The most beautiful man I've ever met
One of the odder things I’ve done with my life was to live in a log cabin on a 60 acre guest ranch straddling a beautiful cove on the California coast.
I was the caretaker there and it was my job to chop the firewood, fix whatever broke, feed the sheep, chickens and peacocks, keep the peacocks out of... well, everything, check-in and care for guests, bake bread for staff on Sundays and occasionally suspend my disbelieving body over the unspeakable filth of a grease trap or septic tank and fix the lid - as quickly as humanly possible and breathing as little as necessary.
When I started working there I noticed there were lots of wonderful paintings around - pastoral scenes, portraits and landscapes, all signed ‘Starship.’
‘Yes...” I hear you asking, "but was it his Post-Impressionist period or his Expressionist?"
I found out that ‘Starship’ was also a guy named Tom who was the First Caretaker of the ranch back in the late sixties (hence 'Starship'), and he lived and worked there for 6 years. There wasn’t a part of that property that didn’t bear the artful signs of his attention, from the ‘Fireplaces Ahead!’ sign on Hwy 1 with it’s little wood cabin, smoke, and mirror fragments for window panes (it was this sign that was responsible for my finding the place at all), to the “Peacock Crossing" sign on the driveway, with a bird in full fan and a little boy in a red hoodie sitting astride it.
That little boy was the owner's son - he was a lanky 17 when I met him.
Every room had some small touch, some charming moment of artistry, assembled from the materials at hand - shells, bark, moss, driftwood, thread, paint, buttons.... As did my cabin, which had been his cabin when he built the loft bedroom out of scrap lumber - no piece longer than my arm.
Tom was everywhere. And to my great delight he came back to the ranch several times when I lived there - once staying for a few weeks when he was trying to help a wayward teen find himself without the distortion of some hazardous companions.
Tom had three skills, he said. He could paint beautifully. He could drum, on anything - box, pipe, tree, chair, or even a drum. And he could bake bread without needing measuring cups or spoons.
It was Tom’s fault that I had to bake bread for staff on Sundays. He started it.
Using only these three skills to trade and gain shelter, he went on many pilgrimages around the world. He lived in Ireland for a time, drumming with a celtic band, and stayed at a 5-star chalet in Switzerland for a month painting the alps for the Maire D'hôtel.
Tom sought out holy places, where he could ‘hear the Ohm’ as he put it, the vibration of the world around him. The Ranch, he said, was one of the best places he’d ever found for this, and I believe it.
He sought out spots that people felt were special and marked with a particular feeling of magic. And when he went on a pilgrimage, he went Old School - he sold or gave away everything he owned... and walked... and hitchhiked... and walked...
He walked from Sonoma county to Cape Horn in South America. He walked to the summit of Kilimanjaro (though I suspect there was a boat ride in there) and to the great wall of China, and all across Europe.
It was an exercise and a school of faith for him. And he told me stories of sitting outside a village in Japan, not speaking the language and having no currency, and wondering what was going to happen. Not afraid - residing in faith, and wondering how it was all going to work out.
Once in the countryside of France in the early morning, he came upon a crossroads and threw a stick in the air to see which way he should go. It pointed down a by-lane that seemingly went nowhere. He had no food, was hungry and the other path seemed a lot more likely to lead to a town and people.
He took the little path... and around 100 yards down it went around a little bend and there, sitting in the middle of the lane, was a freshly baked loaf of bread - still steaming a bit in the new morning sun - with no one in sight.
Towards the end of my time with Tom, he was chewing on something, and I asked him what it was.
"Well," he said, "I’m beginning to realize that I may have to go on another pilgrimage."
(He was in his mid 60’s at this point, and would soon sell or give away his belongings and find his way to Alaska, hitch a ride with Inuits across the Aleutian islands to Russia and make his way to Vladivostok, where he would find the woman he would marry.)
“And... I must admit - I’m feeling a little fear.”
A little fear.
Tom told me once that he felt an obligation to live a beautiful life, a life that would seem beautiful to others. He only had himself to judge what was beautiful, so he did his best to craft a life that was beautiful to his own eye.
Needless to say he laughed a lot.
He gave me a rock once. It was a dark, blackish grey flecked through with tiny stars of white quartz. It was kind of crumbly, and he broke off a piece and gave it to me. He told me that everywhere he had been, every place where he could hear the subtle thrum of the universe, he had broken off a piece of this stone and left it there. A piece of that rock sat atop Kilimanjaro, and the Great Wall of China, a piece was with Stonehenge and the pyramids at Chichen Itza and many other places too - and one piece was with me.
I had never felt so honored in my life. From just a little rock.
All these little stones, scattered across the world like breadcrumbs leading the way back to a life well lived, a life crafted in an effort to hear the whisper of God and leave behind some sense that every one of us can be beautiful.
Thank you Tom.
So often I find myself caught up thinking about numbers - bills, dates, times, balances, or thinking about moments I am not even in and may never enter... And my wayward mind reaches for money or the future in the hope of finding happiness - all illusions.
Bread, paint, rhythm, ... the poetry of stones. We don’t need to be wealthy to live a beautiful life. We need creativity, courage and a faith in our own sense of what beauty is, and that we ourselves can be beautiful.
So - to the beauty in all of us...