©  bardsmaid 1998

Author's notes: 
Not a story but rather personal backstory.  I lived in Lompoc for three years and for me, stories just seemed to waft in on the wind there.  Something about the place speaks to me... and energizes me.  One of my favorite Lompoc spots is La Purisima Mission, a walk back into history you can take even today.  This essay, originally written as an e-mail to online friends, explains the hold this place has on me.

Lompoc (pronounced LOM-poke for you out-of-the-area types) is a town of about 25,000 nestled between the hills out in the middle of nowhere, which is one of its chief attractions as far as I'm concerned. It's about an hour northwest of Santa Barbara and not on the road to anywhere but Vandenberg Air Force Base, which means nobody is building up suburban sprawl between it and somewhere else (somewhere else is just too darn far away.) Lompoc is known to the people who travel to it for its flower fields (they grow 80% of the world's supply of flower seeds for well-known flowers such as marigolds, sweet peas, nasturtiums, lobelia, and stock.) In the late spring/early summer, the fields around Lompoc are a giant patchwork quilt of pastels and brighter colors; once I saw an old barn surrounded by a carpet of deep blue-purple, which was in turn surrounded by a sea of yellow-orange marigolds. Now there was a striking picture; unfortunately, I didn't have the camera with me. Lompoc is also known for being near Vandenberg--the western launch point for government/military satellites.  The locals get used the the window-rattling that signals another launch, and run outside to see the missile spiral up into the evening sky, to arrive somewhere in the Bikini atoll twenty minutes later.  Lompoc is also known for being windy. There is always a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean ten miles away, which means there is never any smog. People from LA or Sacramento who visit are known to go around squinting because they aren't used to the scoured brightness of the sky. 

Our family lived in Lompoc for three years (late 1987 to late 1990). It was, at the time, the longest we had lived in any one place. I loved it. There was something about the intense blue of the sky and the rhythm in the constant blowing of the wind that energized me to write; I felt alive there. Lompoc was the first place I had all the kids in school at once (the five of them were pre-school to seventh grade), and I actually had time that was quiet and uninterrupted, and this is where I sat down with a notebook one night and decided to try writing... just to dabble, to see if it was something I had a feel for, or any talent. (Later I realized I'd been writing all my life in one way or another.) I'd spent years and years without an identity of my own, feeding kids and changing diapers and grocery shopping and doing all the non-descript-sounding things that need to be done to keep a family of young kids running, and I was burning out, so the intersection of the energized (to me) atmosphere and the decision to try writing at this particular point in my life turned out to be great timing. It gave me a freedom I could barely remember ever having before. So I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote short stories and novels I'd rather not admit were mine now (but that's okay--it means I've gotten better if I can look back and say, "Oh, yuck! I did that? What on earth was I thinking?") I was mugged, you might say, by a kid's science fiction story that began to insinuate itself into my head one sentence at a time when I was out riding my bike (through the flower fields.) It came on so strong that I wrote 70 pages the first week (rather awe-inspiring to me, since I'm good for only 3 or 4 pages a day at best, like many people, and often only for two.) The story had to do with Lompoc in an alternative reality--a whole different town in a whole different society built here in this same place with the spring-green hills and the lava-slides of yellow mustard flowers spilling down the hillsides. It was great fun (because it wasn't my story--I was just hearing it, the way you hear talking through a thin wall.) Maybe it's just the kid in me, but I felt comfortable being inside the eleven-year-old narrator, like walking around in an old, comfortable pair of shoes. Lompoc was also where I 'met' Jack, my character who tangentially--I though at first--happened to be a Vietnam vet, but who demanded that I understand what that really meant, and the Lompoc library was where I started to dig into the 53 books on the war that would eventually give me a real grasp of who this guy was and what had so deeply imprinted him some twenty years earlier.

Lompoc is also known for its mission. For those of you too far from California to know, California has a string of 21 missions founded in the late 1700s by Spanish missionaries intent on 'saving' the natives while claiming Alta California (upper California--above Mexico) for Spain, both to rid the area of the pirates who were robbing the Spaniards' goodie-loaded galleons on their way back from Manila to Mexico, and because they were afraid that if they didn't take California first, Sir Francis Drake and the English would, and Spain and England have always been rivals. So it was kind of a preemptive strike. The missions are all still standing; all but the Lompoc mission are still Catholic churches, most of which have been gradually surrounded by towns until they are no more than an old adobe church sandwiched in between city blocks or office buildings. Lompoc, however, never became sprawly, and the state somehow ended up buying the property, so this mission, La Purisima, is now a state park with the entire original spread of about 2100 acres intact.

