Monday, February 29, 2016

Big Sur

"Big Sur"
From OPEN ROAD:  A LIFE WORTH WAITING FOR

I'm on my third flight today, a small commuter jet that will land in Monterey in just ten minutes.  The man who sits next to me in this little puddle jumper is friendly and talkative.  I know all about his wife, his children, his business growing and selling organic produce all over coastal California.  He says he does this all the time...traveling.
I tell him this is the first time I've made it past the mighty Mississippi.
"Where are you headed?" Victor asks.
"Esalen Institute in Big Sur," I reply.
"Never heard of it."
"It's a spiritual community...I'm taking a workshop there."
"What do you do?"
"I used to be a yoga teacher," I say.  "But now I'm focused on writing novels."
Then Victor asks the question I often hear when I reveal this part of myself.  "Are you published?"
"Not yet," I tell him.  "It's taking longer than I thought."
A lot longer.  In the past year since I gave up the yoga business, I've contacted no less than seventy literary agencies.  I've sent writing samples of both Surfacing  and its sequel, and while a few agents showed an interest, in the end, the mail carrier delivered only rejection letters. 
Now I'm hoping that a change in venue will eventually change the course of my life.
As the plane lands, Victor carefully folds his newspaper and slides it into his briefcase.  "I hope you have a wonderful time here in California."
"Thanks...you, too."
Victor smiles.  "I have to say...when I first sat down, I thought you were Sandra Bullock."
I get this a lot. "With shorter hair, right?"
He nods.  "I thought to myself, 'How lucky am I to get to sit next to a real celebrity!'"
I bounce my eyebrows.  "I may not be a real celebrity, but I'm a real something."
"I'll bet you are," Victor chuckles.
Gently gliding onto an open runway, the plane comes to a stop in the middle of the tarmac, dozens of yards from the terminal.
Victor notices my confused look.  "We'll deplane here and then walk."
"Oh...I've never done that before," I say.  "In the Midwest, it's jetbridges all the way."
We exit the plane and Victor invites me to step down the narrow stairs ahead of him.  The moment my feet touch the blacktop I feel my heart quickening.
I turn to Victor, a blissful smile on my face.  "Is it always like this here?"
"Pretty much," he nods.
"Oh...I'm home," I beam, feeling wholly grounded for the first time in my entire life.

Two hours later I sit in the back of a shuttle bus as it winds its way around the twists and turns of Highway One.  Desperately nauseated and in need of something ginger-flavored, I feel my stomach lurch as the driver takes another hairpin turn at forty-five miles an hour.  He may have driven this precarious coastline countless times before, but this is a first for me. 
Even though I feel the need to dump everything out of my purse and use it as a barf bag, the setting outside the window is certainly stunning.  I keep my eyes on the horizon line where the Pacific meets the sky and marvel at the infinite shades of blue.  The way the sun glints on the waves, making them sparkle like diamonds on ice.  The lush landscaping covered with succulent plants I've never seen before in Ohio.
Big Sur is a wonder with the enormous Santa Lucia Mountains to the east, the vast ocean to the west.  I've met people who have traveled all over the world, but say that Big Sur is the most beautiful place they've ever visited.
Now I know why.
The shuttle pulls off the highway, just past a non-descript sign announcing:  "Esalen Institute:  By Reservation Only."  Trundling down a narrow road, it rounds a green space then comes to a stop in front of a ramshackle building. 
As my feet touch the soft earth, I take a deep breath and fill my lungs with the moist, sea-scented air.  "I'm here," I think.  "I'm finally here."
And I am.  But where "here" is, I'm not yet certain.  From what I understand, Esalen is a place where people like me are not considered to be a nut or a novelty.  Where we are of like mind and spirit.  Where I can fully be myself.
I will be in Big Sur for a week and hope that it will be enough time to discern if my unquenchable thirst to move west is simply a self-deceptive desire or the certain promise of a new way of being.

We are soul sisters, California and I.  A few weeks before my first trip to Big Sur in 2006, I discovered we have the same birthday.  Every year since then, I have gratefully acknowledged my connection to a place that I experienced to be both breathtaking and heartbreaking...a setting for the events that indelibly changed the course of my life forever.
The spectacular landscape of Big Sur is home to the enormous Santa Lucia Mountains and the high cliffs bordering the roaring Pacific.   While I lived there, nestled between worlds, I was the farthest west one could travel in the United States, and still face the East, the Orient.   In the summer before my first visit, like Big Sur, I stood sandwiched between two worlds:  my past and my future.  I contemplated the next move, deeply hoping it would involve a permanent drive to places unseen and unknown.  For months I sat with open hands, having no idea what would await me as time moved on.
Thanks to one of my friends and yoga students, I was able to travel to Big Sur to attend a workshop at Esalen Institute.  I had never heard of Esalen, but John had been there and raved about the wonders of life on the edge of the Pacific.  He gifted me with the trip and as the weeks passed, I couldn't wait to open it.  

