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Sauna Day

Yesterday was Sauna Day in Embarrass, Minnesota. Had I known, and had it not been right smack-dab in the middle of the planting season, I might have gone. I’m sure nobody in Embarrass was embarrassed by pronouncing it wrong. The correct pronunciation is “sow-nah” and not “saw-nah”. The sauna is a Finnish invention and has been around for generations. As the Finns immigrated to northern Minnesota, many of them built smoke saunas in small buildings without chimneys, called savusaunas. I have heard local lore that these were built until the family could afford a regular sauna stove, but perhaps since the savusauna was the traditional sauna, that is what they knew. Large smooth rocks were heated over an open fire or in a fireplace, and when they were hot, the soot was cleaned from the interior of the sauna before bathing time. Nobody wants a dirty bath house. This was done by strong Finnish ladies who scrubbed everything with lye soap and probably also hauled many buckets of water from the lake. Don’t tell HIM, please. I am not a strong Finnish lady. It must be that bit of Norwegian blood in my veins. At our cabin, which has always been off the grid, (mostly because running electrical lines out to the middle of nowhere is too expensive) we have a real sauna, complete with a wood burning stove, specially made to hold rocks on top. Since there is no running water, we haul buckets of water from the lake. By we, I mean HIM, and before that, the elder HIM. My mother, being 100% Swedish, wasn’t a strong Finnish lady, either. One bucket is placed on top of the wood stove surrounded by rocks to heat the water. More buckets of water are placed near the stove to heat to lukewarm. When the sauna is hotter than heck, you sit on the bench and place your feet in your bucket, adding more hot water as needed. Naked, of course. Then you sit and sweat, splashing water on the rocks to create steam. You sweat some more, wash with soft melty soap, and if you honor tradition, slap yourself with leafy birch branches to stimulate the circulation before dumping your bucket of water over yourself to rinse off. Honestly, you will never feel cleaner. To cool off and close the pores, some people have been known to jump in the lake afterward for a skinny dip or a chunky dunk. When I was a kid, I actually stood naked in the snow just to say that I did. Years ago, people would sauna in groups. First the kids, boys and girls separate, of course, then the ladies, and finally, the men, many of whom carried a cold beer in with them to prevent dehydration, or at least that is what they told me. Sauna on Saturday was as much of a social time as it was a bath time. There is an old Finnish saying “saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” which means that folks should behave in the sauna just as they would behave in church. That’s exactly why I sauna by myself. For me, just as church can be, it is a time of cleansing, contemplation, and rejuvenation. Watching a bunch of soapy people slapping themselves with birch branches and running naked down to the lake? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance in a savusauna of keeping a straight face.

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