Monday, December 26, 2011

Women Taking Steam 2

A dog team yelps briefly in the starry night.  Then quiet.  Our boots squeak in the snow, the temperature hovering at 20 below.  The hairs in my nostrils freeze, my lungs breathe in dry air.  Clothes, frozen on the line, hang out to dry; stiff white sheets silent against a violet-black sky.  We walk on a narrow path beaten down by pack boots and animal tracks; a path of least resistance through knee deep snow. The steam house stands in a small clearing surrounded by birch forest, interrupted by the light of a half moon.
It is almost like a dream to me now.  I can’t place the village, and the experience is frozen in my mind. It was fourteen, maybe fifteen years past.  I am traveling in Western Alaska, and visit many villages in the course of five days as an itinerant therapist.  I remember a row of spruce-log cabins facing the airstrip, a modern schoolhouse perched atop a small rise, oil drums emerging from mounds of deep snow.  Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, Inakpuk or as far north as Koliganek.  The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory lingers.  I am washing my hair in a wide metal bowl, taking a steam with two of the local Eskimo women.
            The heavy wooden door scrapes the icy ground when opened, and a warm rush of air billows out. I pull the door tight behind me, breathing in dry warming heat. In the small entryway, we remove boots and socks, and hang up our clothing on moose horn hooks.  There is no light inside but the kerosene lantern one woman carries to lead our way.
            Naked, we step into the heat room.  At the far end of the enclosure is a 55 gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove.  The stove sits erect above a bed of river rocks.  An old metal bucket and wooden scoop rest nearby.
            They speak very little so I watch the women, and follow them. We sit on a long wooden bench against the wall.  One woman dips the wooden scoop into a bucket of water and ladles it carefully over the rocks.  Hissing steam pours forth and I breath in deeply the welcomed moisture.  The women speak a few words in Yupik, laugh a little, then quiet.  I close my eyes and feel my skin tingling.  The heat deepens.  Moisture collects along my hairline, in the creases behind my knees, between my breasts.  Again a woman dips the scoop and pours water over rocks.  More steam surges.  I think, I don’t even know your names. She continues dipping and pouring until the whole room is filled with a relaxing warmth.  I wait and watch. The floor is made of narrow slats of wood spaced an inch apart, allowing the water to drain.  We slide from the bench to the floor and sit cross legged; I am handed a large wide metal bowl. One woman scoops water into the bowls.  I am handed a bottle of shampoo. With rounded backs, they submerge their long black hair into their bowls and begin washing. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened glow of the wood stove. I am entranced by this rich moment, a simple elemental cleansing shared with two strangers.
      We have steamed many times, my husband and I, while camping on the naked beaches of cold swift rivers.  It is one of the many simple pleasures we enjoy after a long day of rowing, often in inclement weather.  After assembling gear, preparing the evening meal, and erecting the tent, we are ready to begin the ritual.  The forest offers many dead tree poles, and we choose a few six or seven footers to lash together at the top, making a simple teepee frame.  We punch the ends of the poles into the beach sand and envelope the structure with a large plastic tarp.  Inside, rocks are piled in a circular mound, and in the middle, a fire is built. As the heat builds, the sounds of fire and rock, popping and cracking echoes on the nearby water.  We hunker down and let the steam do its work, draining our muscles of tension, putting bodies and minds at ease.  Then within the heat of the smoldering fire, we discuss the next day's unfolding.
     So that is the plan for us tonight. As I look out the window of my studio, there are two and white, with various shades of gray...a white winter landscape. We'll steam tonight, in the form of a dry sauna in our home,  and a world apart from the rigors of a riverside camp or far-away village.
    Still it will feel every bit as restorative and relaxing; not ancient or remote, but simply...good.

