I flew into Sudbury on January 2, 2014. It was minus thirty-two degrees Celsius. It was the second time I’d been in the city since my trans-Canadian driving adventure in 2009. I dragged my suitcase through the icy parking lot looking for my Jeep Cherokee rental.
I was in town to work on a psychological thriller with Miranda Cosgrove called "The Intruders." I hadn't seen Miranda since she was eleven when she did a guest spot on my sitcom, "Grounded for Life."
I checked into the hotel and drove to a shopping center with a Canadian Tire and a Tim Horton’s to pick up supplies. The temperature dropped even further to the point where I felt like I was in a physics experiment. The exhaust from the cars ahead of me hung mid-air in crystallized contrails.
The next day, production sent a van by the hotel to take me to my wardrobe fitting. My driver was an amazing First Nations woman named Verlyn Reese Robinson-Edgar. The fitting was strange, the designer and I clearly on different pages as to who this character was supposed to be, but I felt compassion for her. She was a single mom raising teenagers on her own — a responsibility I have deep respect for.
Verlyn and I became close quickly. She had an incredible spirit and almost literally glowed. She's truly one of the wisest and kindest souls I've met in my life. I told her I’d worked in Northern Ontario some years earlier and became friends with a woman named Chelsea Solomon, who, it turned out, Verlyn knew. I told her Chelsea and her mom made me a pair of moccasins that included little touches specific to me. I said it was the most precious gift I’d ever received.
“That’s a great honor,” she said.
Verlyn said if I wanted to know more about her people I should study Anishinaabe history, a blanket term that includes people from the Algonquin, Chippewa, Ojibwa, and other tribes. She asked if I had much knowledge of indigenous people and I said not nearly as much as I’d like, but my partner in my trucking company was Cherokee and Seminole and I’d been invited to a sweat once.
She asked what that was like. I said it was great, but laughed when I thought of something that happened.
“What’s so funny?”
I told her back in Oregon, I’d befriended a man named Rick who was Native American. He came to my cabin and told me the land was confused and didn’t know who its master was. What he said was incredibly on point, but I couldn't reveal to Rick why what he’d intuited standing in my meadow was so insightful. He blessed my house with tobacco, smudged it with sage, and invited me to a sweat.
A few months later, I was in Oregon for Christmas break with my kids and Gilles Marini and his family. Rick called and said they were having a sweat that Saturday. There had been a heavy snow the night before and I had trouble getting down the mountain from my cabin. After a couple of close calls on the steep, icy, descent, I made it to the lodge, which had been built outside a Veterans Administration hospital in White City. Rick ran sweats to help veterans recovering from all kinds of maladies, mostly traumatic brain injuries and PTSD.
I parked in the lot behind the hospital and saw a group of men around a large bonfire. Rick explained that the fire had been built over a pile of stones that would be used in the ceremony. The tented lodge wasn’t large and about thirty men had gathered. Rick looked slightly concerned. He said it was the biggest sweat they’d ever had, that it would be crowded, but fine. He then gave me a rundown of proper etiquette, walking counterclockwise, not walking between the fire pit and the entrance to the lodge, and general rules about behavior he said he was sure would be obvious to me but needed to be stated. I listened dutifully. It was an honor just to be asked to participate and I wanted him to know I respected that.
Before we stripped down to our underwear, a white dude approached me wearing a garish leather jacket and a huge, ornate, turquoise neckpiece. He had an aggressive edge to him. He told me a sweat wasn’t a joke, it was a holy ceremony, and I had to obey the rules of etiquette, walking counter-clockwise, etc. I explained Rick had gone over the rules with me and I was aware of the sanctity of the ceremony. Even though I knew I hadn’t earned this guy’s odd level of distrust, I let him ramble on. I was a newcomer to the gathering. My intent was to keep my head down and be, as I always try to be, “teachable.”
The sweat itself was fascinating. An elder who might have been in his nineties was the firekeeper. All of us were crowded in the tent and the firekeeper started with a prayer and explained the purpose of the sweat was for us to suffer so that others might not. There was an element of a twelve-step meeting to it. Men told stories of loved ones going through hard times, from addiction to medical issues, and asked the Creator for guidance and help. We’d all answer in reply and pray to the Creator to watch over these people and help them in their respective battles with meth, glaucoma, whatever the case might be.
After an hour, it was insanely hot. We were so tightly crowded, it was virtually impossible to move. The elder suggested if we felt overwhelmed, we put our mouths to the earth to find a pocket of cooler air. He reiterated, however, that perseverance was critical for the prayers to be heard and answered.
Every half hour or so, a new stone would be brought from the fire pit into the tent and added to the pile in a hole in the ground. The firekeeper would pour water over it to create steam. It was intense, but moving. I’ve always believed in the power of communal prayer, the act of genuflecting to something greater than ourselves, and there’s nothing like the honesty of hearing someone share from the heart about what’s going on in their lives. Complete strangers, helping each other as we are bound together in this absurd, beautiful, and confounding condition of being human souls cohabiting a rock in space.
About two hours into the sweat, the man in the leather jacket and necklace asked for prayers to help him navigate a particularly tricky situation he found himself in. It was a bit of a strange story and he used language designed to distance himself from any personal responsibility relating to the situation. I immediately chided myself for judging him. I realized I was holding a resentment from our interaction prior to the sweat. Besides, most of the men in the tent were veterans, guys who'd put their lives on the line and were suffering. They had my utmost respect. I bent towards the ground, put my mouth near the frozen earth and found a small pocket of coolish air.
Then we prayed for the guy, who I’ll call “Brother Scott.”
