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by Stephanie Sides

If you’re smart, you’ll approach Esalen from the north. That gives you the opportunity to see easily half a dozen California condors as you’re arriving. The wing span of the larger birds must be something like the length of my car. And they’re right there off the cliffs. I mean right there. One flew right over my windshield. I felt my presence was offending the natural arc of his flight. It’s an image that stays with you.

The weekend workshop I’m attending is titled: “Into the Fire: The Alchemy of Personal Writing.” It’s to focus on the writing process itself, rather than critique of finished work. Which suits me exactly in my transition from 20 years worth of university research communications to personal narrative and, with a few drinks and a major dose of courage, short stories and, perhaps, one day, the Holy Grail of a novel. I must have been the first to sign up six months before.

The first night the 150 or so pairs of shoes sitting outside the “Dance Dome” freak me out. I don't realize that leaving your shoes at the door was part of the Esalen tradition. And, given the numbers here, it seems at least possible that I will either not be able to find my shoes or somehow pick up the wrong ones. I make a special point of remembering where I leave them. I’m so anxious about this that I’m almost compelled to write it down. This image of all the shoes, surprisingly personal, plugs into a recurring dream I have of losing my shoes. This dream, I’ve read, suggests that I may be searching for my identity and exploring who I am. I nod to myself as I walk in the door.

We spend a lot of time in pairs introducing our partners to the group. People, largely middle-aged and older, have come to this workshop for many reasons: “the sun and the sex,” to continue recovering from a husband’s recent death, to meet Sy (the founder/editor of The Sun magazine, which is hosting the event), to see what published Sun authors (the instructors) look like, to understand how they select what to publish from among the 1,000 submissions we learn they get every month, to “get away from a project papering my bathroom walls with rejection notices,” to learn techniques to enliven one’s writing, to “jump start that novel I’ve always been wanting to write,” to “share in despair.”

The group is probably 85% women and features at least three pairs of mixed generation: a middle-aged man and his teenage daughter, an elderly woman with middle-aged son, and a middle-aged woman with her 20-something daughter. We are professional writers, novelists, poets, singers, medical doctors, technology professionals, even stand-up comedians. The one common thread tying us together is our urge to communicate. That, against the motherly backdrop of Esalen, creates an open, honest, and supportive atmosphere, which will turn out to be crucial to the impact of the experience on me personally.

The beds -- the only word for them is crummy -- may be the only reason not to come to Esalen. So I get up early the next morning and sit on a weathered wooden bench by myself and watch the ocean. The waves rise and fall like respiration. I spot a wayward funnel of water that acts apart, as if it refuses to give up that distinction. I spy a woman in the garden where Esalen grows its food and flowers, kneeling down on one knee, as if proposing to the man seated on the park bench in front of her. I see someone else practicing Tai Chi on the hillside as the sun begins to break through the clouds. Sy walks by and says hello.

There is a quiet peacefulness here, a natural pace based on the need for human communication, not one determined by the impersonal, frenetic, pointless need for speed in today’s world. The quiet and the soft voices somehow complement each other. It’s all of a whole. No TV, no cell phone or Internet access, no newspapers except for those brought in by visitors for the day from Carmel or Cambria. It’s a place people go to get away, which seems to come as a shock for some dependent on constant electronic connection. I had planned ahead by buying a calling card. Still it’s unsettling to know that your loved ones will have difficulty reaching you for a few days. I’m less interested in reaching them.

I go into breakfast and see yoga practitioners coming out of an early morning session and a lone, empty bottle of white wine consumed the night before over a surprising number of cigarettes nearby. An odd coupling of health and indulgence. Somehow I thought Esalen would be alcohol- and nicotine-free. I don’t think I’m disappointed with this discovery.

The food, most of which is grown on site, tends toward the vegetarian and has a heavy emphasis on salads. Fresh bread in many varieties is always available. So too is ultra-strong coffee, making it harder for me to sleep even with the stimulation and hard mental and emotional work that exhausts me and makes me too useless to socialize or read. So I just have to be. That may be the hardest work of all, I think.

