The truth of our experience

Day 32, Into the Fire, the Sun Magazine Celebrates Personal Writing

I wake with a sore throat and throbbing foot. I’m feeling down, wondering how things could turn so quickly. I recall Danusha saying that every tradition of spirituality recognizes the brokenness at the core of life. We have fragile bodies. Transformation requires the breaking or loss of the prior. And her warning: if you find in your writing that you are the hero in the story, look again. Oh, that.

Ha! I’d been flying so high, entering this retreat. And now, looming sickness and injury certainly have brought me down to earth again, with the resounding thud. I smile, and cry, and take a deep breath. Time to pack up, head to the closing session, begin the process of leaving. Always so hard to leave this place.

I walk into the Leonard Pavilion with the panel discussion underway on how to cultivate our writing practice. Always good tips, usually the same each year: treat it as a discipline, a practice, make space and time, turn off the internet, don’t have high standards for what I write, but most of all, just get on with it: write, write, write. There’s a break, then they prepare the stage for the closing reading my Sy Safransky.

I prepare myself for Sy too. Every year, his readings move me. This is no exception. Soft spoken, less self effacing, always so present and real. Krista introduced him quoting Brother Dennis: in it’s willingness to describe the painful as well as the joys of life, the Sun Magazine generates compassion. Yes. Compassion is something we must cultivate, as much as any other goal or practice.

Sy reads from his essay on Living the Full Catastrophe. Borrowing from Zorba the Greek, he entreats us that as writers we must not succumb to fear or reluctance, not to avoid what is painful, rather to be brave and authentic. Sy repeats the words of Frankl, “What is to give light must endure burning.” Tears fill my eyes, remembering how close to the flame I was all year. Then Sy adds “The truth of our experience is where the fire is.” This is what I cannot avoid. In my writing, in my telling, in my living.

Sy again quotes Annie Dillard: “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?” Some might find such consciousness morbid, but for me this is inspiring. I resolve to keep the fragility, the precious beauty of my life always in my awareness, as my throbbing toe has reminded me so vividly.

Sy finishes, then Krista leaves us in a final writing exercise. I scribble in my journal, having the words already in mind when she tells to write on the prompt, “What happened was…” The time is too short, but I continue, finishing words I know I will need to share with the group. I listen to others read now, stories of celebration, of pain, of questioning, of grief. Much joy in this group of seekers too, at the magical place of Esalen, and at the healing space created in this retreat. I raise my hand at last and read, with a quaking voice:

What happened was I left a relationship, took to the road again, grieving, uncertain, unsteady, lost, knowing only that my bicycle and 1000 miles would begin my healing.

What happened was I arrived 1200 miles later at Esalen, entrances by the ecstatic landscape and hot springs and warm hearts of 100 compassionate souls.

What happened was I was heroic in my quest, then Danusha reminded us “If you’re the hero in your story, look again

What happened was I dropped a heavy object on my foot, badly bruising my body and my ego. End of the ride.

What happened was I wrote a poem about an act of love and an act of betrayal, beginning a reckless chaotic dance which ended in three broken hearts. Some hero.

What happened was I woke this morning, tears in my eyes, replacing the ecstasy. More tears when Sy reads. I always cry when Sy reads. And then the relief, and the return to the wonder and joy and discovery.

I finish reading, feeling lighter and brighter. What is to give light must endure burning. I take the opportunity with the microphone to ask for a ride to San Francisco. Immediately following the closing session, Tom offers are ride to SFO.

I eat lunch with Sy and Dennis, one last moment to savor the authentic, loving presence of these two men, while the dining room buzzes in excitement all around. Hugs to both. Sy says “I love you man” in my ear as we embrace. I love you too I tell him.

Seems so sudden, I’m in a car with Tom, careening around the curves north of Esalen, grasping at the views as the landscape whizzes by. On the Monterey, then Santa Cruz, then climbing over the mountain to San Jose and the 101 freeway. Tom shares his work as a UCC minister with a sanctuary church, giving respite to undocumented citizens. Citizens of the planet. Citizens of our heart. Glad to meet another loving man, through my request for a ride.

The truth of our experience is where the fire is. I’m burning again. And so bright.

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