“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” ~Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist
I was naked, eyes closed, head against the wall of the building pictured above, soaking in a tub of steaming water that smelled like boiled eggs, listening. Seven others were also in the tub. I faced the room and its six massage tables with naked people sprawled on each. Giant glass walls had been pushed open. The sound of surf pounding shore competed with the sound bouncing off the concrete walls inside the room. Another large tub lay to my right, full of naked people. In between, two nude men perched on stools playing didgeridoos – Australian, Aboriginal wind instruments that produce a vibratory drone – while women sang ascending notes of accompaniment. If “mystical ritual” has a sound, this was it. Women undulated to the music, arms snaking lazily around their heads in a kind of moving prayer. It was a quintessential Esalen experience – unique, oddly beautiful, chuckle-inducing. (Well, that plus watching the gaggle of towheaded, dreadlocked hippie-toddlers running feral across campus each day.)
I spent the last week of June at a writers’ camp at the Esalen Institute – a retreat center in Big Sur and birthplace of the New Age movement – led by Cheryl Strayed and five other amazing writers/teachers.
[photo credit: Maureen Fan. Writers’ Camp Faculty: back row, L to R – Steve Almond, Cheryl Strayed, Alan Heathcock; front row, L to R – Faith Adiele, Samantha Dunn, Pam Houston.]
But let me back up a sec because this is an interesting story.
My husband and I were supposed to bike the Pacific Coast Highway through Big Sur with friends this summer but the trip didn’t end up happening. I was seriously bummed. I love this untamed stretch of California coast and hadn’t seen it in eight years.
Shortly after it became apparent the trip was a no go, I was listening to Dear Sugar – an advice podcast co-hosted by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond – when Cheryl mentioned a writers’ camp she was hosting at Esalen in June. Though she’d led the camp for several years, somehow I’d never heard of it. Coincidentally, it was happening at almost the exact time I would’ve been in the area had the bike trip occurred.
Fantastic! I thought. I’m definitely signing up. I immediately went online, filled out the application, and hit “send”. It took a hot minute to receive the notice that it was sold out. I wasn’t really surprised but decided to call the next day and see how far down the wait list I was. Couldn’t hurt, right?
The woman on the phone was very nice, and when I asked if she would check my position on the wait list so I should guage whether or not to be optimistic, she shuffled through papers, laughed, and said, “you’re probably about 100 or so people down the list.” To which I replied…
She chuckled good-heartedly and said, “It’s unlikely, but you never know. I’m amazed how far we get down this wait list each year. Also, why don’t you go ahead and send in your paperwork for 2017.” I thanked her for giving me the inside scoop, filled out the application and mailed it the next day thinking: If I’m supposed to be there this summer, it will happen. If not, that’s okay, too.
A week later, I attended a yoga / writing workshop in Atlanta with Jen Pastiloff. It was great – mostly about getting out of your own way, putting yourself out to the world, setting intention for what you want, giving voice to it, and being open to the unexpected, amazing things that may come as a result. Jen gave an example from her own life.
As a result of her unconventional work, she’d become close friends with Cheryl Strayed, who was scheduled to speak on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sessions. Cheryl had invited Jen – eight months pregnant, increasingly uncomfortable, and regularly saying “no” to invitations as a result – to come as her guest. “As you can probably imagine”, Jen said, “I don’t care how pregnant and uncomfortable I am, I’m not about to miss this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
After the workshop, I thanked Jen and told her it was interesting she’d mentioned Cheryl because I had my own Cheryl Strayed story. I told her about the writers’ camp, how I’d applied and was staring at the back of about 100 heads on the wait list in front of me, that I knew my chance of getting in was practically nil, but remained illogically optimistic anyway. She laughed and wished me luck.
In Jen’s workshop, I promised myself I’d put more of my writing out publicly. I wrote a piece called Badassitude inspired by the workshop, posted it to my blog, and then submitted it to Jen’s website, called The Manifest-Station. They get a ton of submissions, so I wasn’t sure they would be interested, but within 48 hours I had a reply saying they loved the piece and would publish it in 8-10 weeks.
Flash forward to June, I went to San Francisco with my older daughter for the week preceding writers’ camp because a. my kid had come out to me and we decided to make our hajj to gay Mecca, and b. it was a logistical nod to the possibility of getting into camp. If I got in, I would put my kid on a plane back to Atlanta and stay in California for an extra week. If not, I would go home as planned.
We landed June 18 and as I left the airport, a Big Sur phone number showed up on my phone. “How are you today?”, she asked. “That depends.” I said. “Are you calling to tell me I got in? If so, I’m fantastic!” She said, “Yes, we would love for you to come. There’s a space with your name on it, if you want it.”
A week later I arrived at Esalen. A place, as Cheryl says, so stunning its beauty practically assaults you. For the next five days I drank from a fire hose, learning more about the craft of writing from those six talented people than I had in all my previous years of school.
I was a bit intimidated by the talent of my fellow campers (tv writers, published authors, poets), and I didn’t share much of my work in the large groups. But on the final day of camp, when The Manifest-Station coincidentally published my piece, I couldn’t escape the full-circle feeling of it all. I told Cheryl the story that day, she hugged me and agreed.
Whether this was all some strangely random set of circumstances that happened to align and to which I’m attaching meaning, I don’t know. I don’t care. I just know it’s the kind of thing that makes me believe in Providence, or at least something like it.