My intuition, which I follow religiously, led me to a sweat lodge in the woods outside a Snohomish collective for the fall equinox.
I had no idea what to expect. I feared it would be a bunch of new-age hippy wannabe’s, dancing around with flowers in their hair and chanting about how everything is beautiful and amazing and glorious without any substance.
That new-age bullshit is just as annoying as my parents’ flimsy religion. I was prepared to flee.
But this sweat lodge had been well researched and practiced and the entire event was treated with reverence. Most of the people there were fully invested in the experience. There were a couple of young professional women who seemed more like tourists than truth-seekers, but they did their best to be present. Several people seemed to be in a lot of emotional/spiritual pain, the kind of pain I had been feeling all my life. It’s easy to spot when you live it.
But like Fight Club, the first rule of Sweat Lodge is that you don’t talk about Sweat Lodge…
I can say that our facilitator invited in the spirits of several enlightened individuals such as Jesus Christ and the Buddha…
I actually did meet Jesus in a sweat lodge…
…and for the first time, I accepted him into my heart. There were no threats of hell-fire, no shame, no fear. I had always been embarrassed around the entire subject of spirituality because it seemed so insincere and frivolous and phony– it was truly devious in the way it had been shoved down my throat, used for the means of control and assimilation…
which did not work.
But in that tent in the woods, laying in the dark on the cold, damp, muddy ground, I only felt joy and love and being – in nature – with other souls who were experiencing their deepest core emotions, their pain, their fears. We weren’t there to be seen, dressed to the nines in our Sunday best. We were there for healing and strength and maybe some sense of peace and love…
that is what church should be all about.
We banished the bad spirits as we brought in healing ones.
I invited some lost friends into the tent. My friend Raoul, (whose guidance I’ve missed terribly since he died last March) was there. So was my baby brother. My dad was suspicious as usual and didn’t come in.
I felt a powerful feeling of love, like an enormous, sweaty, warm hug, emanating from the inside out.
And I saw something really freaky. I’m not sure if I even really saw it because it was pitch black in the tent, but somehow I saw a black figure, flying around over our heads.
Of course, very few Christians would believe such a thing; we are supposed to be suspicious of people who sense spirits, who are open to other worlds
people like me.
I’ve been sensing things I didn’t understand since I can recall. Which really freaked me out when I was young; I thought that I must be evil to feel spirits or ghosts or the dead or whatever it was that I felt around me. And I saw things; enormous flying insects that hovered over my face in the dark and once my friend’s eyes were glowing red in the middle of the night…I’ve sensed presences in theaters and apartments and other places in which I later learned that people had died, or that the place had been deemed ‘haunted’ by others long beforehand…
I became addicted to ghost stories as a pre-teen. I bought every book of the occult that I could find. When I ran out of ‘real’ ghost stories (those cheesy rattling chain and ghost ship stories), I started reading fiction: The Exorcist, Interview with the Vampire, The Stand, Pet Cemetary…of course, Christine…
And I’ve always hung out in cemeteries with a book or sketchpad or camera. I got some of my favorite shots in cemeteries.
I feel like I’ve been tiptoeing atop a fence all my life, trying not to fall to the side of evil, but evil was all around me and inside of me…it’s even inside the church. Maybe that type of evil should have its own category: the kind that disguises itself with robes and rosaries to brainwash or otherwise use the most vulnerable, because church is where one is supposed to be able to go for protection and guidance and support for the soul…
I didn’t go back into the tent for round three. It was extremely hot and intense and I needed some space and to cool off in the forest air and clear my mind. The fire was still crackling, and there were still five large, hot rocks waiting for round four.