About ten minutes after Scott shared, an African American vet from Detroit was talking about problems he was dealing with after coming back from Afghanistan. It was moving and funny. He said when he first sought help, the VA in Detroit said they were sending him to a place called “White City.” “Great,” he said, “that’s all I need!” We laughed. There were smiles. The elder said it was okay to spread laughter and joy. It was freeing. He continued sharing about his experience at the hospital when all of a sudden, Brother Scott said, “F*&k this! This is way too hot! I’m out of here!” and stormed out of the tent clockwise.
We were all a little stunned and sat in silence until the elder asked the man from Detroit to continue. When he finished, the elder restated the purpose of why we were there. He said, “We suffer so that others don’t have to. Then you have people like “Brother Scott” who want us to pray for him for behavior he has caused and ten minutes later runs out of the tent swearing."
We laughed at the absurdity of it. The elder smiled and calmly poured water over the stones.
Six hours after it started, we stood out in the snow together in our underwear and said one last prayer. We looked like we’d lost twenty pounds and were a few shades of skin color lighter. The guy from Detroit stood next to me, holding my hand. He whispered, “Dang, after that I look whiter than you.”
Verlyn loved the story. She told me her name was really Demiin Kwe, Strawberry Woman, and insisted I call her that from then on.
Hanging out in the lobby, thinking about the sweat, it reminded me of how important those types of gatherings are to me and my spiritual well-being. I went to my room, got on my computer, and looked for one.
I found one starting in fifteen minutes in a church not far from the hotel. I put on my new Sorrel boots, a huge parka, and headed out the door. I found the address, but parking was a bit of a trick as snowplows had left massive berms on the streets around the church. I put the jeep in 4x4 and tucked into a spot I reasoned was eighty-seven percent acceptable from a legal point-of-view.
The meeting didn’t disappoint. They never do. Just people gathered in a room -- a percolator on a folding table in the corner.
Near the end of the meeting, the leader of the group asked if there were any out-of-town visitors. I raised my hand, said my name, and that I was from Los Angeles. A few people laughed and said I probably wished I was back home where it was warm.
An elderly woman sitting next to me raised her hand and said she was visiting from out west. There was something regal about her. Even though the time for sharing had passed, she clearly wanted to talk. She shared a bit of her life story and then spoke directly to “the young ladies,” in the room. She said she’d been wild in her youth, in a time when it wasn’t considered lady-like or appropriate to do the things she did. She said while people might now look back on such behavior as normal, where she was from, and because of her family, she wasted decades being too ashamed of herself to seek help. She didn’t think she was worthy. She told the women in the room not to be like her, to never let shame get in the way of getting help. She said if she could, they could get better, and God loved them no matter what.
“Don’t do what I did,” she said. “Don’t waste your life feeling ashamed, or like you’re being judged. We can be so cruel to ourselves. Reach out to people — your family. I came all the way from Alberta to Sudbury to bury a sister I hadn’t spoken to in twenty-five years.” She got emotional. “Life’s too short.”
Having gone a few minutes past the appointed hour, the leader said that the time for sharing was over and asked everyone to honor a moment of silence for all who were suffering in and out of that room. I thought of “Brother Scott.” While he was out of line with me before the sweat and provided some chuckles when he left, he was a soul who needed to be forgiven. The leader asked us to stand and join hands in a closing prayer.
I stood, and as the elderly woman next to me pushed back her chair, I heard her utter a muffled cry. She took my hand and squeezed it hard as we recited The Lord’s Prayer. But she wasn’t praying, she was shaking. I asked if she was okay and she said, “My hip. I just broke my hip. I was getting out of my chair and I heard it snap.”
She looked pale. The man standing on the other side of her and I held her as she started to collapse.
“Can you sit?” I asked.
“No, no." She moaned in pain. "I can’t move at all.”
Others joined us keeping her steady so she wouldn't have to bend her leg, while a woman called 911 for an ambulance. No one left the room. No one was going anywhere until they knew this woman was being taken care of by paramedics.
“I just buried my sister yesterday,” she told me. “She broke her hip a year ago and...I know what that means.” She started to cry. "I know what that means."
We all looked at each other. She’d uttered something unspoken, but known to us all. At her age, in that place, in that cold, a broken hip marks the beginning of the end. We stayed with her until the paramedics arrived, her hand still squeezing mine until they placed her on the gurney. Her pain was agonizing to witness.
We helped the paramedics, but guiding the gurney over the snow in front of the church was no easy feat. I was moved by how everyone stayed and helped. The ambulance left and a young man who’d been holding her wiped away a tear.
I trudged back to my Jeep and noticed the fuel door lying in the snow next to my vehicle. It was odd, but I discovered the plastic hinge mechanism had cracked from the cold. I threw it in the backseat and drove to the hotel.
Back at the Embassy Suites, I ran into two of the producers in the lobby.
“You were out in this weather?”
“Yeah, just ran an errand.”
“Well, I know you just got in from LA. You’ll probably find Sudbury to be incredibly boring compared to what you’re used to.”
How little they knew. Don't get me wrong, these were incredibly kind men, not industry stereotypes. I couldn’t explain what I’d just witnessed. I understood what they meant, it’s something I hear often. But it couldn’t be more wrong. There’s no such thing as boring in life.
I told Demiin Kwe about what happened and as I suspected, she had the perfect response. She said the woman was fortunate to be around people who honored and cared for her, though she be a stranger, in her hour of greatest need.
Some years later I noticed a picture on Facebook with Verlyn and James Paxton, the son of one of my closest friend’s, Bill, and a beautiful young man I’ve known since he was a baby. He was shooting a TV series in Sudbury. There was something so fitting about him being with Verlyn. This was before his father passed. I called James and we gushed about old times back in Ojai, and talked about Sudbury and Verlyn.
“You mean Demiin Kwe,” said James.
“That’s right. Demiin Kwe.”