Inspiration

One Woman's Journey to Discovering That Time Is the Ultimate Luxury

To recognize one’s season is a gift. To be present for it, and to delight in its subtleties, is to enjoy the ultimate luxury.
IMAGE KINGA CICHEWICZ/UNSPLASH
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Time is an ethereal journey to infinity. It creates illusions and erases illusions. It is immeasurable, and yet everything is measured by it. Time is the ultimate luxury.

In the summer of 1970, I stepped into a timeless world of luxury—the original spa experience that inspired all others—the Golden Door in Escondido, California. The luscious landscape, the Japanese-inspired architecture, the soothing colors conspired to create a place completely beautiful and serene.

In a breezy lanai, the legendary founder Deborah Szekely welcomed me warmly. “You’re our first guest from the Philippines,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful stay here.”

The philosophy behind the Golden Door was that if a woman feels beautiful, her inner life will blossom and she will find fulfillment.

A young lady in white led me down pebbled pathways to a private room that held ancient Japanese art and fresh flowers. In neatly lined drawers, exercise outfits were folded together with a pale silk kimono for wearing to meals and around the gardens.

A detailed schedule was set out on a writing desk. Everything felt personal. I was to learn that there were 160 trained staff to take care of 39 guests, a ratio unequalled in the spa world to this day.

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The philosophy behind the Golden Door was that if a woman feels beautiful, her inner life will blossom and she will find fulfillment. Every facet of the seven-day program was designed to achieve that goal. Each guest had her individual schedule of fitness classes and beauty regimens. Day after day, she was masked and treated to a facial and wrapped in herbal oils. By the farewell dinner, figures were trim, faces were glowing, and there was the unmistakable air of triumph. I felt like a different person.

Something began to stir inside me, like the need for room to run. It happened after I met Elizabeth, an attractive lady in her 80s, who was easily the liveliest guest at the Door. When Elizabeth became a widow, she decided to do something different each year, something she had never done before, like going to a spa.

On a Parisian holiday, she met Yves Saint Laurent and was one of the first American women to wear his Le Smoking tuxedo jacket. Fifty years my senior, she was still passionate about life. I had much to learn.

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My experience at the Golden Door was more significant than a fleeting caprice. It was a turning point. Until then, life seemed like a maze of demands that left me with no sense of self. I began to ask questions.

Her advice was straightforward: “In this city, the only sin is to be boring. Don’t try to be like everyone else. You’re a modern Asian, and that’s intriguing.”

In the spring of 1980, my life changed entirely, and in a most unexpected way. It was traumatic and wrenching and glorious, but it changed. I separated from my husband of 19 years and moved to New York, the capital of the world where people went to reinvent themselves, reexamine their beliefs, and live out their dreams. Jewelry designer Angela Cummings, who had migrated from Germany as a young woman, understood this direction. Her advice was straightforward: “In this city, the only sin is to be boring. Don’t try to be like everyone else. You’re a modern Asian, and that’s intriguing.”

Life comes in seasons and from the outset, I was aware that this was a season of luxury in the broadest sense of the word. How long it would last I could not know. But this gift was in my hands, this gift of utter freedom with children settled in schools, a terrific Polish housekeeper, and no one to please.

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The first thing I did was to go hang-gliding. I learned to fly. With a kite for wings, I felt like a bird surrendering to the god of the wind. The glider had no mechanical device of any kind. It swayed to shifting waves and currents, wandering up and down, to and fro, as though playing to a silent beat of its own. Success and safety depended on instinct, timing and sheer guts.

In retrospect, I see that gliding was so much out of character; it must have been a blinding burst of recklessness. Still, it was the means of opening the doorway to my freedom. Walls that hemmed me in were shattered forever. I arrived at a whole new world of thinking and being, more disparate than anything I had ever known.

It prepared me for the next stage I had to handle: the Empty Nest Syndrome. My older children were in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and now it was time for the youngest to leave home. I was deluged with every word of warning, and decided to grieve in style.

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As my son prepared for his departure, I prepared for my arrival, for that startling instant when I would return to my apartment. Alone. I set an exquisite table for one, using my finest china, sterling and crystal. Long white candles were ready to be lit; Dom Perignon was being chilled. To create a festive air, there were flowers in every room, including a sumptuous arrangement by floral artist Ronaldo Maia who was the rage at the time. Classical music played.

The drive to Andover was filled with anticipation. I settled my son, conferred with the headmaster and, fully reassured, headed for home. As soon as I glimpsed the Manhattan skyline, feelings of lightness and joy welled in my heart, catching me by surprise. It was the last thing I expected. Fear and apprehension began to fade. I became deeply happy, luxuriously free.

Why, my dance with Life could begin!

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I would dance with the arrogant, irreverent, eloquent, elegant, brilliant, creative, compelling, curious people of New York. The very thought was intoxicating.

I learned that life is a point of view, and that one needs silence to discern its language.

I became a foreign visitor in the Cosmopolitan Club, a volunteer at the Asia Society, a member of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MoMA, the Whitney, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Previews of New Directors/New Films were particularly interesting because, after each screening, the director spoke and took questions from the floor. On one occasion, there was an intense discussion about symbolism in the film. The director threw up his arms and said, “When I was making the picture, none of your ideas even occurred to me. Don’t put meaning into everything, don’t over-analyze. Enjoy life. Feel it and hold it. That’s all you need to do.”

Teddy Abueva was one New Yorker who knew how to hold life. He gave scintillating dinners and achieved the art of mixing diverse people together. It was here that I met Nancy Graves, an extraordinary artist who did prints, paintings, installations, sculptures, and films. She broke away from formulas and created wild explosions of form and color, much like strong dreams that stayed in the subconscious long after they were seen. A contrast to her radical art, she loved to dress like a Victorian lady with antique jewelry, stylish hat, ruffled lace blouse and long flowing skirt. Life was her play.

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Involvement in the arts invariably meant fundraising. And New York thrived on being extreme. At a benefit ball of the Metropolitan Museum, I stepped into a world at once resplendent and restrained. A full orchestra performed in the grand entry hall, and string quintets played in open galleries throughout the museum. Lavish buffets were served in smaller exhibition rooms, giving the ball a feeling of intimacy. Dancing was held in the Temple of Dendur where nothing was spared to make it breathtakingly beautiful. Amid a whirl of music and art and dazzling finery, it was a scene suspended in illusion.

Time moves and yet one may not sense its movement. In New York, it felt as though time had come to a standstill if only for me to stop running and to pause, to seize the moment, and to become. I learned that life is a point of view, and that one needs silence to discern its language. To recognize one’s season is a gift. To be present for it, and to delight in its subtleties, is having the luxury of time.

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This story was originally published in the September 2008 issue of Town & Country Philippines. Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.

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Rita Ledesma
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