I drove North on the 101 into the mountain past those Santa Barbara adjacent towns that make their own chocolate bars, like Cambria. The ocean sighed on my left while the forest threw shadows on my right. I drove down the middle with an eighth of a tank, about eighty bucks and a grocery bag full of stripper snacks: string cheese, apples, hummus and carrots. My loudest thought was “I don’t deserve this” the emotional leftovers from a disconcerting year of financial hardship and a friend’s sudden death. Before that, as a kid with two working parents, I was filled with longing but knew I was a burden. The kernels of what it was to desire and deserve rose to the surface like scum. Something great happens and I’m plagued with “This must be a mistake” followed by “They’ll know I’m a fraud.”
I didn’t know where I was going, but I did know the road was winding and empty, leading deep into a beautiful mountain and that writers would surround me compliments of The Sun Magazine. My Navi battery died a few miles back, I lost all cell reception and the sun fell.
I pulled over into the only gas station I’d seen in ages, which had a grocery store where two men leaned over a counter, speaking quietly to each other. “Excuse me, where is Esalen?” I was that obnoxious tourist asking the same question they’d heard fifty times already. “You’re 25 miles away.” I know Northern California like my own bones and I’m a hot spring junkie. I’ve marinated in the egg-y pools in the bowels of Ukiah and doused myself in the pristine baths at Harbin Hot Springs. I’ve slutted around Desert Hot Springs, sampled the digs there for years, but Esalen made Orr look like a chicken coop. It was holy.
The wooden “Esalen” sign was small and unassuming on the road. I hung the hairpin left down a driveway towards a gate where a tanned fellow peaked inside my car, as if sampling the estrogen there. “I like that song,” he said. He pointed me in the direction of the office, which was also a bookstore. Inside the office I figured they’d point out the mistake, tell me the scholarship wasn’t mine, and I would have to pay or go home. That’s not what happened.
In the office, a woman booked a massage and another stood around reading a book, like we used to do when there were bookstores and people hung out inside them, chatting about books. A man with a gentle face and scraggly silver beard knew my name and he led me outside.
“It’ll be quieter out there,” he said. He showed me a map of the grounds at Esalen, where my room would be up a steep hill overlooking the ocean. He made it sound like I could read maps and understand his directions, as if this weren’t middle earth and I wasn’t lost in a sea of adrenaline coursing through me. I think I asked him to repeat the directions to my room three times. Until the “I don’t deserve this” voice stopped.
There were buildings named Huxley and paths to the place Frances Lefkowitz would lead a workshop called, “What’s Your Story With Money” where she asked us “Write about where you are wealthy” and then “Write about where you experience poverty.”
My poverty was the big lonely after my Mom died and I was in jail. It was a four a.m. lonely. A cold sweaty, clausterphoice motherless, fatherless, brotherless, sisterless, boyfriendless, friendless lonely, shoved in an unmarked white Van. An I’m-going-to-miss-my-flight lonely. A who-is-going-to-feed-the cats lonely. I was looked at like a feral animal, referred to as a prostitute. I was handcuffed so long my wrists ached behind my back. I sat on a bench next to a woman in slippers, waiting to be booked. The woman was black and maybe fifty, also handcuffed with burns along her arms and a broken, misshapen thumb. She moved slow like time in the yellow- light lonely, the smell of puke lonely. I didn’t ask why she was there. She didn’t ask me either. The other women there laughed and talked too fast. They had pimps inside too. It wasn’t their first pony ride and they slipped into the routine and cracked jokes with the officers that hovered above us.
At Esalen, the ocean was the whole world and half the sky. The sun was an enflamed apricot; its outline burned the horizon. It was on top of a hill near a fence that seemed to drop off a cliff into the sea. I found the room and opened the door where two other women sat at a desk with computers, typing away. There were 4 bunk beds and I tossed my bag down on one of them. I walked down to the lodge in time for dinner with my bag full of unnecessary snacks, embarrassed because I didn’t realize we were going to eat like Mayan royalty with food made from the farm on the grounds. We would be anointed with spicy dal and mushroom soup, beet and feta cheese salad and fresh fish.
What happened was, I melted. Thanks to Tim McKee for his prompt.
As a stripper classically trained to let people slide over me, but not allow anyone to stick, I allowed myself to be held in the room by Sy and the other writers. I nailed myself to the spot, looked in their eyes and read my work aloud, even though I wanted to bolt out of the room. They shared their wealth and poverty stories. We were asked to write letters that would be answered in Cary Tennis’ workshop “Dear Stranger.” The letters were breathtaking, both in question and reply. One of the letters asked this: “I’m afraid of dying. Please give me advice.”The person who received the letter was a huge hearted bright lady who had worked as a hospice worker for years.
By the end of “Into the Fire” at Esalen, I felt churned, and invigorated, opened up and provided for. I felt connected to other writers.
That became my new wealth, and I deserved it.