Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Creekside: or Elective Affinities

You know a weekend is off to a good start when the stranger picking you up at the BART station has decent priorities: no road trip, however short, should begin without coffee, water, a bathroom (input/output) and a GPS. In other words, Noa and I hit it off in an instant.

Both on the invitation list for Elizabeth's 50th birthday party in Sonoma County, we knew each other only as, well, a fellow FOE: friend of Elizabeth. We sorted basic information out in the first few minutes--our connection and history with our mutual friend; level of A/C needed in the car; and tunes or no tunes, and then quickly moved on to the crucial things. Like, should we barrel ahead to Glen Ellen or will anyone notice if we stop at this free tasting at Cline on the right, right there, oh my God, it's free. Virtue won out, and we rolled past, heads craning wistfully in unison.

Elizabeth greeted us at the Gaige House Inn and was rightly proud of the place she had chosen to host us. It was beautiful, well-appointed, and serene, with jetted tubs in the suites and a constant supply of homemade cookies in the main house. The atmosphere was festive, and we all ran about like children afraid to miss something: there were the inviting suites, but oh, a hot tub and a pool, and a creek, and wineries, but look at all the people arriving and the hugging and squeals of recognition and long, evolved relationships playing out in the moments of embrace in the entryway. Just as we would settle back into the deep couches and leather chairs and our heartbeats would slow, someone else arrived, and we all jumped up again, so many panting puppies, clamoring to be part of the welcome. And in truth, it was our reunion, too. Even the ones never met in person were part of the storied pageant of Elizabeth's life, and we had all heard, had all seen.

At sundown, Noa started up to her room to observe the lighting of Shabbat candles. She was encouraged to stay in the living room and the handful of us there gathered around the table with her. In that moment, the peculiarities of our respective religious traditions didn't matter. We were with Noa as she lit the two candles and prayed, and with each other as we considered the week past and the weekend to come in silent, heartfelt connection. I stood with my eyes closed and my mind's voice uttered the names of all those around me, of Elizabeth, of her parents gone before her, of my own loved ones, and then eyes open and "Shabbat Shalom" and kisses all around. A deep, centering breath. An exhalation of peace. All the meanings of Sabbath knitted together and please don't let me cry so early in the weekend.

Neil had inquired at the Fig Café down the road about dinner for such a large group. While they didn't take reservations, they did think they could accommodate us with an hour's notice, so we gathered flashlights and headed single-file down the road in the dark. We must have been a sight to the other diners, all jammed as we were in the entryway, grown men and women giggling and pawing each other, beams still waving madly from the still-on flashlights stuck in coat pockets.

The restaurant staff moved tables together and finally we were seated and enjoying a lovely meal…except for Chad and Harry, whose plan to split a salad and a pizza was dashed by the acoustics in the venue and the fact that Terry was sitting between them. The dotted line of communication yielded up two salads and no pizza. Still, we all had fun and were not thrown out of the restaurant for laughing too much, even when we caused a scene trying to remember the name of the Magic Slate™ children's toy. "No, no, not the Etch-a-Sketch™"--and we all made the knob-turny motion with our two hands in the air, much to the alarm of patrons at the next table. Was this a sign? When a group, double-digit in size, starts to make the knob-turny motion in unison while cackling loudly, it does tend to cause a suspicious narrowing of eyes among those in proximity.

In keeping with the child theme, dessert for most of us was a glorified and decadent ice cream sandwich. Terry, though, chose the Artisan Cheese Plate, which inspired a round of pondering at my end of the table. Just once, I explained, I longed to see a Pasteurized Cheese Plate on the menu. A foil-wrapped wedge of Laughing Cow™, a squirt of Cheez Whiz™, a Kraft™ American Single in its cellophane wrap…and we were off into a pairing dilemma around the proper cracker for such a feast.

By the time we returned to the inn, most of us were starting to fade. A few toddled off to the hot tub, a few to enjoy their luscious suites, and a few had a glass of wine in the living room. I said goodnight and went to #10, filled the tub, cued up The Dale Warland Singers' "Lux Aurumque" on the iPod-outfitted stereo, and engaged the jets. Sacred choral music is not often thought of as the soundtrack to an evening in the Jacuzzi™, I'll grant it. I never claimed to be conventional.

I awoke Saturday and showered and made it to my 9:30 breakfast seating. Eve served me coffee with hot milk and Chad regaled us with stories of, um, his beautiful, beautiful friend Betty. It was moving. Really. I can't repeat it. But it involved a menorah and a nativity scene and that's all I'll say. *wiping tear* I gave Elizabeth a birthday card with an insert. She blushed.

After breakfast, we retired to the drawing room for a refined game of Jenga™. Both Eve and Noa refused to consult the rules, but it was exciting, if unsportsmanlike. While most of the group went to tour wineries, I and Neil and Terry wandered into town and had sandwiches at a sports bar-ish kind of place with aggressive flies and a man in a Hawaiian shirt. I wore my sunglasses. The sky was blue. Audaciously red Japanese maple leaves lined the gutters, and I grinned from ear to ear in sheer relaxation and brazen inattention to the work e-mails piling up in my inbox.

In the afternoon, I had a back facial in the spa room upstairs. This is like a facial, except on one's back--why it's not called a backcial, I couldn't say. But it involved the customary cleansers, exfoliants, and unguents and no shortage of massage. The highlight was the placing of warm rolled towels down either side of my torso, followed by the torturously slow dribbling of lines of hot oil, in sequence, over the whole of my back. I drifted from weeping to sleeping to drooling and back again. I may have asked the aesthetician to marry me in a particularly blissed out moment--I can't promise I didn't.

Everyone re-convened in the main house in their festive dinner party clothes. We filled cars and headed toward El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma, where we were treated to riches upon riches: Prosecco toasts, nibblies on trays, a fabulous dinner punctuated by tributes and poems and dedications to Elizabeth from her family of friends, and mostly the flushed faces and sore cheek muscles that come from uninterrupted smiling and laughter, not to mention Pinot Noir. Chad, Harry, Robert, and I returned home in the rolling Gospel-mobile, Robert swaddled in his woolen wrap and leading us all in a rousing chorus of "This Little Light of Mine."

Somehow a water blessing ritual morphed into a spontaneous dance party, sacred and profane, seamless. Candace fetched her iPod player and Sharon, Neil, and I became DJ Triple Threat Old School, no doubt, yo. Why Neil had Chris Williamson on his iPod and I had the Weather Girls on mine is anyone's guess, and yet it seemed strangely appropriate.

Sunday morning ushered in the long goodbye. Lingering over breakfast, lingering over coffee, lingering over the newspaper, lingering over the notion that we should all make a pact to do this every year, to form an intentional retirement community at the end of it all (Neil: "this is my kind of assisted living"), to keep expansive and spacious and smile and grace and generous and gift all pedestrian words in our lives' vocabularies. Trust your instincts, indeed.

And now we're all back in our homes, whatever that means. Elizabeth, this blog's for you. We all showered you with words of gratitude for the gift of time, space, each other, and your enduring friendship, and we meant every word. I, for one, know that your best gift was seeing us all happy and in love with the experience you gave us. And you did. And we were.

Thank you, dear friend.