The Sweat Lodge

I stand in the moonlight barefoot in my swimsuit, a towel around my waist, watching the sacred fire heat up the stones. The fire is controlled and powerful as it was meant to be. I pause to look into it and remember my reason for being here.

My grandmother stands beside me as I remember the sacred fires made by my ancestors. How they carried the earth’s knowledge and blessing. They knew the healing herbs and the best time to plant and pick the wild plants. They walked barefoot staying connected to the earth and were made fun of for their devotion. I’m here to heal that shame.

The idea of building a lodge was Tom’s suggestion. He’s a member of our Healing Society. We were all sitting at Vin’s kitchen table. We’d been together as a group for over a year. We learning and worked with healing techniques Vin shared with us.  We took requests from friends and family and then worked out a plan to heal the person. When we needed to tackle difficult healing, we stopped, learned something new did the healing.

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 sweat lodge project was very much like that. The Creator had tapped us on the shoulder and made a request, so we went for it.

I was familiar with the basic sweat lodge ceremony. Now, I wanted to help construct the lodge and prepare the materials. There were rocks, saplings, and firewood to gather. We needed saws, tobacco or cornmeal for offerings, and a car. The car would get us to and from the lot we were gifted to use for the ceremony. The tree harvest became a crucial learning for me.

The sweat lodge is a ceremony that takes a lifetime to master. However, most of us had never built one.  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. Its purpose is preparation for more serious and powerful challenges.

My mind drifts to the conversation I had with a fellow traveler a few minutes ago. She 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. I was in charge of greeting the guest taking part in the sweat.

In the lodge, a ladle full of water is poured on the stones. At first, the water is at odds with the rocks, dancing above them. Until they burst into steam that fills the small 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 moisture. 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 lose all control and scramble for the nearest exit. All I can think of is fresh air.

Vin’s leading the ceremony. I haven’t told him I’m claustrophobic. If I need help, he’ll help me. If I need to run out of the lodge he’ll understand. I’m sitting furthest from the door. I guess I didn’t think things through before coming into the lodge. I ask spirit for help.

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 travelers. They share what they have seen. They will give up their lives for the people in the ceremony.

I remember the Saturday we jumped into 3 cars, bursting at the seams with people. We were on a mission. We drove for about 30 minutes and wound up with 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 lodge framework. 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 ceremony 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 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. I find a few that are willing to come with me. I 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’re sassafras trees. 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? I hear myself say, “How much do you want this?” A feeling of calm reaches me. I begin to feel peace enter my body. My thoughts return to my hopes of healing the shame of poverty infused into my family history. My grandmother’s shame of walking barefoot on the muddy trails, of being hungry while others shoved food in their mouths.

When another ladle of water touches the stones, I remember that I’m not here for me. I’m here for my people. I feel pieces of doubt, jealousy, and shame sink into the earth. The rest evaporates into the mist.

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 forms.

We continue working on strengthening the walls of the lodge. In about an hour Vin declares the framework finished. He stops and asks if we have one more sapling for the entrance pole. It’ll hold our personal items as a declaration of our commitment.

The only saplings left are the young sassafras trees. Julian takes one and attempts to place it in a hole but it breaks. The hole is deepened and the second sassafras tree goes in without effort. I feel satisfied that I honored my inner vision and selected the 2 trees at the lot. I was listening to my ancestors and honored their request to include the sassafras trees.

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 leaned over to tell me he thinks. “She was with us because our lodge is built behind the Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison. On December 1980, two inmates tunneled out of the prison and escaped in a car – John Nappi, 26, and Daniel Chiarello, 29.” I guess the police 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. The steam is lifting from our backs as if feathered wings were forming. We’re the travelers, willing to walk a little-known road to freedom.


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