms, and buds, herbs, an actual bird of paradise plant, and not a blade of grass in sight, this woman who was told to preserve her energy and receive few visitors, but who said, "No. My friends are my medicine." This woman who is schooling me even now as I type this blog from her home. She is a real teacher. She is telling me to believe in the afterlife, to be certain of it, and to be okay with that silence. "To delight in the mystery," says the deacon at the mass at the rebel St. Anthony's church here.
It has been a year of loss for me and Eileen, shattering losses we did not even think possible a when we were scooting around Italy getting gelato, drinking espresso, thinking our biggest problems were about writing our manuscripts a year ago this week.
And today, we packed her small family treasures. a china bunny, a dozen table cloths, ceramic dolls, a pressure cooker, hundreds of items sealed in carefully labeled boxes.
This is a town built around a woman who had so much faith, she defied her atheist father, had a trinity built in her tower where she was imprisoned, and he slew her himself. After he did that, her father was struck by lightening just as her spirit was rising, goes the story. Santa Barbara, you had this faith that was bigger than Dallas, as we say in Texas. You are a woman and a town I was meant to meet and meet again.