We met Deborah Szekely on our first visit to Rancho La Puerta, a breathtakingly beautiful sanctuary where we recently escaped from a world in which even the most sturdy of us feels overwhelmed at times. Deborah founded the Ranch in Tecate, Baja California, Mexico (Tecate is about an hour’s drive from downtown San Diego) with her husband Edmond in June of 1940 when she was 18 years of age.
Still 17 in December of 1939, she married Edmond, an Eastern European visionary and expert in nutrition, fitness, and many other disciplines related to health, spirit, and well-being. He was nearly twice her age, and had already developed an international reputation as a leader in health and wellness, especially after the publication of his 1936 landmark book “Cosmos, Man and Society” in England. He was also known for his transitory summer health camps and retreats held at new locations around the world each year, and the 1940 venture in Tecate with Deborah was initially planned to be yet another one.
They sent letters to his mailing list, advertising week-long stays for “$17.50 Bring Your Own Tent.” And the guests came, taking delight in this hidden valley at the base of Mt. Kuchumaa—a summit that the Native Americans had held sacred for thousands of years.
Little did they know that this same location would become the home for a destination spa and fitness resort that has been recognized 70 years later as the “World’s Best Destination Spa” in the October, 2010, issue of Travel + Leisure magazine.
Edmond’s message was prophetic: long before most studies confirmed his prescience, he emphasized the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol and espoused the nutritional virtue of foods grown in healthy soil, nurtured by a sunny climate, pure water and clean air. He recognized the potential threat of cholesterol and fats in the diet, and advocated the enjoyment of a low-fat, organic vegetarian diet rich in locally grown fruits and vegetables. He was one of the first to contend that finding a balance of mind, body and spirit was essential to one’s health, productivity and happiness.
Today Rancho La Puerta owns over 3,000 acres of meadows, creeks, farmlands, and mountainsides. Located at 1,800 feet elevation in the mountains southeast of San Diego, the Ranch gets 8 to 14 inches of rain—enough to make it lush and green each spring, with the trails flanked with wildflowers. Well water and reclaimed irrigation water helps keep the landscaped areas around 85 casitas, over a dozen gyms, and four swimming pools a literal oasis that includes a luxuriant organic farm which provides many of the fruits and vegetables offered to guests. The food is not only organic and vegetarian (with fish an option at most dinners), but of gourmet quality, rivaling the world’s finest restaurants.
Linda and I are fortunate enough to have been invited to lecture at the ranch on two occasions and we recently returned from our second one-week stay there. During that trip we had the pleasure of meeting and having a private dinner with Deborah. We were both amazed and inspired by the passion that she, now a very robust and dynamic 88, embodies in her life. Thanks to Linda’s speed-writing skills we were able to bring some notes with us from our time together that form the basis of this article.
Deborah’s accomplishments are so numerous that it would take the space of a dozen newsletters to simple list them. (For details go to http://www.rancholapuerta.com/home/history-vision/deborahs-life.html.) Yet despite her achievements, what impressed us most was the degree to which–at an age when most people are winding down their lives to a screeching halt–Deborah is ramping hers up. She continues to live in what even someone 50 years her junior would consider to be the fast lane.
When she joined us, about twenty minutes late at our table, she apologized: “I’m so sorry that I’m late. I’m just so busy with all of my meetings, and sometimes they go over time.” Intrigued by her exuberance, we immediately jumped to a question that we hoped to eventually work into the conversation.
“How do you do it? How are you able to live with such amazing vitality when so many others, so much younger than you, seem unable to continue to be productive and active as they age into their later years?”
Without skipping a beat, Deborah answered, with a laugh, “I have too much to do to get old. I just don’t have time for it!” Then more seriously: “Aging is a choice, you know. You can decide to watch yourself get younger. You can literally grow younger if you keep yourself in very good shape. I have had to reach out to an entirely new set of people to include in my friendship network because nearly all of the people my age are too sedentary. All that sitting around doesn’t allow them to get enough oxygen to their brains. I need a younger crowd that has energy like mine.”
Deborah was on a roll. “Let me tell you about my day. I live in San Diego, and my personal trainer comes to my house three mornings a week–Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday–to work out with me for a full hour. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday I do Pilates. My trainer always calls me from his car 15 minutes before his arrival at 6 a.m. to make sure I’m ready to go when he gets there. He’s a former Navy Seal and believe me, he pushes me to my limits! Despite that, I intend to increase my workout schedule, because after sixty, you have to make a bigger investment to stay fit.
