southern roads

It’s been a springtime of driving. I’m home now, but full up with impressions from taking myself down to California and back. I started out driving at the end of May, making my way south to take part in a couple of workshops at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur. A quick check on Google maps, and I could see I was looking at around 1800 km, which I would have to repeat coming home. A part of me wanted to do this on back roads, skipping the I-5, but the time it would take decided things for me. It’s still a bit daunting, driving so far alone, so I decided to break up my trip into digestible chunks, by stopping in Portland to visit old friends, in Ashland, hoping to see a play, and in Davis, near Sacramento, to visit family, then on to the workshops.

I didn’t drag out my camera very often this trip, just spent my time thinking, while I let my car be drawn down the conveyer belt of the I-5 south. I got off to a slow start, loading my car with enough gear to cover a range of weather. Speaking of weather, it was miserable and wet in Vancouver, which made me quite happy to be driving away. Getting across the border and around the fallen-down-bridge in Mt. Vernon took some time. Consequently I got to Seattle around 3 pm, not good timing, beginning rush hour (maybe it’s always rush hour there). I didn’t realize what I was into, but the city basically sprawls south through Tacoma (at one point I counted ten lanes going south!) all the way to Olympia, before it becomes a pleasant road to drive on. I’ll admit to being a bit rattled by all the traffic. Stopped for coffee around Olympia, and thought rather fondly about highway 37 in northern BC, stretching through the trees with only the occasional other vehicle. No coffee shops there, mind you.

I’ve become a convert to using a GPS when I drive alone, which is what I was counting on to find my friends in Portland. Technology is great, but it makes us kind of stupid too. I hadn’t consulted a map, which normally I would (I did have one) but trusted the machine to tell me where to turn off the freeway. As it would happen, the thing lost satellite contact  and left me hanging at rather a critical point. So I got off the road anyway, and texted my friend, making sure I had the right address (there was a street, avenue and I forget, maybe drive, with the same name!). This added a bit of drama, got my friend all worked up wanting to come find me, but I didn’t know where I was, so that seemed a bad idea. I did spread out the map, and locate myself generally, and then the GPS woke up, and brought me to my friend’s door with only a couple more “lost satellite” comments from the machine.

I stayed a day in Portland, got rained on from time to time, convincing me I wasn’t far enough from home yet. Enjoyed rambling around with my friend, catching up on about, oh, twenty years. Then set out for Ashland, a much nicer drive with no major metropolitan areas clogging things up. Ashland is absolutely beautiful, and was kind enough to be warm and sunny the day I arrived. I hadn’t bought tickets ahead of time, none available, so I bought one for the trip home, and then consoled myself with dinner on a patio by the creek. Walking back to my motel I came upon an author reading at Bloomsbury Books, which I was only a few minutes late for, so I tiptoed into the back of that, and listened to some poetry for a bit.

Next day took me into California.

First impression of California as you enter from the north, is big. Mt. Shasta helps with that impression.

Mt. Shasta: First impression of California as you enter from the north, is big.

I know I’d passed Mt. Baker and Mt. Rainier, hmm, maybe Mt. St. Helens too on my way south, but never saw them, hidden in clouds and rain. But California welcomed me with sunshine, though alas, that didn’t last. I didn’t realize where exactly Davis was, but it’s in the central valley, and it’s flat and it’s hot there (35 C). People ride bicycles everywhere, and it makes sense too. No hills! Hung around there for another day, doing more catching up on people’s lives. Cycled to the farmer’s market, watched a young cousin hitting tennis balls, yakked. And on Sunday, set out for Big Sur.

There are a lot of people in California. They’ve got a population that matches all of Canada, but like Canada, there are wide open empty spaces. Which means that when you are on a road that skirts past a city like San Francisco, you see a lot of cars. Whew. Freeway, to freeway, to lesser highway, to Monterey and the first sighting of fog, oh, oh, and then boom, onto Highway 1, on the coast, and everything slows down. People stop their cars and get out to look at the ocean. The views are spectacular. The road is narrow and winding. What a relief, to leave the intensity of the freeways.

looking south from the lodge

looking south from the lodge at Esalen, with a brief sighting of blue sky

Esalen. Various people have told me about it recently, what a beautiful place it is. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but then expectations are usually misguided. Vancouver is on the coast too, but only sort of, as it sits on an inland sea, and is protected from the Pacific by the bulk of Vancouver Island. At Esalen you look out at the ocean and see only the horizon, nothing beyond (though most days the sea and sky were grey, which is something I do recognize from home, the colour grey, though without the rain, more tolerable). The ocean, too, is different. It constantly moves, like something alive. And it’s noisy, all those waves breaking on the rocks. It’s peaceful from above, on a cliff, but never quiet.

