Artist Date 79: Aho Matakuye O’yasin

Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the sweat lodge.  Photo: Paul Tootalian
Bent and tied river willows form the structure of the lodge. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

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.

 

The Altar. Covered Lodge. And our guide, Paul. (I call him “The Reluctant Shaman.”

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.

Complete darkness.

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.

 

Apres sweat — eyes wide open. Photo: Paul Tootalian

 

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.”

Artist Date 58: What It’s Not About

llewyn davisI keep waiting for it to happen.  This movie.  Inside Llewyn Davis.  Artist Date 58.

I am sitting in the Davis Theatre in Lincoln Square.  There are about six other people here besides me.  It’s a Thursday night and the temperature is hovering around 5 degrees.  The streets are noticeably, eerily quiet.

There is a single, double seat tucked into the aisles.  Like a love seat.  I am tempted to sit in it and sprawl out, but I don’t.

There is a preview for a movie about Jesus, one about an escaped convict – wrongly accused, of course – falling in love.  And one for Dallas Buyers Club, which I saw a few months ago.  Artist Date 47. I well up all over again.

And I am waiting.   Not for the feature to actually begin, because it already has.  But the story.  I’m waiting for “it” to happen.

I think maybe “it” is about the cat who runs out of Llewyn’s friend’s apartment.  The one Llewyn carries with him, a guitar in his other hand, until he can return him.  The one he feeds cream to out of a saucer at a café.

I am reminded of silly, sassy cat asses.  And that I miss having a cat.  That maybe I should get one.

“It” is not about cats.  Or just that cat.  Or about carrying around shit that doesn’t belong to you.

I think maybe “it” is about taking a journey.  In this instance, with John Goodman – who looks suspiciously like one of my clients – and his driver.  Like the one in Deconstructing Harry, where Woody Allen takes a road trip with a black prostitute, up to his kid’s college graduation.  Like my many road trips from east to west and back again.  The one where I took photographs of myself at the Mitchell Corn Palace and ate butter pecan ice cream at Wall Drug.  And the one where I learned to shoot a gun in rural Montana.

corn palace

“It” is not about journeys and road trips.

I think maybe “it” is about Llewyn getting Jean, his friend’s girlfriend, pregnant.   About responsibility and taking what isn’t yours.  That “it” is about Llewyn finally arriving in Chicago and meeting the man who might change this musical trajectory.  About dreams and taking chances and storybook endings.

But “it” isn’t.

I keep waiting for “it” to happen.  And “it” never does.

Because waiting for a movie to happen is like waiting for life to happen.  I can spend so much time and energy sitting on expectations – how I think it should look – that I miss all the gorgeous, perfect moments along the way.  The movie moments.  The “it’s.”

Like playing your guitar for your father in an old folk’s home and for a brief moment seeing his eyes register recognition.  That he knows you.   Knows this song.  And then shits himself.

Like when the woman who calls you an asshole like it’s your given name, discloses a single act of kindness and you reject it.  You tell her you love her.  And she doesn’t call you an asshole.

Like when you finally make it to Chicago to see “the man” and he says to show him what you’ve got.  His eyes are soft and the lighting is perfect, streaming through dusty windows on to a dusty floor.  And your pitch is right and you are singing from inside, just like he asked you to.

And he tells you that you’re not front-man material. That he might be able to make it work if you shave your beard into a goatee and stay out of the sun.  But that your best shot is to get back together with your partner.  Because he doesn’t know your partner is dead.  That he jumped off the George Washington Bridge.  And that someone, anyone, singing his harmony sends you into a PTSD-like rage.

Llewyn’s “it’s”

Like picking up the phone and your meditation teacher asking you to sing “Easy to Be Hard” while he rides his bike in Golden Gate Park.

Like connecting with an old acquaintance who has been living your marriage and is now living your divorce – except you didn’t know it, until now.  Who speaks your heart and your story.  Talking to one another and saying over and again, “me too.”

Like sitting in a movie theatre alone.  Because you have chosen to be alone in this moment.  Because you enjoy your own company.

My “it’s.”

Maybe that’s what “it’s” all about.  These moments.  That, and a couch you can sleep on no matter what you have said or done.  A place to call home for a minute or two while you wander around in your boxer shorts eating scrambled eggs.  Friends who love you.  And a cat –something soft to hold onto, something to care about besides yourself.

The rest just fills in the blanks.