Blue Bucket Gratitude
I think of the blue bucket every time I step into the shower.
I have a claw-foot tub. Romantic, but probably impractical. There’s no wall to hold onto and the sunlight slips through the sheer white shower curtains on the rare morning when Portland lets me remember what it is to be bathed in light.
You have to be careful stepping into that tub. You have to be precise with the hot and cold faucets, which are separate. Over the years I’ve learned a perfect system. The perfect shower. The perfect temperature.
The truth is that I love that finicky old tub. As much as I miss the pressure and precision of my ultra-modern San Francisco loft, I appreciate the approximation of temperature. The antiquated plumbing. My house is 103 years old and it knows things.
And in the mornings, in that shower, I remember. The shower is a slow gift during which perhaps I should focus on the accuracy of shaving or the massage of shampoo but mostly I let my mind wander through memories.
The blue bucket is always there. It’s plastic and precarious. It’s filled with cold water that feels like gratitude.
In the winter of 1999 I lived with a Muslim family in Kolkata, India. I was working for Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in a home for the dying. I’d been in Calcutta for 2 months and planned to stay 4 more. I took the room because it was cheap and because the Welsh girl who invited me to share it was cute.
After a month, the petite brunette who had a habit of doing adorable aerobics every morning moved out and moved on. She headed south. To Kerala, she told me.
So long, Siobhan.
We’d battled mice and cockroaches together. We’d comforted each other through Christmas, filling stockings with silly toys.
I missed her. But I learned to live alone and the quiet was welcome at the end of a long day of watching people die. How does one communicate the experience of cleaning a 10 inch bedsore? How do you talk about pulling maggots out of wounds? You don’t. So I came home after work and sat on my cot and stared at the ceiling and wished for aerobics.
Shortly after she left, our landlord’s feud with his brother grew worse. His brother owned a large hotel around the corner and bribed the government to cut the water to our house.
And so there we were. With no water.
Every day a dark-skinned man without shoes arrived with a huge container of water on his back. He dumped this into a large metal barrel. That was the water for the day. That was it. And believe me, it was anything but clean.
I could have moved, but the family was very good to me, inviting me to dinner occasionally and fretting when I came home too late. It felt good to have someone looking out for me. I felt like we were in it together. So I stayed.
My landlord decided that my $1.50/day rent warranted me one bucket of this water in which to bathe every day. It was there every morning, waiting outside my door, which locked with a padlock from the outside and a large iron bolt from the inside.
When I was sick he heated it over a flame but most days it was cold. I had in my bathroom bucket a scratchy scrubber like you’d use to wash a dish. I also had a bar of lime green soap. My favorite, bought from the market around the corner.
This bucket shower became a challenge.
I had to work quickly, because of the chill – and the only suitable location was over the drain in the middle of the narrow hallway-patio outside my door. My landlord always gave me space for modesty, but I still had to wear shorts and a tank top. I reminded myself daily that I was killing two birds with one stone. Laundry, which I did by hand by scraping my clothing against concrete, was a hassle. Here were two items that I wouldn’t have to pound and hang!
Blue bucket showers were a study in efficiency and magic.
But, more than anything, they were a study in gratitude. Water on the skin, however cold, was cleansing. More than my patients had asked for before they were brought to me. Water over the head never escaped the heavy burden of symbolism, though the intensity of the suffering I’d witnessed had already beaten the religion clean out of me.
In Kalighat, the home where I worked, I carried women in my arms into the bathing area. Their fragility and jagged bones against my body made me feel puffy and white and fat. They screamed. They screamed and I sang John Denver songs. And then I washed them while they rocked back and forth speaking a language I could not understand. Dying of diseases I could not understand.
I carried them back, clean and dry. And when I put them on their cots they screamed and held their hands out toward me. Later they would shit the cot and I would clean it. Then I would carry them again into the bathing room. It went on and on like this.
I’d take the subway home and keep my head down, attempting to avoid the inevitable anonymous groping that would come when the car became too crowded. Once I fought back. Most days I just got off at my stop and walked home.
I knew the blue bucket would be there for me in the morning.
Cold water, clarity, peace and strength reflecting hazy, polluted morning light.
My whites had become gray. My heart had become quiet.
I poured the water over my head strategically and remembered what it was to live. The glory of daily inconvenience. The triumph of discomfort and perseverance.
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