In 1999 things were going poorly between my wife Alice and me. I didn’t know what would happen, but I felt increasingly alienated from Alice, and to some extent alienated even from my own life, from the world. I still tried my best to be good to Alice but it was clear that we were becoming strangers to each other.

Summer. I was trying to find something to do with myself, something that might help me regain a sense of my own identity. I had applied to take a 5 day poetry workshop led by Sharon Olds at the Omega Institute. I had to submit some of my poems along with the application. I got a call back informing me that my application was accepted. I packed up my stuff and said goodbye to Alice, and drove across the state to the little town of Rhinebeck where the Omega Institute was located. The accommodations I stayed in at Omega were rather primitive, one of the so-called dorms. It was a small wooden building of apparently ancient construction. My room just contained a bed and a chair nothing else, and there was a communal bathroom at the end of the hall. But the Omega campus in general was beautiful and elegant. I loved just walking around in it, along winding paths that connected the buildings and went through beautiful gardens, with ponds, trickling fountains, and surrounding woods. All of the people I saw there were friendly, peaceful, and apparently quite happy. Remarkably so. There was a pervasive atmosphere of peace, trust, and friendship. It put in sharp contrast the life back home I had just come from in which there had been such an emotional climate of resentment and anxiety prevalent in our household.

Sharon Olds was quite an interesting person. She was unusually calm and poised, and expressed herself with extraordinary clarity. She was very accepting of everyone. She was also a very careful and keenly attentive listener. She was like a Zen monk or something. Her plan for the workshop was for each participant (about 20 of us) to try to write two new poems each day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and present them to the whole group at workshop meetings. For me, a poet whose productivity was usually only about one poem per month, this seemed like an insanely ambitious schedule, but I entered into it gamely.

I quickly found a regular daily routine. I would get up early, go to the little meditation center and sit in zazen for about a half-hour, then go to the dining hall and have breakfast. Then go and find a place to sit outside and try to write a poem. Hopefully I would actually come up with one. Then would be time for the workshop meeting. The group all sat around in a big circle. Each person in turn read his or her poem, and the person to their right would make a brief comment on it, and the person to their left would also comment. That was the workshop routine. Often Sharon herself would comment. When she did I was often amazed at her great perspicacity. She was very accepting of everything and did not criticize, but did point out things she thought were particularly interesting. I realized that what she was trying to do was to create an environment in which people could feel encouraged to be creative and totally free to express themselves without fear of censure of any kind. Sharon encouraged people to express themselves with complete openness. It seemed like an experiment in radical self-expression, certainly not your typical poetry workshop.

After the morning workshop we broke up for lunch, then after lunch I found another place to sit and work on trying to write another poem. Then the group got back together again for the workshop circle. After that I had dinner in the dining hall, then after dinner took a brief swim in a beautiful lake, then spent about a half-hour sitting in the sauna with some of the other Omega participants. After showering I went to the little cafe and had a soft drink and read a book for a while. It was a pretty full day.

So each day was like this. Everything was luminous to me. I felt each day intensely, I was dazzled by everything I saw and heard and felt. It was like my body was full of electricity. I had left my old life behind completely, as if I had suddenly been propelled out of my old life with tremendous energy. Sitting in a garden at Omega, in the brilliant sunshine, striving to write a new poem within just a couple of hours was an experience of strangely joyous struggle. And with everything I experienced throughout the day I imagined I had become transparent, and all the light of the world could pass through me, and everyone could see everything that was in me. I had no secrets from the world, and the world had no secrets from me.

At the end I had to go home, but I was different. I could no longer lie to myself and pretend that Alice and I had a good relationship when we really didn’t.