I wrote the first draft of this essay more than 15 years ago while I was still living in Estonia. I started a series of stories about my encounters there in a notebook with thick graph paper that a friend’s cat had peed on. I was so frugal in those days that I didn’t think to replace the notebook; I just dried it out. Or maybe that particular stink was stimulating to my creativity. I don’t know.
I wrote and re-wrote the essay for years, trying to figure out what it was about. Should I add a long section on the history of saunas? Should I put it in the broader context of my experience in Estonia? It languished.
Then three things happened in the course of one year. I met Lisa Ohlen Harris, non-fiction editor for Relief, at a conference and heard her read from some of her own work about living in Syria and Jordan. A light bulb of recognition went on. Then, while at Duke University for another conference, I saw an exhibit of Jennette Williams’ photographs taken in bathhouses in Hungary and Turkey. (link to Jennette William’s page; link to my review on the Century website) I felt another “click.” These bodies move me in a powerful way. Finally, I read a book by Varda Polak-Sahm, called The House of Secrets about the Jewish women’s bathing practices.
I began to see that the essay was about the mysterious process by which “I” have come to inhabit my body. Essentially, this is a story about incarnation, about the uneasy relationship between body and spirit. I was able to finish the essay, and I immediately sent it to Lisa, who had been a kind steward of the process. I am so glad that the essay has finally found a home after so many years of wandering. Thanks, Relief!
Here is a teaser from "The Flesh of Strangers":
The heels of my black boots against the stone and snow of the street pounded out a rhythm. "I exist," they said. "I exist." On a Friday afternoon of failing December light, I was a shadow against the fences of the houses in the Kivimäe neighborhood of Tallinn, Esonia. My boots were smart and sharp. They made me a taller, more polished version of myself. But my performance of crisp heels against cobblestone, the performance of my own existence, was for an audience of one. No one else was on the street. I struggled even to hear myself. "I exist" was the mantra of my feet, but my mind preferred a less substantive existence, slipping along the back streets in the low light and the slugh of early winter, shade without form, unnoticeable. Living in a foreign city, I had become increasingly timid. I wanted to be invisible, a false native, blending in as I skirted the ancient city wall on my way to teach English classes. When I went to the marketplace, I asked for a kilo of tomatoes first in Estonian and then, if I received a confused look, in Russian. I hated being noticed, and I hated my fear of being noticed. All of this pretending was a strain on my existence. I became less and less sure that I did exist, silent as I so often was, lurking like Dostoevsky's Underground Man. On this Friday afternoon, I was on my way to the sauna, a two-story building of crumbling Soviet concrete. Every Friday, when I finished teaching my last class at the Estonian Academy of Music, I packed a sponge, a change of underwear, shower shoes, and soap in a plastic bag emblazoned with a Miller Lite logo and walked a few blocks to the neighborhood sauna. In my small flat on the edge of the city, a shower was no easy task. I had to turn on every spigot in the apartment full blast for forty-five minutes until a little steam would waft toward the ceiling of the red-tiled shower room. So I undertook the process rarely, preferring to heat a little water on my stove and bathe quickly in the hallway from the shadeless windows. By Friday, I was dirty.
Amy Frykholm is a staff writer for The Christian Century. She is the author of two books: the recently released Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography(Paraclete) and Rapture Culture: Left Behind in Evangelical America (Oxford). She lives in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated town in the United States.