Sweat Lodge, Part 2: Open Your Heart
Temazcal is a Nahuatl word for “sweat lodge”—a Native American purification ceremony with spiritual underpinnings that’s performed inside a small, circular, often willow-framed “lodge” that is covered to keep the heat in and light out. Red hot rocks are brought in and water poured over them to make a very hot steam that brings out the sweat of the people seated in a circle around the shallow rock pit. A couple of weeks ago my neighbor Dionicio invited me to join him at the next monthly temazcal up at the ceremonial ground on a small saddle-like mesa about a thousand feet above our village. This is the conclusion of the two-part story of that adventure.
|The offering tree at the Danza del Sol ceremonial grounds above the village of|
Ajijic. This is where the temazcal is held. The picture was taken last
February. I didn't take my camera with me on this latest trip.
When Dionicio and I arrive at the temazcal the others have already brought mats out of the shed to a little slope and are laying on blankets, acting like it’s a picnic without the food. There’s raucous laughter—Elicia the loudest, along with a young roly-poly bearded guy who’s giggling and guffawing like one of the ten year-olds I used to try teaching. But worse: he's continually playing with the strobe on his flashlight. It’s hard for me not to tell him to just stop! To curb my irritation I help Chuy and Dionicio—the elders among us—break up the wood into burnable pieces.
That done, I figure we’ve got several more hours sitting around—haven’t even started the fire yet—and it’s already closing on midnight. Not sure how I’m going to hold up, especially with Elicia and RolyPoly blabbing a mile-a-minute in a language I can’t understand. Plus the flashlight. But it’s not long before RP breaks out his drum and starts singing sweetly, and he suddenly adds another, more profound dimension to his personality. The few words of the song that I understand are meant to be inspiring, and refer to the upcoming ceremony—like “piedra”—stone—and “fuego”—fire. Gran espíritu—Great Spirit.
Jorge, the young man who had politely—but I couldn’t help being annoyed, senior that I am, although loathe to claim the title—addressed me as “sir”, practicing his not-too-bad English—spells RP on the drum.
As I lay back and take in the scene, I notice Dionicio nearby, inside a small tree, flailing his machete with one hand and a flashlight with the other. Grabbing and cutting bunches of branches. I don’t figure out what he’s doing until we’re all in the temazcal, but at the time, the craziness of the trembling tree and light swerving dizzily gives me a laugh.
Out of the brush, Dionicio takes something—I can’t see in the dark—out of his pack and arranges it on the ground. And then it’s suddenly time for us to stand in a circle around the ash pit where the fire will soon—I hope—begin to heat the rocks. We all quiet down and Dionicio starts to speak. Until this moment I hadn’t realized that he was the jefe here.
He talks quietly and with authority. I don’t understand much of what he says, but I’m reminded of the book he wrote full of stories and legends that he had heard as a child. He grew up on a rancho just the other side of the tallest ridge from where we are at this moment. In the book’s introduction he describes a magical childhood, always on the land learning its paths and plants, playing with friends, seeing fire balls in the sky at night, small beings called duendes, like elves or fairies.
He tells of his first visit to the pueblo of Ajijic, how he was shocked at the fanatical rigidity of the Church, and its distance from the people who worked the soil and communed with Nature, as did his own padres and abuelos. At least that’s the way I laboriously translated it.
I imagine this background informs what he is saying to us gathered here on the mesa tonight. Plus the time he has spent with curanderos and the Huichols—along with the Cocas, the indigenous people of this region. The weekend trips he often still makes to spend the night alone in these mountains. His visits to the Lakota in the States.
As he is speaking, the horses that had been wandering around our camp approach, interested in the temazcal structure, most likely the straw of the mats that cover it. RP shoos them away but a minute later we hear the caballos crunching, deciding to make a snack of the mat Chuy has left on the ground. There’s a momentary lightening of the attentive mood.
Dionicio continues his homily which runs on for quite a while. It ends with us all sharing a pipe of tobacco, and then four of the others each place an offering on the ash where we’ll soon—I hope—put the stones and make our fire to heat them. The ofrendas represent those essential things the earth provides for us, for which we are thankful—agua, maiz, frutas y verduras.
Piling the piedras. The stones—each about the size of a cabbage head and volcanic so they can take the heat without exploding—have been lined up next to the once and future fire pit. Now, moving, still in a circle, one after another we pick up a rock, file past and hand it to Dionicio who chooses a place for it in a growing pile that rises to several feet in height.
