Over the past couple of months I have finally taken on and completed a project I have thought about and procrastinated on for years…. I built a sauna. 8’ x 10’ with a small porch, wood-fired stove, and an interior complete with cedar benches and tongue-and-groove paneling, it’s pretty much everything I (and my sauna-loving friends!) dreamed of…..
And, in the process of building my sauna, I discovered something that once eluded me but now seems so self-evidently clear…. Saunas are not “built;” they are formed. Formed out of the collective human labor of those who construct it, formed out of the collective human sweat of those who bathe in its heat. Formed, because at its very essence, a sauna is not a building or a room but instead, a community. And, more often than not, a community of men.
I didn’t understand this until my friend Chris and I began to build, and I began to read a book he loaned me, The Sauna, by Rob Roy. Yes, the book is all about the varieties of construction methods employed to build these peculiar little places made sacred by the Finns. But, behind all of the details about cord wood, stone, sod, glass and cast iron and heat, the book is really about a relationship that develops between the people and the space of their creation…. and about the relationships that develop out of that created space being shared.
This understanding was confirmed when I was then introduced to a PBS documentary movie entitled Steam of Life . A couple of on-line film synopses:
From a land of long, dark winters comes Steam of Life, a moody, comic and moving study of Finnish men as framed by the national obsession with the sauna. There, they come together to sweat out not only the grime of contemporary life, but also their grief, hopes, joys and memories.
Both physically and emotionally naked, the sweaty men talk in detail about their experiences, their ambitions, their failings, their darkest secrets and biggest fears, often with a few drinks handy to keep the conversation flowing. The result is a film that offers a look into a unique side of Finnish culture as well as an insight into the male psyche that's universal.
Could my sauna be a place such as this? Could such a space help even we American men to reconnect to our common humanity, to our common destiny, and to each other? Perhaps, with this in mind, one of the film’s viewers posted this comment: “May I suggest that Congress, the Senate, and the Administration might benefit from taking weekly communal saunas.”
You can view the trailer to Steam of Life at http://www.pbs.org/pov/steamoflife/