When I was twenty, I lived in a house in Missoula that had a claw foot bathtub that fit all of me. My time there was short, and I didn’t take advantage of that bathtub as much as I should have, but I learned it was possible to have a bath that doesn’t suck. There’s power in that knowledge.
The problem is, there’s a lot of me. Scalding hot water doesn’t matter when it only covers 32% of your body. I spent the next twenty years without such a bathtub. With something more than hope, perhaps, I would say to myself, someday, I will own a bathtub that fits all of me.
I now own such a bathtub.
It took an enormous amount of loss, an incredible amount of serendipity, the generosity of both those I love and a stranger, a plague, dementia, the good advice of a friend, a particularly special sleepless night, and a whole bunch of hard work to make it happen. I don’t know for sure if we manifest that which we believe can become true or if the universe is random, but when I think about this bathtub, it feels a whole lot like the former. That I would someday own a bathtub large enough for all of me was something I believed to be true. It wasn’t a wish or desire.
After a generation’s time-span of showers, I take anywhere from three to five baths a week now. It is an entirely baroque experience, and no doubt is contributing to the demise of the planet. Sometimes I imagine that the vegan years I spent living in an East-coast city not owning a car offsets this indulgence, but that’s bogus. I know. It’s bogus. I do it anyway. Apologies to future generations. Sorry . . . not sorry.
I wipe the tub down – a clean bath is essential – then I plug the drain and open only the hot tap. I let the water run. It takes some time to fill, so if I’m not in the room, I can tell when I’m close because the sound of water flowing into the tub changes dramatically when the level of the rising water overtakes the faucet inlet.
The water is cold when it starts flowing in. Then, it transitions to as hot as my water heater can manage. The entire tank empties into the tub. Then, the water coming out of the faucet turns cold again. The perfect temperature is achieved at one centimeter above the faucet. Counter-intuitively, stopping too soon will make the bath too hot. Stopping later will make the bath too cold. I have tape covering the overflow valve, so I know that when it’s at the right temperature, and I’ve fully immersed my very-large self, the water level will be about three inches below the top of the tub. No sudden movements. I add some Epsom salts, then I turn on a podcast and soak.
My absolute go-to podcast is RadioLab. Their mission, it seems, is to plumb the depths of wonder. Which is just my speed. Tonight’s episode is, in fact, about Speed. It’s a repeat – roughly ten years old. The episode contains several stories, which are interesting, but the last of the bunch is probably a top five story. It’s up there alongside the story about the shrimp who can punch its claw so fast it breaks the sound barrier to stun its prey. It’s right next to the episode where they interview astronomer Brian Greene about the idea of the multi-verse. This interview ranks alongside the one where they describe what the end of the dinosaurs would really have looked like. It’s a killer story.
It’s a story about a scientist who can create a sodium cloud ever so carefully, such that the sodium atoms slow down to near absolute zero. She can manipulate the cloud so that when she shines a laser at it, the light passing through this insanely hyper-cold space slows way, way down. It moves around 15 miles per hour – about bike-riding speed. It’s a cool episode. They talk back and forth with ooohs and aaahs as this scientist unloads one amazing revelation after another. It turns out, with a few tweaks, she can literally freeze light in place. Light frozen in place. Even more preposterously, the scientist says she can use the way the light interacts with the sodium atoms to create an impression of the light, and then she can recreate that light so exactly that it is, in every meaningful sense, the same light. Then she can store that light, move it around. She can transport light. There is a human alive who can freeze and transport light from one place to another. I find this incredibly moving.
I know exactly where I was when 9/11 went down. I remember the circumstances of the world when each of my children were born. I remember the weather outside when my maternal grandfather passed away. I remember the quality of fluorescent light in empty high school hallways when I received my first kiss. I remember what ordinary things my mother and I were doing the day my dad accidentally ran over the dog’s face. The dog was a tire-chaser. He had it coming. (He recovered.)
I distinctly remember where I was when I first heard this episode of RadioLab. I remember the day, the time, the weather, what I was doing, all of it. It occurred to me, in the bath, that this moment I was experiencing was like a kind of parallel moment in time. I am here, in this time, toweling off after a skin-reddeningly hot bath. I am driving in my Dodge Caravan back from Gina’s farm in the countryside of Southern Indiana.
I am finishing a day of remodeling a new friend’s garage. I am wet and cold and hungry, turning on the hot water faucet before I even set my car keys down. I am alone in my house. I am content in a way I haven’t been for decades. Later, I will fix myself some chips and salsa and I will turn on an episode of the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
I am exhausted from a day of learning how to milk cows. Gina is teaching me the ways of Jersey cows. She is a bonafide dairy cow whisperer. She understands these animals in a way I never will, though I will try. I smell like manure. I am surprised to find this isn’t necessarily a bad smell. I am thinking about Gina’s big-hearted generosity. She is tall and strong. She is made for raising animals or political activism, which will be the focus she pivots to when her career as a boutique dairy farmer comes to an end.
But I don’t know that yet. My future parallel self knows. In this moment, I am in the car, driving away from her farm, her six or seven dairy cows, her feral children, her rogue chickens. Every chicken living is a rogue chicken. I tune into the NPR station in that part of the country, so far south in Indiana that it is south of Louisville, Kentucky. I am so happy to find that RadioLab is on.
I am exhausted from a day of replacing windows, but thrilled that my new business is taking off. I will be successful, I repeat to myself. I deserve success, I say. My talents will help people, I repeat. I will broadcast my Sufjan Stevens channel on Pandora to my TV via airplay and start to write this essay. I will open a bottle of the last batch of wine my father made before dementia made such things beyond his reach.
I am trying to learn anything, anything at all that will help me start the farm that my then wife and I have decided to start. I am sad to be leaving a teaching job I love, but it’s a job that doesn’t pay well and never will. I am sad to be leaving friends I have come to love, but I am excited to have a reason to move back to where I’m from. I am pulled in many directions.
A few months later, while Gina is contemplating transitioning to a different life in town, we will build a farm on some family land in Montana. We are poster-children for the meme that if you knew how hard something would be at the outset, you’d never start anything. We have No Idea how hard starting an organic farm from scratch will be. Our children will play in fields as we break against the giant waves of soil we will exhaust ourselves wrangling. By many metrics it will be a success. It will be a beautiful story to tell – perhaps one of these essays will tell it. It will be a less beautiful story to live through.
I am on the road. The back of my mind watches a little spring rain fall on the windshield. The voices of the hosts of RadioLab are safe. They are always safe. They will always reliably present me with a heaping pile of wonder. So much of my life isn’t safe. I’m leaving my job for something very insecure. My children are very little. There is something not right between my wife and I that I can’t put my finger on.
But this moment is safe. The past version of me isn’t self-aware enough to realize that feeling unsafe the way he does isn’t OK. Alarm-bells should be ringing. This episode of RadioLab feels like a refuge. That life is a place needing refuge from isn’t OK. It’s not sustainable. Unsustainable things break. There isn’t a way to avoid the losses coming. He has so much fear of loss. I wish the RadioLab story could be a conduit, that in this parallel moment I could reach out to him and say, it’s going to be OK.
You can’t stop the loss that’s coming, I would say. Loss isn’t the end. It’s not a final judgment. It will create the circumstances for rebirth, for You finally feeling like You. Just wait, I would say. Remember that bathtub? Remember that one? The next time you hear this RadioLab story, you will be soaking in THAT tub. Your life won’t be perfect, you will carry many, many regrets. But there will be so much to celebrate – so much wonder. Your heart will be full to bursting, I will say.
And it is.