By Monday I should be finished with editing and formatting (thank goodness) and can get back to writing original blogs. Look for "The Empress's New Clothes" sometime next week. In the meantime, here's one more peek into my memoir...for all my Esalen friends with love.
"A Variety of Light"
It's late afternoon and I'm gingerly walking down the steep passageway toward the craggy beach line, an old backpack slung over my shoulder. This is my third trip today...after a long morning of bed prepping in the garden. My arms throb and my feet ache. But still, I make the cautious journey to search for large rocks that I will carry back to the yurt.
The flip-flops I've foolishly chosen to wear give me no traction at all, so I take them off and leave them by the stairs. Sunlight glints on the ocean, the jagged rock face, and the shiny wet stones. Its reflection is so bright, it stings my eyes even though I'm wearing dark sunglasses. But I don't mind.
I'm delighted to be back in Big Sur. To work in the garden. To live on the farm in a canvas yurt not far from the farmer's small house where Carl lives. Ken and Gia live in tiny huts on the coastline and together, the four of us share this beautiful, quiet space. This silent sanctuary away from the often frenzied energy of the south side of campus. I adore Ken and am looking forward to all the time we'll get to spend together. Gia arrived a few weeks ago while I was back in Toledo packing up my house and putting it on the market. The three of us will be garden-scholars for this season, working and living among each other, bookended by the sea and the mountains.
The yurt was less than primitive when I moved in a few weeks ago. Since then, I've added a box spring to get the mattress off of the damp floor. Quilts from the Free Box grace the windows and I've started to clear the knee-high brush and weeds that surround my little home. Later this month, I'm hoping to plant a perennial garden from the volunteers that sprout up all over the farm.
There's no lighting to guide my way to the yurt after dark; my small flashlight only provides a modicum of safety. The solar lamps that were once beacons to the yurt's deck were broken long ago and haven't been replaced. No matter.
I've got other plans.
So here I am, walking barefoot among the rocks, choosing the brightest ones to haul back to the yurt and mark the pathway all the way up to its entrance. With each trip to the coastline, I solidify my purpose in returning to this place that has completely broken me and taken me to my knees, yet given me the opportunity to rise up once again. Each rock I gather and carefully place along the path to my home is another moment to forgive. To release. To transform into something better.
It's taken a few days, but I'm nearly finished. Already I've noticed that the whitest rocks reflect the light of the moon and illuminate a safe passage home. No longer needing to rely solely on my innate drive to protect myself, I'm embracing the light of what lies deep within: the great strength in allowing my heart to be open and vulnerable in healthy ways.
I have found a new way to be at Esalen. In the month since my return, there have been challenges, yes. But there also have been delights beyond what I could have imagined. It's been a miracle to be able to put the past winter behind me and move forward. To be here now...to be in good company and in good spirits. What a blessing.
As Rumi said, "Let the beauty we love be what we do."
And so it is that I have come back to Big Sur, my spiritual mother, to walk softly on her land. To nurture the chickens and the greenhouse babies. To tend the flowers and seedlings in my care. To teach and learn and live life more abundantly.
To find "hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground."
By late June of 2008, despite my love of the garden, despite the fact that I had my own room and kept my own counsel, life at Esalen was beginning to chip away at my resolve. There were endless issues being batted back and forth between the community and the administration. Endless challenges of living in a community that, while encouraging its members to embrace a “slow food nation,” was equally encouraging them to have “fast food enlightenment.”
As my advisor once told me, “Esalen has a long history, but a short memory because so many people come in, skip a stone across the surface, and then leave. Some stay, but with many of those who do, the process repeats itself over and over and over. Can you live with that?”
I wasn’t so sure.
By mid-June, I had had enough and was seriously thinking about leaving Big Sur once the garden internship ended, regardless of whether or not I was offered a job.
Then the Basin Ridge Fires started. Lightening flashed onto dry land and for miles up and down the coastline, homes were being evacuated. Initially the workshop participants were asked, for their own safety, to leave early. Then the work-scholars. Then anyone else who didn't feel comfortable staying. In addition to the ever-approaching line of fire, rockslides were a very real possibility and road closures were inevitable.
After the majority of people had left, a sheriff came on campus and ordered those of us who had chosen to stay to fill out forms providing contact information of loved ones and even our dentist in case our charred bodies were unable to be identified. Whipped into a frenzy of panic, many people waffled about what to do. I calmly figured that with the firefighters being housed on campus, with the ocean to the west and the baths to the south, if the fire did jump the line across Highway One to Esalen, there would be more than one way to not get burned.
So I stayed.
By then the garden had a new manager, Shirley. I'd been called a “brick house” by many of the men on our crew, but my new boss was amazing. Hardworking, innovative, and a remarkable teacher, I loved working with her. When everyone but Ken and I had left the garden during the fires, Shirley met the challenge of a drastically reduced crew and we made it through one of the most intense, but truly incredible parts of my Esalen experience.