Monday, December 12, 2011

We are Winter People and Today is a Snow Day

3 yrs. old

We walked heads down into the icy wind, my brothers and I, across a mile of barren wheat field under a lead gray sky. The expanse was a whitewashed playing field we could roam undisturbed for hours.  At the far end of the field was a long drainage ditch, and on our hike across the field, we stopped to place pieces of graham crackers that had broken off in our pockets at the openings of muskrat holes.  With snow welded to our mittens and our pockets stuffed with snacks, the day stretched out like miles before us.  The only rule of the day was be back for supper.  Of course we had no watches, but could sense and feel when it was time to turn back towards home.
The drainage ditch, filled with arching cattails in the fall, was smothered with four feet of soft powdery snow in early winter; the mere sight of it a treat to our creative energies.  One by one, we jumped with abandon into the untouched mounds.  Like off the diving board at the public pool, we leaped cannonball style, landing softly with a quiet muffled thud.  Gingerly we crawled out to higher ground, careful not to disturb the integrity of each hole and causing a cave-in.  Exhausting the length of the ditch we jumped and jumped until, like a strand of beads laid end to end, our string of hovels was complete.
            Inside one hole the three of us gathered, digging it larger and packing the sides to fit our bundled bodies. The energy of huddling created a cozy warmth, and pressed shoulder to shoulder, we talked excitedly about our newly created fort. Biting balls of ice off our mittens and eating crumbled peanut butter cookies wrapped by our mother in waxed paper, we sat in relative comfort, our voices thick in the dense air. Far above us, wisps of white clouds slipped across the gray winter sky.  
            Later we split up, one person to a hole. Within moments, I became restless and felt conspicuously alone. I called to my oldest brother but he couldn’t hear me two holes down, his name simply didn’t reach. Then the fear set in. Several years later, I'd feel that fear again, when I was six and a neighbor friend delivered me back home after a weekend away at their summer cottage on Lake Michigan.  It was the first time I had been apart from my family overnight, and I had adjusted well, until I got home.  The house was empty and pin-drop quiet, and it was as if my parents and three siblings had simply vanished from the face of the earth (they were next door; no need for alarm) Still, for a brief moment, I felt abandoned and alone. There was silence where I could only feel me, only hear me. Being alone was scary.
Though the unfamiliar  fear of silence grew around me, I stayed put.  Having learned how to avoid the label of ”cry baby” by my brothers, a manipulation they often used to prevent me from tattling on them or to toughen me up, I chose instead to be brave. 
Rather than running from the silence, I sank into it.  Eventually I became aware of the muffled sounds of my mittens brushing against my wool coat, the huff of my breath going in and out, and beat of my heart.  If I were still enough, I almost heard nothing.  It didn’t take long to realize that I rather enjoyed the experience.  Nowhere in my small world was there a place this quiet and still; noise was constant and everywhere. The sound of TV variety shows in the background, the thump of bare feet on wooden stairs, the barking of dogs at night.  Even in church there was commotion.  Babies screeched; people coughed and cleared their throats, harsh organ music blared.  The silence, here, was to be cherished.
About the time my attention wandered to the cold seeping in around my shoulders, my eldest brother, on watch for my welfare, poked his head into the opening and with a bit of irritation asked, “What are you doin’?  How come you’re not comin’ out?”
After hours of rigorous play tired and hungry, we trudged back to our pink brick house on the dead-end street that bordered the snow-covered wheat field. That day in my self-made fort, a contrast had been noted, a small seed planted under my radar of everyday awareness.  There is an inner silence I can tap into that can be experienced anytime and anywhere; a place that is calming and grounding even in the midst of commotion and noise. There's no need to block out the silence; it's joyful, expansive and not the least bit scary.
I'm thinking of this today because it's a snow day. The trees are shawled with snow; the kids are sledding down their steep driveway ( school) and a neighbor hums by on his snowmachine while I dig myself out of my quiet hovel of a home. We are WINTER PEOPLE, and today is a SNOW DAY. Hallelujah.

2 more kids would arrive later
more mischief