In the spring, my family opens up our summer house in Edgartown. There’s much to do, some of it simple–turning on the wifi, calling the cable company, putting the screens on the windows. It’s a semi-stressful (something usually goes wrong) ritual that marks the start of summer. I love it.
In Patrick’s memoir, he writes of scrubbing dishes and gaining understanding. As I read through the piece, it reminded me of a scrubbing that I do, at the Vineyard house, and how I use it to achieve a different end.
The outdoor shower is my favorite part of our house. It has five walls including the stretch of the house against which it’s enclosed. It makes what I would describe as a demented trapezoid. The door is sort of lopsided on its hinges and you have to shoulder it up to fully close it. It creaks and slams and shakes the whole construction of the thing. There’s some strange breed of sinister hornet-looking insect that nests under where I put my shampoo. We share a mutual respect. The biplane tours from Katama airfield fly right overhead, occasionally, and it’s thrilling to think some pair of honeymooners could look down from their romantic plane ride to see me standing there in the buff.
But what I love most about the outdoor shower is scrubbing the grime from its planks at the start of the season. A whole winter’s wetness and neglect, demanding to be rectified. The smell of bleach, the soapiness it creates between my fingertips when I get a little too Clorox-heavy in my solution, as I tend to do. The way it stains my ratty gym shorts when it splashes and sprays, the aching in my deltoids and triceps from pushing the stiff-brush against the grain of the wood, the veins that pop out in my biceps and forearms in the midday sun, the near-black-and-white contrast of clean wood vs. grimy wood, the knowledge that it was my own hand that took the wood and restored it to its original, if not somewhat lightened by bleach, color. These are things that I love.
I tend to be my saddest during what would be seen as conventionally jovial times of year: the height of summer and the peak of the holidays. There is no general reason for this, you could blame SAD, at least for winter (I’ve always had a quiet appreciation for how perfect that acronym is), but it is a recurring pattern and has been since I became self-aware enough to understand my disposition.
In summer, this cleaning of the shower is my means of turning my brain off. I do not think, I do not remember, I do not process the things that are troubling me. I simply stand there, long brush in hand, scrubbing, watching the green get scraped off of the wood, watching it all pile up in algae-like rows where my brushstrokes begin and end, and then watching it all get washed away by the powerful hose from out back. I usually repeat this another time or two, even if not entirely necessary. Nobody’s ever complained about a shower being too clean.
I clear the sand and coagulated guck out of the gaps between the planks beneath my feet. I blast it into oblivion with the hose. I use the edge of the brush to sneak into the crevices. I watch as the water from the shower-head flows evenly through, when before I got there, before I scrubbed, it would just flow out from under the shower walls and over the edge of the deck. I look at what I’ve accomplished.
It instills a feeling of control in me, a comfort. That patch of deck, those wooden boards, the shingles by the base of the shower-head–these are all things that I have complete domain over. I can clean them. When I’m done with them, my mark will be left, and it will be a good mark. And the mundanity, the welcome mindlessness, is a wooden crucifix (as clean and smooth as the deck when I’m done with it) that I shove into the vampiric heart of feeling and memory and sadness. Emotion in general. Because to clarify, cleaning the shower does not make me happy. It does not make me sad. It does not make me anything. It’s just a task. A task I can do shirtless, outside, in the sun, for hours away from the world–a whole gravel driveway’s length away from anybody who’d potentially bother me or force me to switch back on into consciousness. Out of my bleach-stained trance.
There is a task to be done, I do it, and when I’m done there is a palpable difference. Evidence of my being there, of my being alive. And that brings me more satisfaction than most things.
I am always looking for signs to show me that I’m actually here. That I’ve actually done something. I write on my typewriter and cherish the full page that was once blank. I covered it with ink, hammer-stroke after tiny hammer-stroke. I did that. I am here. I am alive.
And this neutral aliveness is sometimes the most important thing to feel. A recognition of the fact that I, on merely an atomic level, am standing here. This feeling is more important than joy or sorrow, heartbreak or love, because without the manipulation of matter that is me, none of those things even have a vessel. So when they take over the vessel, I like to let the vessel void itself. And the best way to do that, I’ve found, is to clean the shower. To see the green, feel the bristles against the woodgrain, maybe get a blister or two and just turn myself off.
Because it’s easy to get tangled up in emotion, the binary oppositions that come with it, the polar extremes. It’s easy to suffocate. And in this human suffocation it is so, so easy to forget what we are. Which is really just here. Just like a tree is there standing still, like a rock is there resting heavily, we are here. We are here.
And there’s really no reason to make more of that than a tree would.