I didn’t know if I’d make it to round four…
I walked up the hill a little way and sat on a bench. The breeze was subtle and just tickling the tops of the old birch trees, making their leaves sound very much like dozens of souls whispering…
And I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone was behind me in the woods. It wasn’t a frightening sensation, more like a feeling of being beckoned. I got up and walked further uphill. I found a shaded little clearing underneath a grouping of pines. I sat on a huge, rotting old log
and I realized that sitting right next to me was a huge, ancient-looking fungus of some kind, nearly as large as a Frisbee in diameter, but more the shape of the Mad Hatter’s hat, and as hard as a softball but with a deep, umber skin.
And then I realized that Raoul had brought me to this spot and the fungi and I sat there and I crossed my legs and closed my eyes and just listened…The leaves were speaking to me and I kept my thoughts out, which was easy. I felt a peace like I haven’t felt for many years. Like I’d felt during a good meditation –but without even trying.
The trees were telling me secrets and they were reassuring. They were music and laughter and home. And melancholy…
And I felt Raoul’s presence just as if he were sitting right there. Right exactly where that fossilized old fungus was sitting. And I knew for certain that he would always be with me, and that I wouldn’t have to feel alone any more…and that he would always guide me when I needed it.
I did make it to round four. The entire ceremony seemed to come full circle, back to a place of calm, peace…
And the raw emotion – that total workout of my spirit – and the combination of the smell of the fire outside and the palo santo, the intense heat, then the cool forest air and the silence…it was the most reverent and balanced and whole I think I’ve ever felt in my life.
“There is only one rule that binds all people. One governing principle that defines every relationship on God’s green earth: The weak are meat, and the strong do eat.”
“Christine, poor people must exist, because without them, there can’t be rich people.”
I was just about to write about my impressions of the online critiques of Cloud Atlas when an authoritative white male voice* coming from the radio caught my attention. My thoughts about that confusing but thought-provoking film can wait: I need to get this off my chest.
It may have been the Morning Edition that was playing on NPR when I thought I had to have misheard this ‘expert’ of some sort talk very authoritatively about Germany’s announcement to take in 800,000 refugees. I was wondering if she, the collective national she that is, may be feeling the need to atone for deeds done past when I heard:
“These are educated people, doctors and lawyers and such. We’re not talking about the bottom of the barrel . . .”
Those words hit me like a punch in the gut. Because these kinds of terms reflect a sickness that seems to have infected so many people—people who make judgments on others based on what they studied, or didn’t study, what they wear or how they look, or even what they eat or what they have in their possession to value their worth as human beings. In other words, if you were not able to afford an education and don’t have the cash to grease the right palms, you are at the ‘bottom of the barrel,’ and don’t deserve any assistance of any sort.
Some of my bosses at my university job made disparaging remarks when they saw photos in the newspaper, “Look at these people, living off of welfare – but they have enough money to buy beer!”
I hear this type of message each and every day, on the radio, online, in my neighborhood, and even within my own family.
My father was one of those at the bottom of the barrel; just another one of those faceless, nameless slobs who was invisible to respectable, hard working people like ourselves.
Dad had been a child refugee in the Russian-Finnish war. He was put on a ship alone (with several hundred other ‘orphaned’ children) at five or six years old and sent from Helsinki to Stockholm. The trip took nearly a week due to the thick, winter ice and fear of being attacked at sea. He spent another day traveling north by train to live on a feudalistic estate.
My father, at seven years old, was put to work in the fields picking vegetables. He slept under a bench in the kitchen of a two-room “apartment” over the dairy on a straw “mattress.” His early childhood was so horrifying that he wrote about it shortly before he died. It wasn’t until he retired and had amassed a healthy savings that he could breathe for the first time in his difficult life and face the nightmares that he had buried since childhood.
He frequently warned me at the dinner table that I had to be grateful for every scrap I was given; I had to think of this meal as perhaps my very last. My father buried his war wounds only far enough to get through the day, but they often bubbled up far enough to seep into my psyche.
What I absorbed terrified me.
But I can’t even begin to imagine what a refugee or homeless person lives through each and every moment. The feelings of fear and abandonment must be overwhelming. I can’t imagine begging for food, shelter, clean water…and being treated like a disease.
