Teaching of the Sweat Lodge, A. Paquette
Note: I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project
Here is my #iamsubject story.
WOMEN TAKING STEAM
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.
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.
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.
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.
is a 55-gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove that hovers above a wide bed
of river rocks.
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
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.
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.
this rich moment, a simple
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.
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.
share a tender moment with two women who had no need or desire to bare their
souls by throwing their minds around.