Larger than Life

The view from the dining room patio at Esalen Institute in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California.
The view from the dining room patio at Esalen Institute in Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, California.

“Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard.”
— Anne Sexton

What does November look like to you?

For me, November is full of gale force winds, powdery snowfall and plummeting temps. The trees lose their leaves, the grasses begin to brown and the lakes gloss over with glittery ice. That’s in Minnesota.

This year, though, with just two weeks until Thanksgiving, I boarded a plane bound for San Francisco. Then I picked up a rental car and powered through California rush hour, driving 150 miles to the Big Sur.

I was headed for a writing conference at the Esalen Institute, called “Writing for Our Lives” with Poet Ellen Bass.

Jet lag, car lag and a few other lags
To my surprise, I navigated the San Francisco Airport perfectly. I picked up a little Mitsubishi and headed down U.S. 101, where I got caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic for at least two hours. In the time it took me to get away from the cities, the sun fell behind the horizon. So it was dark when I reached the Pacific Coast. Still I could tell I was gaining altitude, driving down Cabrillo Highway somewhere above the shore.

I grossly underestimated the travel time involved, but I finally arrived at the Esalen Institute.

Even in the dark, this place had a different feel. Two thousand miles behind me was a cold November, and in front of me stood huge bluffs, towering in the moonlight. From my perspective standing on the ground, the trees were nearly as tall as the hills. One tree appeared to be climbing the stars, where it touched the face of the full moon.

Ordinary tasks turned to outdoor adventures. Just to check in, I had to brace my ankles against a steep incline that tipped down to the lodge. It was only 40 feet, but I was glad I carried my bags with me. It meant I wouldn’t have to make that monstrous ascent to the parking lot until morning.

Lantern-lit paths led to the dining room, where a buffet of organic food greeted my senses.

That first night I met my roommates: A writer from Colorado, and a California college prof. Then at 8pm, we had a meet-and-greet in a cozy resort home overlooking the ocean. By my count there were six states represented, but most of the writers came from California. To my knowledge, the only writers who traveled farther than me hailed from Indiana and Massachusetts.

Larger than life
In the morning, I awoke to the sound of the ocean surf and the smell of Monterey pines.

The landscape looked different in the young daylight. Large boulders littered rock beaches, the trees seemed taller than before, and the flowers were gigantic. Were those mountains? I could make out peaks to the north and the south — some covered in sand and some forested in green. Apparently in California they call those “hills,” though they were taller than anything we have in Minnesota.

From blossoming cactus-like bushes to green blooms as big as tree trunks, I could not identify a single plant.

All the food was grown locally, and at breakfast I peeled the juiciest orange I would ever bite into. The fruit leaked an entire glass of OJ onto the outdoor patio, before I could even get to the inside. The chefs spoiled us with dishes blanketed with quinoa and kale, squash and passion fruit; then brought us back to life with unique tea blends and bean-fresh coffee after each meal.

Among the institute’s claims to fame were world-famous massages and healing sulfur baths.

Though I didn’t land a massage, I did brave the sulfur baths that night, walking along a lamp-lit picket fence to get there. The baths were perched atop a bluff that looked down onto the surf, where you could watch ocean waves crash against the rocks by moonlight. The water from the natural sulfur springs felt smooth against my skin, and those baths launched me into a new kind of relaxation.

We were there to write, all 30 of us bringing pencils and notebooks to transcribe our thoughts. By devoting ourselves to writing in this place, we were joining in a tradition of celebrated writers. Famous poets and novelists, both past and present, have traveled to Esalen to write, including the Beatniks.

I attended a morning session on poetry, learning everything I could from Ellen Bass and the masters around me. When we broke off for individual writing, I sat on a deck overlooking the ocean and recorded my wonder at an age-old redwood. Or was it a cypress?

We read our poetry in small groups, with some people sharing prose instead. Then we gave each other supportive feedback, talking about what was most engaging in individual pieces and what we admired about each work. The schedule followed the same pattern in the afternoon, and through writing, I made connections with a diverse range of people, from fledgling poets to published novelists.

That afternoon, I practiced our new-found technique of “Discovery” in art.

What I discovered in a poem about the California coast, was the presence of my twin brothers, speaking to me yet again, through the power of nature. I finished this particular poem while sitting on a bench, perched beside a wooden fence along the cliff’s edge. Above me was an ancient forest and below me, a perfect view of the Pacific.

The majesty of this place. The purity of each sensation. The depth of human emotion.

I cried then. But for once, these felt like tears of joy.


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