watching the stars in big sur
The Pacific Ocean glittered into the infinite distance and the sun rose above the mountains to warm the cool morning air that smelled like salt. I stood on a cliff and watched waves pound the coast in rhythm from this hotspot known for its salt baths, spirituality, and rumored ties to the CIA. Through a lover, I had attained an exclusive day pass to wander these grounds, languish in the hot spring tubs, and soak in the mysticism of Big Sur.
We stood together and stared into the topaz expanse mottled with kelp forests and the bobbing bodies of seals. It was undeniably one of the most stunning sights I had ever seen, and I had to choose between it or the breathtaking goden sunlight that peaked over the flower-crowned peaks behind me. I didn’t know where to look, or how to allow myself to fully perceive it all in a way that truly captured the majesty of the moment. A familiar feeling coursed up through my belly and curled my lip. Contempt. That ocean, mocking me with every sparkle on her surface, seemed intent on reminding me of my smallness. She rolled so comfortably in her infiniteness and belly laughed as if to say “You’re nothing!” with every crash against the cliffs below. The seals near the shore languished on their backs and barked in agreement.
I have this habit of using practiced dissatisfaction to protect myself from heartbreak in moments like these. When presented with things I don’t think I deserve, I know how to insulate myself with cold rationality and safe thoughts like It’ll never work out. I know how to laugh off a tender moment. I am great at running away at the first sign of confrontation, even when conflict would surely lead to growth. Here, confronted with extreme beauty, profound quiet, and deeply felt love, I was tip-toeing into the vastness of human experience. And I was mad about it.
It must be this place, I thought, my mind grasping for a way out of the moment. I had heard too many incredible things about it, the hype was too loud. There was no way it could live up, and no way I would be able to tap into “the magic” of it if it did. Even though somewhere deep I felt a yearning for what I heard it could offer – deep connection, soul-level transformation, something real wrapped in the technicolor wrapper of natural beauty – I tucked the desire away. I buckled myself into the safety belt of cold cynicism which kept me safe from being hurled into unexpected moments of vulnerability.
I had experimented with unbuckling. I cut off my supply lines of distraction like booze and ice cream. I practiced being in my experiences without hiding behind intellectualized doubt. I stood steadfast through intense moments when the whole world seemed to shake. It was starting to pay off. Recently, big things started falling in my lap. Big things like love and purpose, that had felt previously out of reach, materialized with less effort than I thought possible. Somehow, in getting comfortable in the discomfort of the moment, I was learning to catch what was meant for me. One of the biggest catches was Marco.
He was why we were here, standing on this cliff being antagonized by the beauty of the ocean. He knew the place intimately after spending scattered months here at various times in his life. The experiences he had were were pivotal, altering his trajectory with months spent soaking in salt baths and community. The enthusiasm had radiated from him as we pulled into the long driveway, his leg bouncing with anticipation as we parked the Prius and began to explore. He was prepared to be transformed again, even for just a day. We hoisted our backpacks full of writing materials and leisurewear over our shoulders so he could give me the insiders’ tour. He showed me the meditation spaces and art studio, we passed the flower and food gardens and a shady seaside nook under a sprawling cypress. “That’s where people go to hook up,” he nudged.
But as we explored, I watched his excitement crash against the stark reality of the property’s emptiness. There was a palpable desolation in a place that seemed so ready to accommodate large groups of pilgrims on healing journeys. We saw only a soul or two working the gardens. Most of the buildings that had housed his crackling healing moments were locked and dark with signs on the doors that alluded to a closure with no end in sight.
This place, and the whole central coast, was impacted by a one-two punch of road closures and pandemic ordinances and was only now in the earliest days of a return to semi-normalcy. It’ll be cool to have the place to ourselves, we justified. The magic was still here, and so were we. The guy at the gate said breakfast was at nine, so we headed to the dining room to see if the place still had a beating heart.
We took the long way through the garden, across an expansive lawn, past the empty pool. A groundskeeper buzzed by in his golf cart, ignoring us. As we approach the dining room from the back side of the lodge, we finally heard voices. Two long tables on the stone patio held a bustling group of women. They chatted loudly and nibbled Instagram-ready breakfasts. I walked deliberately past the crowded tables, focused on getting to the door. I was still feeling out of sorts and small from my recent confrontation with the ocean. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a face that I recognized.
