I’ve just gotten off work. I’m doing 35 in the fast lane, nothing but tail lights ahead of me. It’s the usual 580 rush hour stop and go crawl. Hard to believe that in less than an hour I’ll be out of this business suit and feeling the cool moist earth between my toes. It’s Thursday again, and Thursdays are sacred.
I turn on my blinker to signal my right turn and I pull off to the end of the block. As I grab my stuff and open my truck door I can smell the smoke, its primal smell, mixing with car exhaust and the scents of home cooking in the neighboring houses.
I pull back the wooden gate, it scrapes against the side of the house, and I catch my first glimpse of the fire. I notice the men and women sitting around the fire and smoking. I approach cautiously. Even though I have been coming here for a year, I am still an outsider, I know I’m still a guest. I walk lightly and smile.
The fire is hot tonight and I notice there are many rocks in the fire pit. I watch the Firekeeper, a young man in his twenties, already ravished by hard living. I count the scars, as numerous as tattoos, on his arms, neck, and face. He has taken himself out of that lifestyle for now and is learning that he is a sacred and necessary part of this ceremony.
There’s always lots of laughter and discussion about who is sick, who has passed on, and who is in trouble or in prison. I used to think of it as a gossip, now I know it’s a reminder of who is in need of prayers.
When the leader arrives we go into the garage and change. Most of the women wear skirts or dresses, I self-consciously don a T-shirt and shorts. We wrap our towel around our necks or legs and line up. I enjoy the feel of the cool earth under my bare feet before crawling into the lodge. The lodge is made of bent willow branches and covered in green tarps. I crawl on all fours in the darkness until I find where the woman who entered before me has stopped. I sit still breathing in the darkness and the moist smells of Mother Earth. Once all the women are seated we will begin.
It always amazes me that the lodge can hold 22 to 24 women and it can’t be bigger than 7 by 7 feet. I imagine how much space would be needed for 24 women in a regular room. I imagine 24 women trying to fit into my living room which is 11 and 14 and I can’t imagine seating more than ten comfortably, but the lodge holds us easily. Maybe we are smaller in the darkness, because our egos take up so much room in the light.
Once we are all settled in the rocks come. The laughter turns to silence as we great the first Grandfather. The rock is red hot, it glows in the darkness and I can begin to make out a few of the features of the women around me.
We are sitting in a circle around the pit. As each rock enters cedar is sprinkled on it, and as it burns it lights up like shooting stars, like a sparkling diamond that shimmers when the light hits it as various angles. The lava rocks are a fiery red-orange with round holes in the sides and veins and other marks to identify it, to distinguish it from the others. Nowadays, I recognize many of the rocks as they are brought off the fire and placed in the center of the lodge.
The leader sprinkles more cedar over each new rock and the lodge begins to smell like a forest. Then she places a braid of sweetgrass against the rocks and it fills the lodge with the most fragrant aroma of a spring meadow or a hayfield after a hard rain. My nostrils delight in the smells and I am momentarily transformed to my childhood home in Oregon.
Once the rocks are in, the bucket of water is blessed on the rocks and the flap is closed. We sit in the darkness, our sight illuminated only by the orange rocks. The heat warms my skin and my face. The singing begins and the water is poured on the rocks. The water envelopes the rock back into the darkness and begins the purification process bringing forth the sweat and cleansing our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits from the pain and toxicity of the week. It feels good to be home. I hold my slippery knees to my chest and try to pronounce the Lakota words correctly. It’s not my language, but the words feel comforting to my tongue.
Just last month when I was on a flight across the ocean and it seemed like we weren’t going to make it to our destination, I closed my eyes and sang the sweat songs over an over for an hour and a half. I stopped only when the pilot turned the “fasten seat belt” sign off four hours later. The sweat lodge leader had said “Life is like the sweat lodge, when it gets too hard, too hot in here, lay low, pray and sing, and it will get you through.”
More water is poured and just when it feels overwhelming and my voice is straining to keep my mind focused on the words of the song, the refrain ends and we all rejoice in the announcement “All my Relations!” in Lakota. The men rush to open the front and back door flaps. We laugh, joke, breathe in the fresh air, and prepare ourselves for three more rounds.
At the end of the ceremony I leave with the important teaching that life is like an Inipi ceremony, when in gets too hard, lay low, pray to the Creator, and keep singing, you’ll get through it!
(Written February 3, 2003)