The waxy brown cotton of my lapa feels soft between my fingers. Like my body. Like my heart.
I thought the African skirt would become this way over time, as I danced in it – but it remained rigid and stiff. Until today, when, in the dark and heat of the sweat lodge – Artist Date 79 – it softened, pinning itself to my body.
I roll the fabric between my fingers like rosary or prayer beads. I feel the moisture accumulate between my breasts – grateful for their small size. Grateful for the darkness to peel off my sports bra, unnoticed, and let my t-shirt from the Knoxville Farmers’ Market cover me. Given my druthers I would wear nothing. But I respect the modesty requested at this ceremonial gathering of men and women.
I close my eyes, breathe in the sweet sage, and fix my ears on the beating drum and the sound of my friend Paul’s voice.
It has been a journey just getting here.
I arrive despite a blinding thunderstorm, the need for on-the-road car repairs, and a bit of information which shakes my sense of perception and causes me to question if this is right for me, right now. And with the aid and calm of friends who ferry me to and from.
I walk about a quarter of a mile through wet, freshly mown grass to where the lodge is set up – my orange, peep-toe wedges gathering silky, green slivers.
I remember wearing these shoes through Rwanda two summers ago – collecting the red earth of the land of 10,000 hills between my toes – and recalling Patsy and Edina schlepping their Louis Vuitton bags through sand in the Morocco episode of the BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous. Dragging my rolling suitcase filled with towels, sweat and apres-sweat clothes, I feel like a bit actor in the Sweat Lodge episode.
Paul is draping blankets over the hut he constructed out of river willows – collected from his sister and brother-in-law’s property a few miles away. Rocks are heating in a pit outside of the lodge, and he has built an altar from the dirt inside of it.
Paul is the third in a line of spiritual teachers with the same name. The first being my university religious-studies professor, the second, the one who taught me to meditate – leading me through initiation with an offering of fruit, flowers (star gazers, my favorite) and the bestowing of a mantra.
Our paths have been crisscrossing for most of our lives. We agree the universe has been conspiring for us to meet.
There are eight of us, the last arriving in a John Deere Gator Utility Vehicle. She looks like an African Queen, regal in her loose batik dress with dragonflies on it, her grey hair braided at the temples and wrapped around her head like a crown. Her face is at once both sad and serene.
She reminds Paul they have been in ceremony together – with her former partner. The break-up is obviously fresh.
Words tumble out of my mouth about divorce, change and the painful nature of endings – no matter how right or how kind. How people will say all sorts of stupid things. And that she is, no doubt, on the precipice of some sort of adventure. She smiles in a way that tells me she has lived a thousand lifetimes and knows that this kind of pain is just part of it. That she has chosen this and is not fighting it.
I mention that I wasn’t sure I would make it here today. That I wasn’t sure it was right for me, right now. “Until now. You are why I am here.”
Paul smudges each of us with sage and we enter the lodge on our hands and knees, proclaiming “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations.”
I remember Patsy smudging my ex and I when she officiated our marriage. And me doing the same for my friend Chase when her divorce was final, smudging the entire house – making it “her own” again.
It is hot and humid inside. I feel a wave of nausea wash over me as Paul explains what will happen in ceremony.
Rocks. Herbs. Water.
Chanting. Praying. Smoking.
Connectedness to the earth. To one another. To ourselves.
I am afraid. Afraid of the total darkness. Afraid of what I might feel, what might “come up.” Afraid I cannot physically or psychologically endure this – even though Paul has assured us that this will be a “gentle sweat.”
But the heat is like a balm – different from the still Midwestern humidity that settled heavy around me just moments before. The drumming and chanting force all thoughts from my mind. I only hear my friend’s voice – strong, confident, prayerful – and the African Queen’s. It is sweet and slippery and hard to hold on to. But very much there. Just as I feel her, very much there, next to me.
Everything softens. My body. My brain. My lapa. I feel the sweat sliding down my body and I am deliriously in love with it. This body I have fought for so much of my life. That has brought me here and is sustaining me today. It is strong and small and very, very feminine. I feel my hands pressing into the earth beneath me. My legs. My feet. My ass. The soft dampness of moist earth is flesh, the spiky grass is hair and we are one.
I pray for my stepfather and my two girlfriends who are battling mightily. And I ask for prayers for myself. For compassion and acceptance for myself, for where I am, not where I think I should be. My voice cracks and I add, “May we all have compassion and acceptance for ourselves and for one another.”
I pray for the man who hurt my heart not so long ago. I call out his name when I am certain no one can hear me.
I smoke from the Chanupa — the sacred, ceremonial pipe. Sober nearly seven years, my addict is awakened.
I am back in college, sitting in a circle. My friend Brian stirs the bowl and lights it while I suck in all that I can, holding it in my lungs. I converse easily while I do this – like one of the big boys.
But I am not talking. And this is not weed. It is tobacco, although it tastes like juniper and pine. It is ceremony. It is holy. It is community. It is what I longed for, sitting in a circle like this, so many years ago.
I weep in the darkness. I am certain no one can hear my dying animal letting go. And it is over.
We crawl out on our hands and knees, just as we had entered, saying “Aho Matakuye O’yasin – Greetings, All My Relations,” once again.
Paul greets each of us with an embrace, and we greet one another in the same way. The African Queen’s eyes are wordlessly different. Lighter. As if the color has changed. She presses me tightly to her.
The group walks towards the house for a celebratory feast, but I stay behind and wait for Paul.
While I am waiting, I do cartwheels around the lodge. One after the other after the other, until I feel dizzy. I feel the pull of my pelvis – the source of chronic pain – and I welcome it. I feel the lightness of my body, of my mind and I welcome it, give thanks for and to it.
I had believed I was here to meet the African Queen. That was only half of the truth. In the stillness of the after-lodge, I know its other half, its twin — I was here to meet myself. “Aho Matakuye O’yasin — Greetings, All My Relations.”