The Esalen people were caring and open-minded.  The garden and grounds, absolutely amazing.  There was even a sign posted on the front gate that emphatically announced:  “No dogs allowed.”  I chuckled to myself when I saw that cats were free to roam all over the campus.  On my first night at Esalen, a huge tomcat named Rufus befriended my roommates and me.  He even curled up and kept me company while I slept. 
The next morning before sunrise, I went down to the baths and discovered no one else was there.  I took a luxurious shower, then steeped in a tub for over an hour.  Some of the women from my workshop came down and we chatted for a bit. I found myself wanting to pull up my knees to cover my body, but reminded myself that I didn't have to hide in the presence of anyone.  The energy and the environment were genuinely respectful and honest. 
 Being in Big Sur surrounded by the wilderness, bordered by the ocean, I felt like a woman for the first time in my life.  One afternoon, surrounded by others who were at Esalen, but attending different workshops, I spent a few hours by the pool sunbathing.  It was not about showing off; it was about showing up for what I really wanted to do.  The whole Esalen experience became a process of letting go of old illusions and embracing new friends and new experiences.  A necessary, uncomplicated collapse followed by a joyous, celebratory renaissance...in only six days.  I was delightfully surprised by the health and wholeness my body was reflecting.   So well nourished by the environment, I only needed to sleep for four or five hours a night.  I needed little meditation and yoga to stay centered. 
The week passed by all too quickly...yet there were still more lessons to learn, even on my last day in Big Sur.

 Before I left Esalen to catch a flight back to Toledo, I stopped by the gate to see Levi, a man I had met at the baths the day before.  He gave me a big, bear hug.  “How was your group last night?”
“It was great," I smiled.  "But I’ll tell you, I really needed something that I couldn’t get from the women.”
“What?”
“I felt like I needed a man to just put his hand on the back of my heart.”
Wordlessly, Levi gently placed his hands on my back and over my heart.  It was as if I were being touched by the most loving person on the planet, an amalgamation of spirit and humanity.  There was something so innocent and so authentic about the way his touch changed me.  In that moment, he simply wanted to give me something I needed and I allowed myself to receive his gift with grace. 
“You seem like you belong here now,” Levi said.  “Can you stay?”
“I’d love to,” I said honestly.  “But I can’t.  I need to go back to Toledo and finish what I started.  I know I’ll be back...I just don’t know when.”
Levi smiled.
I looked into his eyes and took a deep breath.  “I have to tell you something...I want to thank you for being who you are.  Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Yeah…I do,” he nodded. 
“I’ve always felt like I had to hide myself in front people…men in particular...and I don’t know how to say this any other way, but there’s something about you that makes me feel like I can just be myself.  That you’re okay with whoever I am.  I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not.  You know?”
“Yeah.”
I looked around the green space, at all the different people, different ages, different backgrounds.  A host of diversity.  I had made wonderful connections with so many of the women that week.  I wondered why Levi had been the only man. 
“Why is it that most of the men around here won’t talk to me?” I asked him, tears filling my eyes.  “They won’t even come near me.”
“Because they can’t touch you, Katie,” Levi replied, nudging my shoulder.
“What do you mean?”  I thought that he was saying what every other man had told me...that I had an indestructible wall around myself that no one could get through.
Levi’s face softened.  “Look at you, Katie.  You’re beautiful in so many ways, and I can tell just by being with you how much spiritual growth you’ve had.   You’re honest and bright and attentive.  I think a lot of these guys take one look at you and think, ‘that woman has her life so together, I can’t even touch her.’”
“But you can,” I said gently.  “You can see me.”
Levi nodded.  “I can because I’ve been where you’ve been and I’ve done the work, too, so I know what it’s like to come into the kind of power you are.  I’m not afraid of it.  I really love it.  You're not walled off...you're evolved.”

Leaving Big Sur was harder than I thought.  I sat in the Monterey airport, a string of blooming jasmine in my hand.  Waiting for my flight, I brushed the delicate blossoms against my skin, breathing in its soft fragrance.  Tears fell all the way back to Ohio as I longed to stay in an environment in which I felt supported and encouraged to move outside of my old self and into a new, more authentic expression of who I am.   
Taking the leap of faith and landing in Big Sur allowed me to reframe the future and open the door to even more possibilities.  "Dear God," I prayed on the night of my fortieth birthday.  "Please don't let the next forty years be like the first.  I want to live a more abundant, fruitful, and honest life."
I had no idea how powerful that prayer was until a year later, while living at Esalen, I was awash in a sea of torment, an endless battle with both my external and internal worlds.  Facing the ultimate battle between the light and dark within myself, there were still colossal lessons awaiting my grit and determination to confront and conquer them...one by one.

Tending the garden by the sea with lovely Simee, October 2008