At just after 7:30 on this cold Sunday morning, Hot Springs' Central Avenue -- Bath House Row -- was effectively deserted. I could see early sunlight pinking the buildings to my right, but on the bathhouse side of the street the air was brisk, and clouds of steam billowed from the two naturally-heated hot spring fountains.
Buckstaff Baths alone, of all the old bath houses that still adorn the towntown, still offers baths. I waffled a while on price, but in the end I sprang for the Traditional Bathing Package, which includes a massage. How often, I thought, do I get to experience an old-school therapeutic bath in a National Historic Landmark site, part of a historic downtown that's also a National Park?
The first part of my experience was interesting, but nothing unexpected. I stowed my things in a locker, let an attendant wrap me in a white linen sheet, and headed for step one: the whirlpool bath. That turned out to mean 15 minutes in a huge clawfoot tub -- one among many in a long row, each in its own private stall -- filled with the local hot mineral water. I drank three tiny cups of hot mineral water and got rubbed down with a pleasantly scratchy loofah sponge, and the whirlpool was provided by a kind of cylinder, like an outboard motor, mounted above the tub.
Then came, in rapid succession, a sitz bath (in another little marble stall), a session in a "vapor cabinet" (another little cubicle, this time a steam-filled one with metal doors and a lid that folded over my shoulders until only my head emerged), a hot pack, and a needle shower (a rinse-off in a little tiled room where a wreath of pipes, encrusted with the mineral salts these waters carry, showered me from neck down with a fine spray of heat).
And then I was led into the massage waiting room, where I sat for a bit, feeling contented. I was reflecting on the fact that we're on the cusp of a new lunar month, meditating on what pleasures and lessons I might be able to draw from my bathhouse experience into the month to come. I figured I'd already gotten my money's worth, and was happily filing this alongside my memories of the hammam in Palermo two summers ago.
An African-American woman, perhaps about fifty, entered the massage room, humming under her breath. We greeted one another, and I asked how she was. "I'm truly blessed," she replied, and I thought of the night watchman in the emergency department at the hospital where I used to serve, who always responded to that question in just that way. Her name, it transpired, was Robin Higgins, and she was the massage therapist assigned to me.
As she began to work on my body, we chatted a little. She kept humming, snatches of melody, and I sensed a kind of benevolent and wordless prayer in her song. Eventually she asked, "are you a teacher?" Actually, I'm a student, I told her; I'm studying to become a rabbi.
"Wonderful, wonderful," she said, straight away, and then added, "we have a lady rabbi here," sounding delighted by the news. I allowed as how I'd met the lady rabbi; she would be officiating at the wedding of my cousin later in the afternoon.
Then Robin told me that about twenty years ago, she lived a year in Israel. She was in the service at the time, and was stationed there as part of a multinational peacekeeping force. She traveled, she said, from Eilat to the Galilee, though her favorite place was always Jerusalem, especially the Old City. She told me about meditating in the Church of the Nativity, and in the Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre where they say Jesus was buried. She told me what it was like to ride with fellow soldiers in their military vehicle, and how the Voice of Peace on the radio let them know they were late and wouldn't make it back across the border into Egypt on time...
In between speech, she hummed. Her hands were tremendously strong, and she found tight places in my shoulders, my lower back above one hip, in the balls of my feet. She talked me through releasing the tension as she worked on me. I felt even the little bones in my hands and forearms realign as she reminded my muscles where everything should go. I think I was a few inches taller by the time she was done, and every part of my body felt different.
At the end of the massage, she led me back to the dressing room to change, urged me to return, and wished me "good luck, rabbi." I gave her a hug, told her I felt genuinely blessed, and thanked her as deeply as I could. My vision was sparkling -- probably from the hot baths, but I think also from the intensity of her blessings, too. She made a significant difference in my body, but this massage went beyond the purely physical.
What an unexpected pleasure. I knew I would like the sybaritic experience of natural hot water, and I figured I would find something interesting about being in an old-fashioned southern health spa, but I didn't expect an encounter with someone so manifestly rooted in spirituality that her hands and intention conferred a real sense of blessing on my being.
[See my Hot Springs photos, if you're interested, here.]