She says: It is a way to release toxic energy. She says: It would be a good thing for you to do. She says: It is up to you.
Not only reaching over, but embracing the other side, is something common to many of the women I am meeting. I am not fearful, repulsed or dismissive: thought my rational side rolls its eyes a little, there is no point in judging or pushing away. As a long-time friend has said, we are all on the bus together. There’s no harm in finding out how someone else models the world. Plus, fuzzy-bunny woo-woo is a central part of the West Coast’s charm.
Her shamanic tradition focuses and clarifies the hurt given to us which we then unknowingly use as the the foundation stone for our personality. We internalize all the can’t-don’t-should and its gravity pulls us down and enervates us. The voices become reality and we learn to choke ourselves. I think that’s the essence of it, really. The feathers and smudging are props and symbols. Religion is, after all, a form of theatre we have forgotten is a show.
Growing up in Texas, this kind of thing would have been the highest form of heresy, not only to whatever branch of self-hating and fear-based strip-mall Protestantism you belonged to, but–since the melange of all those Christian subsets is more or less the foundation of Texas civil society–the very fabric of the universe itself. How else could grown men and women believe the countryside was full of Satan worshipers sacrificing babies and manifesting the Dark Lord with blood orgies every Saturday night? People really believed this stuff. The olde-tyme religion I grew up around did not allow for alternative views, like goddesses instead of A God, or animals being Spirit People with something to say worth listening to. It is the most delicious and horrible irony that there is more than one true religion, none of which tolerate dissent.
Thus it’s important to me personally to let everyone breathe the same air. I don’t tolerate the woo-woo types or the Episcopals: to tolerate implies gritted teeth, some thin forcefield holding us back from our murderous impulses. It just doesn’t seem like a very high bar. It’s not any harder to empathize, to live in what could be called Method tolerance. Be the woo-woo, be the Episcopal. It’s like working out a character, figuring out who your user is. The key truth is this: that the character, the user, is not you. There really is more than one truth. You can’t get it wrong. All of us have already succeeded.
Sweat lodges have been around probably as long as humans, at least where it’s cold and damp. People have figured out a variety of ways to stress themselves into seeing visions or getting messages from other realms. Desert people go out in the desert without water–they don’t need to build anything. African tribes engage in hours of jumping in a circle, chanting in the sun. Some Muslims beat themselves with whips and stumble bleeding through the streets. Christians have cut themselves off from all of this and rely on sitting up straight and boring themselves into trances, or handling strychnine-soaked snakes, or something. The while-coat guys, science professors, science fiction writers of the hardest stripe see this kind of thing as the natural consequence of pushing the nervous system beyond its tolerances. Errors caused by overheating or dehydration show up as visions from the future or voices from God. But such reductionism doesn’t change that people learn from these experiences, are changed from them. The benefit of going crazy this way is that you remember it pretty well when you’re back to normal.
Her tradition has borrowed much from the old Native American/First Nations ways, a seminal piece being the sweat lodge. Other symbology surrounds and builds up to it: the pipe and its tobacco, calling to the winds, invocations of the stars and Zodiac. Once a month the local following meets, hears inspirational talks, has rituals involving the pipe and their spirit names, and then the silent descent to the lodge.
I don’t know anything about this then. She gives me elaborate instructions about making offerings with the tobacco and buying little gifts and how much money I’m supposed to give to who when. It seems very complicated: I don’t want to insult or disappoint but feel reluctant to go to that much trouble. She brings tobacco and we put it in the same little ziploc pouches used for spare buttons on new clothes, or crack. I should bring a towel, including one I can soak and put on my head. I think of Douglas Adams.
No longer being a churlish adolescent, I’m not going into this to make fun of it, to declare myself superior to it. I am remembering that quiet, awed, repressed part of me that could feel the universal time in the trees, the ancient sea of endless living churning in the earth and nightly rising skyward. I remember standing out in the street in 1986, Matt and I equipped with binoculars and my science kit telescope, looking at the tiny smudge of Halley’s comet. That’s it? we said, and laughed in our kid selves: at the expectations reduced, like getting the toy and seeing it’s just some plastic nothing like the expansive, incredible world the commercial portrayed. We lay on the street and looked up at the endless expanse, all the little lights flickering. Is anybody out there looking back? Is it true they are real, places you can go? High school dominated us, but the stars were far larger, both powerful and irrelevant. We were quiet with that.
