Sunday, October 24, 2010

Notes from the Clothing-Optional Hot Tubs

I spent the weekend on a writing retreat at Esalen, known for its alternative education programs, delectable food, and clothing-optional hot sulfur-spring baths on a bluff overlooking the Pacific.

I packed my bathing suit, aspiring to but unsure I possessed the body confidence to blithely fling a towel aside and dip, Godiva-esque, into a tub with other naked humans. I hadn't experienced communal coed nudity since college, since That Night in the Sauna. I was twenty years older now, twenty years less impetuous, twenty years less because-everybody-else-is-doing-it. Twenty years later, I was still, however, imbued with a healthy sense of Why The Hell Not.

One of my responsibilities as High School Vice Principal is enforcing the Dress Code. I blow the whistle on bra straps showing, necklines plunging, shorts shortening. I make daily judgments on the line between Acceptable and Distracting. Meanwhile, Hypocrisy's sniffing dog follows me everywhere I go, combing the alleyways of my public and private lives, peering into my glass and searching my closets for skeletons.

The Specter of Appropriateness asks me What if someone you know is in those tubs? What if you find out you're naked with the cousin of a student's mother's best friend?

I wonder.

And so my one-piece accompanies me to the baths, where a communal changing room opens to communal showers, nothing but air between us and the crashing waves. Nothing but air and water between the nude bathers passing in and out of the tubs, showers, and changing room.

A damp but fully clothed man exhorts me to consider laps in the pool up the hill before a soak in the baths. "It's the full experience!" he exclaims as I hang up my towel. The next step is for me to get undressed but I am unaccustomed to taking my clothes off mid-conversation with a strange man. He leaves, and I disrobe. Suddenly it seems a useless detour to squeeze myself into spandex.

Towel wrapped around me, I head out to the baths, a trio of hot tubs on tiers of a balcony like a shelf stuck in the side of the cliff. Fellow bathers nod and welcome me and this is how it goes: a glance up when someone new arrives, meaningful eye contact established, the occasional comment about the temperature of the water. Seating arrangements are adjusted; discourse resumes.

Torsos submerge and rise above the water line. It is hot; bodies perch on ledges and steps, feet dangling in the steaming pools.

I am naked. But my folds of flesh are normal, unremarkable, not the point.

Bathers laugh, debate, explain, introduce themselves, meditate, and swap stories. Near dinner time we disperse, agreeing to meet in the dining hall.

I return to the baths the next morning, straight from my bunk bed and down the muddy hill in my plaid flannel pajamas, not to be naked, but to talk with people as the sun rises over the mountains, as the surge sprays on the rocks, as intermittent rain leaves silvery droplets in our hair.

Sulfur stings the corners of my eyes and I see parts as eggplants, tomatoes, drumlins, gently-sloped volcanoes, pears suspended in nylon socks. Wrinkled figs, worn leather hacky sacks. Concentric circles of soft pink silver dollars, ruddy cork coasters, and deep-brown compact discs.

There are C-Section scars and acne scars, scratches and bruises and boils. There are bony legs and soft dimpled buttocks, hairy shoulders and foreskins.

But none of this is dirty. Our bodies, like words on this page, are bare, awaiting judgment, and there is none. Penis, vagina, and breast are all present, but I talk with my newfound friends as if they're wearing polo shirts, uniforms, khaki pants, caftans. What's always there and covered can speak for itself. Penis is an ordinary joe in the company of this man's eyes, one blue, one hazel, and his accounts of his wife's cancer. Breasts bob indifferently beneath this woman's auburn hair. Her voice is like a singer's.

At dinner I admire someone's scarf, covet a handbag, notice an unusual necklace. But no one is as beautiful as in the baths, where our bodies are stripped down to personalities, where what we say and how is most intriguing.

The rest of us is earth: salty spit, sweat, and tears immersed in steaming springs; blue eyes awash in grey skies; wrinkles and folds wobbling on ocean swells; soft parts draped on hard stone; hair sprouting like grass on the hillside; buff, pink, and brown skins soft as mud and sand.


Karen_in_Coronado said...

Loved your article. It brought back a memory of swimming laps before school and showering afterwards with a student (on swim team) who I'd later see 3rd period.

Jared and Kate said...

I think you got all the Why the Hell Not between us...I'll leave the nudity to you. :-)

Anonymous said...

yay! i love this entry. sad i wasn't with you -
you make it sound so blissful

Mama Deb said...

How do you do that?? You made wrinkly balls sound really fascinating :)
You're amazing, and I hope your time on your retreat was as well!

Sarah Simpson said...

Perfect description of the baths, Jenny! Wish I'd taken my suit off!