I stand in the moonlight in my swimsuit, a towel around my waist, watching the sacred fire heat up the stones that give steam as water is poured on them in the lodge. The fire is unified, controlled, and powerful in its heat and light. I pause to look into it and remember my purpose and reasons for being here.
The idea of building a lodge came to us as I sat at Vin’s kitchen table with the rest of the travelers. We’d been together as a group for over a year, learning and working on healing. We took requests from friends and family, and then worked on a plan to heal the person in need of help. When we needed new skills to achieve decisive healings, we stopped, learned and practiced new techniques. These plans were sometimes elaborate.
You know how sometimes you really don’t know what you’re getting yourself into but you can’t stop yourself from doing it? This was very much like that. The Creator had tapped us on the shoulder and made a request, so we went for it.
I had been in a sweat lodge ceremony before and was familiar with the basic rituals. What I wanted to focus on this time was the construction of the lodge and preparation of the materials. There were rocks, saplings, and firewood to gather. We would need saws, tobacco or cornmeal for offerings, a car to get to the lot we were gifted to use for the ceremony, and the trees we would cut down for the framework. The tree harvest became a crucial learning for me. The sweat lodge is one of those ceremonies that takes many years to learn and many more years to master.
The decision to undertake this task was going to challenge us all. It’s one of the most powerful tools the Creator has given us. It’s about cleansing and sweating out impurities. It’s preparation for more severe and compelling challenges, but most of us had never built one before.
As I walk away from the fire, my mind drifts to the conversation I had with a fellow traveler a few minutes ago. The traveler pointed out a young woman in shorts and a t-shirt, telling me that she’s a cop. We were changing in the shed, and she was watching us. I don’t know why the police were interested in our sweat lodge ceremony, but I had more pressing matters to take care of before the ceremony.
Inside the Lodge
In the lodge, a ladle full of water is poured on the stones. At first, the water is at odds with the rocks, until they unite to produce the moisture that fills the structure. The lodge mimics the womb. We sit in the warm, misty, moist fragrance of steam coming from ancient stones and herbs. I close my eyes to feel and breathe in the steam. When I open them, I see the others shifting to make themselves comfortable on their blankets. I’m touched by my neighbor’s knee and reach out to her for comfort.
The close quarters are starting to affect me. I’m tense. The familiar panic that accompanies an anxiety attack is threatening to overtake me. My throat is closing and I know I won’t be able to breathe in a few seconds. I look toward the door for a way out. I begin to talk myself out of the panic. I helped construct this lodge and I know how to exit through the wall if I need to leave and breathe outside in the open air.
Vin is leading the ceremony. If I need help to leave, to run out of the lodge he’ll understand. No, I haven’t told him I’m claustrophobic. I’m sitting the furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t think things through before coming into the lodge.
The talk of stones was fascinating. Vin spent at least a week researching and looking for the right stones to use. He looked at lava stones but they were too fragile and would break down easily. In the end, he and the fire keeper chose large granite stones from a local quarry.
The stone people are ancient. They have seen many things over time. Their wisdom is sought by many. In this ceremony, they share their knowledge with the seekers. They share what they have seen. They will, however, give up their existence for the people in the ceremony.
The fire keeper will work on the fire and dig the trench that connects the lodge to the fire pit. He maintains the fire throughout the ceremony and delivers the hot stones to the lodge when the time comes.
I remember the Saturday we jumped into 3 cars, bursting at the seams with people on a mission. We drove for about 30 minutes and wound up at a lot filled with saplings. Our car doors flew open and we spilled out onto the pavement. We gathered around Vin for final instructions and were given a few extra saws. I had my own folding saw from my days as a civilian park volunteer.
We would have to connect with our inner vision to select the 14 trees that would make up the frame. Each sapling would have to be communicated with and an offering given for its sacrifice. I had made offerings before, but this time I felt an urgency and commitment I hadn’t had in the past. This time the project was for a group of us not just me.
The lot belonged to Roy, a traveler and friend. He was happy to let us have the saplings. I remember the sun shining down on the hundreds of young ailanthus trees. Ailanthus trees are an invasive species and these were struggling for space, each one casting a shadow on the other.
I move carefully and gently between the trees and find a few that are willing to come with me. I pray and give my offering. As I cut the trees down, I feel a physical release, as if they are saying, “I’m okay. I will sacrifice for this ceremony.”
I stop to take a break. My eyes are drawn to 2 dark trees with rough bark. I realize they are sassafras. They’re not invasive but they want to come and be part of the ceremony. I’m torn. This is not the plan. I struggle for a while and ask a traveler working next to me what he thinks. He shrugs. I take a deep breath and take the 2 trees.
We load the saplings onto the pickup truck Julian is driving and head for the ceremony site. We walk into the woods and find a large clearing. The site is mapped out and the measuring begins. The circle for the lodge is marked off using string and a center pole. The pole holes are marked with an x. Then we begin to dig.
In the lodge, it’s time to make a decision. Do I run out of the lodge or take part in the ceremony? Something reaches out to me and calm enters my body. I hear myself say, “How much do you want this?” My thoughts return to my vision, my life, my hopes and my dreams. When another ladle of water touches the stones, my panic evaporates like shadows in the mist. I open and shed pieces of doubt, jealousy, and fear. An assortment of impurities falls out of me and disappear into the soil beneath me.
As the saplings go into the ground, we begin to see the structure appear. Julian and I grab the saplings and bend them to meet in the middle and tie them together. The rest of the saplings are joined and a dome is formed.
We continue working on strengthening the walls of the lodge and Vin declares it finished. Then he stops and asks if we have one more sapling for the entrance pole. It will hold our personal items as a declaration of commitment in the ceremony.
The only saplings left are the two young sassafras trees. Julian takes one and attempts to place it in a hole but it breaks in half as he lines it up. The hole is widened, deepened, and the second sassafras tree goes in without effort. I feel very satisfied that I honored my inner vision and selected the 2 trees at the lot. I’m delighted I was listening.
We had many sweat lodge ceremonies that year. Before one of them, I remembered to ask about the policewoman that came to our first sweat. Julian leans over to tell me what he thinks. “She was with us because our lodge is built behind the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a medium security prison on Staten Island. In December 1980, two inmates tunneled out of the prison and escaped in a car – John Nappi, 26, and Daniel Chiarello, 29.” I guess they wanted to make sure we weren’t going to help anyone escape. She did stay for the ceremony but she never came back.
During one of our meetings we decide to include the prisoners from the prison in our prayers at the next ceremony.
I feel a cool breeze and the outside world slowly slips into my thoughts as the lodge door opens. I wait my turn to crawl out and back into the moonlight. No one is speaking yet and we are all emerging from within ourselves. The steam is lifting from our bodies as if forming feathered wings that open from our backs. We are the travelers, the seekers, willing to walk a little known road toward enlightenment.