I think the sweat lodge people are learning to listen to the stars again.
Sweat lodge meets at a nondescript but well-tended house. To respect the neighbors, parking is down and around the block. She happens to pull in front of me so I have her to walk with, instead of go alone. The place is wood and glass, upscale but still lived in, with Christmas lights in the entry. It’s packed with Seattle-normal sorts of people: thin, white, talking a mile a minute in clipped, near-Canadian accents. I meet her husband where I struggle to hear him (unusual) and him to hear me (common). He is a nice guy, but intense, focused, attuned to listening, and everyone knows him. The living room fills with noisy, happy people. A gorgeous willow of a woman, with raven-black hair and thin pianist’s fingers, is new like me. She seems better briefed and more at home, chatting about where people are in their studies. There is a call to order and she is next to me, in a crammed chair. I sit on the piano bench, the instrument behind me, the sheet music shelf full of the big-note practice pieces I remember from childhood.
Without having been told explicitly what to do or say, I take the tourist’s strategy of being quiet and nodding thanks when looked at. Two leader women sit on the floor, edging into the fireplace hearth’s ashes, and run through opening business: sign-up sheets for crew to tend the fire, schedules for the upcoming months, half-conversations with the assembled over who owes what to whoever did that last time. Money is brought up. (Even as a kid I observed that churches are always hungry.) The house’s physical needs are mounting and despite the volunteers and the leader’s charity they must give unto Caesar like everybody else. So please do.
The assembled Seattle-normals look like they can, the on-street parking comprised of newer Subarus. In the end, when I go, I forget about the tobacco and gift rigamarole and drop forty bucks in the basket. I think that is probably the largest amount I have ever given any religious-like anything.
Like AA, the gathered announce themselves and summarize the week. They use their spirit names; I will not attempt to synthesize an anonymous one, as it seems too easy to inadvertently name someone. After giving their names they describe trials run and impediments overcome, both external physical challenges and emotional blocks. Like me they have powerful critics who challenge and undermine them, who question and presume failure. That’s the itty bitty shitty committee, the leader says, and they all laugh. We all know this committee.
It’s hard to know if they say their spirit names struggling not to laugh, or struggling to accept a frame and belief that is as big as it promises. When they announce a triumph it seems real enough, and everyone congratulates, applauds. They use the Great Spirit and the winds and the zodiac and turkey feathers and smoke to work through to better selves. It seems to help. There’s no need to judge. It’s something to be happy for.
They come around to me and I try to be funny. I’m Derek Whitey Name. Nothing and I deserve feeling like a shitheel as I give them some general outlines: time of change, divorce, reorientation. A riff on something someone else said got a good laugh, and the circle moves on, then back to the leaders, who start with the pipes.
Pipes get a lot of attention: words, movements, spinning in proscribed directions, calling out to powers and things. There is a lot of smoke. People sit on chairs or crosslegged on the floor as the leaders run through the ritual, the incantations. This goes on for some time, dulling consciousness. I have some folk art I got at a craft fair who knows where: a beaten-copper frame around a mirror and a print from what looks like a Seventies magazine, where a dark-skinned man with angled features holds up a pipe, the smoke and his cloak merging into the head of a great sunsetting bird. All oranges and indigos, the image was something I can’t remember out of childhood: pure and quiet the way crayons are. This time is like this. I know it’s how rituals work, but there’s no need for being disappointed in magic just because you know it’s a trick. Tricks are the height of usefulness. We trick ourselves all the time.
When the time to do the sweat lodge comes, everyone sits up and mills around, some moving with more purpose than others, some chatting, some determined. Again, the similarity to AA or a self-help class is there, though it seems happier here. Some line up for the bathroom and shed straight Seattle exteriors for robes or saris, while others disrobe in the living room. We are to undress to the level of our comfort and most have no problem showing ill-defined middle-aged white bodies free of self-consciousness, wrapped only against chill. There is something ridiculous about it which brings out conviviality, everyone together in robes and towels and flip flops. The greatest concern, for those that notice, are how I’ll endure the short backyard walk barefoot.
Instruction about how heat flows and where ideal places to sit in line are hushed at the back of the line and mostly forgotten or done without. I’m told next to last is a good place to be. Quiet comes as we stand in pre-reverence in the brilliant, wood kitchen. Windows frame impenetrable, timeless dark, broken only by our shuffling.
