Esalen farewell

Day 25, Esalen to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, 15 miles

Again, the errant alarm rings in the group sleeping room. I grab up my sleeping bag and stash it in the closet, then stumble down the path to the baths. Dark, still night. Stars above, so many. Ah, there will be a sunrise today. Very few people here at the baths, unlike the evening before. I slide into the waters, wafting with the smells of sulfur and minerals. The surf breaks on the rocks below. A perfect morning. A perfect retreat. This is going to be a hard one to leave. Yet leaving is unavoidable. This is the last day of the short weekend event, and I’ve got an open road and a thousand miles ahead.

Hydrotherapy. In the quiet side of the bathhouse, I fill a claw foot tub with cold water, another with the hotspings water. Alternate, hot then cold, then hot then cold. Contrasts are shocking, first the body gets used to the heat, sweat from my brow, muscles relaxing. Then the cold plunge. I catch my breath, resist the urge to clench up and double over. Let the cool water penetrate. Another kind of relaxation. Meanwhile the surf crashes against the rocks below. The horizon begins to lighten, I sneak my camera out to capture the glow. A few more alternations of hot and cold, and I’m ready to rejoin the others. Back up the hill, walking, slowly climbing. I think of the many hills ahead, how I will also slowly climb them, cycling. I’m getting excited to ride again.

A quick bite, then I hurry to the pavilion for the final session. A panel of the teachers, all sharing how they cultivate their writing practice. Sparrow is in particular form this morning. Lots of laughs. Amongst the advice, a common thread: writing is a practice. Not something done when in ones free time, or on occasion when the whimsy calls. No, for a writer, the process is primary. Every day. For Sy, 5am. He explains how it used to be every day, 4am. He also emphasizes the need to turn off the internet. Disable the wifi. Or, lock away the computer, pull out the paper and pen. The world won’t end because we use paper and pen he says. It’s ending anyway, at its own pace he adds.

The panel is over, then Sy reads from his journal, which is now his latest book, Many Alarm Clocks. I hear his voice, soft and soothing, listen to his reflections. He’s read many of these entries before, but they are still relevant. Almost like listening to my favorite songs. I’m sitting off the front of the room, next to Sparrow, who hums and makes sounds of recognition, often laughing in his distinctive chortle. Later when someone asks why he’s always laughing, he explains that he just thought of something, thought it was funny. As for me, I find myself tearing up. Many of Sy’s reflections are touched by a sweet melancholy, an acknowledgement that this life is temporary, that all the very things we love and cherish will pass, in their time. Or before their time. His writing does not fight against this fact. Allows the passings, the grief, as we might allow the seasons. Who can fight the seasons?

Fight the seasons. I certainly have, in my time. Even many of my past tours have been fighting the passing of summer, the wet cold fall that hits the northwest. I’m glad for the clear sunny days here in Big Sur, but also for the rain which came the other night. California is in dire need of rain. Don’t we also need the seasons of the heart, in order to be fully human? Sy bristled at the excessive happiness of the New Age. I understand his frustration. The New Age movement’s tendency to gloss over the pain of life, in effort to cheer someone up. Another form of repression. The opposite of grieving, a natural process that leads to catharsis. Through his personal writing and his 40 year Sun Magazine, Sy Safransky reminds us to allow our hearts to break, to hold on the what we love, even as we must let go. The beautiful painful truth. The delicate scent of the sweet flower and the biting burn of the bitter medicine which heals.

“Write as if you were dying. At the same time, assume you write for an audience consisting solely of terminal patients. That is, after all, the case. What would you begin writing if you knew you would die soon? What could you say to a dying person that would not enrage by its triviality.” A quote by Annie Dillard, one of Sy’s favorite. One of mine too. And to stretch it further, beyond the process of writing, what would I say? How would I live my life, if I kept such an awareness of the fragility and brevity of this beautiful world, this precious time? Sy pauses, lets these words sink in. Deeply. What is this wet salty taste on my face? Tears of recognition and release? The dripping sweat of the brow, from the hill climb? The spray of the ocean mist, from and churning waves?

