Monday, October 1, 2012

Sweating in Cherokee

When I was anticipating my move from South to North Carolina in the mid-1990s, I expected to find a wealth of Native American culture here. Because NC is the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, I thought that their influence would be felt everywhere.

I soon learned that there's an annual pow-wow in Greensboro and not much here in Winston-Salem. But just before I went in for the sonogram, the chance arose for me to go to a self-help convention in Cherokee.

The Cherokee community runs the convention, so it is Native American through and through. They have pow-wows and talking circles along with the usual speaker meetings, and a big feast with fry bread, pinto beans and all the fixings after the Saturday night pow-wow.

The convention was in early November, and by then, I knew something was wrong with me. All of the symptoms that I had been able to deny were presenting in CinemaScope: no energy, low-back pain, a hard distended belly, severe gas pains, digestion problems and early satiety. I had them all.

I was jumpy and grumpy and looking for answers everywhere I went.

That Veteran’s Day weekend was hard and cold, but the convention and the people were incredibly warm and welcoming. I immediately attached myself to an amazing woman from the Midwest, Kate. Kate was a clown and a nurse, who lived in a motorhome and traveled nationwide caring for people in their homes as that work came available.

She was big, blonde and raucous and quickly sussed out what I was looking for – a sweat lodge for women that was being provided by one of the Cherokee medicine women. The sweat was happening under the radar, not a public event, so we had to be discreet. There were hundreds of people at the convention, and a sweat has to be small and intimate.

Stones are heated outside the lodge and brought in
to create steamy heat.

Sweats are deep Native traditions. They require endurance and a level of mental health and understanding of the spirit that is not always present in “cultural tourists.” I was trying not to be one of those as were Kate and my good friend Tina S., but in many ways, we were out of our depth.

The afternoon of the sweat we went to the medicine woman to request permission to participate. We gave her the traditional gift of tobacco and helped build the lodge. We also helped find and carry the stones that would be heated to create the “sweat.”

The lodge was basically a depression in the ground covered over with a tent and branches. There was a smoldering fire in the middle full of hot stones that the leader splashed with water occasionally to make steam.

Tina S. recalls: “We (about 12 women) wore towels and crawled through the opening of the lodge and sat around in a circle. I remember at that point being fearful and not knowing what to expect. I was afraid it would get really hot in there and it would be unbearable. When we sat down, I guess we took off our towels and it was pitch dark. The leader began to explain what we were about to do and what she wanted us to discuss. She poured water over the hot stones that had been placed in the hole in the ground. Then we ate some type of rice mixed with fruit or something like that and shared different things with each other in the circle. I remember I was fairly new in sobriety (about 10 months) and was very emotional. I cried a lot when I shared and for some reason, kept thinking about my grandmother who had passed away about three or four years before. I think we also passed around a pipe of tobacco. … I think we also had one more round of discussion. … When it was over, we crawled back out through the same opening and I remember feeling free and was truly moved by the experience.”

We also prayed a lot, and, after sweating for hours, I had an intense pain in my low back, but I felt strangely calm and certain that a resolution to my mystery illness was at hand.

The ground was hard and cold and absorbed gallons of woman-sweat. When we finally crawled out of the lodge, the sky above was crowded with blazing stars in the cold, black night.

We joined the larger group for a Native American feast and felt as if we were being welcomed home after a Vision Quest. I was exhausted at first but then had a burst of energy and danced for hours to a cover band.

I woke later that night in my motel room completely dizzy and disoriented and walked right into a wall on my way to the bathroom, then dreamed wild but now unremembered dreams and finally fell into a deep, peaceful sleep.

That sweat in Cherokee remains the only one I have done. Sweats are essentially purification rituals, and I felt completely cleared and cleaned out and ready for my next trial. I will be forever grateful to that tolerant medicine woman who so patiently guided us - some novices and some experienced, Native sweaters - through that intense cleansing journey into the heart of Mother Earth.

Next week: The sonogram.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Swami-ji and More Symptoms

I don't know how I dragged myself to meditation at 6 a.m. the second day at Yogaville, but I did, and followed it with an Integral Hatha Yoga class. It took me a while to warm of to Integral Yoga, but now I adore its perfect blend of active and receptive poses, of movement and stillness, of asana, chanting and meditation.

After Hatha class came a bountiful breakfast of oatmeal, fruit and yogurt but no coffee, no caffeine of any kind, and in my undiagnosed fatigue state (one of the symptoms of ovarian cancer), I was a slave to the stimulation of caffeine.

The headache started soon after breakfast, persisted through the morning, hounded me through lunch. I took the Ashram Tour to see all the sights, the most memorable of which was the awesome overlook of the James River where you can see the Lotus Temple with its Butterfly Lake and the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.

I now have a great appreciation for the art of the siesta, but at that time, napping was not in my repertoire. After the tour, however, I lay down and didn't wake up till 5 p.m. I missed the brief opening of the coffee shop - no fix for me - as well as the afternoon Hatha class and felt cheated and grumpy, very grumpy. I was beginning to think that maybe I was Depressed.

Depressed would have been preferable to cancer.

We had another wonderful meal that night, which I enjoyed despite my splitting headache. We chatted with other pilgrims, then came back to our room and rallied for the evening program of satsang (teaching by the guru) where there was a short address by Sri Swami Satchidananda, and more chanting and ceremony.

Plus, there was a visit from another swami who looked just like Satchidananda. They were two guys with flowing white hair and beards, sort of dark, skinny Santa Clauses in orange dresses.

