I don’t think there’s a smell quite as refreshing as burning sage– a little like mint, but more astringent. I’ve lost count of how many smudge ceremonies I’ve performed over the years: for every new apartment, after every breakup, for each spring equinox. It’s become a part of my process for letting go of the old and moving forward.
So I was a little surprised when my mother and stepfather weren’t interested in my performing the ceremony in their apartment. Mom’s doctors had officially declared her cancer in remission. It only made sense to me that we should cleanse their home of the bad energy that had settled over it during her treatment.
“Oh, that’s very sweet of you, honey,” she’d said when I first made the offer during the dinner celebrating her health. “But it’s really not necessary. We have the cleaning lady come in once a week anyway. She does a good enough job.”
“Right. Well, she does a physical cleaning,” I explained, “but this would be more of a spiritual cleaning.”
She raised her eyebrows and nodded. “I see. Well, still.”
“It’s really no problem. I can get some sage at Nature’s Co-op. It wouldn’t take more than a half hour.”
Richard examined his steak, which he cut methodically into a bite-sized piece that oozed red juices across the plate. “What does this ceremony entail?”
“Just burning the sage and letting the smoke go into the corners and crevices. You know,” I pointed my fork at Richard, “sage has antimicrobial properties.”
“So does Lysol.” He popped the bloody meat into his mouth. My stomach churned.
I don’t know when things changed– Richard and I used to get along reasonably well, even when I came to visit him and Mom during my summer vacations as a teenager (I lived with my father during high school). But, let’s face it, he’s not terribly spiritual, and like many people who are so stuck in society’s rules, he’s become a little resentful and judgmental of my lifestyle because it doesn’t fit the “normal” structure of soul-draining 9-to-5 job to earn money to spend on all the random crap society tells us we need, like cell phones and cars and designer jeans and what-have-you.
“Well,” Mom said, “the retirement community doesn’t allow us to burn anything, even candles, so I guess we’ll have to pass.” She smiled and patted me on my wrist. “But thank you, honey.”
I could tell she didn’t want to start an argument with Richard– she never does– and it was her dinner, so I let the subject drop. Still, I had a feeling she’d have been a bit more willing had Richard not figured into the equation. That’s one thing I’d noticed over the past few months, after I came from Oregon to help out while Mom had her mastectomy and the year of chemotherapy– she’d really lost her carefree nature over the years, and I had a feeling my stepfather was partially to blame. Don’t get me wrong, he is a nice guy, and he means well, but he’s also very rigid — the kind of guy who thinks he’s “wild” when he wears anything other than a solid or striped tie with his suit.
Fast forward to today. They had decided to go on a date to the art museum for a few hours– plenty of time to perform a smudge ceremony. Theoretically, yes, I should have had their permission to perform it– it wouldn’t have the same effect without it– but I reasoned that a ceremony was better than no ceremony.
So the moment they left, I put on my hematite necklace and opened all the closets, cabinets, and drawers, and opened a window in each room of their small apartment. I found the white sage I’d carefully tucked into my suitcase, lit the end, and started incanting, “Cleanse this space of negative energy, thoughts, and intentions. If there are energies here that are not of the light, you are not welcome. Be gone and do not return. Surround this space and everyone in it with positive energy and white light.”
I blew out the flame, and closed my eyes for a moment to breathe in deeply.
I walked slowly through the rooms, letting the smoke waft into the corners and crevices. I could feel my own spirit lifting as the smoke drew the year of sadness and worry from me. No more watching Mom become more brittle and pale, no more wondering about white blood cell counts or metastasis.
I was waving the smudge stick over the couch that had been my bed during my stay when I heard a light rapping on the apartment door. I considered ignoring it– it’s not like whoever was on the other side wanted me, anyway– but then it came harder. I sighed and put the sage in one of my mother’s Fiestaware serving bowls.
When I opened the door, I found my parents’ neighbor, Nancy, a sprightly 70-something with pink-red hair. I liked her– when we first met, she told me stories of how she read Tarot when she was younger, and she eventually helped me find the chiropractic office where I worked part time as a massage therapist. She smiled brightly. “Dawn, dear, how are you? I wanted to know if you smelled– well you must smell it. It’s very strong. I was thinking of calling the building manager to check into the HVAC.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed. “Sorry, I’ve just been burning some sage.I’m almost done, though.”
