Monday, June 27, 2011

Monday retreat: Turtleback, Rosario, and the Reasons for a Life of Leisure

When Monday is your day off, you feel compelled to use it for anything but productivity. And when the sun is high, staying inside and catching up on backlogged blog posts just seems silly. So on our day off, Melissa and I start out with a morning hike up Turtleback Mountain. We drive out to Westsound and walk up the Southern route, clocking about 4 miles round-trip of sweaty, thigh-burning distance. But the vistas make it entirely worth it.

We return home sweaty but invigorated, then buy a day pass at the Rosario Resort & Spa to use their indoor and outdoor swimming pools, sauna and hot tubs. Rosario is probably the most mainstream form of indulgence this Island has to offer, minus the high-end yoga classes in Eastsound. It's an incredibly beautiful estate, with lots of design details still intact from the Arts and Crafts-era. When the shipbuilding tycoon Robert Moran was told, while living in Seattle in his early 40s, that he was suffering from "organic heart disease" and only had a few years left to live, he retreated to the San Juan Islands and began work on the massive estate that now serves as the Resort's main attraction. Moran owned over 7,000 acres of Orcas (much of which has now been given back to the state as Moran State Park), and when his mansion was converted into a resort in the 1960s, it became a major traveler destination in the region.
Every detail of this place is beautiful, from the dark wood furniture of the lounge to the vintage metal pipes in the tiled bathrooms. Details from Moran's shipbuilding career are everywhere, from the hinges on the doors, keeping them fluid and completely silent, to the thick windowpanes of porthole glass, easily covered with rolled fabric window shades. Stained glass appears in almost every room, in murals ornate and streamed through with golden light.
The highlight of our day (minus lounging by the pool, reading, and soaking up the overcast sun) is the organ performance at 4:00.
Local composer Christopher Peacock plays the piano as we walk in, then walks upstairs to the library where he sits down to play the organ while displaying slides of the Morans during their heyday at the estate.
Once Moran had built the property, he lived for another 40 years--possible evidence that all he needed was to get away from city life. What strikes me is how much this place holds remnants of his leisure time as valued time--old magazines and maps, hundreds of books, and slides from family evenings surround the organ hall in glass cases, evidence of a time where pursuing pleasure was actively sought out rather than simply a daily entitlement.
When I'm in the city, and especially annoyed at my limited budget, I get vocally resentful about how people spend their leisure time in spas, meditation studios, and high-end department stores. The level of indulgence seems to me unwarranted for what I assume are mostly untroubled, unburdened lives. (I also wonder how relaxing a massage can really be when you get to have one every day.) However, looking around at the structure of the Rosario estate, and considering Moran's mindset as he developed the place, I reevaluate what it really means to "live well." Is looking out a window onto a beautiful vista an elitist indulgence?
Does swimming in a pool constitute luxury if it's designed to restore your ailing health?

Moran came to Orcas believing that his life would soon be at an end, and lived to see his family grow and flourish in a beautiful setting. He wrote of the Island, "It is a wonderful place in which to forget one's troubles and worries and get back to Nature in her happiest moods; a delightful place in which to regain health--physical, mental and spiritual." He was sick in the city; he was well here. What was diagnosed as heart disease was most likely stress.

Several recent reports have investigated the effects of city life on mental health, and as I soak up the virtues of pseudo-country life, I can't help but peruse their findings. While debates are open as to its physical effects (does bad air cancel out the benefits of constant walking?), there seems to be clear evidence that city life tends to generate mental illness. The stress of social interaction--of hyper-vigilence at both work and play-seems to be as taxing as regular emotional trauma. It's no surprise to me that one's health could improve in the country, if only based in the reality that there are less people there. You have more time for the mind, more time to reflect and retreat. Your relationships, because there are less of them, may be more intense, but less overwhelming. If people retreat to the country to "take the waters," it also seems they do it to take the distance. Lying on the pool deck may only prove relaxing when it's quiet and nearly empty, as was the case for us today.
At the very top of the organ hall is a light fixture covered with stained glass designed by Tiffany & Co., depicting the muses. Inscribed on the front panel is a poem entitled "Opportunity," written by John James Ingalls, a former senator from Kansas.
Master of human destinies am I;
Fame, love and fortune on my footsteps wait.
Cities and fields I walk. I penetrate
Deserts and seas remote, and, passing by
Hovel and mart and palace, soon or late,
I knock unbidden once at every gate.
If sleeping, wake; if feasting, rise, before
I turn away. It is the hour of fate,
And they who follow me reach every state
Mortals desire, and conquer every foe
Save death; but those who hesitate
Condemned to failure, penury and woe,
Seek me in vain, and uselessly implore.
I answer not, and I return no more.

A poem about the fickle nature of opportunity, written by a senator probably procrastinating between reading bills, speaks volumes to me. It suggests that if the opportunity arises to treat yourself well--if it knocks in the form of a beckoning hike, a body of water, a chance to learn to cook--you have to seize it when it first arrives. To put it off, to hope it comes again later, is to resign oneself to a life of missed chances. What may look like leisure to some--my taking off from normal life, in the hopes of trying out another--may actually be the seizing of an opportunity that will never come again. The biggest struggle may be, if nothing else comes of it, looking back on this time and not merely seeing it as "time off." I'd much prefer to think of it as "time on."

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