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’s Date 20: When God Fills the Space, a Trip to the Island of Lost Souls

Luana_Danse_Savage-Small__07477_std“You look familiar.  Are you famous?”

This is an auspicious beginning to any date – even an Artist’s Date, one that I take by myself.

I assure Eric, the salesperson at Blackbird Gallery and Framing, that I am not.

“I love this,” he continues, gesturing to my bindi.  “All of this,” he adds, waving his hands in small circles around his face.  “You are beautiful.”

I like this man.  Of course, he is gay.

In my hand is a cardboard tube.  I’ve made a handle out of packing tape so I could carry it from Nashville to Knoxville to Atlanta and home to Chicago.  Inside are two posters.

I bought them at Hatch Show Print in Nashville – America’s oldest working print shop – where letterpress posters summoned me through glass.  Where nary a square inch of wall isn’t covered with iconic images of Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline and the Grand Ole Opry.

A smattering of them are for sale, among them “Luana. Danse Savage” and “Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman.”   As soon as I spotted them, I knew they were mine.

Eric unrolls them onto a large table and places weighted felt bags at each corner so they lie flat.  They are made of heavy cotton paper, printed in single color ink.  Luana is deep purple – women dancing in short fringed skirts, with cuffs around their ankles.  Island of Lost Souls with the Panther Woman is forest green – a vamped-out, busty broad holding a wild cat on a leash.

Island of Lost Souls.  I feel like I took up residency there about a year ago.  I often times still feel wayward.  Uncertain.  Acutely aware that little in my life has stood on terra firma for some time now.

Island_of_Lost_Souls_01__08149_stdMarriage dissolved.  Another move cross-country, this time bringing little with me that feels like home.  At the time it felt liberating – packing the 13-year-old Honda Civic and leaving the rest behind.  Only later did it register as frighteningly impulsive and potentially foolish.

And yet, my ex doesn’t seem to feel any less lost than I – living in the house where we once lived together, sleeping in the bed we used to sleep in together, surrounded by “our things.”  Perhaps I got the better end of the deal.  Spiritually, at least.

I like the panther on the poster.  And the va-va-voom dress the woman is wearing.  A sexy new take on Cat Woman.  The possibility of living as a super hero.

Luana reminds me of Sunday afternoon dance class at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  Of the serendipity and just plain good luck I had to dance with a troupe in Rwanda this past summer.  The dancers’ surprise and delight that the muzungo (white person) could follow.

Luana seems the opposite end of the Island of Lost Souls.  Yet I am both of them at once.

The posters are big.  Big enough to make a dent on my big, blank canvas of a wall – painted  eggshell by my landlord.  The colors, the same as those in the fabric hanging on the adjacent wall – a few meters cut and carried from the Rwandan market.

They are not what I had envisioned here.

slade painting of meI had imagined my friend Slade’s sketch of me.  Shaved head, bindi, a whitish aura around me – he is not the first to comment on it.  I look a little bit African American, a little bit Hare Krishna.  Thin, wispy, spiritual.  I love it.  I love how he captured me.  But the piece is small, and it lives in his sketchbook.

I had imagined a map.  Or a series of maps, playing off the unintentional travel theme of the room.  Snowshoes on one side of the entry way, license plates from California, Washington and Illinois on the other.  Stacked suitcases turned on their side make a table.  There’s the Rwandan fabric, and a painting I bought from my friend Scotty of a woman leaving her home, leaving her tribe.  It’s called, “You Can Take it With You.”

I am amazed at how the space is filled when I let go of my ideas and make room for God.

Eric and I lay frame corners on the edges of the posters.  Painted wood.  Maple. Birch.  No.  Not quite.  I place a sample of metallic sage on one, metallic plum on the other.  A marriage is made.

Eric places a card on top of the posters.  It shows the differences between three types of glass.  Three price points.  I submit to the middle grade.  Less reflection.  Less distortion.  UV protected.

We talk about spacers and decide I can do without.

Eric crunches numbers and square inches.  I look at paintings and photographs on the walls.  The artists are young, accomplished – as evidenced by their bios.  Talented.  I feel woefully far behind in my craft.  As if I’ve been losing time for some time.  On that Island of Lost Souls for far longer than I realized.

He produces a framing estimate that shocks me.  Even with my $61 Yelp! coupon credit it is much more than I anticipated.  I consider leaving and sticking a tack into Luana and the Island.

I think about all the things I left behind so that I could create something new.  Something shiny.

I hand over my credit card and put down a deposit, hoping the second half will show up on next month’s bill.

I tell Eric about the posters.  About dancing in Africa in the middle of a divorce, leaving the Island of Lost Souls for a spiritual sojourn.  He tells me about his photography work.  We talk about my return to writing.

Perched up on a three-legged stool, I realize I am flirting.  It doesn’t matter that he is gay.  I feel light.  Like myself.  Or who I used to be.  I enjoy our easy rat-a-tat-tat repartee.

I ask him his sign.  Sagittarius, he says and I laugh.  I should have known.  I tell him I love Sagittarians.  I do not tell him that the book Love, Sex and Astrology says that Libra and Sagittarius meet at half past 7 and are in bed by 8.

I keep this to myself, along with stories of all the Sagittarians I have loved – my first real boyfriend in college.  My one-time drinking partner.  My religious studies professor – the object of my unrequited desire for so many years.  Unfinished business.

Instead, I tell him I am a Libra.  He tells me I seem strong.  Resilient.  I smile and nod.

“Sometimes,” I say.

After nearly an hour with Eric, I leave with a pink receipt and a card for his next open studio.

As I cross the threshold on the way out, a couple walks in with a large piece of art for framing.  So large it requires both sets of hands.  Divine timing.  God filling the space I am leaving.