The Hot Springs
The man at the gate was dour, but I have found that a great many of the world’s angriest people work in holistic retreat centers. I couldn’t get him to crack a smile, no matter how much I joked or flirted. Maybe the hot springs would heal me of my need to be liked.
We stripped in the co-ed changing room. Outside it was overcast and frigid. You had to shower before you went in the pools. There were showers with little doors and showers with no doors.
The two fully-exposed showers were right in the middle of everything, side-by-side, on a raised platform. Already naked and always preferring the view to the enclosed space, I went over to them and quickly realized that I was taking a shower, lathering up and everything, on a little stage. No one was exactly watching–if there is one thing that defines all scenarios of public nudity it’s that everyone is bound by an unspoken agreement to see without watching–but this was the stuff of nightmares. Or, for the outdoor shower enthusiast, dreams. I could see mountains in all directions.
The first pool was warm but not hot. In its center, a large, pig-faced man was gently cradling a woman with an ecstatic expression on her face. For the duration of our visit to the hot springs, someone was always rocking someone else in his or her arms in the center of the first pool. It was a patented treatment called Watsu, or Water Shiatsu. There was a little copyright symbol next to the word every time it appeared in the literature. Watsu, the literature claimed, could heal you of all your past traumas. Watching people perform Watsu on one another, however, mildly traumatized me.
The sight of a naked adult being rocked like a baby by another naked adult made me uneasy. I’m a pretty naked person–often first to strip for the skinny-dip–but at the hot springs, I found my edge. There is a difference between a nudist and a naked person. A nudist wants to be naked around other people, wants to make traditionally public spaces into naked spaces. A naked person enjoys being naked but doesn’t particularly need or want the nudity to be public, or move beyond the bathing environment. The hot springs were a borderland between these two distinct categories.
There were signs forbidding sexual activity and numbers to call and phones to call them on the moment you saw any sexual activity of any kind. However, I soon found that just the sight of naked couples touching one another turned out to be more of other people’s sexuality than I wanted to consume. Witnessing a couple having a moment is touching. Witnessing a couple engaging in what is really foreplay is grotesque. We humans look like crazed animals when we behave sexually, but in my opinion, this is much more pleasant to experience than to watch.
Most of the couples were either just holding one another gently afloat or massaging one another with extreme intention. The massages were so solemn, it was almost as if the massaging partner were willing the recipient to have a deep and powerful healing experience. Everyone’s faces were arranged in masks that said, “I am having a deep and powerful healing experience.” I soon found out why.
I left the first pool and got into the extremely hot, entirely silent tub. This tub was so hot that no one’s face was arranged in any particular way. Just getting into the tub put the truth on your face. From there you went to the cold plunge, a few steps above, outdoors, under the trees. I hesitated when my foot first touched the water. The man already in the pool inclined his head, as if to say, “Go on,” made a face that said, “Don’t be a pussy, complete the healing!”
I gasped for breath and dutifully submerged.
I came up feeling wholly and completely reborn, as if every physical, emotional, mental or psycho-spiritual affliction I had ever endured had been instantaneously healed. I no longer had intrusive thoughts. I immediately and completely let go of every slight I had ever perceived in business, friendship, art or romance. My knotted shoulders released, my tight joints floated lightly. I repeated this process several times until I achieved a previously unknown degree of contentment and a questionable level of consciousness. I have low blood pressure and my head swims whenever I bend over, or even stand up quickly after sitting for a while. The cycle of hot and cold was bringing me to points of dizziness bordering on blackout. I wobbled on my gelatinous knees and wondered whether the cartoon-ending zooming down of my field of vision to a tiny, black-framed spot was going to expand again to reveal the pure white light of ultimate revelation, or if I was just going to pass out.
I had lost track of Sarah, my hot-springing companion. Her towel and water bottle were still on the railing next to mine, but I didn’t see her in any of the pools. I momentarily fretted. What if she’d slipped beneath the water? She said her insomnia had been bad lately. What if the heat had relaxed her, and in her sleep-deprived state–oh, there she was, emerging pinkly from the mist. We had just been circulating between the pools in opposite directions.
So many kinds of naked! Naked-with-a-towel-over-your-shoulder. Naked-holding-a-towel. Clothed men walked through the area, sweeping and spreading salt on the steps. Naked-while-clothed-men-can-see-you. Naked-while-wearing-your-glasses, naked-while-wearing-a-hat, naked-while-wearing-a-lot-of-beaded-and/or-animal-toothed-jewelry.
So many kinds of bodies! A great many uncircumcised probable Europeans. A great many sobering breasts. Flesh, flesh, flesh. Time, time, time. Gravity and its rainbows, mists and their revelations.
