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 71: An Ice Cream Kind of Day

First Stop.
First Stop.

It is 70-something and breezy. The kind of day all of Chicago has been waiting for. The kind that should have me grinning ear to ear. But it doesn’t.

I am walking and I figure if I am out here long enough, I will end up somewhere I’ve never been before – which is the point of the Artist Date, Number 71. New input.

I point my feet towards Andersonville – an old Swedish neighborhood on the north side that became popular some 15-plus years ago, yet somehow still retains a whisper of its original feeling.

I have the overwhelming urge to call someone to meet me for ice cream. Because, it is an ice cream kind of day.

I consider my date from last Saturday. Or the man I ran into Friday night. The one who told me he had been feeling lonely.

I seem hell-bent on getting away from myself. I’m not sure why. I try to observe this but not over think it.

I walk into Pars – the Persian store I have passed so many times – instead.

There are hookahs and flavored tobacco. Stacks of soap made from laurel. Rows and rows of loose tea in jars.

Packages of frankincense and sumac. Pots for making Turkish coffee. Halavah. Mildly gritty. Somewhat sweet. Made from ground sesame seeds, it is an acquired taste. I’m pretty sure only Jews and Arabs eat it.

The store is sort of sad and sparse. I leave after 20 minutes of so, no more filled than when I arrived.

I land at Roost. Overpriced, salvaged items line the sidewalk out front.  The kind one gets for a song at estate sales in the country, out-of-the way places where those left behind have little to no idea of the value of what they hold.

Inside are candles with man-ish names and smells like “tobacco and oak.” There are mugs with the Lipton Cup-a-Soup logo on them. Cardboard produce boxes that read, “Glass Grown Brand Greenhouse Tomatoes” and “Michigan Zucchini.”

Stop Two.  Typewriter at Roost, the one that connected me back to people, and to myself.
Stop Two. Typewriter at Roost, the one that connected me back to people, and to myself.

A vintage typewriter.

Two older men giggle. “Where is the screen?”

I tell them I learned to write on an IBM Selectric in journalism school. One recalls saving his birthday money to buy his first typewriter – because his handwriting was so terrible. The other received his as a high-school graduation gift.

We press the keys. They are clunky and heavy. I show them my tattoos, “write” and “left,” in typewriter font. The “f” and “i” raised for effect.

I feel a smile curl on my lips and realize I no longer have a desire to call a boy and get ice cream.  At least right now. Even though it is still an ice cream kind of day.

Walking towards home, I cut down Balmoral – a street I never walk down. I am summoned by Greensky.

I hear the shopkeeper mention to customers that most everything is sourced from “Up North” – a term only Michiganders understand – referring to the northwest part of the Lower Peninsula.

I spent my childhood summers Up North. It is a magical place. When I returned to it some 30 years later, I found it was just as I had remembered.

I finger through the Positively Green cards and buy two to send to myself. One is yellow with sunflowers. It reads “Some people are so much sunshine to the square inch. – Walt Whitman.” The other, “As no love is the same, no loss is. – Alla Renee Bozarth.”

Stop Three.  Where I found compassion for myself.
Stop Three. Where I found compassion for myself.

I think about the man who walked out of my life without a word exactly one month ago. My friends pointed out all the red flags, but I still don’t really see them. All I know is he touched my heart deeply. And that I am still sad.

I think about what I will write. What I tell myself. What I will tell the child that resides inside of me, the one who once said out loud, “I thought he loved us.”

I respond to her with compassion I can never muster for myself.

“He did love us. As best as he knew how.”

She is filter-less, honest and wise.  A little bit younger than I those summers Up North.

I will tell her I am sorry she is hurting. That time takes time.  That I love her.  Then I will address it, stamp it, and pop it in the mailbox.

I know I will feel differently one day. I just don’t yet. Like I know that today is still an ice cream kind of day.

Universal truths.

And later I will have some. Brown butter and salted peanut. I will eat it with a boy, my friend. And together we will share our lonely.

Artist Date 47: Holding On To That Bull For 8 Seconds

I drive a 13-year-old Honda Civic Hatch DX.  They don’t make my car anymore.  From time to time I find a note on the windshield, someone offering to buy it.

In the glove box, in the side pockets, and behind the cup holders are stacks of CDs.

I grabbed them, haphazardly, when I left Seattle.  Three Dog Night.  Basia.  Mazzy Star.  Those were my ex’s.  Donna Summer, Stevie Wonder and Torch Song Trilogy are mine.  As is a disco mix my friend DJ Andy T made for me.

basiaI can listen to them over and over again without growing bored.  Singing along.  The familiar words keep me awake while driving long stretches.  Keep me from my thoughts.

