Tales from the Sisters of the Valley, Part 1.
“It’s weird. It’s like I always pictured this somehow, years back…” I mused, as I leaned back in the sofa, “I always pictured that the future would look, somehow, like this. Like, small tribes of families and friends living and working together. Women-led units where everyone knows each other and everyone loves each other. I always imagined the future was, you know, working with your children next to you. When people imagine what the future looks like, it seems like they always imagine some sort of high tech version of now…”, I continued. “More refined cities. Shiny subway-stations where the trains levitate. I always thought the future was going back to the roots. Going back to what works and what makes us happy. But with new technology. With new knowledge. And now, here I am. Isn’t that strange?”
“Yeah, same, I used to think that too”, said Alice, leaning forward to roll another joint. “But that’s not really the question, now, is it. The question is — do you think that you thought all those things because you knew, somehow, that you’d come here — or do you think you’ve come here, because you thought about all those things?”
She delivered the last sentence with a smile. And then a big laugh as she saw the dumbstruck look on my face.
“Yeah, good one, ey?”
We’d ended up alone in the small living-room of the blue office-house where Sister Kate does taxes and Miss Preslee cares for administrative task. The building where my little guest-room, complete with a doll-house and a book-shelf, is located. The building where Sister Kate keeps her secret storage unit, with pictures from her former life — carefree photos of a young Kate dancing around in ballet-clothes and fluffy hair, looking like the twin sibling of Jennifer Grey. The building where Sister Sierra has her private bathroom. The building where we gather in the kitchen every day, like hungry school-children, to see what Sister June has cooked for us. Sister June, a god-send for the sisterhood. Beautiful, kind, and badass in the kitchen.
This is the building — the place — that I found myself calling home after the first, second, maybe third visit as a nervous graduate student in 2016.
I’m Swedish — grew up in Stockholm — and I came to California as a result of a passionate love affair with a Swedish UC Berkeley researcher in the fall of 2016. I decided to do my graduate thesis in the Golden State, and was looking for subjects to interview. Within the first few months, however, I found myself quickly cornered by the fact that the ‘changing sentiments on cannabis’ — as I’d so eloquently phrased it — were not changing that much at all. Cannabis seemed about as common in San Francisco as a cup of coffee would in Stockholm. Everything was just so… different in the States.
More often than not, I found myself in the company of people wanting a smoke it up for the sake of my study. As a Swedish lightweight, who rarely smokes, I embarrassed myself at a class of ‘weed yoga’ with Dee Dussault — a ‘ganja yoga’ teacher — and conducted a lengthy interview with an ageing lawyer whose slurred speech led me to politely pose confused and nonsensical questions for a good 50 minutes. As I hung up, I found myself with a notebook full of unintelligible scribbles — like “dad forty years in prison interstate traffic” — and nowhere near a cohesive study matter.
I went to the headquarters of SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy) and learnt so much on the detrimental effects of drug wars that I wanted to cry. I was invited to the annual Women Grow conference. I got a promising call back from one of the founders of NORML. But more than anything, I was helplessly — and utterly — confused.
But, like so, a VICE article ended up changing my life.
It was a rather eccentric article named The Stoned Immaculate; Meet the Weed Nuns of San Joaquin Valley, accompanied by an equally cryptic image of a two somber-looking women in farm clothes and nun’s habits gazing into a camera — each of them embracing a large bundle of cannabis.
The article told the tale of a ‘Sisters of the Valley’. A Sisters of the Valley made up of spiritual women who grew weed in ‘the garage of Sister Kate’. A Sisters of the Valley who made tinctures and salves of CBD — a non psychoactive, medicinal part of the cannabis plant — and who prayed together. They were feminists, the article said, and the they followed sacred spiritual rituals — such as holding monthly full moon ceremonies, such as blessing their cannabis medicine. At the time, though, I didn’t notice much of the content. I was simply touched by the serious faces in the picture — and by the thought of women in veils singing in the moonlight.
So I went to their webpage. And sent them an e-mail. And didn’t think much more about the matter, because I didn’t really expect a reply. Until a few days later, when I received a message.
It was from Sister Kate.
I was over the moon. Out of all the groups and people that I had talked to, the Sisters were by far the coolest, the most intriguing out there. And they’d invited me! They’d invited me over to their place!
