I Failed the Finnish Test

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Tiina’s cabin (see Reflections on the Lake) barely had water (one faucet), so obviously it didn’t have a shower.  She told me: the sauna actually makes me feel cleaner than a shower.  Of course, I was prepared to agree, even though I had never really done a sauna before—not in a way that made me feel clean.  She stoked the fire in the sauna’s stove, explaining, “Not only does your skin get clean, but toxins are released from your body through your pores.”  In any case, on a cool spring day (it was about 20 degrees Celsius, which is about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), sitting in a hot sauna could be pleasant.

She also told me that the ideal temperature for the sauna is between 60 and 80 degrees Celsius (that’s 140 to 176 degrees Fahrenheit).  So we waited almost an hour, periodically stoking the stove, for the sauna temperature to climb.  Tiina told me that Finnish families sit in the sauna naked.  I said that I would feel more comfortable if both of us wore bathing suits.  I had brought mine and I saw hers hanging by the sauna door.

We changed into our bathing suits and Tiina went for a swim in the lake.  She only stayed in a few minutes, but she got completely wet, including her hair.  I simply couldn’t go in the water, which I knew was hovering somewhere just above freezing.

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Then we went into the sauna and sat on a towel.  Tiina said that she liked the feeling when she puts water on the rocks.  Instead of pouring water on the rocks as I had imagined, she used a long-handled ladle and threw water onto the rocks.  The rocks instantly transformed themselves into a little pit of tiny dragons.  They hissed and spit angrily and breathed fiery hot air at us.  The hot air from the rocks didn’t seem so much different as it hit us from the front.  But when it hit from behind, ricocheting off the wall, it was so much hotter than the rest of the air around me that it felt like a truck had run over me.  Tiina reveled in the feeling, as I just tried to breathe again.

After about half an hour, she announced that it was time to swim in the lake again.  Now the lake sounded pretty good.  But my body did not agree.  I got into the water up to my ankles and my legs refused to carry me any deeper.  Perhaps the water felt colder for having gotten myself roasting hot, but now I reassessed that the lake was miraculously below freezing temperature without any ice to be seen.

This frigid lake brought a memory to the surface of my mind.  When I was about twelve years old, I went with my family, hiking in the Colorado Rockies.  On a high mountain plateau we came across a waterfall.  My dad told my brother, “I’ll give you ten dollars if you’ll go all the way under that waterfall.”  Now, it was summer, but there on the mountaintop, it wasn’t anything like hot, and that waterfall was probably snowmelt.  My little brother said no.  Then Dad upped the bet to twenty dollars.  My brother refused again.  I started stripping down to my undies, determined to get the money that he was passing up.  I made it across the frigid pond and under the waterfall just fine, but on the way back, all my muscles turned to wood and then to stone.  Each step took a month to accomplish, then a year.  But the worst part was that my lungs had also turned to stone.  I kept willing them to breathe, and they were not responding.  I was almost certain at one point that my dad would have to rescue me because I was having such a difficult time getting myself out of the water.

I did eventually get out, what seemed like several years later.  Mom was waiting with a towel.  As she rubbed my limbs, my lungs finally gasped to life like a newborn taking her first breath.  In the meantime, my brother had changed his mind and taken the plunge, too.  Somehow he got out about the same time I did.  Good as his word, Dad rewarded each of us with a crisp, new twenty dollar bill.

It was the mountaintop waterfall that my body was remembering—that and the fact that Dad wasn’t around to save me if my body shut down.  So in the end, it was useless to argue with legs that had turned to stone again, this time in mutinous refusal to obey.

Tiina, meanwhile, had gone swimming again, and again gotten completely wet, including her hair.  Then we went back to the sauna.  She squeezed some shampoo into her hand and worked it into her hair.  She used the water from the rock-watering-bucket to rinse with.  Then she went to get dressed.  I wetted my hair, shampooed, and rinsed from the bucket.  Then I went to dress, too.

As much as I loved everything else about being at Tiina’s rustic cabin, I’m afraid I failed the test to see if I’m Finnish.  Clearly, I’m not.  Tiina assured me that it had not been a test, and handed me a hot cup of tea.  And as I sipped the tea feeling very relaxed, I thought, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything.  God is good!

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