I tend to get myself into hot water on my birthday.
For my 40th, I invited two large tables of my favorite ladies to join me at the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa. We bathed in the roman baths, basked in the sun, wined and dined. I even made an unscripted speech thanking each woman individually for what they brought to my life that was literally EXACTLY 40 minutes long.
Another birthday dip was more intimate – just me and my hubby, Mitchel, at one of my all-time faves at the end of the main road in Calistoga. This time I eschewed the shi-shi of Sonoma Mission Inn for the more vintage vibes at Indian Springs. Thermal geysers, originating back to a volcanic eruption in the area, come from fissures in the earth at 230 degrees and is then cooled in a series of reservoirs before entering the Olympic-sized main pool at about body temperature. The 19th Century charm of this place has been preserved, including the bathhouse- complete with a Pepsi Cola clock that still keeps the time.
My favorite way to enjoy Indian springs is at night, under a blanket of stars. Putting my head on one “noodle-cadoodle” as I call the long flotation devices they have there, and another under my legs, I can drift for hours, enjoying the plumes of vapor coming from the place where the springs are channeled toward my awaiting body. In the dark, I imagine a huge dragon in the distance, blowing smoke through his snout.
This year, with my husband away at a training, I planned another birthday plunge with my lady friends, this time asking them to adventure with me to a more humble spot, Wilbur Hot Springs. Once a sacred Native American ceremonial grounds, Wilbur is now an Asian style, clothing-optional bathhouse. At less than a 2-hour drive from Davis, this has become a favorite day trip that really makes you feel like you’ve gotten away. Wilbur is off the grid and off the hook.
My first pick-up of the day was to get Jessy, a friend for the past 11+ years since our children met in Kindergarten. We hadn’t seen each other a lot over that time besides the few minute exchanges we had at “sibling playgroup” pickup and drop-offs, and the occasional school-related social event. But recently, not having much contact with my early mom friends now that our kids were in High School, I had been extending offers to reconnect, and Jessy was showing up.
I knew as soon as I saw her standing on her front porch that I hadn’t done a great job of preparing her for what the day might hold. She had on a maxi dress and platform sneakers. Her hair had been “done” that morning and she had a full face of make-up.
“You know we aren’t going to a ‘resort’ spa, right?” I asked as soon as she opened the car door. The look on her face made it clear that she did not know that, so I continued. “Wilbur is a hot spring, not a spa,” I said. “It’s very rustic and remote. It’s a mellow, hippie, clothing-optional kind-of-place.”
Jessy’s face had flopped by the time I finished with my Wilbur soapbox.
“Clothing optional?” she asked. “Do people really take that option?”
I could hear a quiver in her voice that made me worry I might be down one girlfriend on this birthday outing.
“Sorry if that wasn’t clear,” I said, “I’ve been going there for years and never really thought about it much, I guess.”
“So do you go ropa or no ropa,” Jessy asked, reverting to the Spanglish we tended to use with one another, the aftereffect of having kindled our friendship at a Spanish immersion public elementary school.
“Well, kinda both,” I answered. “Ever since my surgeries, I just wear a swim top,” I said, thinking it was a totally normal thing to say and do. For a while I didn’t go anywhere that would possibly put me in a position of exposing myself, including Wilbur.
“Wait, really?” Jessy said, giving me a quizzical look. “You wear a swim TOP but not a BOTTOM?” She didn’t seem to be able to tell if I was joking or not. “That’s so weird. Why would you do that?”
I’ve always known Jessy to be a tell it like it is kind of gal – but even still, her comment felt like a blow to the chest.
“Um, well,” I paused trying to think of an answer. To me, this was just how it was now. A clear divide in my life between the person I was before my mastectomy and reconstruction as compared to me post eight surgeries and a life-threatening infection that left me deformed. Being totally naked was only reserved for showers. Eventually, my desire for the waters and quiet of Wilbur made me find another way to make it work that made sense to me at least.
“It’s not about people looking at me. It’s about how I feel with them seeing me. Even if people aren’t saying anything, I am in my head feeling like they are wondering what happened to me, but not asking. That feeling puts me on edge and not in a position to relax. But even more than that is the way I feel when I catch a glimpse of my deformed mounds. Even on a good day, it has the potential to put me in a place of negative self-image that I prefer to bypass by wearing a top. So really, it has nothing to do with anyone else but me. And in terms of the swim bottoms…I don’t know why I don’t wear those. I guess it feels like a happy medium.”
Later that day when Jessy came to me wanting to apologize she explained that she has lived with a 10-inch scar since the age of one, which was, as she described it, her whole conscious life. She didn’t know any different, and she admitted that since she had never thought twice about her own scar, it didn’t occur to her why I would want to hide mine.
On the drive home, Jessy wanted to continue to process what had happened. She admitted that she had spent the whole drive to Wilbur being freaked out about getting naked. So when I said I would only be wearing my bottoms, her comment just popped out. She was overly apologetic in my opinion as I was not in any way upset, rather it helped me, which I shared with her later, as I have spent the months since then planning for our upcoming retreat at Wilbur (there is ONE spot left)!
Talking with her as our car swayed through the forest and then, farmland, I made a mental note to be sure that my website and communications were very clear about the clothing optional element of Wilbur. No surprises, only obstacles, and opportunities!
Our conversation reminded me of the ways in which we build our stories that shape our self-image. And of how important it is that we remain open to examining where these ideas come from, where we are still held back, and where we are ready to break on through. This of course not only applying to our self-image, but to our overall wellness. I like to remind my teenage daughters (to their horror) that nobody is noticing the zit on their forehead because they are too worried about their own (fill in the blank). This is more than a reminder that worry doesn’t get us far. To me, the choice to worry or not worry is the same as what you choose to wear, or not wear when clothing is optional. Making choices that suit us (pun intended) gives others permission to do the same.
So while I can appreciate that Wilbur is not for everyone, I can also appreciate that it is for everyone at the same time. As clear as I am that Wilbur is clothing optional – I can also clearly reassure you that there is every kind of option happening there at all times. And, if you’ve read this far, you know that even includes me in my swim top with no bottoms!
All joking aside, I am sure that in the same way, those that come on this retreat will likely represent all colors of the clothing optional rainbow, there are many who decided not to come on this retreat so as not to have to make that choice or be in that environment. If that sounds like you, our next retreat at the 1440 Multiversity in Scotts Valley may be just your cup of tea. And yes, guys/men/dudes, you are invited to this one. To those women (plus a lucky ONE MORE) that seek the opportunity to be in a place with such personal freedom as we dip our toes into the waters of our own personal wellness – it’s been said about Wilbur that “in all the world, no waters like these.”