I tried to ignore it, but I knew. There is a unique and undeniable familiarity to a face you have seen a thousand times in the glossy outlets of the media, even when you are seeing it out of context, in real life.
Marco saw it too. “Was that Abby Wambach?”
I looked at him and rolled my eyes, sighing deeply. Contempt surged again. My walls came up like thorny vines. I didn’t know how else to respond to such a chance encounter except to reject it entirely. I decided that I thought it was not so much serendipitous but annoying that the only other soul at this place with us just had to belong to a famous person. We were still too close to LA.
From the breakfast buffet inside, we grabbed a few of our own Instagram-ready delights. A yogurt parfait with trendy words like adaptogen and acai on the label. A pre-boxed spread of sautéed potatoes, bacon, and greens. I wanted to turn back and look at Abby. She was so tall and blond and glowy, like a hot lady Viking. I resisted, feeling righteous. But who else was at that table? Flashes of fine leather and glints of good gold from wrist bangles told me that the soccer star might not be the only person of interest out there.
I got in line for coffee. The unpretentious simplicity of black coffee would cure my temptation to indulge in staring, coveting, wondering what if.
I used to go to Southern California as a kid, and I always secretly hoped to run into a celebrity. I quietly believed that I would casually run into the cast of Saved by the Bell at the mall and we would hit it off and grab smoothies together, and they would let me know that I was cool enough to hang out with them, and certainly way cooler than the boring snobs at the cool table at my middle school. In my grandiose fantasy, I belonged to a glitzier world. Except for a brief Tom Selleck sighting at my actor uncle’s 40th birthday party, it never came true. I had grown up and traded celebrity worship for reverence for regenerative cattle farmers and broody travel writers.
So imagine my dismay that when I return unceremoniously to California with no expectations whatsoever for glamorous run-ins, I come face-to-face with someone. And Jesus, look at me. What am I even wearing? Shorts and sandals? Is my hair even curled? If I had only known! I could have been prepared for my big opportunity to show the luminaries of society that I am in fact one of them.
“Whit, we’re heading upstairs.” A woman’s voice behind me shattered my self-flagellating reverie. I turned to look and saw a best-selling author looking past me to a famous female entrepreneur who happened to share my first name. If I had any doubt about her identity, her initials monogrammed elegantly on her leather clutch dispelled it. I was in the crossfire, right in the thick of it. They could both see me. I was standing right there. All I wanted was coffee. These goddamn famous women were so goddamn slow in ordering coffee. Why were they so slow? Did they not know how to order coffee in their luxe corner of the world? Marco joined me in line and whispered something in recognition of our situation.
“I think something is going on…”
I shushed him. We couldn’t let them know we were onto them. We were the kids facing down the T-Rex in Jurassic Park. We needed to be very, very still and maybe they would move on, but I couldn’t say this to Marco, because they were all right there, in the same line for coffee as me. Then Marco moved, and it was over. A man with an earpiece approached him and gestured him out of the line.
“Hey man, can I talk to you for a sec?”
I watched as the security guard escorted my boyfriend away from the dangerous predators and onto the patio. They talked for a minute. Then Marco returned to where I was still standing in line – Jesus, these women are so slow! I swear all I need is one cup of black coffee… – and rolled his eyes. We had been spotted. Our normal non-glowy skin and our backpacks had sold us out. The security guy needed to know if we were supposed to be there. Marco let him know that yes, we were as supposed to be there as much as anyone is supposed to be anywhere that they had paid money to be for a day.
I was happy with this development. Now Marco was at least a little as annoyed as I was, so I didn’t have to be alone in my protective contempt for the beautiful and magnanimous women that surrounded us. We grabbed a table outside and I finally had a chance to take a good look at the menagerie.
They looked like dolls. Pristine. Recently unboxed.
There was professional athlete Barbie, towering over the rest with strong shoulders and the confidence of someone who has mastered the art of having a human body.
There was billionaire Barbie with her monogrammed clutch, and she quipped with DIY-maven Barbie about the companies they were investing in this month.
“I told Tim he should have let me invest a couple million in that one! Ha-ha. Honestly, I’m a little mad about it! Matcha latte, please, thank you.” The last syllable stretched from her mouth in a long stream of drawn-out sincerity, and I shuddered. Another familiar voice cut through the din. Dulcet tones I knew from Academy Award acceptance speeches and Wes Anderson movies. It was official. We were in the midst of some famous women’s symposium. I turned to face the menacing expanse of the ocean, which continued to shine effortlessly and remind me with each violently crashing wave that she could chew me up and spit me out without ever knowing my name.
