Falling Awake: The bathers

Mary Lou Sanelli

Mary Lou Sanelli

Have you had one of those mornings lately when you say to yourself, “I need to do something else today?” When you feel incapable of facing your inbox; of accomplishing; a feeling of urgency that causes your chest to tighten even now as you read this. Not that there haven’t been about a million times you’ve felt like this before.

The good news is that whatever you choose to do to keep burn-out at bay, the momentum itself carries you to a better place.

So maybe you jump in the car and head up to the Olympus Spa in Lynnwood and try not to feel guilty about booking the Tropical Korean Moisturizing Service on top of the hot tub soak and body scrub even though it will now cost about as much as flying to Hawaii. Perhaps this is why there is an old Korean proverb that says, “All of one’s physical illnesses come from one’s mind.” However, it does not say that they come from Visa. This omission was helpful in numbing my buyer’s remorse.

If you’ve never heard of a Korean bathing spa, the Korean cleansing process, called “sesshin,” involves soaking the body in hot water, then rubbing it with a loofah to rid the body of all the dead skin. (Note: you do not want to look at the floor right after they rinse you. Except that you will. And you will not comprehend how all that gunk came from you.)

The whole experience relaxed me in a way that must have been inside of me somewhere; I just had to find it again. Now, in order to stay relaxed, I thought, basically, all I’d need to do is charge the bill to my husband’s card, the husband-who-forgot-Valentine’s-Day. (To be fair, he was working in the Marshall Islands in February and suffering from bed bug bites. But even so, he’ll apologetically pay for my splurge. And I am fine with that.)

Now, today, I am an ocean away from that spa, invited to sign copies of my children’s book at a Honolulu production choreographed by a friend of mine. And on my ride in from the airport, what do I see in a small building behind the convention center? The Aloha Women’s Spa. I’d just endured a six-hour flight in a middle seat next to a snoring man. I called immediately. I was just holding my breath to see if they could squeeze me in.

Because this island is much closer to Korea, the women in the spa speak little or no English, but we don’t need words to complete the art of give-and-take. It is one of those times when sound, either guttural or melodious, is enough.

And, oh, pardon me for thinking if you’ve seen one Korean bathing spa that somehow you’ve seen them all. The scene inside is right out of an 18th century painting.

“The family is one of nature's masterpieces,” the writer George Santayana said, capturing the best definition of family I’ve ever read.

To my left is what appears to be a grandmother, rosy-cheeked, sitting on a low stool next to two younger women who look so much like her, they must be her daughters. And scrubbing them are their daughters. I am in awe of how beautifully, comfortably, nakedly, they sit scrubbing each other, laughing and laughing and talking in Korean. And because they are so unselfconscious, you get to see all the good that is possible in a family.

Now, on the other side of the room, a group of Haole women, which is exactly what we are called on this island, so I won’t sugarcoat it, sit in a hot tub waiting for our number to be called. Once it is, we are escorted to a massage table, a soaking-wet massage table, where a Korean woman in her matching bra and panties will scrub us down until there is not one dead cell left atop our raw pink skin. And no one laughs. Or says a word.

In a hot tub, it’s hard not to overhear, which is good for a writer. Sometimes, though, I wish this wasn’t so. The woman closest to me is talking about the defamation lawsuit made by Dominion, which is suing Fox News, arguing the company knowingly made false claims that its voting machines rigged the 2020 election. “Oh, that’s good,” I say, trying to keep things light, “the truth always wins out in the end.” Prompting her to say, “Eventually, but to no avail.”

Which is just such a depressing thing to say in a hot tub.

I won’t elaborate on how many other depressing subjects the women bring up, but like the earth passing over the moon, all lightheartedness recedes. And what gets me the most is how OK this is with everyone, as if the short-cut rabbit hole of what is wrong with everything, the idea that we don’t deserve this indulgence to be happily here, that to be accountable first-world women, we must suffer the world’s woes at all times, as if we are personally to blame, should be our natural state. And these are women on vacation. Oh! This is something I’ve been wanting to say for so long that I’d nearly forgotten how much.

I make a silent vow to work harder at not being too willingly distracted from what joy there is.     

Because no matter how independent you’ve grown to be, and independence doesn’t run in our culture, it races, sometimes we need more than a hug; we need laughter and a scrub, shared with someone we love. Performed in a warm, wet, nearly perfect place so that we can pretend that the tubs and loofahs and essential oils are still our own little secret that makes us say on the way out the door: Mahalo. Mahalo. Mahalo.

Mary Lou Sanelli, is the author of Every Little Thing, a collection of essays nominated for a Washington State Book Award. Her previous works include poetry, fiction and non-fiction. She also is a speaker and a master dance teacher. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.