The day was significant: I learned what I am to my friend and what I am not. Obviously, I’m not her child’s father, but I have fathered women, and it is a position I fall into with a certain grace. I become reflective and slow-moving. I weigh each thing carefully, the way a carpenter places his level, and eyes the wood, and pulls it toward himself, running his hand along the grain, and contemplates the proportions. He asks himself, Will this thing fit well and mold to the other things and be useful? Will it provide what is necessary?

That is what I was for my mother — her listener, reflective of her own thoughts, pointing out how this thought seemed to befriend this other, leaving her closer to the source of what she created that day. That is what I provide for other women, listening to the way each one converses with the other, in some room in her home or in her head. Most important, I overlook what is obvious, noticing but not spotlighting the places of weakness that women know they have, that are the source of all the malaise. If only we could just say it, just talk about it. If only I could say, “Your problems would be over if you would . . .” But the answer always seems to lie in the place most unbearable to look, the place that can be approached only by nuance, in a sort of dance. A place of extraordinary empathy.

I have known a lot of women, and I sometimes can’t imagine how a man could know a woman. Women seem to trust each other best by giving over the contents of their lives to another woman, who will allow those contents just to sit there undisturbed. Women look at each other and say, Yes, I have known this too.

I used to sit in sweat lodges with Native American women. Rocks that have been heated in a big fire are brought in on a shovel, and water is poured over them. The fragrance of mugwort and sage fills the small hut, where we sit in a circle. Cedar is thrown onto the crackling fire. We go around the circle saying prayers, and some women tell their stories. There is a lot of wailing and not much explaining. Some white people get sick and have to leave before the flap is opened.

Medicine men test you by fire and heat. The women test you in another way: they watch to see how much you can listen to, how far down their road you can go without finding an answer.