The quickest glance I could manage confirmed the voice I heard belonged to the face I knew from so many movies, talk shows, magazine covers. There she was – skin taut and radiant, impossibly thin shoulders wrapped in a sweater with the kind of embellishments that would make a normal person look insane. In fact, many of them wore some version of high-ticket elegance designed to look ridiculous on anyone who was not fit to don it. On them, the fringed poncho was elegant and effortless. On me, surely costume-y and forced. Still, I wanted it.
I didn’t want to keep staring and give them the satisfaction of being yet another rubbernecking normal. I didn’t need them to know that their presence made my heart pound, or that their very existence put an inner spotlight on every way that I failed to live up to the beauty and lifestyle standards that they set for our society. I wanted to play it cool, be unmoved. I wanted to believe that they – and the best-selling content they produced and top-rated products they endorsed – were not important or in any way relevant to my life. I could not face that, compared to them, I was just a consumer. So I stared at their bags.
At the end of the driftwood bench, their luggage was lumped in a pile that was worth more than a mid-sized country’s GDP. Looking at their luggage was more comforting than looking at the women themselves. Because if I worked hard enough and really wanted to, I could buy one of those bags. The things were attainable. The lives, the glow, the glitzy being-ness of fame and fortune? Not so much.
I pushed my parfait around, wondering what Abby Wambach ate before big games, or if Gwyneth skipped breakfast to stay slim. This was the middle school cafeteria all over again. I felt compelled by dignity to ignore the cool girls but inside I was eaten alive by the curiosity of what made them any different from anyone else.
the things vs. the work
Celebrities, influencers, luminaries, and popular kids harken back to old hierarchies. They reflect an outdated desire to be led through life by something shiny. There is a reason why royalty drench themselves in glittering jewels. Their finery, their palaces, their smooth skin, elicits deep longing because we’ve been convinced that if we could have what they have, we may also shine. But that’s the trap of comparison, inadequacy, and consumerism-as-a-cure. It’s as insidious as it is ineffective. It’s never really about the things.
Delightful distractions, the leather smells rich and the cashmere feels soft but after the novelty of the luxury wears off, we’re all still just electric meat suits traversing a watery orb, bumping up against each other trying to make sense of it all.
It’s so much easier to be distracted and led along by the shine. When the task of being inside our bodies and looking straight at who we are feels way too big, a casual yen for an out-of-reach lifestyle is comforting. Ultimately, attainment is doable. If we really want to have something, we can! And the pursuit of it can keep us busy and distracted so we never have to feel how the ocean spits in our face and confronts us with the reality of just how small we really are.
Marco was still looking, smiling innocently at the beautiful specimens. I wished he would stop. I wanted him to glare at the ocean with me and be as annoyed as I was that in our attempt to break away from the world and pop culture we had been dropped into some kind of zygotic nucleus of the ‘next big thing.’ These bitches were ruining everything and pushing my every insecurity into the spotlight.
I was doing okay in life, I thought, with a smear of petulance. I had made enough right decisions to land me at a beautiful California spa retreat for a day. I was even in the company of a gorgeous man who happened to love me! That was big! But now I’m watching his eyes light up as he scans the gorgeous faces he has seen before and I’m feeling threatened as if beauty is a zero-sum game.
This day was supposed to be all about us. It was supposed to be about healing. In fact, this life was supposed to be about us, and they were ruining that too. Whenever I was ever compelled to feel okay about myself – my appearance, my accomplishments – one of them had always appeared on some screen or glossy page to remind me that my pores could be smaller and my bank account bigger. For everything I had figured out, one of them was doing it way better.
Oh, you think you’re strong. Well, here’s an Olympian.
Think you’re doing well at work? Well, that girl just added ‘billionaire’ to her list of bonafides.
Think you’re cute and stylish? Every woman here wakes up with a blowout and Disney princess eyelashes, so go cry into your coffee (which, by the way, is dehydrating your skin and aging you prematurely!)
