April 22, 2019 § 15 Comments
By Kim Hinson
I gripped my mouse in a trembly hand. I’d just registered for New York Times bestselling author Cheryl Strayed’s Writing Camp, and wanted to find out exactly what I was in for. Scrolling through her website, I nervously clicked the link for the Esalen Institute—location of the camp. This was my first famous-person-led writing event and I was in a good, old-fashioned tizzy at the thought of actually meeting and learning from such a wonderful writer.
“Calm down,” I told myself. “It’s just a writing camp, for crying out loud.”
I explored Esalen’s lovely, photo-filled website, repeatedly mumbling, “Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Power,” to steady myself. Searching for a map of the grounds, I figured that my first priority was to find out where the bathrooms were. Not for obvious reasons, but so I could take my youngest, introvert-iest daughter’s advice to hide out and calm my nerves in the privacy of a bathroom stall.
The more I clicked, the more I relaxed. My eyes lingered on words like “well-spring of energy” and “convergence of mountains and water that is the Big Sur coastline.” I took a deep breath and pictured myself on the beach doing a little shell collecting between workshops. More phrases from the website soothed my lily-livered thoughts—“healing lives”, “retreat center”, “educational institute”. This Esalen Institute sounded more and more relaxing and less and less intimidating. Oh! And “inspiring beauty” and “unparalleled intellectual history.” Now that’s a place I could love!
I clicked on the Visit tab and scrolled down to the Frequently Asked Questions link. Calm now, I casually strolled through other people’s ordinary-type questions starting with—“Is there a Shuttle or Van Service to Esalen?” And at the bottom of page one, “Can I bring my child?” Awwww. So I’ll be among people who love their children, too. I smiled and relaxed even more when I read the answer: “Yes, as long as they’re supervised.” Okay. That makes sense. That’s what I’d say if I were running the place. Page two questions—“What payment methods/credit cards do you accept?” Oh, good. A practical question. I sighed, thought about getting some milk and cookies and let my eyes drift to the last few questions on page three. My eyes bugged and I nearly had a heart attack on the spot. “Must I Get Naked?” someone asked, and “Is Esalen a Nudist Colony?” But no, I thought. Those were just prank questions slipped in by some … prankster. Writer Prankster even.
I clicked the question and Pow! The answer: “The hot springs at Esalen have been in use for over 6,000 years and are clothing-optional. Nudity is common in the baths and the swimming pool but by no means mandatory. We encourage each individual to find their own edge between comfort and growth, either wearing a swimsuit or not.”
Now wait just a ding-dang minute here.
Heart aflutter, I shakily wondered exactly when a pounding heart turned into an honest-to-goodness heart attack. I decided to join the exclusive Facebook group created especially for Cheryl Strayed Esalen Writers Camp attendees. Clearly I needed to scope out the nature of the actual writers I’d (maybe) be associating with.
The first post was from another new attendee—someone who’d never been to Esalen, was nervous, and wanted to know what to bring. One reply suggested bringing layers of clothes, and then, regarding swimming suits, something like, “You’ll feel more naked with a suit on than without.” And it ended cheerfully with, “See you there!”
After a lengthy consultation with, and upon review and approval from my best writer friend, I decided to post my own Newbie Note on the Facebook page:
Hello lovely Esalen Writers! I’ll be new this year too. And Hoo-boy, from what I read in another post, it looks like I’ll be feeling like the naked-est gal in the whole durn swimming pool, what with my black, turtleneck swimming suit, my retro, ankle-length swim cape, my classic, stretch-fit, silicone swim cap, and my knee-high water boots. But I reckon I can handle it, especially if you’ll all kindly avert your eyes whilst I’m in your midst.
That post got an immediate “I’m with you!” from one person and then roughly twenty, “Oh you’ve got to try it! You’ll love it!!!” posts after which I stopped reading and nearly keeled over.
I don’t say private body part words. I don’t even whisper them to myself. And I definitely don’t want to be in the immediate presence of other people’s unclothed, private body parts. My people keep private things private. I shakily assured myself that no amount of writerly peer pressure could change this girl’s modesty policy.
Before keeling over, I went online and bought two separate and totally serious Accidental Death and Dismemberment policies, leaving lots and lots of money to my husband and three daughters upon my seemingly imminent Death by being exposed, overwhelmed, and overcome by the nudity loving writers of Esalen.
The happy conclusion to this self-inflicted psychological thriller is that not only did I not feel pressured to get naked, and not only did I not see anyone else get naked, but instead, my writing spirit was completely refreshed, exhilarated, and energized. The presentations and workshops—led by several brilliant, successful writers—were creative, informative, and inspiring in every way.
Last summer Cheryl Strayed retired as the leader, but the Esalen Writers Camp, now led by authors Pam Houston and Samantha Dunn, continues in full strength. With distinguished returning and new faculty that includes Lidia Yuknavitch, Steve Almond, and Lynell George, my final thought on this magical camp is, “Wow.”
Kim Hinson is an outside-loving, forever optimistic, yet chronically worried writer, professor, and mother of three daughters. She believes that finding a home—a capital H Home—and having a good horse are what life’s all about. Add a lot of great books to that mix and Poof! It’s Heaven on Earth. Find out more about Kim and see lots of pictures at http://kimhinson.com/