Glorious Handwashing, An Ode to Plumbing

“I’m getting used to the idea of washing my face with cold water!”

Two 20 something year old women stood at the hut bathroom’s cold running water sinks. Somewhere in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The young women were part of a retreat group of unknown origin. The next morning I overheard them sing a lovely a capella rendition of ‘I’ll Fly Away’ from my campsite behind the hut.

“Yes this is quite an adventure!” The other woman responded. Her tone sounded like she was making a practice of positive thinking.

I sat on the Clivus Multrum composting toilet behind the half door listening to the women’s conversation. Grateful to be able to pee and poop in the same sitting. As we hike north, posted signs on pit privies plead with increasing urgency to only poop in the privy. Pee in the woods! The strength of privy scent corresponds to the strength of language used to please pee in the woods.

My incremental shift toward being feral continues. I’ve started wiping/blotting urine residue away with soft leaves and moss. At the beginning of the hike I hovered over the privy seat. Somewhere around Massachusetts I started creating a toilet paper seat barrier for sitting on the privy. Quickly realizing the waste of the toilet paper seat barrier, I began examining the seat and in some cases sitting directly on the seat after wiping it off. “What’s the worst that can happen,” I thought. Nothing happened. No adverse effects. No weird rashes or bumps. Nothing. I thought about an old story that Mariah Carey demanded new never been touched toilets when she toured.

It’s the pit privy especially where urine creates a problem. Peeing in a pit privy negatively affects the composting process. Too much liquid drowns the microorganisms responsible for converting waste into soil.

Batch bin composting privies use bark mulch. More pee, more bark mulch, more work for caretakers and volunteers. There are often signs on these privies as well pleading users to pee in the woods.

Moldering privies need liquid along with wood shavings to filter and decompose slowly. Pee with abandon here.

An article on privy history from The Long Trail’s Green Mountain Club describes in great detail the glories of privy maintenance.

The Clivus Multrum diverts urine by gravity along a sloped chute into a separate composting chamber. Bacteria transforms urine into a nitrogen laden liquid that is a great fertilizer.

Clivus is a Latin word meaning slope. The clivus is also an inclined bony area of the skull near the occiput where the back of the skull meets the neck.

Multrum means compost room in Swedish. According to the internet.

The women were completing their evening multi step facial routines in the dim dusk. They hadn’t turned the light on. Did they know there is a light switch in this bathroom? My headlamp hung around my neck, also switched off.

The products were wonderfully fragrant. Floral. As I emerged from the stall, one of the women stepped aside so I could wash my hands in the icy water. I side eyed the tubes and bottles but couldn’t make out any brands. I thought of Millie Bobby Brown faking her skincare routine demo.

The women and I exchanged a friendly, “have a good night.” I shook my hands 10 times to dry them on the way back to my tent. No paper towels in the hut bathrooms.

As I picked my way down the path back to the campsite I wondered when I last washed my face. I had rubbed parts of my face with a bandana moistened in a stream. Did that count? Every evening I wiped the exposed expanse of calf from the bottom of my leggings to the top of my socks with a wet wipe before bringing my legs into my tent. The partial lower leg was the only area of my body I regularly cleaned between town visits. A town visit might be every 4 days or so.

Hand washing is a reorientation tool for me in the world of culture. Gratitude practice. “I can turn this faucet and water comes out. Practically a miracle.” Then I bring that cultivated miracle feeling into every interaction of the day. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The most recent iteration of that gratitude practice occurred during a delightful visit with my dear yoga sister friend in Williamstown, MA. I raced down Mount Greylock to MA Route 2 to meet my friend. First stop Wild Soul River tea shop. From nature to culture. My hibiscus iced tea stained the rim of my cup bright rosy pink. I thought about the history of lip and cheek staining. Perfect summer color.

The store held a cacophony of fragrance from dense to airy. I thought of the woodland peachy fragrance I have not yet isolated that seems to hover and float near large fern fields.

“Where is the bathroom?”  The owner and my friend chatted about yoga and the challenges of running a business during COVID. The last product I noticed before turning away toward the bathroom was the kratom. I thought of a loved one I recently lost who tried all the drugs, prescribed and illegal. All the combinations. All of them at once. Over and over. Including kratom to try to get off the opioids. I thought of how he told me that some course or combination would work for a while and then stop working. I remembered reading an article on David Foster Wallace noting the same. I wanted to know how my loved one died. Did he OD or shoot himself? We aren’t supposed to ask. When I picture him I see his face and body intact, until just now, imagining him shooting himself in the head while in his family’s home jacuzzi. I push the images away. That seemed to be one of my friend’s tortures. Invasive thoughts. Horrendous dreams. Not being able to reorient, self regulate, push away.

The hand washing game was elevated in this beautiful shop. A basket of washcloths for hand towels.  A stone sink. Perfect bubbling flow from the faucet. Soft light. Gentle liquid soap. More bouquet of scent. I bathed my hands under the warm water for a COVID handwashing amount of time. Two Happy Birthdays. There is water coming out of this sink. It is almost a miracle.

My thoughts shifted to so many trail conversations with my fellow healthcare workers on all the souls we’ve lost. The lack of room for grieving for medical personnel. We are to stay objective so families can fall apart. We walk it off on the trail together so we can get back to the business of caring for others.

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Comments 5

  • Chris : Sep 26th

    Excellent! Ode to hand washing.

  • Chris : Sep 26th

    Sorry….Glorious Handwashing…An Ode To Plumbing

  • Julie : Apr 16th

    Wow! You can cover a lot of ground with your writing. Beautifully done.

    • Wendy Boller : Apr 17th

      Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed!


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