Into the waters, then Into the Fire

“Into the Fire: the Sun Magazine celebrates personal writing”
Esalen Institute, Big Sur


The afternoon soak is the perfect arrival ritual for these nine years cycling to Esalen from Oregon for this retreat. I feel myself relaxing with each step as I descent the long sandy path to the baths. Beyond, my eyes drink in the endless ocean, kelp beds bobbing, gentle surf breaking in the shallow waters. The salt air blends with the sulphur scents of the springs.

I slip into the hot pools, feeling miles melting away. Muscles which have struggled to get me here now receive their reward, their relief. The baths are sparsely occupied, as most people won’t show until closer to the dinner hour. I perform my ritual: hot, then cold plunge, then hot, then cold again. Resting on the massage tables in between. Four times. Enough for now. I don in my street clothes, it will be nice to let the cycle clothing rest for the weekend.

I head back up the path, pondering my condition. I’m feeling reluctant to meet people, as much as I have the whole tour up to this point. Oh, is this going to be one of those retreats? Where I struggle to fit in, to connect, to belong. Yes. I’ve had this experience before, here at Esalen, and many others. I walk through the outdoor seating area near the lodge. I see the Sun staff are having their opening meeting. I wave to them and walk into the dining room.

I’m poking around on my laptop, connected to the insufficient wifi. I’m supposed to be here to write, but I can’t find the words. Or the motivation to even begin. The black page torments me. Is this writer’s block? Or something worse, more sinister, a fatal loss of perspective, of motivation. I recall again David Whyte’s writing on procrastination, the incubation necessary for something to come to fruition. What?

Sy is standing next to me, introducing me to the lovely woman by his side.

“Ocean, this is Norma.”

Norma! Sy’s wife, who we’ve all heard so much about, in his writings, waxing poetic about their mystical and mundane life together, she being his muse and friend and a most tolerant partner. So this seems to my reading of his stories.

God, Norma must feel exposed to be here, in this huge group, knowing all the things these people must wonder about her. All the presumptions. The stupid, annoying things people will ask. I open my mouth, let me be the first.

“Oh, hi! You actually exist. So glad to meet the Muse.” I immediately wish I could freeze these words, take them back before they reach her. She has a bemused smile, perhaps a look of mild annoyance? Oh well, I’ve readied her for a weekend of Sy’s fans blathering to her.

Later Sy motions me to join him and Norma for dinner. I tell him I’ve feeling antisocial. He suggests maybe I’m just working internally, not ready to engage. No, I say the word is antisocial. He jokes that suggests I might want to kill people. “Oh, that’s a sociopath. There’s a spectrum.” We’re laughing. But I’m feeling more withdrawn. I eat at the rail, looking out over the ocean. A few others are there, sharing solitude with the wide view.

Dinner finished, the opening meeting of the hundred souls is inspiring as always. Thirty words, each person introducing themselves. A wide range of blurbs: simple, humorous, grieving, laughing, inspiring. I worked mine up, saying a similar version of what I usually do. I think next year I might try to be funny. Next the faculty each read from their works. I’m impressed and moved to hear these stories, poems, for people who are practicing the craft of writing. And wondering at my own reluctance. I retire to my bed, in the shared sleeping bag space. Others are snoring, a relief that mine won’t be the only.


I’m away at 4am. I sleep in a bit more, then head to the baths. One other person, the stars shine above. Hot water is soothing again. Yet I feel out of place, not the same comfort of past years. Yes, this is one of those retreats. I accept I’m struggling with my own presence here.

At breakfast I meet a few new friends, greet some old ones. I eat too much of the Esalen food. Not as good as I remember too. Ugh, now I’m a food critic too? Jeff complains about the new concrete surface on the path down the gorge. Change. Others talk about the new lodge. How Esalen was bought by a corporation. Burning Man was here the week prior to this retreat. Change. The Boomers are aging out. Esalen needs new blood. But must it be the new elite, Silicon Valley? Will the pricing rise even higher?

