Painting by Teachings of the Sweat Lodge by Aaron Paquette
I stand on the corner of Fulton Street and 9th Avenue in San Francisco early in the morning, March 2007, and I call home. It’s mid afternoon in Ireland and my husband, my sister and her family are gathered at my mother’s apartment to celebrate Mothering Sunday. My feet are sore. I’ve walked ten blocks in new shoes that are too high, a rookie mistake; no one walks anywhere in America. This call is going to cost a fortune but I don’t care. I need to hear my mother’s voice. She answers and a wave of relief hits me; by her voice I can tell that today is a good day. She’s feeling well. She’s buoyed by having the family over. Her grandchildren, my 3 year old niece and 1 year old nephew, are the lights of her life just now. They keep her going. My sister is pregnant again.
Mum is excited to hear my voice as well. I’ve only been away a couple of weeks but she misses me. We talk every day normally so the intermittent contact when I’m far away is different. She wants to know how I am, what I’m doing, where I’m going today. I keep it vague. She doesn’t need to know too much detail. It might make her worry.
The hustle and bustle of home makes me ache. I’ve left behind a Mother’s Day gift with my husband, Simon, to give to her. She thanks me. It’s a small book of paintings by female artists that I hope will inspire her to get her own oils out again. I’m always looking for things to keep her interested, to spark her fire, to keep her alive.
Since her cancer diagnosis two years previously, she has doggedly refused to contemplate the possibility of dying. She believes that God has promised to heal her, so we add our faith to hers with the hope that we have enough of it deliver the Divine promise. But she works less now, her energy is not what it used to be, she has days where she feels pretty bad. The loss of her best friend six months previously seemed to knock some of the stuffing out of her. She believes her friend gave in, gave up the fight. It was a huge disappointment. My mother is made of sterner stuff. She has my sister’s new baby to welcome in August and she has promised me that she will see my children when I decide to have them. She is only 59 years old. She has a lot of life to live yet.
Ever conscious of the cost, Mum is anxious not to stay on the phone. I’m reluctant to hang up. I’m blindsided by homesickness and a desire to be back in the safety of Mum’s home, looking out at the Irish sea. She puts me on speaker phone so that they can all chime ‘Goodbye’ together. I choke back tears and whisper goodbye. The phone clicks off.
I take a minute to pull myself together. I’m round the corner from my acting teacher S’s house and today, she’s taking me with her to experience a Native American Sweat Lodge ceremony. This is not what I thought I was signing up for when I got an Arts Council Grant to come to San Francisco to train with a renowned Method Acting teacher. I’m here for three weeks to observe and train in her boutique studio down in the Mission district. S is a protege of Lee Strasberg, she trained with Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel. Sean Penn has given Masterclasses at her studio. She’s edgy and raw and believes in acting as a supreme art form. She pushes her students to connect with their deepest selves. I’ve been surprised and delighted to discover that her teaching has an almost spiritual quality to it.
She burst out laughing when I told her that I was in training to be a lay preacher in the Methodist church. Her spirituality is nothing if not non-conformist and non-institutional and, while she gets that I have a sincere faith, she’s been encouraging me to broaden my horizons and open myself up so that, with an expanded sensibility, I can be a better actress. I’m going with it but I’m not telling Mum. No need to worry her that I’m dabbling in things that might be deemed unChristlike.
So here I am early on a Sunday morning with my swimming togs in my hand and Jesus in my heart, ready to dive into a new spiritual experience; ish.
S welcomes me in to her apartment and asks me to wait in the living room. She’s in the middle of a huge blow out with her teenage daughter who is refusing to come with us to the sweat lodge ceremony. She smiles as she exits. It’s a small apartment so I hear every word of their verbose exchange. I sit awkwardly, massaging my sore feet and wondering what the heck I’m doing here. I feel like crying, which always happens when I feel like I’m out of my comfort zone. After about fifteen minutes, S waltzes back in all smiles and announces that we’ll be going without her daughter. A beautiful 16 year old girl, with red rimmed eyes from tears, comes in to say hello. She’s sheepish when she realises I’ve heard everything but she stands her ground and won’t be budged. Like mother, like daughter.
Soon we’re heading out of the city and I hear about S’s mother/daughter woes. I tell her that it’s Mother’s Day in Ireland and share a little bit about my relationship with my own mother. Like S and her daughter, we are close, we have spats but we work them out. I reassure her that her teenager will grow to become one of her best friends. She sighs in hope and exasperation. She asks me if I want children of my own. I say that I’m coming round to the idea but that I’m damned if I’m going to be a stay at home mum. She laughs at the very thought. She’s seen me acting now and recognises my vocation.