The mission has been restored (it fell into ruin in the l830's, after the Mexican government took away most of the Church's property rights) to what it looked like when people lived there. In fact, once you've parked and started to walk onto the grounds, it's like walking back in time nearly two hundred years. There's a big expanse of empty land with a foot trail leading up to the church and enclosed cemetery yard. To one side is an old-fashioned corral with animals that are descendents of the types raised at the mission when it was operational: goats, brown, curly-furred sheep with four horns, long-horned cattle, donkeys, etc. In front of the church are two towering poplar trees that by the end of the year have turned yellow. The leaves are falling--many have already fallen--but the constant breeze still makes the trees sound like streaming water if you close your eyes. The church is white adobe with a roof of red tiles shaped over the thighs of workers, and along the lower edge of the building is a wide strip painted in mission pink. The simple bell tower holds three bells, the uppermost of which is carved wood. Metal bells were a premium item, and evidently the mission could afford only two.

There is something about the buildings here that seeps peace: thick white walls, the sparse wooden furnishings leaving large open spaces inside the rooms. Quiet spreads everywhere, through doors and windows and other openings, smothering everything with soft silence. My favorite indoor haunt is the sacristy behind the church. You step up eight inches over a foot-worn doorstep, past a gray-weathered wooden door, and into a spacious white room with ceilings about 20 feet overhead. On one wall is a chest made in 1799, ornately carved and meant to keep the priests' vestments. On the opposite wall is what looks like a large, dark wooden dresser better sized for a ten-foot man. A towering candlestick graces the top. Over the dresser, perhaps ten feet up in the wall, is a window sitting in a thick adobe recess, sun warming the oak-colored wood of the frame holding the glass, light streaming in, silent and warm, shielded from the wind outside. I've often set myself up there mentally, lacking a ladder, to soak in the warmth and the blue of the sky and write something on a notepad, maybe the beginning of some new story, or a character that will lead to one. At the back of this room is an archway leading to a much smaller room containing only a high wooden bench that you must back up to on tiptoe in order to land yourself properly on the seat. There is a window in this room, too, so high up you can only see the color of the sky, or drifting fog. In the opposite wall sits a recessed cabinet, its doors carved with a wavy design in the dark, weathered wood. If you sit on the bench, you can look out through the archway and through the front door to the huge poplar outside. If no one is around, you can hear the rushing water sounds the leaves make. The trunk shows through the doorway and the leaves sway beyond the glass of the inset window above it, two framings of one scene. I have sat on this bench writing stories, listening quietly to a character that speaks inside me, a girl of maybe twelve who does not fit into the life mapped out for her in the 1820's. She has had visions; she has seen things no one will believe, about another time in this place, and she has come to talk to the priest about this, an understanding man whose death she has foreseen. What will she say to him? Will she tell him what she has seen, that within weeks he will be buried under the floor in front of the altar?

The mission buildings are furnished to look the way they did when people really lived there, so you can go around peeking in doors and windows and contemplate what it would be like to have a swept dirt floor in your kitchen, or the soot from a kitchen fire crawling up the front of your adobe stove. Or what it would be like to sleep on a mattress of straw placed on a platform held by four round log legs. The rooms are cold, the windows are open, with thick wooden shutters you can close against the wind. An occasional window has a luxurious pane of thin, parchment-colored cowhide stretched tightly across it. Strings of chilis and braids of garlic and clusters of dried herbs decorate the walls, ready for use in a meal. Chopped wood is stacked neatly next to the stove.

Each of the living quarters is a little different. One holds a very small wooden cradle, another a trunk for belongings. One has a small table with yellowed playing cards on it, as if someone has stepped out of the room momentarily to talk to a passing acquaintance and after two hundred years has neglected to return. Two long, narrow buildings hold apartments and shops: a candlemaker's, a carpenters, a weaver's, a store for supplies such as dried beans and hides and square-headed nails produced in the blacksmith's shop. There is a second chapel, a reception hall with a corner fireplace and polished wooden--not swept dirt or dull red tile--floors. There is a guest bedroom with a canopy bed designed to charm the traveler into staying a night or two and telling his tales of the world outside, and a library with two cabinets of old, hand-bound volumes. Over the doorway in each room is a carved wooden crucifix that stands out brown against the whitewashed walls. 

