Some greet summer with a bottle of lotion in one hand and a cocktail in the other.
I celebrated summer solstice by cramming into a sweat lodge with eight strangers, faces blistering around a ring of fire-baked stones in the center, waiting for a shaman to guide us through four levels of reflection on our most painful truths.
If, like me, you imagine a sweat lodge as a high-ceilinged teepee, where participants warm themselves in front of a fire and puff comfortably on a peace pipe, you are dead wrong.
The sweat lodge, too low to stand in upright, is formed into a squat dome by a frame of sapling branches. Sheets, blankets, and tarps piled on top leave the inside of the lodge too dark to see your hand in front of your face. In the center is a pit piled with smooth stones– “grandfathers,” symbolizing our spiritual ancestors — roasted for hours in a roaring fire. We crawled inside the opening and jammed ourselves around the 9 foot circle, our ankles tightly crossed and our knees leaning against each other like a chain link fence of skin and bone.
Our shaman, a middle-aged white man who’s devoted decades of study and contemplation to the Lakota ritual, described the sweat lodge as a place where one foot is planted in life and the other in the afterlife. This was more than a metaphorical description. The air was so close in the lodge that the threat of suffocation felt as tangible as hands around my throat. I fought my rising panic by practicing Lamaze breaths. I had survived natural childbirth twice before, and I’d survive this challenge.
Before each round of prayer, chanting, and singing, we sprinkled sage over the burning stones. The shaman described the intention of each round, directing us to turn our thoughts inward but keep our eyes open. For the twenty to thirty minutes before the lodge door opened to a flow of fresh air, we matched the beatings of our hearts to the thud of the shaman’s leather-padded drumstick. Somehow the air burned my lungs less the more I opened my throat to sing.Although we’d never heard the songs before, the dome rang with our voices.
During the second round, when we were invited to feel ourselves jumping into the arms of our lost loved ones, thunder rumbled overhead as if the heavens were ready to speak to us. As the lodge entry was pulled shut, I turned with some dread to the image of my father, a strict man who ruled our household with an iron will. My eyes burned with smoke as my heart sought his presence. Choking on scorching air, I felt my father race toward me like a powerful wind and gather me in his arms. Speaking no words, his being emanated one message: I’m sorry. My body shook with the surprise of this communication. Even though I’d forgiven my father a long time ago for the harshness of his parenting, I’d somehow never imagined him harboring his own regrets. When the door was flung open again and we were invited to share our experiences, I could hardly speak over my tears.
In another round, we were encouraged to reach out to the wisdom of Earth’s creatures. “Let your spirit animal reveal itself to you,” we were told. Fat chance. From the moment I heard “spirit animal,” the otter–playful, adorable, and undeniably my favorite animal–was the only silhouette I could see in the fire. Total wish fulfillment. But then again, why not allow myself to feel an intimate connection to a creature who manages to make a game of survival?
We crawled out of the dome after two hours inside, drenched like babies fresh from the womb. On all fours, my knees and elbows buckled beneath me. I collapsed to the earth, clutching the green grass with my fingers and riding my heartbeat like a raft on the ocean. I measured my breathing against the progress of a tiny sugar ant traveling up and then down a blade of grass near my nose, hypnotized by its steady, inexorable journey.
Slowly, life cranked back to its usual speed. We creaked back to our feet, dismantling the lodge one folded tarp at a time. I’d wrinkled my nose when I first heard we’d “feast” after the sweat. But surviving the purification ritual together made the breaking of bread afterwards feel like communion. We ate quietly, shoulder to shoulder, passing bowls of vegetables and grains with the gratitude of pilgrims at harvest time.
I spend most summer evenings on my balcony, grateful for the warm breezes dancing through the canopy of the maple tree overhead. I watch fireflies blink on and off against my neighbors’ cooling lawns, the emerald greens of early spring fading into a thirsty yellow from the scalding of the summer sun. As a child, I chased those same lightning bugs, barefoot in my nightgown. Perhaps that was the last time I truly felt my connection to all the life that flickers too quickly across the earth.
Until I took a deep breath and crawled into the darkness of the sweat lodge.