I drank in Swami-ji's presence, somehow knowing, despite my fuddlement, that I was in the presence of a great being, one who transcended all appearances and all doubt. I felt a brief cessation of my anxiety although the ache still pounded in my skull like an unwelcome wake-up call.

Betsy and I left Yogaville the next day, still too caught up in our own personal discomfort to fully appreciate the experience and the privilege of being in Swami-ji's presence. He left his body in 2002 and is entombed at Yogaville in a shrine called Chidambaram where his presence is honored, cultivated and felt.

We journeyed back to Winston-Salem a little disappointed and not particularly rested. We'd expected more of a spa or resort experience, I think. We hadn't understood what it means to be in an ashram that is more about spiritual activity and discipline than exercise.

But my long nap and unusual headache strengthened my resolve to find out what the heck was happening to me. Soon after that, I went to see Dr. Rawlings, and my journey to diagnosis began in earnest.

Next Week: Sonogram and Sweat Lodge

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Let Me Take You to ... Yogaville

I can't help thinking the name is funny. It sounds made-up, something that might show up in Doonesbury or in a T.C. Boyle novel - like Drop City or Funky Town.

But Yogaville is the real deal, a wonderful community of wise people and wisdom-seekers, nestled (sorry, Fran) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, about 45 minutes from Charlottesville

I have been there now more times than I can recall, and I gratefully call Yogaville (Satchidananda Ashram) my spiritual home, but my first visit at a time when my illness was still undiagnosed gave little promise of the glorious relationship that the future held.

And it's interesting that I was ill and didn't know it the first time I went there, precisely because of what my relationship with Yogaville has become. But that is now, and this was then, and we're talking about "then."

Then, my best friend from Hilton Head Island, Betsy Spencer, and I were heading to Yogaville for a retreat from our demanding newspaper jobs; she was in advertising, and I was in news-gathering.

On this hot, dusty Labor Day weekend,  the drive from Winston-Salem seemed interminable. It's about 3 1/2 hours, but the first time you drive it, you really think you'll never get there, that you'll be lost in the Virginia woods, abducted by rednecks, or just slowly succumb to the weariness of endless, winding mountain roads - beautiful but endless.

The ashram is about 45 minutes away from U.S. 29. It is secluded among rolling hills, deciduous woods and both well-kept and untended farmland. On your drive, you'll see shacks and mansions, thoroughbreds and mules, all in testimony to Virginia's agrarian past and present.

I'm told that the locals at first had concerns about the white-bearded, saffron-robed swami who moved onto the land and began building homes, schools and a magnificent if slightly bizarre-at-first-glance pink lotus temple in the middle of their pretty-conservative community. But the ashramites  - a ragtag group of hippies, Yankees and construction workers (my brother Jacob was among them) - began volunteering at a charity in Buckingham a few miles away, and it wasn't too long before they all began co-existing harmoniously.

Betsy and I arrived at Sivananda Hall, the ashram's communal kitchen and dining room, and were met by a swami who seemed a little annoyed at having two slightly harried and discombobulated travelers washed up on her tranquil shore. But she led us over to guest services, got us checked in and sent us to our dorm room.

Oh my god! There was no lock on the door, but as it turned out, we had a giant room all to ourselves, and there wasn't a lot of activity on the hall.

Not that I needed to be worried about noise and being able to sleep in the dorm, since what I really couldn't seem to do was wake up. I was trudging around in a funk and still baffled as to why.

We went to a hatha Yoga class that I thought was too easy - too much chanting and meditating and not enough asana - but was probably just about right for my skills and energy level. Then to my first of many fabulous meals in Sivananda Hall where we chatted with other women from places like Baltimore and Taos.

I went to sleep at about 8 p.m. - unbelievable - and didn't wake up till 5:30 a.m. when a white-haired female swami came down our hall playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" on a violin.

If we hadn't had enough clues, that did it. Clearly, Betsy, we're not in Winston-Salem anymore.

Stay tuned. Next week: In the sweet presence of Sri Swami Satchidananda and the pain of caffeine  addiction.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Squeeze the Day

Everyone who has been through or is living with cancer or other chronic illness or injury has a story to tell. My story is not special. It's just mine and, therefore, mine to tell.

Illness taught me many valuable lessons, most of which I hope are continually revealed in my teaching, writing and how I live, but some of which can be shared here in simple terms.

* Suffering changes us. We can't get around that. It either makes us bitter, or it makes us better. We get to choose.

* No one knows how long he or she has to live. Make every moment count. Squeeze the day. As the bumper stickers day, "Don't postpone joy!" (but don't let it lead you into credit-card debt either); as Warren Zevon said, "Enjoy every sandwich." Even if the moment is painful, embrace it.

* Life is a precious gift. There were certainly moments during my illness that didn't seem like moments to celebrate - the night I shat myself, the crushing loneliness of the New Year's Eve just after my diagnosis, the fatigue, the instant loss of fertility, the irrevocable and sudden loss of youth.  But even those moments were gifts: They created the woman I am today, softened me and opened me to love.

* None of us is singled out for special suffering. All who live suffer.

* None of us is singled out for joy. All people rejoice.

* We are part of ... everything. Separateness is the biggest and most destructive illusion.

The only distinction that I give my cancer experience is that Yoga relieved much of my suffering, and I know that even in that respect I am not unique. Others have used Yoga to mitigate their suffering. I am grateful for that as well.

Regardless of my lack of uniqueness, I am compelled to tell my story of cancer and Yoga. The beauty of a blog is that it allows an immediate response. Cyber-space is as varied and infinite as our stories. I hope that you will comment on mine and respond with yours.