Essence Magazine – September 2005

The Wind at my Back

by Jackie Lewis

I seldom think about the tough side of starting over. I may wallow for a minute, but then I ask myself, Jackie, are you a winner? and I think, Yeah, I am. All my life I’ve done things nobody thought I could do. When I first had the idea for my retreat, nobody really believed I could build and successfully operate a holistic spa on a rocky, undeveloped stretch of Jamaica’s west coast. Yet for the last 14 years I’ve done exactly that. But last summer, when I was 66, a violent hurricane washed a large swath of my spa out to sea. I was devastated.

It wasn’t the first time I had faced losing everything. When I was 25 years old, I owned a clothing store in New York. I had moved there from Salt Lake City several years before. That store was like my child. Then one night I was robbed and everything was taken. I did what I could to pay off my suppliers, then I closed the store and moved with my boyfriend to Paris.

I modeled and did some acting work there, but it was very difficult for a Black model to make it in France. So after a few years I decided to come home. Back in New York, I borrowed $1,500 from my father and opened another clothing store, this one in SoHo. People thought I was crazy to locate my store there. The neighborhood now is one of the most popular shopping districts in the city, but back in the early seventies it was just a bunch of warehouses with a few struggling artists in unrenovated lofts. For 15 years I ran that store, and I loved it. Soon other shops started popping up, run by people on the cutting edge of fashion and art. It was wonderful.

But after a while I started to dream of something even more grand. I wanted to open my own department store, and in the basement I wanted to create a holistic spa. I had decided that once I understood the spa business, I would open another spa somewhere else in the world, where people could come for healing and solitude. The place I had in mind was Jamaica. Every year I would rent a house by the cliffs in Negril, which at the time was a funky little town with just one supermarket. I would come for the quiet, to read and write and cry, to reconnect with myself. I knew there were other people like me who wanted a serene place where they could take time to really pamper themselves.

In 1987 I found an excellent property on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for my new store and spa. I negotiated with the landlord for months, and just when I thought we had a deal, he changed his mind. I came home crying, called him every name in the book, drank a bottle of champagne, and went to bed. My whole plan for my future had just fallen apart.

The next morning I woke up, a little hung over but clear enough to hear an inner voice that said, Call up the landlord and thank him. I realized this was my chance to start over, to think on an even grander scale. I went to work in SoHo the next day, gave my landlord two months notice, then closed my store and moved to Jamaica.

I made my home on a remote cliff not far from where I had rented a house. For a year I lived in a tent. I had no electricity and no neighbors except for a one-room inn next door called Hog Heaven. For six months, until I began to collect my own rainwater, they shared their water with me. It took me seven more years, living on my savings, to complete construction of the spa.

I call the main building, where my guests and I have our rooms, my little temple. It’s a beautiful structure, built of limestone that we quarried here on the property. The peaked zinc roof is a hundred feet high and covers the building like an umbrella. And all the bedrooms have open-air showers. People come for massages and other healing treatments right by the water, where they can hear the waves break against the rocks. All this was designed by God. I just listened.

When I started work on the spa, everyone thought I’d lost my mind–my friends, my parents, even people in Jamaica. At the time, almost no one knew what a holistic spa was. But no matter how difficult things became–and there were years when I really struggled–I always believed I would be okay; I could always see my temple completed. People don’t understand the importance of positive visualization, seeing your situation as you’d like it to be. If you don’t believe something is possible, it will never happen.

Still, this past year has been a real test for me. I had to submit to Mother Nature. Hurricane Ivan hit Jamaica on September 10, 2004. At noon everything was calm, but by 12:30 the wind and rain began. My veranda is only 150 feet from the shore. I stood there and watched 40-foot-high waves rise from the south and west and collide right in front of the property. Water was pouring through the house, and I was frantically mopping, trying to save my floors, which had all been hand-painted by friends. Then I heard a horrible noise as part of the roof lifted off and landed 200 feet away. I heard another sound, like a gunshot: A geodesic dome in the yard had exploded. It went on like that all night. Not until the next morning could I truly see the damage.

Everything in the outdoor kitchen, the only place we had to cook meals, was destroyed. The stone oven and the fridge were both gone. The stone-and-concrete walkways that ran through the property had all been blown apart by the waves, and ocean rocks had been deposited everywhere. There were rubble and boulders piled five feet high in places. It took seven men two months just to clear it all away.

For two days after the storm I felt comatose, trying to sort it out in my mind. I knew I had to put things back together. Giving up was simply not an option. Sometimes when people are presented with adversity, they just stay in the problem instead of trying to find a solution. People get so overwhelmed that they don’t see how many options exist for them to change their circumstances. And I guess that’s my gift–I can always get beyond the problem and see the solution.

After the hurricane, my real concern was finances. I needed a new kitchen, new walkways and all kinds of repairs. I took out all my savings. But I knew it wasn’t going to be enough, so I appealed to friends. Some came and helped with the cleanup, and others sent money. With that kind of encouragement I was able to push through.

I completely rebuilt the kitchen and the massage area. I fixed the floors and started to invite guests back. There is still more work to be done, but I’ve come to realize that even this devastation is filled with opportunity. When the hurricane hit, dozens of trees were knocked down and swept away. The trees gave us shade and bore sea grapes that I used to make jelly. I miss the trees’ shade, but now that they’re gone I’ve gained a magnificent view of the ocean. In the evenings my guests and I have the pleasure of sitting on the veranda and watching the sun set over the water. It’s so interesting how God works.

Jackie Lewis told her story to Jeannine Amber, a senior writer for this magazine. For more information, log on to

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