Lumbini and the Steam Room
My mother calls me, “The Priest Who Couldn’t Keep It In His Pants.” She wasn’t at all surprised, she tells her friends, because she knew her son wasn’t up for the job. Then she laughs hysterically every time. I’m thinking about saving my therapy bills this year, putting them in a box, and wrapping it elegantly for Christmas. She won’t laugh, I assure you.
That is not where I wanted to begin this story. I intended to begin with God, not my mother, though in the shadowed voices of my psyche they often get confused.
What comes with the collar does not disappear when the little white piece of plastic is stripped away; it is not something you are one day and not the next. There is something that lives in the lining of your stomach and shapes you from the inside out. You don’t look any different, and most of the time you don’t feel any different, although when it happens the map of your inscape changes. But there I go again, beginning the story with me when it wasn’t what I meant to do. Let me start over.
There is no such thing as a successful search for the holy, no hunting it down with specially trained bloodhounds of the soul chasing its scent over the landscape of time. Go looking for the holy and it won’t be found. Don’t look for it, stay open to it, and then, sometimes there it is.
Most people look for God in sanctuaries sculpted by human imagination, or in the magnificence of natural beauty. Clichés abound when it comes to God but most of them are bullshit. If it sounds too good to be true it probably isn’t.
I know a brainiac who went off to M.I.T., an atheist, and says he found God studying mathematics. That’s weird, but he would say encountering God in a steam room is bizarre. Even so, the steam room I frequent is a gods spot. It’s not so much an encounter with God as it is a prickling on the back of the neck whispering that some holy thing was here a moment ago and the air still tingles with mystic mojo.
A sacred place is anywhere God has left tracks in the mud of human experience; still there is no guarantee a seeker will catch up and peer into divine mystery by following them. Standing at the edge of Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, where the crust of the earth is broken open and the inside of the loaf crumbles out, paleontologists stumbled upon the grandmother bones of our humanoid ancestry and the place is thick with sacredness. The rolling battlefield of the Little Big Horn, its deep dry gulches and lonely cemetery hill, is crisscrossed and tangled with tracks running into and out of the sacred. At Lumbini, in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal, dangling toes in the placid pool of the peeling temple of Maya Devi, knowing that this was the very place where the Buddha was born, the tracks are so fresh and deep a pilgrim can almost put a hand into them. In the little white steam room in the basement of the Robert L. Cohen Fitness Center in Buffalo, New York, you find fresh tracks of the holy left daily, just as you can see the newly pressed prints of deer and raccoon at the edge of a lake each morning.
The small rectangular steam room is floor to ceiling alabaster white tile, scrubbed in the merciless light of a single whining florescent fixture. It could, if you were on the edge of sanity, scream at you. There is nothing on its face to imply sacredness. It is, in fact, old and tired and in need of repair. But any place through which God routinely passes, a sacred space, requires neither beauty nor magnificence.
I visit the steam room almost every day, not so much to look for God as to reward myself for doing what I loathe. Ten more minutes on this freak’n Stairmaster, then I can have an extra five minutes in the steam room. As irrational as it is to promise a reward you can give yourself anyway, the enticement usually works.
The steam room is twelve feet long and six feet wide, easily measured by counting the tile. The only splotch of color is the worn sleeve of a five-foot length of ragged green garden hose attached to a faucet. The timer is broken so you have to spray the thermostat sensor above the door. If you put your finger over the nozzle it produces enough pressure to sustain a spray that will reach the sensor. If you hold it there long enough, sometimes up to a full sixty seconds, the pipes, which are imprisoned in a casing of cedar slats, begin a slow deep gurgle. The gurgles grow into tapping, and the tapping becomes a shhh-shhh swishing, and finally thick clouds of steam escape from between the slats of cedar. In seconds the small white cell is filled with such a concentration of steam that your skin cries out. I have witnessed grown men yelp like puppies and leap for the door.
An L-shaped ledge rims half the room, providing a small space to host rigorously sweating bodies. I am told women can tolerate less body space than men, but it is an observable phenomenon in the steam room that postures stiffen when too many naked males are required to sit too close to one another. I have felt my own body squeeze itself into a smaller size to gain distance from another male body as it enters my space, usurping the peace I created within my own frontiers.
The steam room is most therapeutic when I am by myself and able to lean back against the short wall, legs extended out fully along the tile ledge. Yet it only reveals its sacred nature when two or more are gathered in the midst of steam.
One other man sharing the steam room is most tolerable, so long as he does not shave or perform exercises. There are such offenders. One of the regulars is Frodo, a meticulous middle-aged man who seems far too concerned with keeping his body youthful and elegant. When I open the door of the steam room and through the clouds can make out the silhouette of Frodo doing naked sit-ups on the ledge, I am overcome with despair. Equally disturbing is when I am under the covers of hot vapor and Estefan enters. His lush white mustache curves upward in a smile as the cheap metal from a disposable blue razor makes the irksome noise of scraping whiskers to the moist fungal floor. Perhaps in their respective spheres, Frodo and Estefan are fine human beings, but in the steam room they are unwelcome vermin.
Wilson is a different story.
Monday and Wednesday I gleefully shared the steam room with Wilson who brought a small beaker of Eucalyptus oil to pour liberally between the slats of cedar. Few others (apart from Wilson and me) could tolerate the pungent, sinus liquefying intensity of the plant. Wilson was a rapper who said the oil compensated for the cigars he smoked when he was in Atlanta or NYC cutting music deals.
The steam room is an endangered habitat.
Even as you read these smuggled stories whispered from the walls of a sacred place, a major renovation is underway at the Robert L. Cohen Center, fondly known by members as “The COE”. It is unclear what will happen to the steam room. Will it be restored or eliminated? Or if it is simply torn apart and put back together, will its sacred magic seep out and leave behind an ordinary steam room? A damp chilling fog of anxiety has crept into my heart for which this steam room chronicle is my therapy.
You can purchase the novel at: http://tumbleweedbooks.ca/2015/11/05/now-available-the-steam-room-diaries/
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