The toilets in my cottage are a family joke. They are ancient; probably original to the structure, which is around 50 years old. The parts inside the tanks are crumbling, rusted, and broken. But the tanks themselves are not leaking, so we keep repairing the moving parts. By repair I mean MacGyver them back together with assorted household supplies.
One toilet remains functional with the help of a key chain, a silicone hair tie, and some waterproof tape. I am not even joking. A couple of times a week the refill hose must be manually adjusted inside the tank. The other toilet functions by way of a heavy duty paper clip but the stopper must be manually adjusted after each and every flush (again, inside the tank). This one happens to be the hall/guest/main bathroom. Super classy.
Up until yesterday I considered this a massive pain in the ass. I longed for the ease and freedom of being able to flush and walk away. No hauling off of the tank lids, no monkeying with the innards, no diving elbow deep into the tank water every time a guest leaves it running interminably. There is also constant confrontation with the reality that all of these temporary holds will one day fail and require a full replacement. That could be today or any day so I felt well justified in my bellyaching over it. Grumble, complain, curse. Bitch bitch bitch.
That is until yesterday. Sitting in traffic listening to a podcast. This guy was taking questions from his audience after a session. A woman asked about the relevance of taking a retreat to India to deepen her spiritual practice. The answer included a frank illusion-busting comment on the fact that many Westerners who do this don’t manage to deepen their spiritual practice at all. The intense culture shock of slamming face-first into the poverty, filth, and disease of India brings up too much Western crap and very little spiritual work actually happens.
An example given was the entire generation of a family living on a flattened cardboard box right outside the hotel. Owning nothing, no things, not even the proverbial pot to piss in. Grandmothers shit barefoot in the street and bathe in a river. Children. Fathers. No toilet paper. No soap dispenser. No terry hand towels. Not even the privacy of a closed door. And it prompted the very Western question of why and isn’t there a way to go and get the spiritual benefits without dealing with this or seeing this? The answer was No. There is nowhere one can go in India and not see this.
There is nowhere in the country to go where people do not live like this. Not just individuals but entire families. And not just a poor part of town but everywhere. All towns. All places. People living their entire lives from infancy to old age never using a toilet. Never turning the handle of a faucet. Never knowing hygiene beyond a communal river. Right now, while I’m writing this in the early morning candlelight in my office they are there in the street on a piece of cardboard. Hundreds, thousands, so many there is nowhere to go and not see them.
Friends, it shot straight through to the core of me. My pain-in-the-ass broken-down toilets are an unimaginable luxury. Indoor plumbing. Plumbing of any kind. The extravagance of flushing and washing in a sanitary, private place. Sink. Shower. Walls. Floor. All of this I call shabby, dated, tacky, and embarrassing and would be opulent richness to … how much of the world? Oof. Punch in the guts. How dare I be embarrassed? Where do I get off cursing a toilet? A flushing toilet. Municipal sanitation. Running water. I live in grandeur. All my goddamn life I’ve had these comforts and how many times have I been grateful? Never.
I have key chains. Hair ties. Tape. Paper clips. All of these things already in my possession to repair my old toilets. And I have these things in addition to the money to pay a plumber to repair them properly or replace them should I decide. Meanwhile, on the feculent streets of … how much of the world? … mothers and daughters bleed on cardboard boxes. Give birth in dirt. Drink where they bathe their bodies and the bodies of so many more others there is nowhere one can go and not see them. When I got home I walked into the bathroom and stared at the toilet with new eyes. And I felt like an asshole.
I’ve never thanked anyone for the innumerable number of toilets I have used since I was potty-trained. I’ve never lived in a home without a toilet and yet I’ve uttered not one prayer of thanks, ever. Never been sincerely, profoundly grateful for clean running water inside my home or for sewer pipes draining vomit, diarrhea, blood, bacteria, and the average day’s sweat away from my home. This is not normal everywhere. My crippled 50 year old toilets are a fantasy in places I might go on a yoga retreat to enrich myself even further. My fantasy is a retreat. Their fantasy would be a toilet. It’s quite disgusting.
And I have TWO flushing toilets. Inside a home. With machines to clean my clothes and dishes and a robot to clean my floors. This is mind-boggling wealth. If I don’t have the common sense to deepen, clarify, and express my gratitude for this wealth which I have never been denied, I am not practicing any spirituality worth a damn. So the jokes stop now. And as penance for the years I took this all for granted, I will offer my long overdue gratitude every time I use, adjust, and clean those toilets. Every hand washed. Every bath or shower. For every wall and nail and shingle and pipe.
And for the families living on cardboard outside hotels where people like me might go to seek enlightenment, my prayers that we will see how fucked up this is and either stop doing it or do something about it. Right this moment they would gladly take my so-called hardships and thank a god for them. According to their culture they would do it every. single. day. Daily devotion to acknowledging every life-affirming advantage they have and in my culture, never. Imagine all of those voices calling out their gratitude and then hear mine only raised to complain. This ends now.
My personal culture has just evolved. I can do better than this. Join me. Every single pee, y’all. Heap blessings upon those toilets. Every water bill is a privilege; evidence of favor, abundance, and prosperity. Make every flush, every drink, every gurgle down the drain echo a ritual of gratitude. Every bathroom made available to us is another opportunity to affirm this grace. Thank the god you claim, know, or understand. Thank the beneficence of the Universe if you claim no god. And if you can’t or won’t, at least stop complaining.