Year 7: Into the Fire

I wake with the sun, then laze away the morning. I’m refreshed from sleeping above the lull of surf far below. I can enter Esalen in the mid-afternoon, before the others get to the retreat.

I email Jennifer, feeling my emotions rising. Through our text messages, emails, phone calls, even Skype, we’ve grown more and more eager to see one another. Plans are set for her to join me and ride from San Francisco, south over Big Sur, towards Los Angeles. I’m so excited, to begin a new adventure, to share the joys of cycling, to explore the terrains of my growing love for her.

When the time is right, I head down the steep drive to Esalen, check in, and head directly to the baths. I slip into the mineral hot springs, feel my sore muscles immediately relax. The smells of sulphur, brack and brine waft through the concrete bathhouse. Ah, such a magical place.

I head up to the lodge eager to see friends from past retreats. There’s Sy! I rush over and give him a hug. “Ouch” he replies, as in my enthusiasm I’m stepping on his Birkenstocked foot. The dangers of exuberant greetings. I meet other familiars, and begin to relax into the social climate of the retreat. I recall the earlier retreats, how nervous and isolated I’d felt. Something different this year. An openness I’d not felt, in my life, in a long time.

I enjoy the evening introductory session, hearing each participant’s “Contributers Note”, a short 30 word bio. Mine for this retreat:

“Ocean. Touring cyclist. Wayward restaurateur. Aspiring writer. Itinerate blogger. Preacher’s kid. Optimistic nihilist. Swooning, starry eyed, head-over-heels romantic. Gritty, overheated, impassioned lover. Seven bicycle tours. Seven Sun retreats. Ocean.”

OK, that’s 31 words. But no one noticed. Bullet points to describe my life, at this point in time, and this place in the universe. I feel good reading into the mic, with an audience of over a hundred rapt listeners.

The weekend passes quickly, with workshops on writing in flow, identifying “The Turn” in poetry, and writing about difficult experiences. I’m up each morning, soaking and watching the sun rise over the headlands to the east. I’m connecting with other participants, giddy at times, telling them the extra surprise of my life. Falling in love. Feeling the blend of anticipation, wonder, euphoria, and discovery.

The Sunday morning closing session is bittersweet, as the retreat seems so short. Sy reads again, from his notebook. I listen to the soothing tones of his voice, hear favorite passages about the Muse, the romance and heartache of the writer’s life, the desire to find enlightenment, the frustration of never quite getting there. “Come, just one more flight, the Muse beckons.” I hear weariness in Sy’s voice, a man dedicated to the struggle to live a genuine life. I find tears wetting my cheeks.

One final writing exercise, to the prompt “What happened was…” One hundred people writing, the sounds of paper rustling, pens scribbling, tapping keyboards, the waves below the pavilion. Idyllic setting for writing, reflection. Time is up, then the sharing. I’m touched by the vulnerability, the emotions, the sensitivity, the common threads of humanity. One statement captured my feelings for the Sun retreats. All seven years.

“What happened was I discovered the Sun readers are the most compassionate people I’ve ever met.”

I leave the retreat with Gianna, who gives me a ride north to Santa Rosa. Tomorrow I’ll meet Jennifer at the Amtrak in Oakland. I feel my heart opening, in a new way, something I’ve not felt in a long while.

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