We were in the hot tubs at Esalen in Big Sur – not the old hot tubs, but the new tubs that were rumored cost $20 million to drill into the cliffs after a storm washed away the old tubs, after my friend who was teaching there during that storm had to take a helicopter ride out.
It was the Esalen that was up and coming but hadn’t become what it is today. It was struggling to change and hold onto its old ways. These were the days when you could still get sleeping bag space but had to be out by 6:30 a.m. for vacuuming, and even the deluxe rooms had plumbing issues, a little like Mexico resorts near the border.
The red goddess statue was still in the garden.
It was a place where everyone looked you in the eye when they spoke.
You could still end up in a workshop there where someone cried for a half hour after reading a poem and nobody interrupted them or asked for their money back when the workshop didn’t progress.
Everyone seemed to be fucking everyone at Esalen. The era I speak of was the late nineties and the early 2000’s. A friend recently told me there was a clinic when she lived there, and everyone was often in line with the same STD.
There was a progressive Gazebo school my daughter went to when she was three, while I was in a writing workshop, when Neil still ran the school and they taught the preschool kids they could use the word fuck, but only at the school, which had a submarine submerged into a hillside.
On her first day of school when I picked her up for lunch together, she said, “mom, I’m so fucking hungry.”
I took my daughter to the nude optional hot tubs once when she was five, though nobody opted for clothing – with mineral water that smelled like lentils and egg farts, and all seemed to go very well until a group of men walked by and her face turned purple as they swayed in the chilly cliffside beach air. I never took her to the tubs again.
When she was too old for the Gazebo school I went to Esalen alone and often. One night I was in the hot tub in the late night/early morning hours with a well known DJ from Brooklyn, maybe the funniest woman I ever met. We decided we were going to start the Church of the Dolphin, to interpret what Dolphins were really trying to tell us – fuck you for destroying the oceans.
EEEEEE EEEEEEE EEEEEE, was our first prayer.
We would hold the church in abandoned gas stations across the country, far from oceans.
So here we were. – me and a DJ from Brooklyn, in a hot tub over the Pacific Ocean hanging off a cliff – the milky way over us, the night inky black with no moon, laughing and coughing and laughing when she said,
Holy fuck. What the fuck is that?
Across the ocean, from almost as far as the horizon line, was a bright light, unlike any light I have ever seen – not blinding, but as I said, there was no moon. And the light was traveling toward us, across the brackish water.
And she grabbed me, this woman I had just met two hours ago and also maybe lifetimes ago said, what do we do?
We weren’t high. We weren’t on LSD.
The light was coming faster now, closer, and there didn’t feel like time to get out of the tub, and we would have slipped in our fear anyway, racing for our towels.
I suggested we let the light pass over our wet, naked bodies.
Just before the light reached us, she grabbed me in fear. I could feel our breasts touching and our hearts beating, and it the light did wash over us like a prayer, and then up the hill, and it was gone.
Awkwardly, we released each other.
Awkwardly, we climbed out and reached for our towels and quietly put our clothes on and walked up the hill together, now dressed and tired and wilting and smelling like old broccoli water.
See you at breakfast, she said.
Yeah, I said, See you.
Six months later at the Whitney in New York at the 60’s Retrospective, I heard a woman shout from the entrance to the LSD exhibit…Laura? Laura Lentz?
And there she was, the funny DJ from Brooklyn. My Hot Tub Queen.
She bear hugged me again, and our hearts touched again.
I introduced her to my daughter. She introduced me to her partner, who was standing glaring at me with her arms crossed.
Here’s the woman I told you about, she enthusiastically said to the woman with the crossed arms.
Oh, yeah, the woman behind her said with no enthusiasm- she’s the Hot Tub Girl from Esalen.
Excitedly, we tried to tell our story, singing like dolphins and laughing.
Then I looked at my daughter and her arms were crossed too, and she was giving me that look – like – this story isn’t funny, mom.
And just like that, there was no way to explain the experience to anyone. – not the Church of the Dolphin, not the light that washed over us like a blessing, not our first prayer as dolphin imitators.
Life is awkward and magical and scary and often involves two strangers who share an experience and instantly become family.
What I really wanted to tell you today is this: Sometimes you just have to let the light and magic wash over you, grab the person next to you and hold them tight, even if nobody in your life will ever understand why.