Esalen: gorgeous blue clear skies, familiar faces, warm sparkling baths, the gardens twitching and bursting with life, rocky cliffs, crashing Pacific, faces, faces, embraces, snatches of conversation, sometimes shouted over the din of the dining hall, sunsets glimpsed from the porch or while hurrying through the garden back to my room to fetch a sweater, the faces of my students seated on cushions in a circle, bent over their notebooks, writing...
And I'm hurrying. When I think of Esalen, ironically, I always see myself running to get from one workshop to the next. Hurry to the Dance Dome for the panel, hurry down to the baths, back up to the dining hall for a meal, hurry through one conversation to greet the next person who is waiting to say something. The weekend is crammed full, and even after years of doing this I always worry about my workshops: did I plan well enough? Will I get enough people to sign up? Are they getting something out of it? That person is crying, why didn't I have the tissue box ready beforehand? How do the lights work in this room? Did they understand what I said? Did I just contradict myself? Will they give me good evaluations?
I never thought of myself as an anxious person, but when I saw my doctor for a routine check-up Tuesday I mentioned that I'd been feeling irritable over the weekend. Little things people said or did bugged me. I wasn't the at-one-with-the-Universe hippie the place evokes.
"That's a symptom of anxiety," she said and went on to talk about anti-depressant medications and various strategies for coping (switch to decaf, up the exercise, meditate.) It was a tiny off-hand remark, but illuminating for me. I have always been very in touch--maybe too much so--with the emotions of pain, sorrow, regret, etc. But I don't think I even recognize fear when it bites me on the ass. What, me, afraid? I'm the girl who hitch-hiked across country at 24, I'm the one who loves to beat up heavily padded assailants, I've been reading my poetry in public for decades, and have no discernible fear of public speaking.
Yet, when I looked more deeply, I saw that I do have fear, and anxiety--quite a lot of it. I wake up with screaming nightmares several times a month. I routinely dream that people are chasing me, trying to kill me. I fear offending other people even when I speak my mind about things.
Understanding that anxiety can cause irritability means that when other people are irritated with me, it's not necessarily because I hurt them. I used to think irritability was just a mild form of anger, and a response to being hurt. Thinking it could be because they are anxious opens the whole issue up, in a good way. It means I might not be at fault for another's irritable mood, and they might not be at fault when I am irritable with them.
I mention this because there's a flip side to having a gig in Paradise; being anxious about earning it, and scared that you'll somehow lose it. (And you will, I will. Nothing lasts forever.)
On the one hand I'm so lucky and grateful to be there at all, lucky to be published in The Sun as much as I have been, grateful to get the opportunity to teach in such a gorgeous space. On the other hand I'm well aware of all the other deserving writers and teachers who would kill for this opportunity and I feel like I have to earn it anew each time. And every year we do this I vow I'm going to come early to Esalen or stay an extra day, get a massage, take a hike, take advantage of BEING THERE, but every year I can't or don't--too many obligations on either side of the weekend.
Once I'm actually in the baths and my body is immersed in the warm water I finally relax. I stop, I bob, I float. I stop being a writer with a recognized name, or a teacher, or an anybody, I just become a body, breasts, legs, breath, bubbles. I watch other bodies dip and emerge, admire their perfections and imperfections. Humans are very moving when they are naked.
And I admit it, I'm a voyeur. Not so much in an overtly sexual sense--I'm not looking at bodies as a way to get to stimulation or orgasm for myself. But I love to see the infinite variety that we humans come in, tiny girlish breasts, big floppy pendulous ones, long legs, short muscular butts, and the folds and sags and ripples of aging skin. If I were a painter I would paint nudes.
I look out over the sparkling Pacific and pinch myself. It's like floating inside an Ansel Adams photograph, or a Robinson Jeffers poem. I feel a long way from suburban New England, and even after all these years of living in california and many many hours of soaking in hot tubs I still sometimes can't believe I'm actually here.
Saturday night we had a small party for the SUN writers and staff and a few participant-students, and I found I couldn't speak. Or I could speak, but not much, not like usual. I couldn't crack jokes, or shout my way into the center of the circle. (I think Australians talk about "shouting" each other a round of drinks, and I can understand why.)
There was drinking and some smoking and general hilarity, and I didn't want to get drunk or stoned and somehow couldn't get hilarious. I was thinking of Carla and all the changes since I came here last, two years ago. Then I was a red-haired wild child, free spirit. Now my hair is graying, I am in a deep and sometimes complex marriage, and quietly entering menopause. I am having one of the least dramatic transitions that I have heard of, knock wood, no real hot flashes so far, but I am in that passage, and it makes me feel more internal and sad sometimes.
I should have crept away as my roommate did and gone back to the baths, gone somewhere where I could have had a quiet conversation or just looked at the moon and stars. But my seventh grade self who has lain dormant for the last few centuries re-awakened--it was Halloween after all--and she is miserably socially insecure and afraid of missing the fun. So I stayed.
Sunday we sat on a dais and talked about our creative processes. I told the truth: I just write. I have no special formula, no sacred space, I dawdle and waste time, my desk is a mess, piled with drafts, old copies of Poets and Writers magazine, checkbook, clothing catalogs ("clothing porn," we call it,) vitamins, (in the vain hope that I will actually remember to take them.)
When C is home he interrupts me sometimes to tell me there's an interesting interview on NPR or to read me something out of the paper or to ask me if I've paid the PG & E bill. I interrupt myself to get coffee, watch the feral kitties playing in the backyard (the mother and the biggest black-and-white one are currently curled up together on a scrap of carpet on top of the compost box,) check email. The phone rings and I'm glad to talk to whoever is calling. These interruptions are my life, and without them, I don't know what I would write about.
Sunday I drove home through heavy traffic, took a shower, changed clothes, kissed C who had prepared me a take-out dinner, and Ruth picked me up to go do a reading in Mill Valley with other SUN writers. It was beautiful to hear everyone else read--Krista Bremer read My Accidental Jihad, Ruth read My Fat Lover, Lee read some poems, and SUN staffers read other selections from the new SUN anthology The Mysterious Life of the Heart. And Sy read a bunch of excerpts from his Notebook. The Marin Community Center is a beautiful space, with paintings on the wall and high cathedral ceilings.
I read my poem, "Smashing the Plates," which appears in the book and which Lee Rossi described as "pure id." Indeed. Say what you will about a certain shmuck-o, I really got a lot of poems out of that brief encounter. I read some other things too, but I was disappointed that in my haste I'd forgotten to bring along extra copies of my own books to sell. There was just too much to keep track of.
Monday morning I was flattened and managed to barely crawl around the lake. Yesterday I finally made it to the gym and swam a half mile, and today I finally feel like myself again. Time to come down from Mount Olympus and get back to work--MORE is interested in the essay I sent them three months ago but requires a revision, and I am aching to finish the play. And I promised C I would call more roofers.