An expanded version of a post from August. Or a middle-aged portly woman finds herself in a tin bath.
I haven’t had a bath in years. Really. It’s been so long that I can’t remember when I last had a soak in a tub. I know some people swear by bathing for its relaxing properties, candles, bubbles and all that jazz, but the vague memories I have formed of that type of endeavour involve only constant struggling with the hot tap with my toe to top the water up, dropped books and rapidly vanishing foam leaving me face-to-face with all my glories. It only takes 5 minutes for me to go from feeling like a Zen mistress to a puce and blowsy woman from a Beryl Cook painting. Cue heaving myself out, strongly channelling, not chilled-out bliss, but instead vibes reminiscent of the poem The Kraken by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
That doesn’t mean I’ve been soap-dodging for a decade. Hell no. I am as much a sucker for sweetly-scented body condiments as the next person (have you ever tried the divine Korres shower gel range?). It’s just that I did not have a walk-in shower in my life until I was 37 and since then, the whole wallowing thing (which to be fair I did almost exclusively for nearly 4 decades) has totally lost whatever charm it may have held – which to be honest – is not a lot.
So after nearly another decade of showering in splendour in Essex, I found myself this morning, somewhat to my surprise, sitting in an enamelled metal bath in mid-Wales. Wales was not a surprise (something to do with the summer holidays), but the bath was.
I don’t know for sure, but it seems like I may have uncovered some kind of special and hitherto secret talent in myself, because booking a modest holiday let with no shower seems like it should be an impossible feat. Try it sometime – everywhere has a shower. Everywhere.
However, I do not preach the TED brand of positive psychology for nothing, so I was not to be defeated, although the horror of the situation I had placed myself in had already led to going unwashed for the full 24 hours since arrival. The 24 hour delay had enabled me to do two key things: discern how much hot water there was likely to be available for a thorough sheep dip, plus decide when such an operation might be best timed, considering I was in competition for the scarce resources with two teenage girls (a species not known for general abstemiousness in the ablution department).
This morning, around 9.30 a.m. I took the plunge. My first thought was that the bath was not big. Or, worse, I was ample. My second thought as I lowered myself gingerly into the water was deep gratitude for the vintage rubber shower head attachment that I had hopefully jammed on the taps. At least I was not having to press a rented kitchen receptacle into service to rinse my hair. My third thought was: I am awfully fat. On paper, I like to attach this rider – I am awfully fat when, and this is important, when I am folded over like a soggy burrito in a small bath in Wales.
In a shower, I am majestic. I stand at the altar of the apothecary and anoint my hair, face and body with botanical essences and water streams over me at exactly the right temperature (unless someone has put the washing machine or dishwasher on downstairs, or has marched into the bathroom without a by your leave to clean their teeth and turned on the tap) but you get my drift.
In the shower, there is no pale saggy flesh pressed against the side of a cold white enamel tub.
In the shower I think great thoughts and I am triumphant.
In the bath I cannot think about anything except when the hot water might run out, whether this bath is truly small or something worse, and why does so much hair come out of my head when I wash it.
And the learning from all that, seemed to be this. My body is only my body in a shower. In a bath, my body belongs to someone else, some stranger.
How we experience the world in our bodies every day is one of life’s marvels. One only needs to watch a baby fascinated by its own feet to feel this might be true. With the passage of time, because most of us do the same things over and over again, in the same places, we simply don’t notice what our bodies do for us anymore. We sit in the same chairs, sleep in the same beds, drive the same cars, walk down the same streets, go on the same gym machines and so on. Rarely, do we suddenly experience our day-to-day physicality in a vastly different way, unless it’s through serious illness or disease.
And when we do, what do we do? My fear is that in a world sated with images of so-called perfection, we jump into judging ourselves unkindly. We want a body that we know, that we can rely upon, sometimes literally through thick and thin, but how often do we get to forgiving it the vicissitudes of age, those bars of chocolate, the odd cigarette?
For women particularly though there a few high days and holidays to note with a new compassion for our bodies and less harsh judgments – see the baby bump comparison brigade. New lovers, pregnancy and childbirth. The onset and cessation of menstruation. These events allow us to see (if we are brave enough to look) and feel our bodies behaving differently. How we approach these differences is important. Just as I couldn’t make the tub this morning any different from how it was, neither could I dictate how my body would deal with, say, having babies. Yes, there were things I could do that might help, or hinder, but in essence it is what it is. Sometimes things go well; other times, not so much. The control we think we have is, in many ways illusory.
As I approach my 50s, I try to help myself, my actual self that is the flesh and the blood and the bones of me, where I can. Keeping active, eating ok, getting my sleep, not sleeping in cold open fields, as I longed to do for half my life. I also do some things that might hinder at times. But I am aware that I am entering a time in my life where it is better to be kind to my body. To work in harmony with it. To be grateful for how it has served me so far. To use it, as they say, or lose it. Mainly, to notice it.
Yesterday afternoon, high in the green misty hills near our holiday hideaway, I walked down a slippery wet track in the rain, behind a woman who must have been well into her 80s. She carried a stick and wore sensible shoes. Mud was spattered up the back of her navy jacket. The slope was not steep, but the weather was filthy. Underfoot it was all loose stones, leaf mulch and water. The woman must have walked up the hill, and was making her way back down. I fell into step, a short distance behind her and adjusted my speed a little, so as not to overtake her.
She could not have been walking for the purpose of pleasure that day. I had seen her earlier in the morning, also in the rain, also walking back. Not far, but at her age, far enough. It struck me she was walking with and against the weather. The same for her heart, her legs, her lungs: with and gently against. Making her body work, for the good of itself, for as long as she could.
Age and disease is all about the body letting a person down, one way or another. Why wait until that moment to either regret taking our muscles and sinew for granted over the years, or not getting the most out of them all along. So what if I had to squeeze myself into that bath or not this morning. Was it not the same thighs and backside that powered me uphill and down dale for the rest of this day?
Make those bodies work a little people, and notice them kindly along the way. That I suppose is all we could and should do for ourselves, until we can’t anymore. In the meantime, give a little thanks for the service you get and give, and don’t forget the consolation of a hot shower, or bath, if you must.
There not being any suitable pictures of soggy burritos in baths to illustrate this post freely available on the internet, will you kindly forgive my eschewing images to accompany this post.