baths, great and ordinary

“There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them.” Sylvia Plath’s words, not mine, although I agree so wholeheartedly that when I first came across this passage in The Bell Jar, I felt instantly identified, with kindred excitement, a hot true unity between this far-off bathing woman and me. That’s how I always feel when I discover a little snatch of a book that feels like something I’ve written before or like something I feel I’m destined to write someday. Sisterhood, Sylvia and me and our baths and our writing. Not in every way, no, not at all (There are QUITE a few things different between me and Sylvia Plath) but in this way, surely.

She continues, “Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: ‘I’ll go take a hot bath’.” I think I’ve mentioned my deep, true love of baths before on this blog, perhaps indirectly, but it’s hard to hide.  My baths mostly take place in the evening, usually every-other day, but frequently more often than that. The act of “taking a bath” is my solution to a myriad of personal issues, including but not limited to sadness, nostalgia, boredom, dirtiness, menstrual cramps, headaches, hunger, coldness, listlessness, anxiety, need for change, lack of creativity, introvertedness, etcetera. I love the specificity of Sylvia’s reasons, for one thing because it’s fantastic writing, and for another thing because I, too, rarely take an unspecific bath. Certainly, I sometimes take baths simply because it is time to bathe, to wash my hair, scrub a bit, shave and such. But far more often I enter the bath with a need that awaits fulfillment, an outstanding ache, a defining thing. The bath becomes my tiny solution, my sanctuary, my study, my office, my sanctum. I enter with sadness, with listlessness, with emptiness. And I don’t usually leave the bath with a solution. No, hardly ever with a solution actually. I just leave different than I was when I began. A little bit washed away. Purified.

Back to Sylvia. “I meditate in the bath. The water needs to be very hot, so hot you can barely stand putting your foot in it. Then you lower yourself, inch by inch, till the water’s up to your neck.” I agree. The heat is important here. There is maybe nothing worse than a tepid bath. Sometimes in the summer I’ll get home and think that all I want in the world is a tepid or even cool bath, but when it finally comes time to run the water I haven’t the heart for it. Scalding or bust. But, unlike Sylvia, I don’t lower myself in. No. It is very important to me to be in the tub while it fills up, let the water rise slowly finding its way up the sides, over me. I’m too impatient, probably, and too finicky with the temperature, to let it all fill up without me. So I get in and wait, sticking my toes under the faucet, and usually reading a magazine or catalogue while it fills. Last November’s J Crew, the January New Yorker, things I’ve read before, nothing new, trying to keep my fingers dry enough to turn pages.

“I remember the ceiling over ever bathtub I’ve stretched out in. I remember the texture of the ceilings and the cracks and the colors and the damp spots and the light fixtures. I remember the tubs, too: the antique griffin-legged tubs, and the modern coffin-shaped tubs, and the fancy pink marble tubs overlooking indoor lily ponds, and the remember the shapes and sizes of the water taps and the different sorts of soap holders.” The bathtub in my home in Pittsburgh, the house I grew up in for all of my years of childhood and teenager-ness, is indelibly ingrained in my memory. How many hours throughout my life did I spend studying the faucet, bronze-ish with hints of green, the broken stopper lever, the tiles on the wall, the ceiling, the window up high that was once too tall for me to reach? The bathtub in our current apartment is one I am only just getting to know, to become familiar with. It takes time. It’s exceedingly hard for me to take a worthwhile bath in an unfamiliar place. Once the water fills up in the tub I turn off the faucet, or more often set it to a tiny trickle as hot as possible so as to keep my toes the warmest, and slide down slowly submerging my back, then my neck, then my head, until only my face and my knees are out of the water. I look at the ceiling from here, looking simply without much thought, or closing my eyes, thinking maybe mostly about the water, the bath, how it feels, whether it’s right. And then I really begin to think.

“I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath.” I stare at the ceiling, and my brain is at its strongest, its best. I seriously think that there is no place in the world where I can think better than in the bathtub. Not the classroom, not the keyboard, not the great outdoors, no. In the bath. I planned about 70% of my wedding in the bath, no joke. I’d hop out of the tub and write lists and lists of ideas, after a whole day on dry land feeling empty of creativity. Likewise, half this blog has been planned in the bath. This blog post was half-written in my brain in the bathtub. I don’t know how, but it works. I feel strong, creative, capable in the bath. Like I could run a country or a business. Like I am a woman worth reckoning with based on the capabilities of my mind and heart alone. Maybe it weirds you out to know how important baths are to me, but if you feel weird about it I dare you to try it yourself, give it a real chance, strip down and lay in some steamy water for a spell, and then we will talk about it again. I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath. My body is warm and available, there are no distractions pressing for my attention, my heart is calm, and my brain is ready. There are some baths where I think nothing at all, where I let my brain relax and I let the tasks of the bath take over, the lathering of my hair, the shaving of my legs. And other times it is all I can do to sit very still and think. It is self-care, a thing that I seem to think a lot about, in the truest sense.