So that’s what I found was a beautiful property stretched out in a fairly narrow ribbon between the highway and the sea. But no awareness of the highway when on the property, because it’s a quick steep drop down below, and it’s the slow road, not a tremendous amount of traffic, not after the freeways anyway. Esalen is a mass garden, full of flowers that haven’t bloomed yet up north. It’s definitely a warmer climate, “indoor” plants, like jade, growing outside, though I was glad to have brought my fleece along. Somewhat rustic accommodations and a darkish lodge, lovely grassy expanse, chairs facing out to the ocean. Hot springs baths hanging over the ocean, down a fairly steep path and out of the way, clothing optional, which I fine is not automatically a good thing, though it’s certainly hippie-cool (I used to be hippie cool, back in the 60s, but now I’m in my 60s, not so much).

bits of sculpture, functional like this gate, are all over the place

bits of sculpture, functional like this gate, are all over the place — the gate’s latch is a tongue, vaguely rude, like the baths

For solitary dreaming, sitting in a hot tub looking out to sea is great, and privately I’m happy to do it without clothing, but finding myself with a group of young women chatting away jarred the peace. That night people sorted themselves into boy tubs and girl tubs, but that’s not always what happens. Not sure I’m so happy about my body either that I can get my mind out of myself to not notice the contrast of youth and age. Difficult. And really, there’s something that jars with showering, dressing and undressing in a coed room. Something about putting on and taking off clothing that just isn’t uncomplicated.

I do like the philosophy that goes something around being uncritical with our bodies, accepting ourselves, but it’s hard in the practice. And say what they will, there is a frisson of sexuality around the baths; it’s a lot to deal with. I did challenge myself, had a (short) soak, and intended to go again. I even walked down another evening, but then thought, no, this is just not comfortable, and tossed my towel back into the pile. I expect that the clothing optional (everyone I saw opted for none) keeps a lot of people out of the springs. Too bad, but we’re just not all that easy.

Maybe it’s something around anonymity. When I was young, I would go with friends down to Wreck Beach (clothing optional, in Vancouver) and was never bothered by it. Unless I saw someone I knew only casually. Then it became awkward. This perhaps is what made it hard at Esalen. Because I did meet people casually, who I would normally not take my clothes off around, and here’s this situation where it is supposed to be okay. It’s all too loaded for me, I discovered.

Esalen has it’s share of contradictions. Full of good intentions, a sort of religious or tribal fervour (our way, the way), educational impulses and personal growth (I guess that’s what I was after) organic foods, free thinking, and a rebel feel, mixed with wholesome summer camp, annoyingly feeble wifi in the lodge, part of the get-away-from-it-all ambience, but all wrapped up with resort pricing, so definitely a capitalist venture.

For my first five nights I had a private room hanging over the ocean and listened to waves crashing against the rock. A small room, but blissful, no chocolates but flowers left in the room, a couple of fluffy towels, a comfy bed. It allowed me the retreat that I was looking for, and I managed to forget what it was costing me (if I am well-off, it may not be for long). Windows looking out to sea, no TV or other electronics (well, actually I had an ethernet connection, but a laptop that only connects wirelessly, so I was saved from the temptation of web-surfing). I did have a phone for some reason, and got one phone call, a recording offering me a deal on my mortgage, an incongruous surprise.

the view from my first room

the view from my first room, minus the sound

I had to move out of this little piece of paradise on the fifth day (such is life) and into one of the shared rooms. Found that I had to make my own bed, very character-building if I had signed on for summer camp and didn’t usually have to make my own bed, but it surprised me, given the expectation that comes along with a fairly fierce cost, even for a shared room. And no flowers, just a green sprig of lavender, definitely one of the lesser beings now, if my value was solely on the money I was willing to spend. Dismal bathroom, too. Strange.

But oh well, or so what. The food was good. And what I came for was the workshops, which just happened to be at Esalen. I would have taken them at any old resort on the coast of California. I was there for Eric Maisel‘s Deep Writing workshop, and then a followup weekend workshop on his New Psychology, an exploration of the meaning needs we all carry, and how to meet those if you happen to be of an existentialist bent (which fairly describes me) and prone to, well, depression.

The writing workshop wasn’t about any specific kind of writing, it wasn’t a craft workshop, but one dealing with what we call writer’s block, and therefore included a wide range of people with very different projects. So we weren’t there to share what we wrote, we were there to figure out why we couldn’t seem to write it. What is the psychology behind not writing, when we say we want to write? It seems paradoxical that lots of writing happens at a workshop like this, but it’s because the time is so clearly set aside, there’s nothing else to do, no distractions. That part of it I’ve discovered at other workshops. But Eric intersperses long bouts of writing time with discussions of the psychology that is going on in our all-too-human brains. Anxiety, negative self-talk, how to sustain belief in projects that may take years, and have no guarantees of success. (Why would anyone do this to themselves?) He provided us with tactics to deal with this, practical ideas mixed in with the writing time. Ways to keep it going once we got back to the real world, the one full of all the distractions of real life, all the busyness, and just us, alone.

