Eight years at Esalen

Day 31, Into the Fire, Sun Magazine Writer’s Retreat

2pm Friday: I check in at the gate, then park my bike on the railing overlooking the south vista at Esalen. Then I walk down the long path to the baths. Wildflowers are blooming. I am captivated by scent of sage and sulphur spring and briny sea air. My heart quickens as I enter the bathhouse and walk down the steps to the dressing room. I’m flooded with memories from the many years I’ve come here. So many stories I’ve lived, drama and celebration, grief and gratitude. Esalen has been a turning point of my year. This time is no different. More poignant, considering the story of this tour.

I shower, looking out to the vastness of the ocean waves, breathe deep the cool air. I walk out the the baths, fill a clawfoot tub with hot spring water, prepare the cool plunge as well. Then I slip in to the warm embrace of the springs. My muscles are forced to relax as the heat penetrates deep under my skin. The concrete roof of the bathhouse amplifies the sound of the surf. Serene, mystical, ecstatic.

Cycles then, I leave the hot tub and dunk into the cold plunge. Pores close up, I always gasp at the contrast, then relax in the coolness against my skin. Pulse calms, elevated by heat, now relaxed by cold. Cycles. Opening the heart, then contracting. Reaching outward, then turning inward. Metaphor for the balance I’ve needed, I’ve often avoided, and now in this journey, achieved once more. A few more turns, hot to cold, to hot, to cold. Talking with a new friend comes easily here, in this state of openness. Vulnerable, free, candid. Nothing to lose. Everything to gain.

Walking back up the hill, my pace slow and methodical, deliberate. Choices ahead, when I return to Oregon. Can I bring this consciousness, this clarity, this discipline? I wheel my bicycle across the lawn, through the garden, down the path and across the creek, over the Murphy House, set up my sleeping bag, hang my hand washed bicycle clothes to dry. I return to the lodge, dinner and conversation, meeting many new friends. I’m not overwhelmed by the crowd, as happened oft before, following a month of solitude on the road. I’m open today, taking in the laughter and excitement, the buzz of conversation.

8:30pm Friday: Opening session at the Leonard Pavilion, I’m eager to hear the introductions, as a hundred people share their 30 word bios. Mine is simple this year, an entreaty to talk with me, so I’ll have more stories for the blog. The teachers read from their works, I’m taken by the differences of voice, of tone, of personal story. The two hour session is over, passing quickly when attentive and focused. Back at the lodge, wifi allows me to connect with my staff and distant friends, update a blog post. I don’t stay up late tonight, as I’m planning on an early morning soak.

4am Saturday: I rise and walk across the Esalen campus, Up and over the creek, by the garden, above the cloudless sky reveals a glittering display of the cosmos. So many stars, constellations, and tonight, I’m hoping to see the meteor shower. At the bathhouse, I find I’m totally alone. No one else up so soon, or so late. I luxuriate in my solitude, soaking in the hottest tub, then cold plunge, then lay back on one of the many outdoor massage tables and marvel at the shooting stars above. My body tingles in ecstasy. This is the moment I seek. And now, no one to share it with, but the universe itself. It is enough. I am enough. One of the lessons of the long year of striving for intimacy in a chaotic relationship: I must create my own connections, my own safety, my own pleasure, my own center.

Eventually the sun rises, after many cycles between hot and cold. I watch the stars wink out, yielding to the red and orange glow rising over the bluff to the southeast. A few others are here to soak, now at the fashionable hour of 6am. I dress and head up the hill, eager for coffee and conversation. People being to wander into the lodge, some stumbling in their early morning mind. Breakfast is nourishing and delicious, better food than I remember. Quinoa with collards, grains and stewed fruit, soft boiled eggs, yogurt, coffee.

I talk with my friends about what sessions to attend, but time escapes us and we have to rush back across campus to the morning session with Sparrow on Revising Works and Revising Ourselves. His presentation is a stream of consciousness, seeming random exercises and speeches, little form or technique, but always much laughter and humorous commentary. More the way I write, the way I live. Not for everyone, as Tali mentions to another person at lunch. Food is good as Esalen this year. I talk with Brother Dennis, a Benedictine monk I met last fall. Warmth and compassion are his way, an inspiration for me, to live such a disciplined life of service. We talk about dreams and his Order’s work in the prisons, helping inmates reflect and center. I head upstairs to Krista Brenner’s session on Working in the Dark, a much more technical approach to writing the hidden stories. I have to leave in the middle to walk back across campus to a meeting with Sy.

5:20pm Saturday: I’ve met with Sy in the past, not discussing writing much, more where I am in my life, my story. Today feels another opportunity to check in with a friend. We have developed a repartee over the years, teasing at times, revealing and reflecting. The 15 minute talk is brief, but pointed. He bemoans the politics, yet recalls the years under Bush and Cheney. I’m more subdued than I was earlier, talk about looking ahead, to my reentry to life in Oregon. I know eventually an excerpt of this blog will land in Sy’s submission pile. But that has become less of a goal than in the early years of this journal. I’m more focused on telling my story, as authentically as possible. Which happens to be what the Sun seeks more than even the content of the story. We share a hug, then a wave in the next person.

I’m walking back up the path towards the gorge, deciding to straighten up a landscape light fixture that’s tipped over. I’m not paying attention to how heavy or unsteady it’s footing is, until I let go and it swings and falls forward, dropping the heaving lid right on my foot. Ouch! My big toe is throbbing from the impact, a bruise appears quickly growing at the base of the nail. I’m stunned and angry at myself, initially. Then set about hobbling over to the lodge to find a bag of ice. Ice a bruise, I know this is my immediate need. I worry that the nail is broken, though relieved that the bone seems fine. Seem clear that my cycling is done, at least for a few days. Gone the plan to ride back north the 180 miles to San Francisco.

Ironically, after dinner I’m heading to the session entitled the Broken Body, Writing about the Sacred with Danusha Laméris. Ice bag on my toes, we are lead in writing about what is broken in our lives, the metaphor of broken things in the scene. Without question, my writing moves towards the breaking of hearts over the past year. I take up the opportunity to read in the group, tears welling as I’m filled again with deep sadness. Others share similar stories, losses, cancer stealing away loved ones, forgotten dreams. I’m touched by the compassion of Danusha and the others in the group, reminded of the power in sharing our feelings, the art of writing our experiences.

11pm Saturday: I return to my bed, exhausted and worried at my sore foot. How will it play out, the healing of this broken body? What of my bicycle quest? Is it over, already?

(…to be continued…)

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