“Sage?” She furrowed her eyebrows.
“Yup. The smell can be a little strong. If you open your windows, though, it should clear out.”
She nodded, but the look of concern hadn’t left her face. “Ok, then. Well, thank you, dear. Now that mystery is solved.”
I closed the door, and didn’t give the visit another thought until a few hours later, when Mom and Richard got home. Richard coughed theatrically the moment they entered the apartment. “What is that smell?”
By this point, of course, most of the smell was gone (as far as I could tell, at least) since the smoke had a few hours to dissipate out the windows. But I explained, “Oh, I did the cleansing ceremony while you were out. Doesn’t it feel better?” I held out my arms and twirled around.
“I don’t know if it feels better, but it sure does stink,” Richard grumbled. My mother remained suspiciously silent through all this, her face pursed with worry.
“Dawn, dear,” she finally said. “Nancy called and said she thought you were smoking marijuana in here.”
I threw my arms up in the air. “A) I wasn’t smoking anything. I was burning sage. Which, yes, smells, I’m sorry,” I glanced at Richard, trying not to glare, “but I do think it smells refreshing, personally. And, B) If you go one state over, marijuana is legal. So this concern with it is ludicrous.” I did not add that when I smoked, I made sure to do it in such a way that it didn’t smell up the house– at least, they hadn’t seemed to notice it.
“The point is, regardless of whether it was just sage, it’s against the rules to be burning anything here, honey.” She clenched and unclenched her fingers a few times before clasping her hands together tightly. “And, on the subject of rules… We’re really not supposed to have a third person in the apartment, either. It’s really not made for three people. We appreciate having you here, you’ve been such a great help during my treatment, but it’s probably time for you to find your own place.”
I nodded but didn’t say anything. I knew this would happen eventually– they lived in a retirement community where the youngest resident was a good 25 years older than me, for crying out loud– but I also hadn’t figured out what to do when they did. Up front costs for apartments were atrocious– first, last, security deposit, sometimes even a brokers’ fee– and it wasn’t like I was running around with that kind of cash on me. Back in Oregon, I’d lived in a communal housing cooperative that really turned me off to the idea of paying thousands of dollars to live by myself. Or even with roommates! Traditional housing was ridiculous.
Of course, Stonybrook, Connecticut, wasn’t exactly teeming with communal living situations, and my savings were not such to handle traditional housing arrangements.
Mom seemed to be aware of this fact (although I’m not entirely sure of to what extent), so she reached out to touch one of my hands and offered gently, “What about moving in with Mary Anne? She could use the help with her mortgage, and she has that spare room. I’m sure you could work something out.”
“I don’t really understand why she didn’t stay there in the first place,” Richard muttered, but Mom didn’t seem to hear it. Or she chose to ignore it.
I thought he was aware that my step-sister had basically stopped speaking to me except for at family gatherings. Or maybe he thought it had washed over, that she and I were back to being best friends, like when we were 13. “I don’t know. She seems to have her hands pretty full right now.”
“Exactly!” Mom clapped her hands together. “You’d probably be such a great help for her.”
Richard recognized my hesitation as my brain started generating a fake conversation I could tell her about that would turn her off to the idea. Before I could, he snapped, “For crying out loud, just apologize to her already. We can’t cater to this nonsense forever.”
My throat tightened. I didn’t know what to say.
Mom placed one hand over mine, gently adding, “We’re going over there for dinner on Sunday. We can bring it up then.”
* * *
So, the Mary Anne situation:
We were best friends for years. We actually became friends before our parents got married. Mom, my brother Jeff, and I moved to Stonybrook after she and my father divorced when I was 12, because that’s where she was originally from. Mary Anne and I figured out from looking at an old yearbook that my mother and Mary Anne’s (widowed) father had dated in high school, and got the brilliant idea to set them back up. Twenty-odd years later, they’re still together. Mary Anne and I, though…
See, Mary Anne’s son, Oliver, has a whole bevy of illnesses. Allergies, food intolerances, skin problems. You name it, the poor kid’s dealt with it, and he’s only like seven.
Which, of course, has had Mary Anne freaking out. She’s taken him to pretty much every medical specialist known to man, even driving up to Hartford a few times.
