The people I encountered there were my tribe; the vast majority honoring its rules and its intention -- from what I could see, anyway.
A morning fog was slow to lift the day O & I arrived. We checked in at the gatehouse, noticing the sign posted where the line began: “If you’re in a hurry, you’re in the wrong place.”
After some significant effort carrying our rucksacks, sleeping bags and camping pads uphill to the camping deck and organizing ourselves, I said, “With any luck, no one will have sex while we’re up here tonight, but just in case…” I hold up two eye masks and two pairs of earplugs. “Eww,” O says. We laugh and shrug. Eyeing the half-dozen sleeping bags scattered about, I say, “Someone WILL probably snore, though.” It’s good to be realistic.
Before the Inner Shakti Belly Dancing class, we have time for a soak and a snack. But O says she doesn’t want to go to belly dancing. She’s a girl who got a 5 on the AP Calculus exam, and shaking her booty sounds like too much effort and like so much nonsense.
But I’m having none of it. “You have to come! Do you think it’s silly, or do you just feel silly doing it?” She has to think about that. I bribe her with a smoothie at the outdoor La Sirena Cafe. “Do you want regular or monster-size?” asks the cashier. I look at O and say, “Talking about skipping belly dancing is monstrous! You are a monstrosity! We’ll get monster-sized!” She rolls her eyes at me, and I know I’ve won, because she’s here for me, for this precious time I get her to myself in a world where her life has long ago been swallowed by school, work, her boyfriend and her legion of friends.
I greet the belly-dancing instructor with a smile, because I took her class earlier this summer. Alisha is a petite blond, and she squeals when she sees me. We embrace and I introduce O, who’s got the resigned air of someone about to get dental X-rays. But she perks up when she sees the bindis, scarves and bangle belts.
Alisha begins class with the half-dozen women who’ve showed up seated in a circle on the Persian rug at the center of the temple floor. We’re instructed to share our star sign, what brought us to Harbin, and make a movement and sound that reflect how we are feeling.
O goes before me, drawing laughter when she says, “I’m here because of my mom ...” Seated to her right, it’s my turn next. “We’re here because my first-born is moving to Germany,” I say, “to celebrate her transition to adulthood.”
We spend the next hour and a half learning hip bumps, shimmies, body rolls and veil techniques. It’s fun and exhausting. At the end, we close with our circle and draw “Goddess” cards. O draws “High Priestess” and the rest of us, all women, all much older than she, crow over how perfect that is for her. “I don’t know that I feel like a high priestess,” she says slowly. “Oh my darling, but you are,” I tell her. “Believe me.”
Walking up from the temple the following morning after yoga and meditation, feeling like I sparkle, I find O in the dining room, writing in her journal. We exchange smiles and I notice that after spending less than 24 hours here, we’re both talking less and smiling more. We share French toast and a veggie scramble for breakfast. By 11 a.m., we’re in the meditation pool together, which I’m surprised to find nearly empty.
I had asked O the day before if she would like some watsu, and she declined. Watsu is a massage done in the water, by the water, that was invented at Harbin. I’m not certified, but I’ve learned a little about it and received professional watsu once before, so I felt I could offer her a decent layperson’s version of the specialized massage technique. She’s got an idea of what it is after seeing others practice it the evening before, so with the additional space and privacy, she indicates she’d like to try it.
I grip the back of her skull and put my other hand on the small of her back as she floats in the water, face up. I started slowly twisting and turning her body in the pool, letting her limbs float this way and that. I want to hold her head in such a way as to not allow a jolt of water into her nose or disturb her breathing. So I’m careful to keep her nostrils above the water, trying to honor the space between our bodies to allow her body to be surrounded by water at all times.
Figuring she’d get bored with it pretty quickly, I’m surprised to realize half an hour has passed. I gently place her heels on the top of a rail, just inches below the surface of the water, to anchor her floating. While trying to traction her neck by pulling on her head with the soles of my feet on her shoulders, I feel something catch on my big toe and -- snap! Her necklace, a recent gift from her friend! So that’s how our watsu ended -- with me going, “Oh crap!” and quickly retrieving it from the bottom of the pool 5 feet below the surface.
I thought O might be at least momentarily irritated. Instead, she coiled it into her palm and shook away my worry with a smile, whispering, “I can get it fixed.”
I let her know that 30 minutes have gone by and she’s amazed -- to her, it felt like five minutes. “How did you feel?” I ask her. She replies, “It was like being all alone in the universe, but in a good way.”
I look at her long dark hair plastered against her skull like a seal, her relaxed, serene expression, her strong and healthy body, like a water nymph ready to be carved out of marble, and I realize I’ve just spent one of the most special and wonderful half hours of my life.
And I smile to myself, thinking how I would bring her here again next year, with my younger daughter, who’s never been, and that the three of us could meet up at Harbin Hot Springs for many years, if not decades to come.
And so now, as I write this, and having seen the photos of the destruction, I shed a tear for the physical beauty of Harbin, for the curve of the wooden railings, new and polished and carved with care and love; for the vases of flowers -- one fresh, one dried -- always magnificent in the temple; for the weird, spindly white table holding the enormous wooden donation bowl; for all the yoga props nestled in their cedar chests.