Stacking the wood. This is a more free-form communal effort. Everyone participates. Simple job—get as much wood as you can comfortably carry twenty feet without dropping, and help create a stack surrounding the rocks. The resulting teepee shape is over five feet high.
Firing the madera. I realize now that I had never truly believed we would be able to catch the wood on fire—it’s too wet! The difficulty we are all experiencing—futilely fanning minuscule flames—is proving my doubts. My own lackluster attempt to help at this project is sussed by Chuy who tells me, in effect, that Mexicans never give up. So I keep trying, and—to much greater effect—so do all the others. I only become convinced that this temazcal thing will actually happen, and all the singing, invoking the gran espíritu, ofrendas, et cetera, not to mention the wood gathering, will see a “payoff”—in my materialistic way of thinking—when after at least half an hour of unflagging effort, the fire begins to blaze and take hold.
Heating the rocks until they’re red hot. Two hours, Chuy had told me this would take, which means it will be well after midnight before we begin to sweat. But at least the process has begun, and I lay down to relax on a straw mat, listen to Elisa, RP and Jorge drum and sing, and watch—mesmerized—as tracers of embers spark from the fire and spiral high, over and over until they join the stars of our night sky…
I stumble up from this fugue state when I see others begin to move with a purpose. Shimmy out of pants and into gym shorts, doff shirt and wrap a towel around my neck. Mujeres first through the small opening, its flap pulled back, into the temazcal (the word here used to mean the low, domed structure), everyone crawls clockwise over the mats until you butt up against the previous entrant. Sit on your bum in the pitch dark. There are eight of us; Chuy stays outside to pass in the rocks.
This small dark place is where we stay for more than an hour. Perhaps midway through, it seems like our time here will never end. It lasts through four—or maybe five, I lost count—replenishments of red hot rocks passed in by shovel, grasped and placed in the center pit with deer antler tongs by Jorge, Arturo or RP. About ten piedras per round, each one greeted as abuelito or abuelita—“little grandfather, little grandmother”.
After the rocks, a bucket full of water is passed in and the flap closed. Dionicio, sitting by the door, uses that cluster of leaves he’s cut to sprinkle the glowing piedras. Each time, an explosion of steam. I try to concentrate on RP’s chanting, following the unfamiliar words as much as I can to take my mind off the searing heat. The toalla over my head, shorts, even the straw mat I’m sitting on—knees to chin—all become soaked with sweat. This is about perseverance, I tell myself.
Drumming, chanting, sweating, blessing some food—I think—that is passed from one to another, every round. Feeling a measure of relief when the door is opened and a small portion of heat dissipates. Once, Dionicio calls for la puerta and nothing happens, and I curse Chuy for not hearing the call. RP has been a stalwart through all—drumming and chanting, receiving the bucket of water, assigning the antlers, passing the offerings, and acting as Dionicio’s deputy. Total respect.
After three or four rounds a small ceramic cup of fresh agua is passed in. I start to take a drink and RP taps my hand—it’s supposed to be passed to the person at the end of the circle first. I can do that…I get it in my head that the water presages the end, but two more rounds follow. The last one, Dionicio asks for todas las piedras—“All the rocks”. “Omigod!” I think.
That’s the round where I get up the courage to speak as others have before me. I give thanks for this night, the moon and the stars, the mountains, and all the people here—important but easy words that I can say in Spanish. Finally, I ask for help to open my heart. Gran espíritu, ayúdame a abrir mi corazón…
I miss the call when it’s over—don’t know where my mind was. RP prods me to crawl clockwise around the circle of the now empty temazcal. I’m surprised I can even move, but outside I stand up slowly, and slowly walk to the same empty mat from where I had watched the embers several hours before. The fresh night air is delicious. The Pleiades—las siete hermanas—la luna, Orion, have all moved from east to west in the clear dark sky. Dionicio lays down nearby, to check on me, I think. I’m OK, spread-eagled under the stars, on the moon-soaked ground. When my sweat turns cool, I dress, head for the kitchen and turn in. It’s nearly a quarter to four, Dionicio tells me.
I remember, as I fall asleep, the strong and automatic response to my appeal for an opening of mi corazón. “Fuerza!” were the spontaneous shouts of encouragement, almost in unison—“Strength!” To reinforce the message of support, RP had followed up with one of his songs. "Abre Tu Corazón" is the constant refrain—"Open Your Heart". Judging by the enthusiastic way everyone had joined in, it was a popular plea.