I walk outside during the break, look over the sunny ocean, at the gardens and flowers filled with bees, migrating monarchs and darting hummingbirds. Breathe in the clean air. Feel the cool grass under my bare feet. The earth is strong, holding me up. Holding us all up.

One more exercise, for the whole group. Write to the prompt: “What happened was…” We’ve done this before. I scribble down some brief thoughts. Satisfied though that I’ve been writing what has been happening constantly throughout the weekend. In my exercises, in this blog, in my personal journal. In my heart. I’m paying attention, more aware, more awake. A stark contrast to past retreats, past bicycle tours. Angela carries the microphone around the room as people read their responses. Many epiphanies, tales of reluctance transformed into acceptance, observations of place and people, humorous anecdotes, deep reflections. I don’t share this time, though I have in the past. I’m noticing more pleasure in listening, open to hearing and receiving, these expressions of love and life. Sparrow continues to hum and chortle beside me.

After the sharing Sy tells us Angela is stepping down as event coordinator, having run all the past 12 years of writing retreats. I know this, but also am so sad. She is a shining light at the retreats, something I’ve been fawning in telling her this weekend. Unabashedly flirting and praising her. Even though she’s married. Or perhaps because she’s married. That’s different for me. I normally keep such feelings to myself, rarely tell a woman such affections. Angela leads us in a closing song, the Celtic blessing, “May the road rise up to meet you…”

May the road rise up to meet you. These words mean something deeper to me, I am certain, than to the hundred other souls who will pack their things and bodies into metal vehicles and hurtle down the highway fueled by fossils, as Thom Hartman says, the last remnants of ancient sunlight. The road rising to meet me, the cyclist, touches my heart, as muscle pushes pedal pushes chain pushes sprocket pushes rubber against road against rocky cliff hovering over surf and sea hundreds of feet below, the seven hundredth hill on the thousandth mile, of the thousands of hills I will climb and the tens of thousands of miles I will ride, as I set out on to tour the rest of my life.

A bittersweet lunch first. I eat some, but not too much, of the delicious brunch set out by Esalen cooks. Then I sit at Sy’s table, once more joining the other writers and staff and readers and attendees, all of us fawning in our own way this guru of words, so humble and present. I don’t say much in the conversation, listening to Carol Ann, the new editor. They are discussing upcoming issues with a contributor, an interview with Annie DiFranco, if it makes it into the magazine. He says any time he interviews a celebrity the pressure is high. What if the article is rejected by the editors, as so many have. He’s been published a lot. When will I? Getting there, seeing my voice more clearly. What I have to say, more concisely.

I tell Sy this is the best retreat ever. He reminds me, “Isn’t that because you are the best ever?” I had told him this, I think, at an earlier mealtime chat. That’s right, I’m more prepared, more present. More connected. Listening more, reaching out. That one-on-one writing session with Gianna last night, something I’d thought of at an earlier retreat, years ago. And now, I’m ready to leave. To let go of all these connections, bid these people farewell, let the weekend fall away into the many experiences of my past, roll on down the road, eager to meet new people, drink in new vistas.

I decide to ride north to meet Alice in Monterey. I’m looking forward to sharing the road, dinners, conversation. And another excuse to ride this incredible coastline! Riding north comes with a cost. Headwinds are brutal this afternoon, at times threatening to blow me into traffic as I hug the curves, now riding on the mountain side of the highway. But skies are blue, and the miles seem to go quickly even at my slower pace. I pop into the Henry Miller Library, dabbling in memorabilia of this local literary legend.

I reach the crest of the last hill, just Nepenthe, followed by the long descent back into Big Sur State Park. The hiker biker site is filled with tents, ten to be exact. Here, with my tribe of traveling cyclists, I feel more at home than amongst car tourists. I’m pleased to meet the German couple I saw before at Half Moon Bay, Valeri and Max. I don’t talk much though. The pre-sunrise soaking has taken its toll and I’m sleepy. I’m in my bed just after sunset, close to 7pm now. Seasons are certainly moving. As am I.


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