I attend a morning session, short poetry. It’s quippy, humorous. I’m not in the mood. I leave for a session with Sy. He greets me, I’m already crying before he tells me it’s ok to cry here. Not counseling, is this meeting more of a friend with another, or a mentor with an apprentice? We share our concerns about the next generation, and Sy notes here we are two old men complaining about the youth. There is humor in this. Then he tells me the Sun will skip the Esalen retreat next year. Take time to regroup, rethink, just as they did in 2014.

I feel like he just told me there wouldn’t be any Christmas next year. I feel a wave of disappointment, but suppress it. I’ll just find something else to do. Another reason to bicycle down here. Another Esalen writing retreat, perhaps. Ellen Bass teaches often. The fifteen minutes is up, we hug. I’m off to check my email and texts from the restaurant before they turn off the wifi for lunch hour. I sit with my new friends, chatting during lunch. Wait awhile, another soak, soothing and familiar. The waters of Esalen seem to be seeping in, below my reluctance to be here.

I attend the afternoon session with Joe, who teaches at Linfield College in McMinnville. Writing with landscapes. I listen to all the examples he presents, reads from. I see how this might integrate into my writing. Still feeling the block. But taking mental notes, how I can use this. I connect with him, wonder if he teaches lay writing as well. Maybe a retreat in Corvallis? I like his gentle speech, friendly presence.

Dinner, I sit at Sy’s group table. Listen to him gently fielding questions from others. And asking each one: when do you write? Even though he, himself, is currently not writing. I find this comforting, and also disturbing. What if we aren’t writing because there is nothing left to say? That everything is irrelevant? This nihilism feels like death. Or, at least, depression. Yeah, depression. After dinner soak. brief. Still my four rounds, hot and cold. Then back to my bed, sleep comes quick.


Up again before dawn, soaking to greet the sunrise. I’m refreshed, slept long. The best waters yet, feeling alive, talking with others in the pools. Relaxing. Breakfast, then packing, then rushing to the morning session, way across campus. I walk in while the faculty is talking about cultivating their writing practice. Of course, practice is the key. During the Q & A, someone asks what if you write about other people, how do you deal with their reactions. Francis notes that empathy is the basis for memoir, that you must consider all the people’s experiences, not just your own.

Empathy. I’m struck by this word. Empathy. This has been my lesson of the past two years. How to consider, deeply, other’s experiences. Not just sit in my own, reacting, justifying my reactions, feeling aloof or victimized, afraid or angry. Allowing each of us to have our own struggles, our own lives. Empathy. This is the lesson of David Whyte’s poetry, of my sessions with Lara. Empathy, for others, and for my own self, for my own failings and unconsciousness. For falling asleep again, over and over. And then, waking up.

Sy is reading in the closing session, from his notebook. His gentle voice, compassionate writing, calm presence, all these move me. Not to tears this time, though. Just to feeling closer to him. Empathy. He responds then to people’s questions, including a very awkward one: tell us about Norma, who is sitting right there. Ah, my awkward greeting now has it’s fruition.He says, I’ve written a lot. I’ll let you ask Norma yourself. Another question: how do you maintain equanimity given everything that is happening. Sy laughs and shrugs, then denies that he has equanimity. Says he can get as worked up as anyone by the politics of the time. Then he says, it’s important to have empathy for those we disagree with.

Again, that word. Empathy. Ah, this is what the Sun Magazine inspires so well. Empathy and compassion. For our fellow travelers. For ourselves. So many of us come to the magazine, to the retreat, looking to Sy to be a guru, source of wisdom, asking him to tell us the way. And he says, what if the way is to falter, to fall, to get up again, and then to falter again. To allow our frailty, our humanity.

Listening to Sy, I realize he hasn’t canceled Christmas, that he isn’t Santa Claus, or the Buddha, or any guru. He’s simply a man, living a reflective life, walking with us, embracing us, in our frailty, in our humanity. My heart is opening again, even as this retreat is closing. At lunch, preparing to leave, Sy and I hug. He says, you know I love you. I say yes, and I love you too. I hug Norma, tell her how glad I am to get to know her.

I linger after lunch, after all the other goodbyes, after one more soak. Then I load my bicycle and begin to push it up the long steep drive. I’m feeling refreshed, renewed. Ready to leave. Ready to ride.

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