I am not sure where I am or what I am doing, but I am not anxious, not really, not like I’ve known. Fear is far too strong a word; I am not reluctant, looking for escape. It’s a little uncomfortable, but not too much. It is only a little strange to be at a house in the city, drawing on ostensibly ancient practices, going down deck steps to a hole in the earth. Christmas lights shine out from neighboring backyards, and the wind hushes through the trees. I shuffle with everyone else, quiet, looking and listening. The mind is quiet. It is all right.
We wind down the broad steps, down flagstones, around stone walls and a stone path. Three people stand near a fire pit, stone walls and a metal cover keeping the heat and light within. Wind whips away the smoke, but it is not cold. From the ground, the house looms bright as a ship bursting from the pages of an upscale magazine. Its and neighbors’ security lights tick on and off as we shuffle, silent, the leader doing something to the first in line, who says something quiet back, bends, and goes in.
The sweat lodge is across from the fire pit, low, indistinct, primitive. In the dark it looks like a bush, or a compost pile, the stone path curling around it. No higher than my lower chest it looks like a growth on the earth’s face. But when the lights are at the right angle I can see why so much talk was about the washing and drying and maintenance of blankets: the thing is a mass of them, overlaid and overlaid, every irregular space covered by thick gathered cloth. Wind doesn’t lift them as it blows through my towel. I can see the thing isn’t very large and begin to wonder how we will all fit. We shuffle, the wind blows, the people stoke the fire and I smell how hot and clean it burns.
At the entrance, the leaders do elaborate business with the next one to enter: touching this way and that with a feather, saying and repeating, smudging with smoke from a palm-sized shell, the acrid smoke peeling straight away in the wind. The entrance is a simple arch of sticks, hardly visible but apparent with how a blanket flap is attached. It is utterly black and small, the space stopping at the dirt. Everyone before must be in there but they cannot be seen, swallowed up in the tiny space. The entry business complete, the person in front of me stoops, says the things they are supposed to say, and scuttles in like a new crab.
The leader turns to me. Helpers take my towel. I have disrobed to underwear, not for Puritan hangups about exhibiting myself, but because it seems reasonable: I have no idea what I’ll be sitting on. I hold my arms out and the women do the same business in the same focused quiet, the loudest sound the feather scratching my skin. Wind blows smoke and heat from the fire. Starlight falls on the blankets and their wild linear patterns, the only color I can see magenta stripes. The dark hole is down low, a little too low to see, not quite where I think it is. The woman says the words that allow me in. I do not get the other part right, but go down to the earth and lumber forward on my hands.
It is dark and close. People are the most vague shapes whose masses cannot be sensed, but there is enough light to see a spot of less dark: I move toward it. Turning, staying low, I come to face the entrance. Looking upward I can see the bough structure, all branches no thicker than a cat’s arm wound over and under each other, tied at points with reeds, the blankets lying smoothy across the open dollar-bill-sized spaces. I have an overwhelming memory of childhood times out in the woods, in little structures made of branches and tossed-away lumber, the best we could do for a castle or spacecraft. Inside there is the sound of wind past the door and naked people breathing. They laugh and make little jokes, which are really quite funny. I am not freaked out at all. If anything I wonder why all the business is really necessary. The spirits are always here, aren’t they?
The final people behind me shuffle in, both women. About half the people here are women, and the fact that they are all naked and inches away is of no sexual interest whatsoever. It is very warm but not hot as the leader woman shuffles in, her naked silhouette soft and sagging in places against the halogen security light. There is something about calling the winds and spirits, some ritual calling out to the fire tenders. A metal door is opened, revealing the fire’s hot throat; there is the sound of metal shovel scraping. Hot stones are brought in and they clonk against each other in the pit I can’t see, a gritty, sharp, primal sound. The procedure for lowering the flap is like sealing a submarine hatch, calls back and forth to assure some kind of safety. I remain calm because there is nothing else to do and no reason to be any other way, my knees hitched up and not uncomfortable, touching no one.
Darkness is total with the closing of the flap. Heat rises. First there is the heat of a pool sauna, gentle with space around globes of heat for normal space and time, but the heat increases to the worst Texas summer, where the air hangs as spent tissue and the heat is a smothering, deadbrained presence. She is chanting through this, running through something important like in the living room with the pipes; the people say a word equivalent to amen but not amen and I don’t remember what it is, but am grateful they don’t overdo it. There is no room to jump up, no need to prove anything to a melodramatic god. This god is patient, with many forms and helpers. It is satisfied with heat and feathers and the naked body you already have.