Half an hour out of the city to the south and on the coast we pull into a forested area. We hike a short way up into the forest to a clearing where a fire has been lit in a pit surrounded by large grey stones. About ten women gather chatting informally around the fire and a couple wave to S as we arrive. I’m immediately a source of fascination being that I’m Irish, I’m an actress and this is my first sweat lodge ceremony. I’m also the youngest woman there. S introduces me to M, the medicine woman who is leading the ceremony. She is smiling and gentle but formal and remote. She calls the group to order.
We gather around the fire and are invited to choose a stone from the circle. M invites Tunkashillah, the Great Spirit, to be with us and tells us that our stones represent our intentions for the sweat lodge and they will be placed in the fire to heat. Then the hot stones will be put in the pit in the centre of the tent and we will go inside, in the dark to pray and to sweat.
Once the stones are in the fire, we sit on the ground and make little bags of tobacco with four different coloured cloths, which will hang from the ceiling of the tent to represent the four winds; north, south, east and west. It is a good hour or so before we strip down to swimming togs and crawl into the darkness of the circular tent to sit around the hot stones in the centre – enwombed.
The heat is intense and as each person prays aloud to Tunkashillah, The Great Spirit, GrandMother, GrandFather, All our Ancestors, voices crying out in the darkness, we sweat, and sweat and sweat. I expect to be freaked out but after a while it strikes me that this is actually just like the charismatic prayer meetings I experienced in my teens, so I relax and just go with it. With each prayer, each crescendo of painful intercession, the heat in the tent intensifies. One woman exits within the first thirty minutes, unable to take it – the heat or the extreme expression of emotion, I’m not sure which.
My turn comes to pray and I keep my voice quiet. I pray for my mum, I ask for the promise of healing to be delivered. I pray for my sister and her new baby forming in her womb. And, almost as an afterthought, I ask for a child for myself. I’d come off the contraceptive pill a few months previously with the attitude, if it happens, it happens. But I am aware all the time of Mum’s cancer and her determination to see my children. There is beginning to be an element of urgency now. So I pray. And I close, as I always do, with ‘Thy will be done.’
The sweat continues. I have no idea how long we are in there but a break comes and the fresh air outside is welcome. Before too long, we go back in and the cycle of prayer and tears continues. There are times when I think I won’t be able to take it but then something shifts and I push through. Many of the women express deep emotional pain that has been holed up in their bodies for years without outlet. I know that for some, this is the only safe place they’ve ever had to face down their demons. We close, spent and exhausted but renewed and with our skin as soft as a baby’s, by sharing the peace pipe around the circle.
As we dismantle the tent and pack up, S keeps asking if I am alright. She’s either surprised or disappointed that I haven’t been overcome with emotion in the tent, I can’t tell which. I’m comfortable with how I’ve handled everything though. I’ve been moved by the pain I’ve witnessed, I’ve felt honoured to hold space for people’s prayers but I’m not teetering on the brink of collapse of my own faith. I think S hoped that I was. No, God has just got a whole lot bigger, that’s all. If anything, it has confirmed what I have always suspected; Christianity doesn’t a monopoly on the whole story.
We’re saying goodbye to the others when a woman I haven’t spoken to yet comes over. She’s Native American with long, black hair and a face that I can’t put an age on. She’s tentative when she approaches, shakes my hand and says she just wanted to say hello because she heard I’d come from a long way away for the Sweat Lodge Ceremony. I laugh but explain that I hadn’t just come three thousand miles from Ireland for that alone. In fact, I’d just driven half an hour from the city. She smiles and shyly says that it was nice for me to be there with them. As I turn to go, she says ‘Safe trip home. And have fun with your daughter.’
I stop dead in my tracks and instinctively reach out a hand.
‘I don’t have any children,’ I say. She blushes and shrugs.
‘My bad,’ she says. ‘Never mind.’ Something tugs at me inside to not let this encounter go so I take a step forward as she moves away.
‘No, what is it you were going to say?’ I ask, knowing there’s more.
‘Ahhhh,’ she smiles, looking sheepish. ‘I just saw the spirit of your daughter in the tent.’ And she waves and walks away.
As we drive back to the city that evening, we are both tired so conversation is kept to a minimum but just as we hit the city limits, S asks about my mum again. I tell her about Mum’s belief that, though the doctors have given her disease a terminal prognosis, God will heal her in His own time and in His own way. S tells me about Joao de Deus, the Brazilian healer, and I’ve heard of him but I know my mother will not go looking for healing outside of her own faith tradition. It doesn’t stop her from travelling to the healing ministries of Christian churches. In fact, she had been in California earlier that year to visit Bethel Church in Redding, known for its miraculous cures. S falls silent as we turn into her street. When she parks the car she turns and looks at me and says something that has haunted me ever since.
‘You better hope your mom gets her miracle,’ she says. ‘Or else she’s never gonna meet your daughter.’
This is an excerpt from a memoir I’m working on called Enough.