You see other signs of the now mostly bygone hippie era: a woman brushing her teeth with Tom’s toothpaste in the lodge bathroom after breakfast, excessively noisy, low-flow toilets, cats wandering around, apparently comfortable with large crowds of ever unfamiliar people, the eclectic message board outside the dining room featuring things like a request for a ride somewhere: “I don’t speak English very well, so the ride will be calm.” A Zen meditation center straddling a river that feeds the property and runs out to the ocean. Hatha yoga classes. The infamous “bathing suit-optional” baths. All the facilities have a light veneer of grubbiness, with exceedingly bright colors on many of the walls to either obscure this fact or point it out proudly, I’m not sure which. Even one of the instructors calls himself by the name of a bird, which seems somehow appropriate to the venue. He looks the part too. I gratefully recede back to my college days in Berkeley in the early 70s, if only for the time I spend here.

I’m one of the lucky 15 who score a one-on-one visit with Sy. That’s how he’s known in this community, even if you’ve never met him. He strikes me as younger than I would have guessed, with a calm, receptive demeanor and encouraging attitude. He seems a seeker of Truth in the classical, even spiritual, sense of the word. We talk about what makes writing good: seeking truth in a compassionate manner, the essence “hovering in the air as if the writer can’t quite grasp it.” What’s not said being perhaps just as important as what is. We talk about my transition. I tell him I can’t not do this, which draws an easy smile from him. I tell him about the submissions I’ve made to his magazine, all as yet unpublished. I tell him my Sun readers’ group in San Diego, started six months before, suggests he include more new voices in the magazine. He nods, probably thinking I’m referring to myself. And then our time is up, and he gives me a hug, which is just right.

For each of the four two-hour workshop sessions, we have 5-6 choices. I consciously decide on four different instructors and map out my strategy, studiously avoiding poetry if it’s called out as a focus area. I choose the personal is political is personal, tell it like it is, arguing the world, and avoiding saccharine. I realize over the course of the weekend that I have made a big mistake in avoiding the poetry. In one session, a self-described “professional waitress supporting herself through her poetry” (I’m sure I got that right for its oddness) reads a poem on a handout offered by the instructor about girls kissing girls with such pacing and sensitivity that we’re all struck silent when she finishes. During the next writing assignment, a tough but compelling one on the first death that affected us, I hear her crying and reach over to see if she’s ok.

Each workshop includes 2-3 15-minute writing sessions after which those that want to read what they wrote have an opportunity to do so. We use spiral notebooks, loose leaf paper, yellow legal pads, composition books, Apple laptops. We sit in chairs or on the floor, outside on rough-hewn benches, on the grass, in the sun or shade. Socks on or sockless. Painted toenails in various colors, tattooed bodies, hennaed arms. Everyone periodically looks up, thinking, considering where to go next with this exercise. It’s a surprisingly affecting bunch for me.

We write about things we know a lot about: the importance of our name; a premise that’s manifestly obvious; the opposite of a premise we truly believe in (this one, which came at the end of the day, was nearly impossible for me to do); and an important person in our life. At the time I think that the scientists and engineers I work with would draw a blank at these exercises.

We can’t start writing fast enough. Realizing all this makes me breathe out and my shoulders relax. I feel surprisingly confident in these situations. To my further surprise, I like what I write and am eager to read my work. I’ve never done this before and had planned not to, had the situation presented itself. But I don’t feel competitive about it and am happy to defer to someone else if I have the sense that person really wants the opportunity. And then I realize it: Writing is not a competitive sport. Unlike most of the things I’ve engaged in. This will take some time getting used to.

If I feel tension at all over the course of the weekend it has to do with the push-and-pull between listening to all the interesting things people, perhaps unknowingly, are telling me – what they’re saying and, just as often, how they are saying it – and wanting to record it without seeming rude by turning away from them back to my notebook. In many cases, I suggest they consider writing about what they’ve told me. Oddly, in that same number, that doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. I’m reminded of some of the odd “careers” I think I’d be good at, like writing outlines for plots and selling them to short story writers and novelists who have better skills at characterization, dialog, and the like but lack ideas for the big picture.

For some reason, in making notes about conversations and my impressions in general, I, always so careful about correct capitalization, revert to all-lowercase letters. My handwriting is shocking in how beautiful it’s become after so many years being dependent on a keyboard. There is something absolutely right about this experience.

And then I realize something else: After all these years, I’m coming home. To a community I can belong to. Comfortably. Instead of using the word “they,” I use the word “we.” We are all writers – self-acknowledged or not, published or aspiring. All experiencing joys and frustrations. All, no doubt, struggling. All, like me, eager to share their stories and confident enough of their abilities to come to this workshop. Here I can hold my own, both learn from and help others. I’m the bird soaring on the energy updraft of the group, stretching my wings and looking down only for a suitable place to land and build a nest. It’s only a matter of time.