The result for me was that I managed to get re-interested in the novel I’ve been writing. It’s languished for a long time, and I couldn’t have told you why I wasn’t working on it, even though it matters to me. I’ve a better idea now why I resist at the same time that I have much meaning invested in the project. I have some ideas now about how to deal with that, ways to keep myself going. (I’ve managed two days with writing time, now that I’m home, good start; I intend to keep it up.) And of course there’s the benefit of meeting a group of people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, new friends of the real-world sort, though from now I suppose that’ll go online.

The weekend workshop, talking about value-based meaning-making, well, it just made huge sense to me, and was a natural progression from the writing (and not-writing) discussion. A new bunch of participants, and a very brief and quick though intense weekend, loaded with ideas and insight, both from Eric and from the other people there. Lots of talk about depression (or as Eric would have us ‘re-language’ it, sadness). He calls depression monetized sadness, and has quite a campaign going against psychiatry’s continual spread of creating illness diagnoses for what are many areas of rather normal human experience.

But that’s a bit of a digression.

What I took away from the week?

Eric talks about mysteries, that there are things we just don’t know. He posits that we are born with a personality, he calls it original personality, the nature part. If you’ve had more than one baby, you’ve seen that to be true; they are different from day one. Then there is our formed personality, the result of our early lives, nurture (or the lack), various experiences, traumas or otherwise, that cause us to behave in ways that we don’t think about. I think of this as unconscious behaviour, and it’s usually reactive, ways we figured out to cope when young. Usually unhelpful as adults, but we keep doing it. Then there’s our available personality, in Eric’s terminology. The part of us that can act. The conscious part. The challenge in life for me, is to bring more of that formed personality, that unconscious, into consciousness, so that it becomes available. In other words, so that I am aware of what I am doing, mindful, authentic. Choosing. Eric expresses it as giving yourself a personality upgrade, an idea I kind of like.

What else, in this effort of making meaning (a human need) in a world that holds no particular meaning beyond that it just is? It’s true, you see, that I don’t believe in anything beyond, see the cosmic joke of a meaningless universe, a universe that just is, but that has somehow got us in it, creatures that need meaning. (Who’s laughing?) I need to figure out my values, actually articulate them for myself. Note what matters to me. Accept that some things are just facts of existence (it rains in Vancouver). Identify the thoughts that don’t serve me, and substitute ones that do. The idea here being that we choose what is meaningful, and can subvert that meaning, drain it away, if we think negatively (saying my novel sucks drains the meaning away from it, oooh yes). Whether the thought is true or not is not the point (I certainly hope it’s not!) it’s just whether it serves me to think it. (It matters that I write my novel. I am a writer. That’s better.)

Eric insists that meaning trumps mood (I can work with that idea), that if we keep on working on what is meaningful to us we will get to that better mood. Or not notice our mood. Sometimes the work, the process, doesn’t feel meaningful, but do it anyway, as it serves the intention to make meaning. There are no guarantees of success, sometimes things you invest with meaning will disappoint (family gatherings, a novel you’ve taken the time to read, or worse, write, a trip to another country, dinner with friends). This doesn’t mean you can’t re-invest meaning somewhere else. The choices are individual, but there is choice.

It’s to try to change my life, from one that is just going through the motions, being sad and always disappointed that meaning isn’t there, to one of finding a way to make life meaningful, to become the heroine of my own journey.

Quite a challenge.

And then I had to drive home. Another short visit with cousins with a detour through Santa Cruz, and the drive back to Davis, visited my cousin’s lab, noted that it was now cloudy and cool. Then on to Ashland, added a night’s stay and another ticket to a play, so saw King Lear and Cymbeline, both very good, actually Lear was tremendous, left me gasping, and overshadowed Cymbeline (outdoor theatre, fleece again and a blanket too), though it was extremely good too. A marvelous example of the artifice of the theatre being transcendent. To use Eric’s language, it was a meaning opportunity I decided to take, and it paid off!

And one more day in Portland, a browse through Powell’s books, and a movie too, We Steal Secrets about WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, tons to think about there too, complexities of everything, makes my head spin. Timely, given the latest whistleblower story filling the airwaves, which I caught up on when I turned on a TV in my motel in Ashland.

And then I had to face the Tacoma/Seattle ordeal, and I made a choice to drive up highway 101 instead, to Port Townsend. This way I was still on a journey, enjoyed a meandering drive on the other side of Puget Sound devoid of traffic and absolutely beautiful, clinging to the water for good long stretches. And the sun came out! Then a short ferry ride (with a miraculous five minute wait, such luck) over to Whidbey Island (and it only cost me $12.70–the equivalent in BC would be at least three times as much). Then down some more road I hadn’t traveled before, until eventually reconnecting with the I-5 just north of the collapsed bridge. No rush hour, no traffic, and then even no wait at the border, phenomenal. And the sun was shining in Vancouver too, something I’d seen little of the whole week on the coast in California. You just never know.

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