Minutes, hours, days went by, and the date — 14th of November — came closer, and closer, and closer. I prepared and prayed and imagined what it would be like to hang out with the Sisters. I’m from Sweden, so I don’t know much about religion and religious traditions — but I liked to imagine that what the Sisters were doing was somehow religious, and that they were very strict about it.
I liked to imagine I’d have to be up early in morning, maybe 4, 5, to clean the porch and prepare the morning meals and prayers. I liked to imagine I’d need to be silent during certain moments of the day, and pay reverence to the plant. And funnily enough, I looked forward to that — I looked forward to it all as a sort of rite of passage into the life of the Sisters. But most of all, I stressed about whether or not, I should bring a bag of cinnamon buns. Would they be upset, if I did not bring the cinnamon buns?
To be honest, I think I metamorphosed my expectations of the Sisters with memories of a Vipassana-retreat years earlier, where I’d gone up at 5 every morning to meditate for ten hours straight. I imagined that the Sisters would be similar. Unnerving, distant, initiated into some secret wisdom I’d never reach. Perhaps they would grant me an approving look. But I’d have to work damn hard for it!
And so the day came. For lack of knowledge about California’s railway systems, I booked a Greyhound ticket with a piss-drenched bus down to the Central Valley. The bus ride was a drag and the poor bus driver looked like he’d been pulled through the mud, but I didn’t pay much mind. I was going to the Sisters! When I finally arrived, I sent a text to Sister Kate asking for the number of the guy who’d come pick me up. I got a cryptic response; “He doesn’t have one. Welcome to ‘Murica!”
So I found myself alone at a dusty bus station in Central California, surrounded by neat rows of cubical one-story houses and dry lawns, looking for “Rudy” — a big Mexican guy with a garden truck.
A good 40 minutes later, we were pulling up towards the Sisterhood.
“Welcome! Welcome, don’t hang around here, there’s nothing to do here, go into the other house — ”, said Kate, rushing around with her veil on end, a phone in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
I was ushered into a blue, one-story house with two middle aged women, deeply entrenched in their computer screens. Trump had won the election about a week earlier, and the two women were following the news on his election with a next-to neurotic intensity. As I came in, they gave an enthusiastic welcome, and we all started chatting.
The next seven days were some of the most beautiful in my life. I learnt that the two guests in the sofa were Burda and Maria, two middle-aged women from Los Angeles whose life stories were as broad as they were intriguing. I learnt that Sister Kate’s son, Alex, was living in the house together with his girlfriend Indie. Besides helping out in the garden both Alex and Indie were hardcore stoners and would, in the middle of the day, rip out a gigantic glass bong and a weld (can you imagine?! I’d really arrived in a different world!) to smoke it up in the kitchen. I learnt that Rudy worked at the sisterhood together with his wife, Sister Kassidy, and that they had a sister-in-becoming — Macy, who’s now trading her days in the Abbey for days at school.
I learnt, as I followed the Sisters to a demonstration against the North Dakota Pipeline two hours away, that they went to political protests as part of their paid working days. I learnt that Kate loved making up political songs and hymns, and to sing them whenever she got the chance to.
Most of all I learnt — over many a’night with a filled wine glass — that the Sisters were far from austere, far from strict or stiff, and far from religious. The Sisters were activist women on a mission. Or like Sister Kate would put it, “Serious women on a serious mission”. But they were nowhere close to harsh, and even less close to boring.
Over the next two years, my visits in the Abbey would become more and more frequent. Every time I came, something had changed. After a skirmish with Burda, Maria never came back, but Burda became a constant. My sporadic excursions in the kitchen were exchanged to the oversight of Kate’s Croatian cook, Zrina, who got a permanent place in the guestroom until a mouse scared her back to Europe. Zrina was replaced by Sister June, a middle-aged woman who would find a new life in the Abbey as she left a broken marriage behind. Miss Lori, Miss Amy and Sister Freya left and were replaced by Miss Preslee, Sister Eeve, Sister Alice and Sister Sierra. My guest-room was turned into a packaging-room, I got to sleep in the RV with shooting holes, and was then transferred into the guest room where Kate had bought a double bed for the sake of me and Alexander — the UC Berkeley researcher who pulled out the red carpet for my California adventure. The garden was blessed with a beautiful yurt and two large pitbulls, who annoyed the hell out of Sisters and visitors alike until they were re-located.
But one thing remained the same.
The moon ceremonies. And the mission. And I will tell you a little more about those two, in my next article.