My friend told me about having a small towel soaked in cold water or ice worn on the head, but I forgot this. It is very hot, but tolerable, manageable. The sweat starts to form inside my scalp and push through the hair, pooling there before running down my neck. The heat has grown to liquid purity, filling every space between every molecule. Is this what the womb was like, so tight, small, dark and hot? I question how we can survive either.
The first act is talk about winds and spirits, invocations and invitations, bringing heavens down and earth up. I imagine she is doing things with her hands but no one can see, they can only trust. There is a lot of it: eagles and south wind and names of stars. Through the heat it makes a different kind of sense, not natural and obvious but not strained and ridiculous either. It is appropriate. There is the AA-like going-around-the-circle, now inside this blanket and stick womb, as we name something we will release from the grip of the itty bitty shitty committee. Everyone releases very human things couched in their frame’s language and symbolism, which I can strip away to see the essence: I will no longer allow myself to sabotage my own inner change, I will not fear mean people at work, I will not give up the dream of meeting the man that is for me. Everybody cheers and laughs. The gifts and releases are sincere. Everyone is laughing because how ridiculous to be held up and ashamed of such constant, universal things. Everyone laughs because in here they can be naked and plain. I am not lying when I say I can’t remember what I said–I think it was some aspect of not automatically dismissing my own gifts and talents. It met with hearty approval.
She calls out and the flap is opened. Everyone says they are all right. I drink most of my now-warm water, having forgotten to fill the bottle with cold from the fridge. Sweat runs off my arms and soaks my groin like having run through a sprinkler. Outside air is like coming up after a stupid kid breath-holding contest: the greatest opening possible, the lightest cool, the brightest invisible. It comes in low and flushes the sewage of heat. The flap is a window to an outside I now really, really want, but I know this extremis is good and worth going through. No one is complaining. They think it’s fun.
Heads of stone clonk down, echoing through the hot damp dirt. The flap closes and the heat returns instantly, the very fabric of the air. My head is down near the floor to get the cooler air which is hardly cooler, pooling dripping sludge in my lungs. Some more chanting and then the meat: we are to call out to the Spirit good we want extended to others. The small space fills with voices, loud and soft and clear and muddled, calling out for help to diseased friends or troubled relationships or losses or failures or all the frightening unseen things we can’t tell the size of. My mind goes blank with trying to speak. I fall to mumbling, and the thoughts are clear: no specific wish or help, but thanks and gratitude toward all those that have listened to me over the past few years, who have been unfailingly supportive and kind. I realize that calling out to misfortune in any capacity could attract it, so I don’t call out anything, don’t ask for anything. I can only think to acknowledge them and wish them well. I don’t have any control over spirits or winds. They will do what they what they always do.
Flap opens, air of life rushes in. She asks if everyone is okay and they all say yes. I am out of water and ask for some. I am breathing like a winded horse, covered with a fish’s slime coat of sweat. The sweat runs in my eyes and does not burn as there is no salt in it. People ask if I am okay. I say I will be–nothing fades or swims, the voices are all out in the real world which remains ruled by gravity. Memory of the heat just passed already dissolves into a strange, tinny echo of all the other memories of heat: power lines singing themselves in the sun, a magnifying glass scorching sidewalk concrete, getting the mail and my feet sinking into the street like hot caramel and in that cold winter looking down and seeing the prints of my toes frozen there. Heat is there only when it is there, but it lives on the way cold does not, shriveled down into every rock in a tiny coil, waiting to be coaxed out by the sun. I don’t drink that much water. I fixate on Gatorade, buying it on the way home, standing in the dark Saturday night parking lot with the bored kids on their bikes by the Redbox machine, tasting the salt and artificial coloring, feeling the pour.
Flap closes for the end. The rocks are large and sizzle against themselves. There is no cooler air anywhere, no escape from the layers of fetid smothering, the chanting and prayer. I am conscious but do not remember what happened other than my inner monologue: breathe, slower, and wait, do not embarrass yourself, bend down, hold your knees, breathe through your mouth just a little longer, a little longer, can’t be long now, you can hold on a second, a second, a second.
