Mud, sweat and fears


I often think of Nelson Mandela as I wait, door ajar, for my shower to warm up. I have done so for years, ever since I read his autobiography. Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island, had to endure cold showers for 30 years. It gets pretty icy on Robben Island. And I whinge about waiting 15 seconds for the water to run warm.

Of course, cold water isn’t my problem; hot water is. I used to wonder why I felt like a ragdoll after my shower, weak and unbalanced for half an hour or more. Now I know to keep the temperature moderate. No hot water on my head or back.

And don’t start me on hot baths! These days they’re a rare luxury for when I know I don’t have anything else to do that night – and when the Mechanic’s there to help me climb out. Or for severe neuralgia episodes, when a brief bout of lower limb paralysis is a small price to pay to make the pain go away.

I first became aware of what heat could do to me about 15 years ago, when I was invited to a sweat lodge ceremony on a property on the outskirts of Quaama. Our host, Angela, had an affinity with Native American culture and had built a mud-brick dome a short distance from her house for such ceremonies. There was a flued cast-iron firebox in the dome, and Ange had been stoking it all day. When the dome was like an oven inside we all stripped naked and piled inside – there were about 20 of us, all women – and sat on low wooden benches on the mud floor.

The sweat lodge is a purification ritual in Native American culture. It’s claimed that the scorching heat and the vapours from smouldering bundles of sage allow participants to attain a heightened perception, or a connection with ancestors, or to gain access to new layers of self-knowledge. In our lodge, some women spoke in low tones of life challenges, some communed with their spiritual guides, some just sat quietly and sweated. Me? I went blind.

Well, not completely. Until Ange brought proceedings to a close I had had my eyes shut so I hadn’t been aware it was happening. When I opened them I found I could only make out blurry shapes of objects close to me, but enough so that when we all tumbled out into the cool evening air, I could find my way to where I’d left my robe, then follow everyone else back to the house, where I sat and drank herb tea and did my best to add to the chatter.

I’m pretty sure I got away with it. I didn’t at any stage let on, to anyone, that anything untoward had happened. I know what I was thinking – that as long as I pretended that nothing was wrong, nothing was.

I waited at Ange’s about three hours, eating, drinking, chatting. By then my vision had cleared enough to drive home (don’t worry, it was only about three kilometres along a quiet country lane, a trip that took me about 15 minutes that night). I went to bed. By the next morning my eyes were back to normal.

I haven’t so much as glanced at a hot tub since, but you might have guessed that.

Perversely, cold can slow my nerve responses down too. If my face gets cold my lips feel swollen, my tongue ponderous, and I start to slur my speech. I sound drunk (memo to self: to avoid sounding like I’ve overdone the vodka cocktails, take a warm scarf when we go on that cruise through the Baltic Sea next May – thought I’d just throw that in 🙂

But as we head into what’s forecast to be a very hot summer, heat is on my mind. I’ll still spare a thought for Nelson Mandela, but there’ll be days that a cool shower will be very welcome.

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