Thursday, July 8, 2010

"The Accidental Baptism" by Gwen Sibley

My friend Carolyn and I had spent that morning at the excavation site of Ephesus, Turkey, walking the dusty streets of a civilization that thrived in this coastal town thousands of years ago. We had collected water from the springs running under the house of the Virgin Mary, where it was said she lived after the crucifixion of her Son. After such a holy and historic morning, we returned to the port city where our cruise ship was docked to wander the streets looking for “Evil Eye” souvenirs.

It was while we were casually looking at Oriental rugs and talking with the English speaking owner of the store that he asked if we had ever had a Turkish bath. We met each other’s gaze with excitement and apprehension over the thought of the possibilities ahead. We had never turned down a chance to experience some crazy adventures in our years of travel together, such as when we climbed up the steep hill to the Acropolis in the searing summer heat just to sit on the steps of the Parthenon, almost collapsing on the way down, so why not go for it? But as I followed him through a maze of narrow, dirty alleyways, my Connecticut Yankee inner voice started whispering , “Are you crazy? No one knows you‘re doing this. The cruise ship could leave without you.”

But then the real reason why I was following this man flashed in front of me - a chance to reclaim myself after a bitter divorce a few years ago. I had gone from my parent’s house to my husband’s at the young age of twenty, without a day of living on my own, defining myself as a daughter and then a wife, always living in the shadows of someone else. After 23 years of living through and for another, I was just beginning to live for myself. Somehow I needed this bewildering escapade to validate myself in this very moment.

We reached the local bathhouse and our guide told the owner to take good care of us, leaving with a promise to return in two hours to bring us back to the ship. The spiral marble staircase in the center of the room brought us to a long narrow hallway with slatted wooden doors on either side. Behind each door was a tiny room where the owner told me to wrap the towel around me and meet him at the staircase. I could hardly see in that shadowy, incense filled room, but I undressed and wrapped the towel around my ample body, barely covering myself. Was I a sheep being led to slaughter?

Carolyn, the owner and I walked down more stairs until we discovered underground corridors lined with mosaic walls leading into a cavernous room. The owner left us and we were on our own. The room was filled with steam swirling out of a stone furnace in the center, rising up to a hole in the domed ceiling and spurting out into the sky. Men and women lined the walls, sitting on wooden benches, some with towels, some without. I was mesmerized. Within minutes my body was also drenched in sweat, the steam opening every pore of my skin and my mind as if I were being absorbed into the walls around me. Since other people were leaving the room, I forced myself to leave this hypnotic state and follow them. The corridor led to a bigger room, shaped exactly like the first, but in the center were two elevated marble tables. Along the walls were showers and small wooden stools. I raced for a shower and let the frigid water from the underground wells wash away my rivulets of sweat. I noticed the others were sitting on tiny stools until someone came to take them to one of the tables, so I squatted down upon my stool and waited. The wet towel still clung to my body, like some remnant of my former life. I still couldn’t let go of it. Suddenly a man offered his hand to lead me to the table. This must be the masseuse I thought, with visions of gentle Swedish massages I had experienced floating in my head.

Was I in for a surprise. With that first dowsing of water as the towel was whisked away, I knew I would remember this adventure forever. Every loofah scrubbed inch of my body tingled with delight in shedding my old layers of the past. As I looked up, slivers of light squeezed through the scattered openings of the ancient domed ceiling, luring my naked body to fly to the blue and white patchwork of the sky. I tried to focus on the pulsating canopy of light beams while I fought to hold myself onto the cold, wet marble table beneath me. Had I become a mystical offering to the Gods?

It didn’t matter that I was a plump, middle aged, nude, white American woman surrounded by mostly young, thin, dark, Turkish men in a bathhouse somewhere in Turkey, I felt free and open as I hadn’t ever felt since my divorce. I knew deep within that the Gods had accepted my offering and had awakened my soul. I had been baptized by the waters of Ephesus into a new and exciting world.

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