Touching other people puts Danielle in touch with herself.
It was the fall of 2007. I had graduated from college a few months prior and was living in New York, working at a high-end bathing suit boutique while dabbling in improv.
I was struggling. I had no money, no aspirations, and had just read a book about how the world will end in 2012. So naturally, I stopped washing my hair and became obsessed with Aldous Huxley.
My family began to worry about me. You know that part in “Steal My Sunshine” by Len, where they’re talking about how they’ve never seen Sharon look so bad? I think that was the conversation everyone was having about me behind my back.
During my deep dive into Huxley, I came across the Esalen Institute, a very special retreat center in Big Sur. It was founded in the early ’60s by a couple of cool guys, who had set out to explore and realize what Huxley called “the human potentialities.”
It seemed like the greatest place on Earth. I gathered every little bit of enthusiasm my inflamed, nicotine-addled body could muster, and I applied for a 10-week work-scholar program, to study Esalen massage and work in their kitchen. To pay for it, I got the fuck out of New York, moved back into my childhood bedroom, and waitressed at the best pizza restaurant in metro Detroit.
Suddenly, my life had purpose. I finally had it all figured out. I’d move to Big Sur and do what I was always meant to do, which apparently was become a masseuse. It was one of those moments, of which I’ve now had many, that when looking back upon I feel equally endeared with myself as I do humiliated.
At Esalen, I would become the waif I was always meant to be. I would develop a relationship with grains and green vegetables. I would finally enjoy yoga and would no longer crave cigarettes. I’d help people through my heart-centered, conscious touch. Oh God, how many times must I learn that wherever I go, there I am, before it actually takes hold?
I gained 15 pounds and I smoked close to a pack a day. I realized I don’t like touching people and that I should have known that, considering I don’t even like to hug people that I’m not actively sleeping with. All of the issues I’d worried I had—turns out they were pretty minor. I had a whole slew of other stuff I wasn’t dealing with, which became evident in the weekly required group process. Think: Group therapy but more dynamic and very, very cool. One exercise was to sit across from individual classmates and tell them exactly what we thought of them or have always wanted to say to them, and they couldn’t respond, just silently listen.
About half way through the program, I hitched a ride into town to use my cell phone and called my friend back in New York, Nick. I told him I hated massage. The frailty of bodies frightened me. I was in no place to handle a hip injury and, I was sick of having people rub me down with oil every damn day. I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be stuck in Big Sur anymore, and I most definitely did not want to be a masseuse!
My tail was officially between my legs. Esalen hadn’t saved me, the way I had naively believed it would. I was still the same old miserable Danielle, the one who didn’t like most things and sometimes liked some things, and so I had no choice. I had to confront the harsh reality of what it meant to be me, to be stuck with myself, in my body, whether I liked it or not.
So, what can I say? In the end, I did it. I achieved enlightenment.
I’m kidding. I made it through the full 10 weeks, became a really good cook, hung out with interesting people, and learned some massage skills that I’ll only use in the comfort of my boudoir. Esalen was just another one of those beautiful affirming moments for me to be humbled and reminded, I don’t know nothin about nothin.