One day, before I’d moved back to Connecticut and while she was still in the pits of her marriage, she mentioned that she was thinking of driving my nephew up to Boston to see a specialist there. She’d read about the person on some internet chatboard, and I guess her own doctor had maybe had good things to say about him? So she had called me to see what I thought, because apparently this guy wouldn’t be covered by their insurance.
Let’s be clear here: she ASKED MY OPINION.
So I told her what I thought: Maybe, just maybe, the medical establishment is what’s causing her son’s problems.
To be clear, I wasn’t saying something like vaccines cause autism (or even that death by measles is better than a kid being on the spectrum). I just meant that we know a lot of medical information out there isn’t exactly right. Like the antibiotics we got pumped full of as kids has screwed up a bunch of people’s gut health, which has lead to all sorts of things like food intolerances and depression and even adult acne.
She asked what I meant, and I reminded her that back when Ollie was a baby, the standard practice was to not give kids peanuts before they were three, because medical doctors said so, and now he’s allergic to peanuts because that’s actually the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do. So, essentially, her listening to doctor’s advice made Ollie sick.
Look, I know that probably wasn’t the tactful way to say it. Hindsight is 20/20. But I also wasn’t wrong!
So she asked what I thought she should do, if doctors were so incompetent, and I told her: She needed to have her son eat more fermented foods and stop with all the processed crap she fed the kids (even if it was “organic” mac and cheese), and if she was really serious about helping Ollie, going vegan altogether, because everybody who even bothers to research food intolerances knows that animal products lead to inflammation.
When we got off the phone, I knew she wasn’t super thrilled with me, but she’d asked my opinion, and if she really wanted to help Ollie, she’d need to come to terms with things eventually.
I think maybe we would have been okay if shit hadn’t hit the fan with Logan a little after that point. (In fact, knowing what I do about the impact of emotional health on physical health, I 100% believe that the unrest in Mary Anne’s marriage was partly to blame for Oliver’s problems, although I never said that to her, because, let’s be honest: Logan was a dick. She needed out of that situation.) She called me a little less, but we still talked– maybe not every week, like before, but at least every few weeks.
During the initial separation, she mentioned seeing a therapist– which I was supportive of!– but then the therapist suggest she start taking a medication, and I told Mary Anne to be careful, because medication can be super ineffective, particularly when you haven’t tried something much less invasive, like opening your chakras. I’ve always thought Mary Anne’s throat chakra had a tendency to block (which leads to shyness and social anxiety, both issues of hers), and I had a hunch her solar plexus chakra was out of whack, too.
I’m not going to apologize for feeling strongly about the fact that we overmedicate as a society, when we should look at our spiritual disconnect first. And I said that to her when she sounded offended. We talked a few more minutes, and then she hung up.
And that was it. She hadn’t answered my calls or texts, hadn’t contacted me. Even now that I was back in Stonybrook, I’d only seen her a handful of times, and only when our parents had orchestrated the get together. And while I knew I hurt her, I also didn’t think I should apologize for speaking the truth. I suspected she knew she was hurting because hearing the truth made her feel guilty.
The thing with Mary Anne is she doesn’t get mad at you and blow up. (It would be better for her if she did.) She lets it fester. WHICH IS TOTALLY UNHEALTHY. So even if I wanted to fix our relationship, I also had no intention of aiding her poor choices.
* * *
Whenever we had family get-togethers, they happened at Mary Anne’s place– partly because there isn’t really a space to host six people at our parents’ apartment, and partly because with Oliver’s food intolerances, meeting at a restaurant was out of the question.
To her credit, she is a phenomenally good actress. She smiled warmly when she saw me, and we hugged like nothing had ever happened. Dinner was her typical fare: pasta, jarred tomato sauce, meatballs from the freezer aisle of the grocery store, canned “parmesan,” and a bag of lackluster romaine salad. I couldn’t help but think how if I did move in with her, I could cook, and their food would be so much better. And when she saw how much better she and Ollie felt…
See, while Mary Anne was pissed off at me, I wasn’t pissed off at her, not really. Moving in with her actually didn’t seem like that terrible of an idea, except for the whole her hating me part. There was no way I’d be able to live with that kind of negative energy in the house.
