Teaching of the Sweat Lodge, A. Paquette

NoteI am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project 
Here is my #iamsubject story.

                                               WOMEN TAKING STEAM

      A dog team yelps briefly in the starry
night. 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 a 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, though
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, and oil drums
emerging from mounds of deep snow. Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, or as
far north as Koliganek. The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory
lingers. I am taking a steam with two Eskimo women who are strangers to me.
What is remembered most clearly is a felt-sense of care and belonging imparted
by the women who never even asked my name.
      It wasn’t so long ago that schoolchildren in
the villages were shy and spoke very little, relying more on facial expressions
to meet and greet newcomers. The raising of eyebrows meant “yes” in response to
a question. Pause patterns between sentences were comparatively longer than
non-native people. It took me several years to fully understand these
differences in our conversations. Future tense was not expressed (there was no
need when one lives day by day, following the rhythms of weather and seasons).
Value was not placed on being highly verbal as in the Anglo worldview, and people
were not accustomed to being barraged with a flurry of questions. Children
learned by watching and imitating members of their tribe. The women of the
village, too, had a quiet ambiance about them that exuded confidence and a sure-footedness
in their daily activity. I am quite sure they never compared themselves to
others, or complained about their lot in life. The older the woman, the wiser
she was regarded, gaining great respect from all members of her community.
        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.  In the small entryway, we remove boots
and socks, and hang up our clothing on 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 that hovers above a wide bed
of river rocks.  
      One woman nods for
me to follow. She is small in stature, with a soft round belly, sturdy, muscled
legs and a long black braid falling to the curve in her back. We sit on a long
wooden bench against the wall. The woman dips a wooden scoop into a bucket of
water and ladles it carefully over the rocks. Hissing steam pours forth and I
breathe in deeply the welcomed moisture. The women speak a few words, 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.  Feels good, yes, she says, chuckling. The
woman continues dipping and pouring until the room is filled with relaxing
      In my culture, being
chatty is highly valued. We talk about everything: work, family, love, sex,
weight gain, weight loss, celebrities, money…and we do so intensely, even with
strangers. There are experts on every block. Chat rooms on the Internet. Coffee
chats. Over-the-fence neighborly chats. That’s how we solve problems, request
advice, or just air what ails us. We become close through reciprocating in
conversation and in sharing our stories of triumph and heartache. Or sometimes
we talk just to talk. Sometimes we talk to avoid the silence.
      Another nod. A
smile. I follow as we ease ourselves down to the slatted wood floor and sit
cross-legged. One of the women scoops water into the wide metal bowls at our
feet. Her face holds no particular expression, just serenity. She breathes
deeply. Raises her eyebrows, hands me a bottle of shampoo. Hunched over, the
women flip their long black hair into the bowls and begin washing. A deep sigh
follows; a letting go. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened
glow of the wood stove.
      I am entranced by
this rich moment, a
elemental cleansing
shared with two strangers. Names, titles,
and accomplishments, unimportant. Making money, who’s divorcing who, the
plethora of advice, complaints and criticisms…gone.   There was a
sense of relief in this heavily schooled, career loaded body; a dispelling of everything
worrisome, gossipy, and even intellectual from this content-laden mind; and in
its place, a simple gesture of an age-old, bare handed experience. 
     I have
remembered these women for a long time, and our shared, quiet intimacy; a cleansing that
surpassed the need to use words from my overwrought verbal repertoire. 

      Someone once said do not speak unless you can improve on the silence. It felt good to
share a tender moment with two women who had no need or desire to bare their
souls by throwing their minds around. 
      It felt good to simply be…quiet.


0 thoughts on “Women Taking Steam”

  1. A few stray thoughts:

    " Children learned by watching and imitating members of their tribe." Children still do. That's part of the difficulty in our tribe just now. The children are watching and imitating us, and we're not nearly as attentive as we should be to what they see.

    Your comments about communication and its non-verbal forms reminds me of Liberia. It was unnerving for me, until I became accustomed to people showing up at the door and saying, "we have come to spend time." They would take chairs, and just sit. It wasn't easy to understand that a glass of water was all that was needed. They hadn't come to talk. They'd come to "spend time". When they'd been there for a while, someone would say, "Now we have spent time." Then, they'd get up, shake hands and leave.

    I love your last phrase, about our tendency to "throw our minds around". It can be just as aggressive and exhausting as it sounds.

    A very well-told tale of an extraordinary experience.

  2. Interesting. To the Liberians, does "spending time" actually mean to talk, to visit? In my husband's neighborhood in Iowa, relatives and friends would stop by all the time, unannounced, to visit, spend time. I on the other hand, would like a phone call before someone visits. Maybe because I'm always involved in this or that project, and it feels like an interruption. I'm sure much is lost by my habit of phoning or texting first. After all, people are more important than projects.

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