“Gwen, should we start heading up?” The gaggle began to shift and move in little chatty groups from the dining room toward a staircase at the edge of a patio. I wondered if Oprah was up there, waiting for them to return so she could administer some sacred rite reserved for the upper echelon of famous females. The procession moved into my field of vision once again, giving me another chance to gawk at the skin and fine sweaters before they disappeared like a coven into a cave and the cacophony of their voices faded. My shoulders dropped and I looked at Marco.
“Wow. What the fuck.”
“That was crazy.”
“I wonder what’s going on.”
We had the patio mostly to ourselves, except for a man at an adjacent table, some kind of handler for the symposium. He has his feet on the stone wall and was typing on his phone in a way that conveyed that what he is doing was very important. He had the shine of a young gay on the rise – effortlessly coiffed with good glasses and one of those t-shirts that comes soft like he paid for someone else to break it in for him. As far as I was concerned, he was one of them and I didn’t want to dignify him with my attention.
I turned my back to him, but Marco was braver and less reverent to the natural order of beauty and fame since he had been handsome in the world long enough to have gained some leverage among the other handsomes. He could register on their radar and maybe join the pack to nibble on the scraps of last week’s kill, while I was simply a vulture feigning disinterest as I circled overhead.
Marco leaned over to the hot gay handler, who looked up from his phone with gentle surprise on his face as if he hadn’t realized until that moment that he was not completely alone. “What’s going on up there?”
The handsome assistant held his hands in a sanctimonious steeple in front of his lips, closed his eyes, and smiled.
“I actually,” he let the last syllable linger in the salty air for about an hour and a half, “I actually can’t say.”
I turned back to my breakfast, once again uninterested in feeding into this violently hierarchical and materialist system. This was the behavior of a gatekeeping troll and I would not feed him with my attention. But Marco persisted.
“All I can say,” the hot troll divulged, “is that it’s a meeting of some serious badasses. It’s a really important collection of the women who are literally at the top of what they do.”
I recalled the menagerie and wondered if badasses meant the same thing in whatever Land of Hot Gays he hailed from as it did in America because here, badassery was rarely defined by wispiness and Botox. I was back on my bitchy bullshit, keeping my heart safe from the inadequacy inspired by the recent parade of wealth and beauty.
There was something about those women and the way they carried their 5-figure weekender bags. There was something there that I was trained to want, and that despite myself, that I wanted to be. They were rich and famous, and their spendy perfumes rang a bell of desire that had set me to drooling, but none of that had anything to do with being a “badass.” I hadn’t seen a Navy Seal or foreign dignitary among them. None of those women struck me as a Promise Keeper or the type of broad to cut a struggling whale from a fishing net. Had any of them even sniped an elephant poacher from a low-flying helicopter? I doubted it, but at the same time, neither had I. They are just an extra shiny mirror through which we can see the things we think we lack.
soaking in salt
I glowered into my cup of coffee, resentful of the fact that a dozen recognizable and maybe high-powered celebrity women were showing up to confront me with my deepest insecurities on a day that I was supposed to be using for inner transformation.
These badasses were cut from a different cloth with a higher thread count. Microfiber, maybe, or Egyptian cotton. They were badasses in their ability to defy the natural aging process and hold up a certain standard of Western Femininity that convinced ordinary women to shell out our paychecks on skin serums and trendy juice. In that purely consumerist slant then yes of course these women were titans of industry. I wanted it. I wanted the champagne toasts, the cashmere, and white gold. I wanted to be the talk of the town, I wanted to endorse laser skin treatments and juice cleanses. I wanted to stare because I wanted to understand why they had influence so that I too could have influence. But I also couldn’t stare, because I knew that the wealth and the fame are just sexy frosting on life’s gold-dusted cupcake.
After breakfast, Marco and I threw a frisbee on the lawn while Gwyneth and her girl gang lined up to catch their limos. They returned to their lives, and we sat naked in the baths, alternating hot and cold until the stars came out.
The water and my feelings were salty, and I let myself be soothed by them both. Being bitchy and self-protective had served me well enough for many years when I needed it to. Wrapping myself in the trappings of prove-it culture was cool for a while. Now, I could look across a stone tub at a man who loved me and that goddamn perfect ocean behind him. I could sit naked and unadorned by finery, drenched in my own saltiness, and be more than okay.
Next time, I’ll claim a seat at the table with the so-called titans and give Whitney a high-five, and finally let Gwyneth know we’re birthday twins. Maybe they’ll be stoked because we actually have a lot in common. Maybe they’ll want to throw the frisbee around too.