Anyway, this morning I had a haircut at 7:00 a.m. and attended a board meeting for the Center for Science in the Public Interest from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Then I dashed off to a doctor appointment before attending a luncheon to raise money for a foundation that I support. Later I had to pick up dog food for my daughter’s dogs, because they are coming to visit tomorrow, and I had to make some phone calls related to the planning of a big celebration for the Ranch’s 70th Anniversary party that is coming up soon. I’ve been chosen as the keynote speaker.
Tomorrow, a reporter comes to my house to interview me and do a photography shoot. I’ll have some time in the afternoon, to spend planning my next trips. I’m leaving in two days to go to New York for three days of speaking engagements, then on to Washington, D.C. for four days to speak to a new spa association, and then to Denver to address an environmental group. I’ll get back from the East coast just in time to go to Europe for three weeks in July, and soon after I return from Europe, I’m taking my three grandchildren to Alaska for a week in August.”
Then, with a pause as though the immensity of her schedule were sinking in for the first time, she added, “I travel a lot. There is a lot to be done.”
Children usually occupy her thoughts these days when it comes to tackling new causes: “I’m very worried about children—not just my grandchildren, but all children because of the rising obesity rates all over the world. Can you believe that 27% of young Americans, that’s one out of four, are too fat to serve in the military? We have to reach the kids early to educate them in such a way that they appreciate the importance of proper nutrition and exercise for their lifelong health. I just can’t emphasize enough, the importance of the entire family sitting down to meals together to eat fresh vegetables and fruits in a relaxed way. Dinnertime is not time for a time problem solving. It’s time to enjoy dinner.
And family togetherness needs to be enhanced by the whole family cooking together. By not cooking and eating together, family ties are breaking down. By reinstituting the old-fashioned, tried and true method of togetherness, the well-being of the family is enhanced by their cooperative bonds, as well as their mutual contribution to each other’s health.”
When we asked Deborah about her overall philosophy of living, she responded, “I am a believer in what Aristotle said centuries ago: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The biggest problem that I see today is the inability to ‘go inside’ and listen. In our culture if you have a headache you just pop a pill. But your headache is trying to tell you something. It is a message. If you ignore it long enough, you get a bigger, louder message. Paying attention requires the ability to take time for yourself. We are all so busy being busy. I am busy, too, but I always take the time to tune inside. I have been using this contemplative practice for decades, and it has served me well.
Deborah is also a firm believer in reinventing oneself throughout life: seeking new careers, new skills, new friends, new challenges.
“When I turned sixty, my son was finishing college. He was well-prepared to run the ranch, so that freed my time to take a position running a non-profit organization in Washington, D.C. At the Inter-American Foundation I was in charge of giving away millions of dollars in grants every year. The work was demanding, and I told those for whom I was working that I was accustomed to having two tea breaks a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It wasn’t the tea that I needed; it was the time to reflect on making the best decisions that I possibly could.
I’m a believer in that old saying that happiness is difficult to find within, but impossible to find elsewhere. The most important piece of paper in your house is your calendar. If you carefully document what you do with your time, you can clearly see if you have been taking care of yourself. It is essential that you analyze your use of time and distinguish the well-spent time from poorly spent time. And be honest with yourself!
It’s important to keep careful account of the activities that make you feel taller. Check your calendar to make sure that you are setting aside plenty of time for your favorite relationships. Make sure that you keep your connections going with others. And don’t let people steal your time without your consent. Own your time; it’s yours. Don’t give it away. We also want to have time to listen to the birds, and experience all the other things that are hard to measure. It’s our responsibility to build a life that we can truly enjoy.”
“Our guests here at the Ranch learn about nutrition and exercise—essentially they learn to take responsibility for their bodies. They know that it is hard on a body to carry unnecessary extra weight. We don’t, however, emphasize calorie counting. Instead we focus on the quality of food, its preparation, and the vigorous activities that keep our bodies supplied with oxygen. It isn’t necessary to make radical changes in life–in fact it’s almost impossible to do so in a way that is sustainable. If you just cut back your food intake by 20 percent it will make a big difference. It’s not that hard to do: shop at your local farmer’s markets…purchase organic foods…support your local food producers…It’s all doable.
“People come to the Ranch to make changes. Based upon the guest comment sheets we receive, they do so with great success. People who have been coming here for years, or in some cases decades, tell us that their changes are lasting. Everyone who has ever been here has experienced some of the sacred energy of this place. It’s enormously gratifying for me because I know that when they leave here, they will have the energy to change other people’s lives as well.
I can’t think of anything that I’d rather be doing. Can you?”