But, the more I thought about it, there wasn’t any OTHER options for me. I couldn’t even afford to move back to Oregon and into my old co-op. From experience, though, I also knew it wouldn’t help me to worry about it– I’d be better off if I just trusted in the universe that things would fall into place. They always did.
Dinner went as expected at first. Ollie talked about his dance classes with our friend Jessi– he took ballet, tap, and “street dance,” which, from what I could understand, was the new term for breakdancing. He jumped up from the table to show me how he could spin around on his butt on the floor. Alma remained pretty quiet, but talked about her classes when my mother prodded her.
Eventually, though, the topic could not be avoided. Richard cleared his throat and set his silverware on his plate. He folded his hands together. “So, Mary Anne, we have a bit of a proposition for you.”
She stopped cutting her food and looked at him.
“It seems that Dawn can’t stay with us much longer. Riverdale is a real stickler about number of tenants.”
Her face went pale, and her eyes fluttered back and forth as she calculated where the conversation was heading. “Hasn’t she been staying with you guys for like a year? This is just coming up now?”
Annoyance flared up inside me, my shoulders and neck tightening. I rubbed the hematite necklace I put on for just this purpose, thought how I’d have to carry a dozen grounding crystals at all times if I wanted to move in with Mary Anne at this point.
Mom shrugged. “I don’t know, honey. It just is. Anyway, we know you have some extra space in your house, and I’m sure it would be helpful to have another adult–”
“Kristy’s moving into that room,” Mary Anne interrupted her.
“Kristy? Really? I thought she had that nice place on Green,” Mom said.
Mary Anne shrugged and shook her head. “No clue. I think she wants to save up for a down payment on a condo? And she’s never been super thrilled with the management company for her building. There was some issue with the ceiling fan over her bed where they wouldn’t fix it even though she was worried it was going to fall on top of her. And I think her neighbor smokes?”
Mary Anne only rambled with that level of detail when she was lying, but for whatever reason, our parents didn’t seem to realize that.
Meanwhile, Alma’s eyes grew wide, and she bounced in her seat. “Really? Kristy’s moving in with us?” Then she frowned. “I thought you told her no.”
Mary Anne looked at her daughter with a stiff smile. “What are you talking about?”
“I saw it in your texts.”
“When were you reading my texts?”
Alma shrugged and returned to attacking the meatball on her plate.
Still stiff, Mary Anne turned her gaze to my mother. “Well, I changed my mind. So Kristy’s moving into the spare room. I told her over the phone.” She gave a very inadequate sigh and shook her head. “Too bad.”
“I want Kristy AND Dawn to live with us,” Ollie announced.
“Oh, honey. We don’t have enough room for that. Someone would have to share a room. Grown ups don’t like sharing rooms.”
“I really think your sister should take priority over your friend,” Richard said. Had I known better, I would have thought he was looking out for me.
When it comes to her father, Mary Anne is not the most confident of people. She regresses back to her teenage self, timid and worried. She pushed her food across her plate– and then I realized she hadn’t actually eaten anything this meal, just moved it around in circles on her plate. She was in a rough place, emotionally, if she wasn’t eating. “I mean, I think Kristy’s landlord found new tenants?”
“The point is, Kristy can find another place on her own,” Richard replied.
“I can find a place!” I exclaimed, even though I knew that wasn’t necessarily true.
He gave me the side-eye.
God. He didn’t have to be such an asshole about it.
“The kids could share a room,” Mom offered in a bright tone. “Wouldn’t that be fun? It’ll be like that show you used to watch,” Mom said. “What was it? Royal Flush?”
“Full House,” I corrected. So apparently nobody believed in my ability to be self sufficient.
Alma dropped her fork on her plate with a clatter. She blinked at my mother in horror. “EW. NO.”
“Nobody’s sharing rooms,” Mary Anne replied firmly. “Kristy’s moving in. End of discussion.”
Her statement hit me straight in the chest, rattling me. My hands shook, so I hid them under the table.
She was that mad?
Fine. Whatever. I’d figure something out.
© 2019 Kat Setzer. This page has no affiliation with Ann M. Martin, Scholastic, or any other entity involved with the Baby-Sitters Club Series. Original photos © 2019 Drobot Dean and rh2010 from Adobe Stock Images.