Carmel-by-the-Sea is a small town on the Pacific Coast about 300 miles north of L.A. It was initially inhabited by the Esselens, a 4,000 year old culture that lived in caves and covered their walls with hand prints. Caves, said Hugh, have had an important role in the development of the human consciousness and in ancient times they were a place for divine revelations. So, curious to see the cave paintings and maybe even to have a divine revelation, Hugh and I organized a trip to the Tassajara Valley.
Darkness changes our sense of perception. As we entered the cave and my eyes tried adjusting to the blackness, I started seeing things that weren’t there. Like bogey men. Obviously they don’t exist but my mind insisted on seeing something even in the dark. The atmosphere was creepy and I was relieved when Hugh’s flashlight focused on the pictographs. Hands, hands, hands. Everywhere you looked, the walls were covered with painted hands. As might be expected, academics blabber that they were painted by men. But I knew they’d been made by women. Because womanhood is about hands—hands that hold and caress as well as forage, cook, sew, mend, clean, etc. Hands that are automatically in motion when there’s something to be done.
Being in the dark with those hands had left me feeling overwhelmed and on the verge of a Stendhal Syndrome meltdown. Hugh understood so we drove towards Carmel looking for some place to eat and stopped at the Tuck Box, a tea room that looks like a hobbit house. Halfway through our meal, a slightly weathered couple came in looking for an empty table but the place was full. Really, I can’t tell you why but we invited them to sit with us.
Dodie & Alex were British but living in the U.S. thanks to the war. Alex was a conscientious objector so, in 1939 when WWII started creeping into Europe, the couple moved to California. The first impression I had of Dodie & Alex was that Brits are always going to feel superior to Americans. Maybe I got this impression because Dodie had snickered at my scones as she sat down. Without a doubt, of the two Dodie was the protagonist. She supported them by rewriting screenplays for Hollywood studios. But Alex did everything else.
I don’t know what kind of impression we gave Dodie & Alex but they invited us to lunch the following weekend. They lived on Seventeen Mile Drive—very picturesque but spiked with curves.
Lunch flowed and we lingered on until evening. The table was a pool of candlelight and was so bright that the rest of the room seemed black with our faces floating in the darkness. It was almost like being back in the cave again. Dodie was talking about her past, about how she had aspired to be an actress but didn’t have the necessary looks or talent. To stay close to the stage she began writing plays and did so with great success. It had all been quite easy until the move to the States. Now writing had become difficult because her novels were set in England but, surrounded by Americans, character construction had become difficult. That’s why, said Dodie, she’d rather be in England. Or in a Jane Austin novel.
It came as no surprise when, a few years later, Dodie and Alex returned to England. Dodie loved to write letters to express her theories because, she said, “contemplation seems to be about the only luxury that costs nothing.” She finally finished her “coming of age” novel I Capture the Castle but her real success came a few years later thanks to their dogs. Dodie and Alex had a passion for Dalmatians. When their Pongo was a puppy, Dodie’s friend Joyce said that he’d make a nice fur coat. Obviously the remark bothered Dodie but it also stimulated her imagination. So she wrote about a wicked woman who stole Dalmatian puppies for her fur farm. The woman’s name was Cruella de Vil and the book was entitled 101 Dalmatians.
A first impression has only one chance. That’s why authors struggle to make the opening line of their books intriguing. The first line of I Capture the Castle is “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
The older we get, the less impact our presence has on others. But there’s one thing that always will leave a good first impression—a big fat smile.
(from Cool Breeze, aka The Age of Reconfiguration ©)
Grove, Valerie. Dear Dodie: The Life of Dodie Smith. Random House. London. 1996.
Smith, Dodie. I Capture the Castle. Vintage. London. 2012.