In the most extreme moment we give ourselves a landmark, real or imagined, so we have something to reach. It is a trick like any other and taught early it is so useful, and we keep doing it, because it gives us momentum. Any weight yields once the momentum is there, working with you, showing you do have agency even in the most intractable and ridiculous circumstances. There is always something to push against, and when you reach the milepost but not the end, just pick the next milepost. High school trains you, from test to test to grade to grade, and then on to the next thing. Now you need extremis because you need a reason for mileposts. You are lost without the desperate thing to push you to need a thing to grab at. You can make a milepost out of anything.
So hot, I’ll wait until the end of her next sentence and see. Breathe. Okay, the next sentence. They must all be hot. She is going faster. They must all be hot. One more sentence and I’ll say something. One more. The last one.
The flap opens.
There is some kind of talk about how you can lie on the flagstones to connect to the Earth, and I decide that is fabulous. I am asked if I am all right or need help, but I crawl for the square hole of light. Cool air hasn’t flooded in like before: the heat fights this time, holds on, and I push under it, sliding through its waves and structures. This is like so many things, too many to name. Is this what being born is like? Is this what shit feels like? My underwear is wet enough to run off me and I am gasping huge, swinging lungfuls of air.
Standing outside, the cool air hits like the washcloth left to dry in the bathtub: more shocking than cold, more unexpected than shocking. I am handed a towel and asked if I’m all right again. The world is dark but floodlit and a floodlight’s sharp angle, like the backyards and driveways of childhood when night could no longer be denied. Stars are very bright and very far away, and the backyard is a winter microcosm, all leaves and stems and brown and night. I am fury hot and all but naked and the wind feels fine. People are helped out and I find a place out of the way, near a raised bed, and lie face-down on the stones, towel rolled under my forehead. Stone grit presses into my skin and knees and I breathe like a man saved from drowning.
I breathe those breaths a long time, feeling the world spin like I haven’t since I was a kid, spinning and running through my grandmother’s field. It was a field then, not houses, puffy with alfalfa, the white gate opening to green. That was a long time ago, when station wagons were the size of New England states, and made of metal. It is the only thing I think, and once, and then there is breath and the wind in the trees.
I knew I would be going through something but I did not know what it was. As if that is possible–no one can explain the future that is the past for them so it makes sense for you. When we stood at the gates of summer, loosed by the last bell, Matt and I stood in the quiet long after the screaming stopped and looked across the middle school parking lot and realized, for the first time, there was not just delight, but dread. The cloudless high sky, the black steel poles that held up the building, the bits of fast food litter clinging to the curb the same color as the grass already gone brown: I think I remember that day too well. I think the adolescent association of dread with maturity no longer serves a useful purpose. As if it ever did.
On those stones, breathing through them, I realized I was through the long tunnel of heat, the coil of it wound tight in that bump on the Earth’s face. The heat was leaving, but would be in me a while yet. I could feel it clinging, bits breaking off and floating away, like leaves.
When I stood, I saw only helpers left, piling towels and fiddling with the fire. Inside there was some finishing business, most of which I spent in the kitchen, drinking water and sprinkling salt in my hand and licking it. Nobody was concerned about me. Nobody made fun of me, either.
They disassemble the pipes and talk through this, everyone back sitting watching with reverence, changed into clothes or after-clothes. Then, happy Solstice, and the party is open. The kitchen, laden with the best gluten-, cruelty-, meat- and allergen-free food Seattle has to offer–as well as wine and all those things clearly marked for those with no such reservations–fills with people for whom this is entirely normal. My friend offers personal scolding for not doing the head towel thing. She asks me how it was. I don’t think I knew then. Some other women talk and I talk with them: one is from Texas, who I guess is from Tennessee, and reflects on how she has released years of pain and trauma from this practice. Then there is another tall, thin dark-haired woman who keeps talking to me, and who, when we are leaving, I say goodbye to. I have never asked a woman for her number and don’t ask for hers, but wonder what would have happened if I did.
It was a big enough night. Out in the street it feels normal, the street solid, nothing too cold, the city lit for Christmastime night. I do not feel disoriented or lost or wrung-out or suspicious of my having unknowingly done something wrong. It is all right. I would like a cool shower.
At the 7-11, the parking lot has only one car, and no one at the Redbox machine. The sub-Saharan cashier says nothing about my appearance, perhaps assured I am collected enough to give him exact change. In the blue-white mercury light I open the Gatorade bottle and drink the artificial grape and take in the fruit of science. It is good fruit, and grows well, but I have known for a long time it is not quite enough.