“I lay in that tub on the seventeenth floor of this hotel-for-women-only, high up over the jazz and push of New York, for near onto an hour, and I feel myself growing pure again. I don’t believe in baptism or the rivers of Jordan or anything like that, but I guess I feel about a hot bath the way those religious people feel about holy water.” I do happen to believe in baptism, and the rivers of Jordan, as well as the angel who stirred the pool at Bethesda and Jesus’ words to the woman at the well. I believe in all of these things, the deepest part of me does, and I find it no coincidence that baths feel important to me, essential, special, and even maybe holy. I find myself coming back to the water when I need to remember who I am, when I need to strip away the extra, dirty things I’ve layered on, when I need to remember that I have been made clean before and I can be made clean again. I can see the bath as living water, as a personal sacrament, as a place to be reminded that I was sealed as an infant as Christ’s own forever, and Christ’s own forever I remain. It’s extraordinary to me that the ability to take a bath is available to me every day, its extreme ordinariness mingling with his holiness, like bread and wine, like oil, like a bush you pass every day that astonishes you with its burning. Some baths I take have no holiness at all, or at least none I perceive. Most, actually! I wash my hair, I towel off, I strip myself of no impurity, I remember nothing true or ancient. But even the act of showing up, of washing my body, the ritual of it somehow penetrates my soul as well. The matter matters, as dear Father Stewart would say. I return to the water again and again, expecting nothing, but hopeful nonetheless, aware of my need. It’s the showing up that counts. It’s in the showing up that I remember true and ancient things, allowing my mind to be quiet, letting go of my anxieties enough to let them be replaced with truth. In the bath, whether I’m aware of any sort of holiness, sacredness, truth at all, I am vulnerable and quiet, and that is, must be, where life, where God seeps in.

“I said to myself: ‘Doreen is dissolving, Lenny Shepherd is dissolving, Frankie is dissolving, New York is dissolving, they are all dissolving away and none of them matter anymore. I don’t know them, I have never known them and I am very pure. All that liquor and those sticky kisses I saw and the dirt that settled on my skin on the way back is turning me into something pure’.” I saw a play once, a horrifyingly beautiful play, about a terribly abusive family with many children, a trapped mother, and a sadistic father. The children were all trapped in the basement, beaten, forced to work, forced to confront every thing a child should never encounter. There was some hope present in the play, but not much. One child, Rachel, was the most audacious of all, and therefore the most severely punished, humiliated, horrified. There is not very much I remember about the plot of the play beyond the basic premise (maybe I’ve intentionally forgotten), but there is one image that is burned in my memory forever. Rachel is adopted at the end of the play by two wonderful people who love her very much. They take her home with them and the first thing they do is pick her up and put her in the bathtub to wash her. As if washing her would fix everything that had come before, give her a way to start new again. And somehow, it works, it is astoundingly clear why this is happening and why it matters. There is no better way to care for this girl than to drench her, let her dry off, and move forward. It sounds simple when I spell it out written down like this, but to see it happen on a stage after seeing everything else that had happened was like nothing I’d experienced in a theater before. It was all tension released, all horrors fulfilled, clear pure love. I sat in the audience and was shocked by this moment of theatricality. It was baptism, plain and simple, the washing away of an old life in favor of a new, ritual cleansing, beautiful rebirth. I sat in the audience and wept at it, this parable, seeing a sacrament in all it was meant to be in an unexpected place. Something pure is all we really want to be, and somehow, by grace only, that option is given to us. I’m presented with purity over and over again, reminded of the gorgeousness of it every time I let myself remember, every time I turn on the faucet to wash my body clean.

The longer I lay there in the clear hot water, the purer I felt, and when I stepped out at last and wrapped myself in one of the big, soft white hotel towels I felt pure and sweet as a new baby.” It’s possible I’m making too much of a simple activity. Baths are nothing monumental. I’m very aware of the fact that I may be sounding more than a little bit ridiculous to you in the way I’m inflating something so small as a night-time bath, especially if you don’t happen to believe in God or baptism or any of the things I’m going on and on about. Maybe it is a bit ridiculous, but life and living it is a bit ridiculous too. We just have our days and the little things we do to fill them. If I don’t see God in my days, if I’m waiting for the ten commandments and thunder on a mountaintop, signs and wonders, great and terrible, then I may be waiting my whole life. Instead, I take baths, I show up, I exercise patience, and I try to remember, I try to see. I’m slowly seeing signs and wonders in things that aren’t extraordinary at all. Ordinary things. The things I do every day. Baths. I like them even when I don’t remember to consider baptism, or holiness. I take baths even when I forget the God I love, the God who loves me. And that’s the whole point.

The washing of myself is elemental, necessary, one of the simplest ways to care for my dignity, my humanness. I feel immensely dignified, or at least genuine, real, when I’m alone in a bathtub. I’m confronted with my body, I’m confronted with my thoughts, my heart, my humanity, my soul, my own glaring self, there is nothing to hide any part of me behind, and I am given the option to accept myself, and to accept the fact that I want, no, need to be clean. It’s existential. It’s the deepest part of who I am. Rebirth over and over again, to make my way through the wide world toward heaven. I want to be reminded. Actually, I need to be reminded, because I almost always forget. So I take a bath, nearly every day, and some part of me remembers, even if it is just my body meeting the warmth of the water, the simple grace of that. Even if it is just a blessed new idea, a reminder of my worth, my creativity, my strength. Even in it is just washing. I show up, and I’m made new.

So I’m grateful for Sylvia, for writing true things, or half-truths at least, things being revealed. Feelings hoping for confirmations. Here, Sylvia, are my half-truths too. I’ll think them over in my bath tonight. I’ll remember that you knew there was something fantastically ordinarily special about a hot bath too. I’ll steep in the ordinariness, and maybe, somehow, just barely get a glimpse of heaven instead.

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