After we dressed, I perused the bulletin board. The following workshops were upcoming or ongoing at the hot springs: “Unconditional Dance,” “Timeless Loving,” “Ecstatic Breath,” “Quantum Light Breath,” “Earthlight Healing Circle,” “Compassionate Communication,” “Pathways to Intimacy,” “Miracle of Love,” and of course, “Tantric Massage.”
It was not that I didn’t want to dance unconditionally, breathe ecstatically, communicate compassionately or even massage tantrically. It was not that I did not enjoy earth, light, or the miracle of love. It was just something about the word, “workshop.” It was the fact that the goal of breathing ecstatically would be pursued in a group, under the guidance of someone entrusted with the authority to facilitate ecstatic breathing. It was the word “facilitate.” It was the creation and discussion of healing or emoting as a category and pastime. It was the invitation to emote in a group setting from 2:00 to 6:30 pm. It was the thought of sitting on the floor of “The Temple” and taking notes on intimacy. It was the creation and deployment of words like “earthlight.” It was the repeated use of the words, “safe space.” These words, not unlike the sight of a naked adult being rocked like a baby by another naked adult, made me uneasy.
When we checked in at the front desk of the hot springs, the desk clerk requested our driver’s licenses. I still have my New York one.
“I miss New York,” sighed the desk clerk. “What are you doing in this awful place?”
I thought he was joking. “Oh, it’s terrible,” I said. “Just terrible. All the beautiful nature and medicinal herbs. I hate it!”
“She moved here,” explained Sarah. “I’m just visiting.”
“Why would you ever move here from New York?”
This was not what I expected from the hot springs desk clerk. “I just said, for the nature and the herbal medicine. It’s a better life.”
“That’s what you think, but then you realize that it’s all just empty calories.”
“I, for one, feel very nourished–but it sounds like you don’t. Where are you from?”
“Massachusetts, the Berkshires. I wish I could go back.”
“Why don’t you just go back?”
“We can never sell the house, not now.”
“Well, this place is like the Berkshires. It’s got mountains, and snow. Why don’t you just pretend?”
“Because the people in California are all morons.”
This is what I used to tell myself to justify the fact that I hadn’t moved to California yet. I told myself that the apparent happiness of the Californians was a sign of some kind of emptiness, void, lack. I told myself that they were only happy because they were morons. Then I realized it was I who was a moron, for staying in New York, where there were no hot springs.
“There are no hot springs on the East Coast!” I said.
“Thank God for that.”
“What is it that you want to do there? Chop wood and feel guilty?”
“Oh, that would be wonderful.”
“Well, instead you’re stuck here, at the hot springs. I feel really bad for you,” I said.
“Empty calories,” he sighed. “You are in Dome Tent #4. It has a heated mattress pad.”
After our soak, we were ravenous. We went to the health food store and ate a lot of hummus. We found our way to a room full of couches, rugs and easy chairs. A fireplace was burning at one end. Uncharacteristically, neither of us had brought any reading material down from our faraway dome tent #4.
“I feel mysteriously…healed,” I said.
“Me, too,” said Sarah.
“Maybe it’s the minerals,” I said.
“I think,” I said, “that we should both read the hot springs’ quarterly newsletter cover to cover.”
There was a long and thoughtful editorial in the newsletter that gently but firmly suggested that people should keep their healing experiences to themselves. “When we share these experiences, the energy of them becomes diffused,” it said. There was a directory of workshop offerings including everything that had been on the bulletin board, plus Watsu Levels I-IV.
While we read, people came in and performed yogic exercises on the rugs. Sun salutations, spinal twists, forward bends complete with groans of deep release. They were not keeping their healing experiences to themselves.
When we finished the newsletter, we discovered that the next room was a library. It was mostly full of abandoned spiritual texts and water-damaged travel guides to South America and the Far East. The fiction section was thin, but did contain a pristine, complete, boxed set of Anne of Green Gables. We grabbed these, Michael Jordan’s coffee table book, and a John Cheever paperback and returned to our couch. Sarah devoured the Cheever, and I spent the next three hours blissfully switching back and forth between Anne Shirley’s ellipses-filled rhapsodies about Prince Edward Island and Michael Jordan’s justifiably egotistical ghostwritten aphorisms on creating himself as a global brand.
In my healed and reborn state, these books were highly influential. I should base the rest of my life on these two texts, I decided. In every situation, I would either Be Like Mike or Anne of Green Gables, visualizing the win or sighing at the sea.
I bathed again in the morning. The pools were less crowded and the sun had come out. Even all alone, even not releasing my past traumas while being rocked like a baby by another naked adult, I felt so calm and peaceful and safe, maybe even fetal, floating in the extra-buoyant water suffused with minerals. I wasn’t sure about all the workshops, but I was sure of the water.