A few days before I arrived at the writer’s retreat in Big Sur I read the fine print on an email sent from Cheryl Strayed about the details of the week-long camp; what to bring, what to expect and weather conditions. Then I saw this:
- There’s a swimming pool on the grounds and also the gorgeous hot tubs. Both are clothing optional. Towels are provided.
That is so funny, I thought. I texted a few of my friends about it and we laughed via the World Wide Web. I have never been incredibly comfortable being naked in front of people who aren’t my family. Yet, if you asked my family about my nudity, I’m sure they would say they see far too much of it from me. There was that one time, though, when I was 23 and on a backpacking trip through Europe that I went topless in Avignon. But I was 23 so who cares.
I am sure not many people actually go naked into the mineral baths, I thought. I have my bathing suit and I am ready to wear it.
Once I got to Esalen, I learned that everyone goes naked into the baths. It is the right of passage. If you don’t go naked, you are a total prude asshole. It was becoming clear that by day I would bare my soul in writing and by night I would bare my body in the baths.
I asked around Esalen and everyone was doing it. Apparently the more you do it, the more comfortable you become with being naked around swarms of people you don’t know. One woman told me that after doing it so much she is so comfortable with her own nudity at the baths that she finds herself bending over naked, her bare butt right in someone else’s face. The visual imagery was astounding, but the demonstration of the act really brought it all together for me.
At 9pm when it was good and dark I made my way down to the baths. The baths are in this spectacular little house set at the edge of the cliff.
There is a “quiet” side where you are supposed to talk in hushed voices. From that side I heard women cackling loudly. Then there is the “silent” side where there is no talking allowed. You can’t even fart over there. I stripped and covered myself with a towel and walked over to the silent side. I figured it would be better if I didn’t have to speak while naked in front of strangers. I got into one of the baths and peered over to my left. It was difficult to see in the dark, but I noticed a man and a woman in a naked embrace beside me in the tub. I wasn’t sure what was happening under the water so I stepped out of the bath and headed for the quiet cackling ladies side.
There were several baths outside with a crystal view of the almost full moon. Jupiter and Venus were aligned vertically and they were brighter than I have ever seen. I shed the towel that was providing me so much comfort and stepped into the bath with four women and one lucky man. It was awkward at first, but then it was liberating. Nobody cared about their naked body or my naked body, so I didn’t care either. There were a lot if tits afloat that night. There were many full moons.
On my right was the Jewish lesbian stand-up comedian school crossing guard. On my left was the school principal who had an affair with her boss last year and ended up at a nudist colony crying. In front of me was the engineer who grew up with a speech impediment and has spent his life feeling like he is not enough. This is the stuff of writers.
The next night there was a special didgeridoo playing at the silent side of the baths. Who wouldn’t want to be serenaded by an indigenous Australia instrument while naked in baths with strangers? So of course I went. The player was a young skinny man who obviously has been surviving on only quinoa and vegetables for the past two years. He slowly waltzed around the room, his big instrument playing and his smaller instrument swaying to the music. Not that I was looking. Mostly I closed my eyes and took in the moment.
I did not realize how many times I would be stretched outside my comfort zone this past week: writing prompts, time limits, reading my writing aloud to a large group, meeting new people every day, being without my family and social skinny dipping.
How are we supposed to grow if we don’t strip down our layers and bare ourselves in our truest form? What would we write about if we were closed off to the world?
My bathing suit lay lonely in the suitcase the entire week, unwanted and unneeded.
Until next time, the mothership is signing off.