When I was young, one of my favorite pictures was a two-page spread in Material World, a photo documentary about the material possessions of families in different countries. The page heading was “Toilets of the World.” The picture, or rather, series of photos, taught me about the simple distinctions of the world – the difference between Kuwait and Mali, for example, as expressed in marble and gold plating next to an uneven hole in the dirt. But as much as the photos emphasized socioeconomic disparity, they subtly revealed the most private and honest part of life. There is something intensely personal about the photos, after all, what other place in the home guarantees such seclusion and refuge? Seeing the bathrooms (a relative term, as Ethiopia was represented by a stand of trees) of people whose lives are so distant from mine, so foreign and strange, made me realize the importance of this isolation.
I believe we need this space to ourselves, a cool room and a closed door. It is where we stare into the mirror, worrying away at the imperfections of life, where we find the quiet to listen to our own fears and fantasies, where we gather our dignity and pride like armor against the world. There is proof of this belief in the converse: look at the photos of bathrooms at prisons and detention camps, at the small cages walled by open metal grilles and furnished with cold steel bowls embedded in the floor. Just as the grimy white paint peels back from the bars, so these surroundings peel back the poise and self-respect inherent in every person. Without retreat or respite, we are stripped down, shamed and disgraced.
Sometimes, when in my own bathroom, I’ll remember the green clay of the Mexican toilet or the row of toothbrushes on the Cuban sink, and I am grateful for my own linoleum floor and weathered brown cupboards. If all goes according to plan, I will be in college next year, sharing a bathroom with a variable set of floor mates. I suspect this will detract from the secluded aspect of the bathroom, but no matter; really, the bathroom is only a symbol of what we need sometimes – a private place to doubt and imagine and think, a place to simply be still.
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