When I moved to the country I knew I wasn’t going to get a desk job. I didn’t want one – as my favourite author Carrie says, sitting is killing us. So I took a job in a nursing home instead – but there was just one thing that really scared me. The prospect of having to clean up shit.
I can deal with baby shit, if it’s produced by my own babies. I can deal with my own shit (as many episodes of being caught out in the bush with only grass for toilet paper attests). I can endure a certain amount of crap which seems to be the occasional by-product of living with two unobservant and not too cleanly young people who haven’t yet worked out the wondrous uses of a toilet brush and flush. But I draw the line at adult bowel motions. Maybe I have intimacy issues – but I leave the bathroom when my lover has to sit down.
The first time I was in the room while a 20 year old girl cleaned up an elderly bed-bound man who’d dirtied his pad, I was amazed at her placid expression. She didn’t gasp, hold her nose, faint or screw up her face (later she told me she couldn’t smell anything anyway, for unrelated reasons). I wasn’t sure I could catch the droppings of an adult human with a straight face. Later, I watched another carer wiping up after an old lady – who was still going, without realising it.
‘Maybe you want to go to the toilet?’ she suggests diplomatically.
‘Oh no, I don’t need to!’
The carer holds out a wet wipe with the incriminating evidence.
‘I think you do.’
‘Ohhh,’ says the poor woman disgustedly. Too late. So it goes.
But it turns out that after a few weeks of this, I don’t really have a problem. What goes in, comes out. There are worse things (cat poo, for instance). You can decline to breathe through your nose, for as long as it takes. You, and the person you’re cleaning, can tacitly recognise that these things happen to all of us, and we can still chat comfortably at morning tea time. No need to be embarrassed (if you are, DON’T book yourself into an old people’s home – they keep records of your shits behind the door in the nurses’ stationl).
In this setting, bodily functions lose their power to shock and disgust.
For me, that’s spiritual progress. For the residents, it takes a kind of courage to accept life’s ultimate physicality. In the course of our lives, we move from being crap factories to complex souls who just happen to be housed in a body. And then, towards the end, we realise that we are bodies who just happen to house, for a while, what some of us think of as a soul.