Saturday, July 11, 2009

After Esalen

Esalen Garden

Since 1999 I had been going to Esalen in Big Sur at least once a year and sometimes twice. And, for some unknown reason I broke that habit in 2008.

Thankfully I went back this past week after skipping a year and found all that I love about Esalen still there: a breathtakingly beautiful location on a cliff overlooking the ocean, soothing sulfur hot springs, a writing workshop led by generous leaders – Ellen Bass, Dorianne Laux, and Joseph Millar – and fellow writers whose excellent work was both inspiring and courageous. I started each day of my stay there with a long walk through the Esalen grounds to the back entrance, onto the highway for another mile and a half, back the way I came, and my reward for all that hard exercise work, a relaxing soak in a hot outdoor stone tub.

After breakfast, all 34 of us in the workshop gathered together to hear a craft talk – this year they were on list poems, truth and beauty, and writing with a personal voice – got our writing assignment for the day, and then we went off on our own until mid afternoon when it was time to gather together in smaller groups for reading and critiques. We veered from that routine on Wednesday and got the whole afternoon off. I took advantage and visited the Hawthorne Gallery where Bob and I once bought a painting that hangs over the fireplace in our family room and The Phoenix shop at Nepenthe about 10 miles north. It goes without saying that I came back with a Buddha statue – as I’m wont to do whenever I travel or whenever. I'm a sucker for the Buddha.

I think my writing progressed as the week went by though nothing is ready for prime time yet. By the end of the week Ellen said my last poem could be my breakthrough poem, as she suggested several month’s worth of revisions. That was another major discussion topic – the hard revision work we need to do. Our leaders stressed the obvious fact that our Muse will not dictate our perfect poems to us.

So, instead of a new piece just out of the Esalen oven I’m posting a prose piece I wrote while celebrating my 60th birthday there – oh those nine years ago. CJ the man who led the massage workshop is still there, and on most visits he is my go to massage guy.

Turning 60

As 60th birthdays go it wasn't too bad. But how would I know any difference? This was the first and last time I'll ever turn 60. Bob kept toasting me with a "here's to another 60 years." Ha! Now, that's a laugh. I know I feel pretty good, but another 60 is stretching it a bit, don't you think?

I decided to spend my birthday at the place I love the most - Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coast. I turned down a party. I just couldn't get behind the idea of a celebration this year. My sister insisted, Bob insisted, Sherry insisted, Carole insisted, but I resisted and prevailed. No way. I didn't want any part of it. A 60th birthday may be a time to celebrate, but with my son, Paul, dead less than a year, I just couldn't do it. Believe me, Paul wouldn't have cared, but, I did. I just didn’t feel right having a party this year. Anyway, why should I worry about what they all wanted. I’m the one who turned 60.

I knew I made the right decision as we drove North on Friday. As soon as we got past Santa Barbara I started to relax, sink deep into my seat, take some long deep breaths and watch the beauty of the world go by. The verdant hills looked like they had been painted with sweeping brush strokes of mustard yellow, the rows of newly planted grape vines stood tall and proud as little toy soldiers, and the clear sky except for a few Georgia O'Keefe clouds beckoned us up the Coast. It looked like just plain heaven to me. And I figured that if it were this good on the road, what would come next would be even better.

It wasn't easy getting Bob to agree to go. Esalen, created in the 1960s where people gather to expand their minds, relax their souls and work on their bodies; eat fresh, healthy food, and soak in the hot springs baths while watching the waves of the Pacific, is my place. I've gone there many times without him, and he is very happy to have it that way. But, this time he really had no choice. Of course, I offered bribes. He got to choose the workshop, he got to ogle all the naked women in the hot baths and he got to spend as much time with marvelous me as he wanted all weekend long. There would be no interruptions - no telephone, no email, no exercise classes, no work. What the hey? He took the bribes, and in his inimitable way, he came along and participated fully and willingly.

Out of the four workshops offered this particular weekend, we decided to take the massage intensive. What a concept! We signed up to spend about nine hours taking turns rubbing each other’s bodies. How bad could that be? At one point I was laying on the table that stood right in front of a huge dome-shaped picture window, the sun was streaming in, a cool breeze was washing over me, the ocean was roaring below, and I was being massaged by not one man, but two. The instructor had decided to come by and give Bob a lesson in using a slow hand and an easy touch. Oh, and don’t get any ideas. They each were doing a leg. Even so, if I could have my way, that moment would still be going on.

The truth is, there’s not a lot at Esalen to complain about. Sure, the digs are a little primitive, sure, there is no room service, sure, all calls have to be made on a pay phone, sure, meals are served buffet style and before shoving our dirty dishes into the kitchen area we have to scrape any leftovers into the compost pot. That’s about it. There is so much more to like. The breathing sounds of the ocean as it laps against the rocks below are hypnotic, the pungent smells of fresh herbs and pine tickle the senses, the fertile ground that produces grapefruit size roses along side rows of emerald green vegetables boggles the mind, and, the hot baths soothe not only the body, they heal the soul. It’s like no where else I’ve ever been. It’s where I can go to be completely relaxed and at peace. I made the perfect decision. I wouldn’t have wanted to turn 60 any place else.

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