They’re human beings, but we look upon them as completely different than ourselves. We walk right past them and don’t even treat them like they’re same species for all the concern that we give them.
We walk just inches away from them in the streets and don’t even see that they’re there.
God forbid actually touching one of them.
I may have gotten a glimpse into how it feels to be treated this way. I’ve seen the sickness and apathy actually seeping out through their eyes . . . the same kind of apathy and ignorance I heard on the radio.
One quiet, sunny, Sunday afternoon, I was wandering alone in Pioneer Square in downtown Seattle. The old buildings were still there, as were some of the old, crusty businesses that have weathered the weekly onslaughts of sports fanatics since the dawn of super stadiums, although I don’t know how. Pioneer Square, once vibrant and filled with artists and musicians and spicy people has become not much more than a grungy destination spot on Seattle tourism maps—and a parking lot for mindless herds of screaming, pumped-up yuppies.
I was turning the corner at First and Washington when I came upon a woman who was sobbing in a doorway. I mean she was really losing it. She was in a very bad place.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“No, I’m not,” she sobbed.
She stood up and came toward me. She had desperation in her eyes. She didn’t seem to be an addict, but I am really blind to that kind of stuff, so who knows. I got the impression that she had ‘mental’ issues, which is extremely likely.
Thanks again, Reagan.
She was a very skinny black woman who may have been in her thirties or forties, but she looked about seventy-five.
She grabbed my arms. “Please help me!” She was still sobbing and could barely talk.
I looked into her eyes and saw that she meant me no harm. She was simply a human being who had reached her limit.
“What do you need?” I asked.
She pulled me toward her and I tried to pull away. She smelled like she hadn’t bathed in many months and the odor was almost unbearable.
She pleaded with me, “Please, I’m sorry ma’am, please: may I ask you: do you have any change that you can spare?”
That ma’am nonsense always makes me feel horrible. Even though I did live in the south for a very short time…
I stopped and listened to what she had to say. She leaned toward me and whispered,
“I need to get some women things! I won’t spend it on booze, ma’am, please believe me, I just need to get me some women things!”
I finally noticed that she was kind of bouncing and crossing her legs.
I saw myself through her eyes, or maybe I saw inside her, I don’t know. I felt her emotion and understood her. Suddenly, she wasn’t a reeking homeless woman, she was my sister and she needed my help.
Her eyes had told me that no one had touched her in a very long time, so I hugged her. I held my breath and hugged her and she broke down again, but it was a little different this time. I sensed her gratitude for just the tiniest shred of compassion that she felt and it gave her enough strength to go on just a few more steps. . . .
I gave her all the cash I had, which was only five or ten bucks, and she looked deeply into my eyes, then hugged me again.
She and I shared a very deep connection.
I turned to walk away and standing there, with mouths agape, was a well dressed, upwardly mobile urban family: a mom and dad with a couple of kids and a dog or two. And a baby in an SUV-sized stroller.
It was the man that caught my eye. He was staring at me like I was some kind of alien behind a window in a lab. His face wore an expression of sick fascination.
He had no idea what had taken place, but I could see that he, an educated, young, white, male, urban professional, had assessed the unusual occurrence from his narrow and entitled point of view and was already giving it a label and mentally writing his Facebook post:
“The homeless are out of control!” or something equally inane and incorrect.
He himself would have never gotten involved.
I saw that revulsion as clearly as I see the clothes he was wearing as I passed him. He seemed to almost jump away from me.
I felt like he had backed away so that I didn’t infect him.
“They just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps! I did it, so can they.”
Although, my father was a white man. He has no idea what it’s like for a woman. Or for a person of color.
And in the mid 1900s, the world was the white man’s oyster – and there were still a lot of pearls left to grab.