Ken was needed to help clear brush with the grounds crew and was unable to help us on the farm. Shirley and I would begin each day in the lodge watching a hazy sun rise over the Santa Lucia, sipping hot coffee and nibbling freshly baked cookies. Then we planned our day and went to work.
After all the beds had been cleared of their extraneous produce, Shirley and I bed-prepped and conserved water in huge grey barrels, covering them with plywood to keep out dust and ash from the fire. Shirley showed me how to make “a poor man’s watering can” by poking holes into a tin bucket and attaching a handle. Then I would dip the bucket into the water in the barrels and walk up and down the rows of kale, baby chard, and onions, doing my best to keep them alive.
We all kept each other alive during those very long, extremely exhausting weeks, yet it was the best time of my garden internship. The population at Esalen dropped from over three hundred to just over fifty in a matter of days. The peacefulness in the midst of morning update meetings was a gift. The way each of us checked in with everyone, a blessing.
Everyone pitched in. I spent the mornings in the gardens, feeding the chickens, watering the babies, and helping Shirley with the small harvest that would feed the community. In the afternoons, I would don a long-sleeved shirt and help cut brush that lined the highway and covered much of “Yurtville,” a housing space located between the farm and south campus. Sometimes I helped with cabins, cleaning and preparing rooms for the firefighters. Sometimes I pitched in with the kitchen crew, washing vegetables or cleaning up after meals.
It was the first time I felt that Esalen was truly a living community. We all worked together and everyone’s needs were met because we each made sure it was so. In working with the grounds crew, I was completely exhausted by the end of the day, and more often than not, someone offered to give me a massage in the evening.
We took care of each other and the land took care of us. While the fires burned, a dense fog surrounded Big Sur for days, slowing down its descent toward the highway. The firefighters were planning to back burn so that it wouldn’t leap over the road. Until then, they watched and waited...just like the rest of us.
One night, after a week of waiting for the fire to come down the mountains, I walked back to my room and stopped to look over the Santa Lucia. There in the distance, I saw flares of light popping over the peaks in tiny bursts of red and orange…like fireworks.
“Finally...there you are,” I whispered to the fire. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
In the days that followed the fire steadily burned, melting through our water supply line, but the copper pipes within them still provided us with what we needed, though at a much slower rate. Ken and a host of other men valiantly carried a hose up the line to put out the fire themselves. They returned as conquering heroes. To this day I can still see their faces, beaming and proud to have kept the flames at bay.
In working with Shirley, in protecting and caring for the land in a space of quiet focus, I began to see Big Sur not as my home, but as my homeland, a place I wanted to continue protecting and preserving. It was then that I changed my mind and applied for the Garden Manager’s position that would be available in the fall.
Much to my delight, the work-scholars who joined the garden in the month after the fires were incredible: C. Ray and Eva, Margie and Tarek, Birgit and Lars, Ken and James, Carl and Benjamin, Shirley and myself…what a team we were. With so much work that needed to be abandoned during the fire, our crew was eager to get started. And what open-hearted, loving, joyous people they were. Our days were filled with laughter, our process time with authentic work and the caring acknowledgement of each other.
I was excited to share my love of the land, of the chickens and the seedlings, of the greenhouse, the farm and everything in-between. It was in working with that incredible group of people that I solidified my choice to stay in Big Sur.
To keep choosing growth.
To keep choosing the mysterious ways of grace.
One breezy morning in late August, the crew decided to stay in the garden and refurbish the herb beds. Shirley and Benjamin were down in the main area, supervising the workers, while I was on the upper level watering the babies. The sky was clear. The sun glinted on the gentle waves of the ocean.
From down below, I heard C. Ray’s soft laughter and its melodious sound reminded me of Granddaddy. Just that morning he had lovingly called me the "Fairy Godmother of the Esalen Gardens" and it was a surprising joy to see myself that way: "spreading light and love to all the baby seedlings."
Stopping for a moment, I watched everyone enjoying their work. The ease with which they were speaking with one another. Benjamin’s girlfriend strumming her guitar nearby, singing songs to spirit the garden into being.
“Remember this, Katie,” I whispered. “Take a mental picture…you’re going to want to hold this moment close...always.”
I walked to the edge of the rows of squash and chard. Saw my handprints in the soil where I had weeded them the day before. Marveled at how every single bed in the garden held my fingerprints…from the seedlings to the harvest…I had touched them all.
There have been few perfect moments in my life, but this was certainly one of them. Even now, years later, I can still see Eva’s smile. Hear Margie’s laughter. See Tarek as he makes his way down the path, his long legs striding forward as he pushes a wheelbarrow filled with fresh compost. I can see Shirley’s blond pigtails dancing in the wind. I can see Ken’s smiling face as he walks toward me.
“Coming down?” he asked. “We’re missing you.”
I nodded, tears filling my eyes. “I’ll be right there.”
|To read the rest of "A Variety of Light," download OPEN ROAD|
on Amazon.com. Paperback copies will be
available soon...stay tuned for more information.