Last week I got a phone call on Wednesday letting me know that I'd made it off of the waitlist for a weekend writing retreat that started the following Friday. I had tried to register for the retreat in May but sadly it was full. Because I had no notice to plan for my trip, I didn't have time to get worried or nervous or anxious. After scrambling to cash in miles and get a last minute rental car, I packed my bag and flew to San Jose and drove three hours to the beautiful Santa Lucia mountains.
The retreat was held at the Esalen Institute, a stunning retreat center nestled in the mountains of Big Sur, Northern California. Esalen is home of the human potential movement and some of the most splendid hot springs (Esalen people call them "healing waters") I've ever experienced.
During the retreat, I had the opportunity to take a writing workshop with Heather Sellers, the author of a memoir titled, You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know. Heather has a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, also more commonly known as facial blindness.
In addition to being a really talented writer, Heather has a magnetic personality. Her teaching style-- a combination of modern dance and spoken word-- is profoundly entertaining and educational. I learned more in two hours with Heather Sellers than I learned in a whole year of a University of Washington writing program.
One of the things Heather talked about was being open in our writing-- she invited us to throw away the planning of it. She shared what she's learned from living with facial blindness; she lives every minute of every day living in the unknown. While she'll meet you and see your face, she has no ability to remember it one minute later or ten years in the future. As I sat, riveted by this amazing woman, I thought how much strength and creativity she has cultivated through this experience of living in the unknown.
In between workshops, I had small breaks to enjoy the healing waters of Esalen. On their website, they state that nudity in the baths is "not mandatory" but those words alone let me know that nudity is standard, even expected. I am a painfully modest person so I was naturally nervous about group nudity. I thought, as I walked down to the baths the very first time how it would be great if everyone, including me, had facial blindness.
Personal writing can feel a lot like nudity. It's vulnerable and exposing, potentially embarrassing. During the different workshops, I found myself only wanting to share my writing that was less revealing. Some things I wrote felt too personal to share with people I had just met hours before. But, as I listened to people read their work that was very intimate and exposing, I didn't have any judgment or criticism about their work. I felt grateful and humbled to be able to share what they created.
I did make myself step into the unknown of group nudity. I went to the baths several times, nude. And each time I was okay. Just like in the writing workshops, I felt no judgment, no criticism towards any of the nude bodies at the baths. And of course, none of the other people cared that I was nude. Everyone was equally revealed, equally exposed, and it was was beautiful and it was healing.