When speaking of rituals, David Bowie once mentioned his essential “awe of the universe.” Rituals are not beautiful for what they represent, but for what they do for their practitioners: for their aesthetic appeal: for their sheer power to define in a vacuous world of competing identities: for their ability to peek out from our distracted lives and wave, reminding us that we live in a miraculous world.
Rituals and structures create an easement, or catharsis, for many who chose to create or follow them. They find a calm and productivity in rigidity, like the generative constraints of creative writing. For instance, given our current political climate on and off campus, tensions constantly soar from brains to hearts to bodies. Tension, bodily and otherwise, defines the Grinnell College campus community in its competitive academic culture, its cult of stress, and its social-justice pissing contests. Grinnell has fallen ill and continues to poison itself.
One group, however, finds hope in clouds of steam: in rituals dedicated to purity through the forceful expulsion of physical and spiritual toxins. Sunday mornings begin with a clear chill, and the first steam of the day flows from between the lips of bathers traversing a February campus. These “bathers” seek a hot, weekly cleanse in the otherwise chilly underbelly of the Bear Athletic Center. Trials and tribulations of body and spirit well up in the academic week, spilling over into our lives and personalities to bring toxicity to our relationships with others and with ourselves. To cleanse the spirit, you must first cleanse the body.
Bathers continue in the noble footsteps of Greek, Roman, Slavic, and Scandinavian traditions of communal bathing. With a shared bath comes a tight-knit community. The bathhouse is a place to share woes, to comfort the pains of your brothers and sisters in steam, to make light of your ill fortune, and to rejoice in the majesty of a purified body. Bathers note their increased confidence and appetites for life after a hearty steam. “Strong as an ox,” chants one bather, shaving his legs in the indispensable post-steam shower. After washing the accumulated toxins from their fresh skin, bathers dry themselves and sit down for a final ritual; Dr. Teal’s Lavender Body Oil runs like water in the locker room. Its relaxing scent, its moisturizing, muscle-relaxing slickness, and its quick-absorbing formula form a strong layer on the pure bodies of bathers to fortify against the imminent onslaught of toxins in their return to the material world.
This weekly ritual brings peace and harmony to but a small group of dedicated steamers, though their message rings true for all who desire a respite from chaotic and stressful thoughts, lives, and interpersonal interactions. When you enter the steam, you leave behind those ever-present distractions from the beauty of life. You leave behind your academic worries and social stressors. You leave behind those physical toxins which poison your body and life and begin to live in a new, non-toxic one.
Bathers maintain their power of steam and their purity of heart in many ways, from consuming large amounts of herring and onion (two of the least toxic foods known to man) to sweating out any freshly accumulated toxins through early morning workouts. “I feel toxic tonight,” you may hear on a Tuesday evening in Burling. “Tonight we steam,” answers a fellow bather. And steam they must, for toxins beget naught but strife.
Structure your life with that which makes you feel as the bathers feel in the crisp, bright walk South towards home, with gentle winds drying their damp hair and caressing their clean, smiling faces. Build a life for yourself with your rituals at the center so that you never forget the beauty of the life you’ve forgotten. Create habits which pull the toxins from your tense body and refresh your awe of the universe. Move around, talk to friends, and relax your shoulders. Live as the steamer lives. Live without toxins; live with gusto and heart.