In 2015, however, the powerful are doing all they can to make as much money as they can no matter what the cost, and they are changing international law to try and achieve this (and no one is paying attention).
Deep down, my father was not a hateful man, but his own fear of going without kept him susceptible to conditioning by church and state. He was raised Lutheran. He was a ‘believer,’ and never questioned anything that came from the mouths of his leaders.
Later in life, he nearly accepted a position at the Boeing company in which he would have designed military weapons, even though he himself had nearly been killed by bombs in Finland.
He honestly didn’t see any problem with it.
After all, it paid well. And Making Money is the American Way. Dad had denounced his Finnish heritage the day he mutilated himself to ‘fit in,’ but that is a story in itself.
He became all American.
It is absolutely amazing, the ability in human beings not to see the world as it is. We create nice versions of it in our minds and ignore the ugliness, unless it affects us directly.
Every single one of us is capable of being inhumane and apathetic. In fact, I submit that by not doing anything, we are just as culpable as those who are pulling the trigger, or building giant walls to make sure that those without don’t take what’s “ours.”
I saw a meme that is staying with me all week. It stated that we should be building “longer tables, not higher fences.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
*I do not hate white men. I know many whom I adore. But everyone agrees – even aware white men – that after 200 years of having control, it’s time to have a real representation of the US in charge so that women and people of color can earn the same wages as white men and not get arrested for no reason, or denied access to contraceptives – or even to have control over our own bodies – or shot on the streets if you are not white, or left homeless, which is becoming an epidemic…we need real people in charge, not the rich, corporate puppets that we currently have, who look upon the hundreds of thousands of homeless refugees as just a few more ‘casualties of war.’
For more than 15 years I had been living my life vicariously through international and domestic travelers’ stories at the bar at the Warwick hotel.
Over the years, several men assumed that I was a prostitute and asked me how much I charged.
My father told me I should expect no less; what could I possibly be thinking: a single woman, sitting at a hotel bar?
I watched countless restaurant managers come and go. There were so many of them I invented a game for my favorite bartender Annie.
I would call the manager du jour over and initiate a conversation. It only took me a few minutes and direct eye contact to give my friend and liquid pharmacist the ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’…
I became extremely accurate in character assessment.
“You were right again, Christine! This one’s an absolute asshole!” staff would confirm.
There were some good ones – usually women – but they didn’t last long.
I wish I could go back and change the night that I met Eartha Kitt.
(photo of Ms Kitt by Robert Lebeck, 1960: the year I was born)
I had been talking to her drummer, who was the first one of the group to leave the club. He was sitting at the bar. I had no idea that Ms. Kitt herself would be joining him…
We chatted like old neighborhood friends about living in New York back in ‘the day,’ and how it had been so vibrant before it was Disneyized by political puppets and corporate greed. I thought about all the famous people I had spotted, but like a true New Yorker, I had learned to act nonchalantly and ignore them – in order to give them their due respect, and space.
Then, she appeared, walking across the room toward us.
She was tiny.
And absolutely radiant.
She was a legend, and she was standing right there, right in front of me, exhausted but beaming. She was eighty years old.
Her presence filled the room and beyond.
She acknowledged her drummer, then smiled and looked at me. She extended her hand as she purred,
“Hello. I’m Eartha Kitt.”
It was her one-of-a-kind, sexy, alto voice and it was surreal.
I took her hand, smiled, and said,
“Hello. I’m Christine Makela.”
She and her drummer moved to a table.
I learned shortly after that that she had died.
I wish that I had let her know what an inspiration she was, to have Made It in a white, Man’s world. And not only did she make it; she became a Legend.
I, of all people, know how difficult it is for an artist to survive, let alone thrive, in the version of life that we are living- the version created by greed and apathy and entitlement…
I should have dropped to my knees and kissed her feet.
Ms. Kitt, it was an extreme honor and joy to have met you: You were loved.
(photo of Ms Kitt found on Dailymail.co.uk)