By Treena Orchard
Joan Didion’s epic book The White Album opens with the line: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” These eight words of clarion wisdom ring with urgency as biological and social unrest sweep the globe. Whether it’s baking, sewing, or writing, people are flocking to creative endeavours.
What kinds of stories are we telling ourselves as we seek to cope and connect? How are we living? Six months into the pandemic and our lives remain in a state of revision and flux.
I’ve been writing and thinking a lot, often in the bathrooms of the Edwardian house I recently purchased. The downstairs décor is Indian, an incredible place where I studied as a graduate student. Its compressed design is equal parts comforting and suffocating, like the country itself, and the pull flush system is fun.
The upstairs loo has a gothic, femme vibe with its black chandelier, clawfoot tub, and pictures of sensual women in their season. I’m one of those women, ripened with words and love but not cracked open enough. Such are the struggles for pleasure during a pandemic.
From my white thrones I look out the windows and wonder what will happen next.
We don’t normally think about going to the bathroom. Why would we? Waste matter isn’t the stuff dreams are made of, unless you’re into Freud, who famously drew parallels between the retention of money and faeces.
It turns out that Freud isn’t alone and bathroom use is a hot topic. A recent Google search for “how many times a day do people use the bathroom?” churned up 1,490,000,000 results. So many shits and giggles! But also urination, which most of us do between four and ten times daily.
But that’s not all we do in the bathroom. We also wash our bodies, put on and take off clothes, brush our teeth, talk to one another, apply creams and makeup, and check our appearance throughout the day. Sometimes we smoke, cry, and get busy in the bathroom too.
How much time does this add up to? A recent survey of 2,000 British adults found that the average person spends 416 days of their life in the bathroom: that’s more than one calendar year. Men will spend 373 days or 23 minutes per day, and women will spend 456 day or 29 minutes per day.
Reading the (bath)room
Water closets, as they are sometimes called, bookend our days and can be spaces of inspiration. They are also therapeutic spaces we retreat to for secret discussions, peace of mind, and safety. This is reflected in current design trends that emphasize soft lighting and natural materials to create spa-like vibes.
The calm privacy bathrooms offer can also lead to the spinning of stories about self-doubt and worry. Without the clatter of normal life, we ponder tricky questions like: Why can’t I bounce back? Are other people as lonely as me? Will things ever return to normal? Will I?
During Covid many of us are tugging at ourselves as we make sense of the chaos around us. Emergency support hotlines are exploding and online therapists are seeing astronomical jumps in client numbers.
Yet most of us do not unravel to the point of destruction. We rely on resilience and sometimes divine intervention to manage our vulnerability. In a world that forces us to shrink our lives to the size of a bubble, finding spaces to ground ourselves is essential.
That’s where bathrooms shine. They are accessible, cost-effective places where we can reflect and release (pun intended) the stresses that ail us. This became clear when I developed a sudden case of diarrhea while getting ready to leave the house last week.
Initially irritated, the extra toilet time forced me to feel, hear, see, and, yes, smell how the pandemic is affecting me. Sounds gross, but this moment of clarity helped me tune into Covid instead of shutting it out. I was reminded to register my worries and then let them go.
Stories of Surrender
Renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel says that intimate relationships thrive in conditions of autonomy and surrender. It’s the same for how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. In isolation, autonomy is fairly easy to accomplish, although not necessarily enjoyable.
But, to whom or what do we surrender as we reformulate ourselves during the pandemic? The coronavirus? The old normal for the new?
Jasmyn Ward’s recent Vanity Fair article sheds grimacing light on surrender under Covid. Her husband died of acute respiratory failure; he was thirty-three years old. She writes about Cardi B, grief, and that place under his arm where she felt safest, a place the colour of “deep, dark river water.”
Her soul-shattering words pull me in a million directions, and they keep her alive. Writing is an act of creation and sometimes survival. This is how we are living, and our stories will help keep us afloat. One of the best places to unearth them is in the bathroom, where solace can be found.
Treena Orchard is a medical anthropologist who does collaborative research about sexuality, gender and health with different marginalized populations. She is also an Associate Professor in the School of Health Studies and creative woman in all seasons. Learn more about her and her work here. Originally from Saskatoon she’s a sucker for Joni Mitchell and the big open skies, which she gets to as often as possible.