Did I Mention I am Claustrophobic?

I am taking a writing class to sharpen my writing skills. Every week we read what we wrote to the class and they give feedback. I haven’t written anything for them to critique in two weeks (I am calling it “writer’s block”). I finally came up with something and I decided to share it with you. It’s a true story:


Part of my 90s experience was spent on a spiritual adventure. A quest. A quest to find what, I don’t exactly know. I think it started as an offshoot from all those “self-help” books I read, or maybe it was because I was approaching middle age. Every month I visited different churches to see what they were talking about. I learned in college one of the ways to find out about a culture was to study their religious beliefs. So, I thought of myself as an anthropologist of sorts.

One day a coworker told me about a Native American “sweat” that was happening that coming weekend and invited me to come along. I was living in San Francisco and the thought of going to a Native American ceremony intrigued me. The event would take place in the backyard of someone’s house right there in the city. That Saturday we were greeted at the person’s home by a man dressed in Native American attire. We had to be “smudged” by this person before we were allowed to enter the home. Smudging is done with sage. The person smudges another person (in this case me) by holding a smoldering piece of sage and wafting the smoke around the person’s body. The idea is to clean the “energy” of the person so they enter the ceremony “clean.”

There were about twenty people in the backyard. They were in small groups engaged in conversations that didn’t look any different than one would see at a regular gathering or outdoor party, except there was no alcohol of course. Several feet away there was a pit with a small fire by the back fence. I figured they would barbecue something later. Something that looked like a crudely built teepee sat in the middle of the yard. Everything looked really cool.

Instead of doing a lot of talking, besides introducing myself, I wanted to listen and learn. This was so much more interesting than sitting inside a church listening to a sermon. I was doing something different. I was doing something “spiritual.”

I don’t know exactly how much time went by, but I am guessing it was over an hour when the host asked those of us who wanted to participate in the sweat, to line up at the teepee. My friend said, “That’s us.” And I followed her. One of the persons dressed as a Native American opened the teepee flap and asked us to go inside, and  sit in a circle, cross legged. I was the third one to go in. I think there was a total of seven of us.

Did I mention that I am claustrophobic? As soon as I sat down and saw how cramped we were, my heart started beating fast. I told myself that everything was “ok.” I was outdoors, sitting in a tent, just hanging out with a few people. Then some guy showed up holding what looked like a “glowing bowling ball” on a shovel. He dropped it into a hole that was in the middle of our circle. I asked my friend, “What’s that for?” She replied, “It’s for the sweat. He has more to put in.” That pit I mentioned earlier, was not for a barbecue, it held the giant rocks that would heat up the teepee.

After the third rock was added to the hole, I was getting really hot. Did I mention I am claustrophobic? I don’t do well in heat either. I felt the urge to leave but I wasn’t close to the front entrance. I told my friend that I wasn’t feeling well and I had to get out. She said, “Wait — the ceremony has begun.” What had I gotten myself into? My breathing was getting rapid and short. I could feel panic welling up inside me. I had to get out of there. But how? I was surrounded by strangers who sat there with big smiles on their faces. Some had their eyes closed. I closed my eyes. If I pretended to be somewhere else, maybe I would feel better. I heard that guy come back and dump another glowing rock. I opened one eye. There must have been a hundred rocks! By now, I was sweating like a pig. Ok, that’s good dude. I think I’m sweating enough. We don’t need anymore. He must have heard my thoughts because he said something (I don’t remember what, I was freaking out too much to hear anything). Then he closed the flap and it was dark except for the glowing rocks. Did I mention I am claustrophobic?

That was enough for me. I announced to the group I had to get out. Some woman, who I am guessing was in charge of our “sweat,” said I had to wait. Wait? Wait for what? To die of asphyxiation and heat stroke? My friend leaned over and whispered, “ Please be quiet. You’re embarrassing me.”

Why was everyone looking so calm when we were all in danger? I felt duped by my friend. She never told me this “sweat” would involve real sweating, sitting inside a tiny, dark tent, with a bunch of people who were sucking up what little oxygen there was. Oh, and we sat around glowing rocks that could have burned the whole place down.

Since, I knew no one was going to move so I could get out, I did the only rational thing I could think of, I turned around and got on my knees, put my face to the ground, and lifted the bottom of teepee a couple inches so I could breathe the outside air. My rear end was inches away from my friend’s face. I don’t know what was happening behind me. I didn’t care. I was enjoying the cool fresh air. I started feeling better.

Apparently, my actions were enough to change the mind of the person in charge. Before I knew it, people scooted out of the way and I was released to the safety of the outdoors. Who knew fresh air could smell so good? I don’t think anyone on the outside knew what was going on. They were busy with their conversations. No one even looked at me.

I thought, Wow! So this is what a Native American sweat is all about!

I didn’t wait for my friend to finish and come out to share her experience. I left and caught the next bus towards home.