And then I hit a wall.  Pulling out disc after disc as I make my way down Lake Shore Drive, looking for something I want to hear.   I come up empty.  No more Bonnie Raitt.  Annie Lenox.  Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.  No more Dire Straits.  No more Gipsy Kings.

My destination for this week’s Artist Date – 47 – was easy.  To Laurie’s Planet of Sound on Lincoln Avenue.

I pass by here almost daily.  There is a white board outside with new arrivals written in dry-erase magic marker.  There are t-shirts in the window.  And inside there are records, books and CDs.  I can tell from peeking in, but I’ve never been inside.  Until Friday.  And then, just for a moment.

There is a hipster man-boy at the register.  Big curly hair, plaid button-up shirt and chunky, nerd glasses.  We nod at one another.  I think John Cusack, High Fidelity.

elvis costello

I am holding The Best of Elvis Costello and the Attractions CD.  $6.99.  I used to have this on cassette.  I remember singing along with Elvis to “Alison,” “Pump it Up,” and “Every Day I Write the Book.”  I remember my high-school crush giving me grief for buying “best of” albums.

My phone rings.  It is a call I have been expecting from a friend and mentor.  I drop the CD back in the bin and walk outside.  I will return later for it.

But I don’t.  During the course of our call, I find out she is moving away.  The stars have aligned and a “not-to-be-missed” opportunity has been presented to her family.  I am the first person she has told.

I am delighted for her.  And I feel the loss inside of me too.  I am acutely aware that our relationship will change.  I am tired of change, I think.  And yet, when things stay the same, I am restless and bored.

We finish our call and I go to Paciugo for gelato.  I order a piccolo cup – toasted coconut, sea-salt caramel, and cinnamon – and eat it walking home.  The sun is shining and the air is cool.  I am wearing gloves.  I tell myself I will go back to Laurie’s later.

But I don’t.

A friend comes over, and later, when I drive her home, she asks if I am looking forward to my Friday night alone.  Sometimes I do.  Especially this time of year, when night comes early and my radiator-heated apartment feels toasty.

I do not feel this way tonight.  I tell her so, bursting into tears.  By the time I pull over to her apartment I am sobbing uncontrollably in her arms.

I am so lonely.  She holds me.

I have been on the verge of tears all week.  This is not entirely unexpected.

Perhaps it’s because my ex-boyfriend – the one I always sort of held out hope for and thought “maybe one day…”– got engaged.

Perhaps it is because my friend and mentor is moving.  Or because I have begun to look for work in earnest, for the first time in 12 years.

Perhaps it is because I chatted online with my ex-husband today and that always kind of throws me off my square.

Or maybe it is because it is the first week in November.  That it’s just that way right now.  I don’t know.  I’m not sure that it matters.

All I know is going home by myself, to myself, is a really bad idea.  I know I won’t cook or write or take a bath.  I am pretty certain I will do something not helpful, like look up old lovers on Facebook.

I don’t feel like going back to Laurie’s either.  I don’t want to hear the chatter in my head.  And I don’t want to talk about it.  There is nothing more to say.  And knowing that is really something of a miracle.

Dallas_Buyers_Club_posterDallas Buyers Club is playing at the Century Theatres.  If I drive fast I can make the 8:30 show.  I make a beeline and arrive with time to spare.

I buy a ticket and claim a seat on the end.  I lay my coat on the seat next to me, joining the one belonging to the man sitting two to my right.  He is also alone.

I think about Tony, my first close friend diagnosed with AIDS.  I remember him cutting my hair in his kitchen and doing me up like a drag queen, full-well knowing I would never wear my hair like that.  But it makes him happy.  I remember smoking pot with him and eating empanadas in Detroit.  I remember that AZT made his mouth taste like metal and put him in a cranky mood.

But mostly, I get lost in the story unfolding in front of me.

I forget that Matthew McConaughey is Matthew McConaughey and not Ron Woodruff – a red-neck, homophobic, drug-addicted Texan diagnosed with AIDS.  I open my heart to this man who lived seven years instead of 30 days.

This man who befriended a card-shark, drag queen named Rayon.  Who smuggled non-FDA approved treatments into the United States for his Dallas Buyers Club.  Who in helping himself, helped others.

I cry watching him hold on to that bull for eight-seconds.  (See the movie.  You’ll understand.)  I cry when the screen goes black and silent white letters report his death.  Even though it isn’t a surprise.

I have gotten caught up in someone else’s story instead of my own.  It is what I had hoped for.

Driving home, I feel just a little bit better.  But I am still holding on by my fingernails.  Like a newly sober alcoholic counting the minutes before bed – congratulating himself and thanking God for making it through another day without drinking.

Holding on to that bull for eight seconds.  Holding on.