I haven’t taken a bath in years. I shower all the time. But a shower isn’t quite the same as a bath. Unlike taking showers, a bath is total commitment; in a tub, you’re into it at least up to your belly button.
A bath, although not as convenient as showering, is good hygiene, and more sensual than a shower. The experience of the body, totally immersed in hot water, goes beyond the tedious necessity of getting clean. In fact, bathing in ancient times was, in all its variations, essentially a social occasion, something one did with friends just for the sheer fun of it; getting clean was incidental.
Baths are considered as therapeutic today as they were in ancient times. Our ancient forebears also attached spiritual significance to bathing. They knew how the soul could undertake its own heavenly excursions while the body sloshed around in hot water. For most of us today however, staying clean is a health exercise, the shower the most efficient instrument and with some exceptions, something we normally do by ourselves. Not for Graeme, my nineteen-month old granddaughter. When Graeme came to stay for a few days, I was reminded of the unique joys of the bathtub. She thinks bath time is a blast.
Graeme’s bath time is around six-thirty, shortly after she’s eaten. It’s a good time, then, since she’s covered with most of her dinner. Parents and grandparents may view Graeme’s bath as cleaning her up. For Graeme bath time is an adventure, a Dionysian extravaganza, in which she totally revels. Being in the tub, for her, is a combination of community, sensuality, and spirituality.
Of course Graeme doesn’t bathe alone; she needs supervision. Even if she could be by herself in the tub, I’m certain she’d continue to want others there with her. She likes the company. Graeme’s mother, her grandmother or I chatter with her as she plays in the tub. She may or may not acknowledge us. She squeals and chirps at her cadre of floating toys. I’ll ask Graeme questions, “What does the ducky say?” queries like that, just to be social. She may answer me or just look at me as though I were totally mindless. She’s not necessarily conversational; she simply wants people around when she’s taking a bath.
Being in the tub for Graeme also has a spiritual component. I’ve watched her carefully, and judging from her expressions, she seems, from time to time, to enter a state of altered consciousness.
There are floating toys in the tub, but eventually her attention gravitates to a few small paper cups. It’s as though the cups were sacramental, outward signs of inner graces. Soon Graeme becomes engrossed in them. She does nothing more with the cups than scoop up the water, pouring it from one cup into another, or simply dumping the water back into the tub. As this happens, Graeme quickly becomes oblivious to us and enters another world. She utters undecipherable, mystical incantations, while her face assumes a kind of beatific quality, as if some spirit had translated her to a higher plane of awareness and she began seeing visions. She watches the water, transfixed, and then, as though the spell ended, turns to look at us the way a traveler does who’d just disembarked from a long flight and saw the familiar faces of friends or relatives. She smiles.
After being sated by a warm bath, Graeme’s senses and spirit join to make the most pleasant companions. Like Venus emerging from her seashell, when Graeme is finished with the bath and is out of the tub, she shows her stuff with pizzazz.
After lifting her out of the tub and placing her on the rug, we dry Graeme vigorously with a towel. Then, with a flourish, Graeme pushes the towel away, turns her back on us and goes sprinting throughout the house, au naturel. She shrieks with delight as she negotiates the obstacles, her tiny legs scampering – at least four strides a second – like a bird. Having gone around the house full circle, she turns to see if we are watching, and then, assured that all eyes are again on her, she makes a second, sometimes a third run, howling with glee all the while. Soon, her energy wanes, and it’s time to read her a story and put her to bed.
And speaking of a happy combination of spirituality and sensuality: holding a tired toddler in your arms fresh from her bath and her romp, eager to hear her bedtime story, is a mixture of earthiness and transcendence – the feeling of warmth of this tiny body next to mine, and the sweet scent of the soap and baby. When they say that cleanliness is next to godliness, I think this is what they’re talking about. It starts at bath time.
N.B. I asked Graeme, now 16, if she was all right with me running the picture with the essay. “Sure, nobody would recognize me.”
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.