Beyond the main buildings are smaller buildings: a granary, a kitchen, a blacksmith shop, several beehive ovens for baking bread. And beyond the outbuildings are the broad fields and the trails leading to the spring house, and the big cisterns, and the pond where the water system originates among reeds thick with red-winged blackbirds. The fields and the trails course back between two sets of close hills. If you walk there you will see snakes and squirrels and the occasional deer or coyote. One summer there was a turtle living in the big cistern, staying to the shallow pools among the yellow-flowered plants blooming inside the eastern rim. Take a trail up the hillside and you'll discover the tallow vats, where cowhides (the currency of Mexican colonial California) were processed. Now yellow fall leaves whisper like parchment in the wind and drift down to cover the empty vats. Small velvety spiders with tufts of bright red or yellow on their backs scurry away from your feet as you walk along the silent trails. Closer to the main buildings is the formal garden with its native and transplanted flora: olive trees, early varieties of artichokes, tall herbs whose leaves had medicinal qualities, pale blue-blooming rosemary. Radial pathways are hardened dirt and lead past a sundial to a large central fountain. Pennies and dimes and nickels lie at the bottom, several feet under the glassy surface. Water bubbles softly from the top.

On December 8th, the anniversary of the mission's founding, the active docents' group sponsors the Founding Celebration, to which our family has made an annual pilgrimage for the last ten years (even though we now travel two long hours instead of ten short minutes to get there.) It is one of the last bastions of true celebration for me. You bring yourself and your expectancy; no gifts, no wrappings, nothing material to haul home with you afterward. Because the mission is a state park, and only open in the day, the parking lot is not lit and when you arrive for the 7 p.m. program, you park in a darkened lot. Hundreds of luminarias (the little paper bags with sand inside to hold them, and a small candle lit in the center) line the path from the parking lot onto the mission grounds, across the creek bridge and over the open space to the church. As you walk along, you feel like someone from two hundred years ago, clutching your coat around you in the cold and trudging along a darkened trail toward the building in the distance. The church is lighted entirely by candles, as it used to be. Greens and red berries have been fashioned into garlands and wreaths that decorate the walls and broad window sills. A candle sits in each window and in the hanging candelabras in the center of the church. Behind the altar, each wall niche is lined with poinsettias. Folding chairs fill the worn tile floor, leaving a central aisle.

At the door you are greeted by docents in period costumes, women in long, coarse skirts and shawls, or men in below-the-knee peasant pants, white pullover shirts and headscarves. There is always a musical program. My favorite was the Santa Barbara Boys' Choir. While the seats gradually filled and neighbor greeted neighbor, the boys' choir was in the sacristy behind the altar, getting their voices in tune. All of a sudden their music came through the wall, clear and full of power; it felt as if the spirit of these human voices alone--no instruments, no amplification, no electronics--would crack the thick adobe walls between us. It sent a shiver through me--not of fear but of awe, of the power of the simple human voice to move us--truly move us--the way a single candle cuts through darkness. When the concert is over, everyone in attendance is invited for refreshments in the sala, the main reception hall. As you leave the church, more luminarias have been lit and guide you from the church and along the arcaded fronts of the two main buildings, past darkened living quarters and thick window sills set with rings of greens and berries with candles burning in the middle, up worn, uneven stone stairs and along the porch of the final building. Light spills from the doorway of the sala. Inside are several broad tables spread with cookies and the anniversary cake (to be cut shortly with the official ceremonial sword--guaranteed to impress any little boy!) In the corner a fireplace is roaring, glowing yellow. Neighbors meet and chat, cookies and hot chocolate are consumed, and if you wander outside, you can step down off the porch and stare up into a chilled jet-black sky littered with twinkling stars. 

Everything about this occasion reminds me of the essentials of existence, uncluttered by the burdensome 'things' of our materialistic lives. There are no presents, but I come away with a gift that lasts me all year. There are no electric lights, but the luminarias and the candles show me the value of light in a way a light switch never does. The singing of simple human voices moves me more than a radio broadcast or a CD. I am reminded that music is made by real people, making real effort, polishing real talent. My hands freeze and I shiver in the cold, but the intensity of the experience (and the brilliant stars) make me feel truly alive. By the time I leave, I have been renewed, and I vow not to wait a whole year before I return to the mission again. I have rediscovered wonder.

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