You might remember the delightful Allison Baar from her poetry piece here. Well, we brought her back to wax and wane about her favorite escapism ritual… bathing.
I am a believer in the power of the bath. I know it’s not for everyone–or so they think–but, I’m convinced they must not have tried the kind of bath I’m talking about. The kind of bath that leads not only to softer skin, but to metaphysical transcendence. Sure, I love a bath that involves the requisite scrubbing, the mask, the magazines, the great tile acoustic sing alongs, but really the bath for me is a sacred space, a temple, a place of meditation.
I’m a terrible meditator, I get squirmy and bored sitting on my cushion, trying to wipe my mind clean of thought. But put me in lavender scented water and I’ll close my eyes and wander away into my creative visualizations, (I am a golden orb?) my internal chantings of positive mantras (these switch up according to which current neurosis I am trying to squelch), my breath work (remember to breathe!), for as long as the water stays hot.
I am a bath opportunist. I can’t resist a fine tub, and have been known to ask the hostess of a dinner party if I might soak a bit if I spy a big marble basin, or a prime porcelain claw foot. I’ve escaped many a socially induced panic attack at large house parties by locking myself away for a linger in the tub, much to the chagrin of all those poor souls lining up to pee. I assume they think I’m doing drugs or they wouldn’t bang so loudly on the door. As I’ve recently come into possession of my wildest bath fantasy, the outdoor bath, big enough for two, I invite my friends to come bathe at mine if they are feeling blue or even as a thank you gift. There is nothing like having a bath lovingly prepared for you, the salts dissolved, the oils poured, the temperature just right, candles are a must, as is music. I personally love Philip Glass and Bessie Smith, but will curate according to the mood.
Lately, I’ve had the winter blues (it’s been so cold for so long!) and I’ve been taking multiple baths a day. I’m verging on Margot Tenenbaum territory, it’s true, and while I acknowledge that it is ecologically irresponsible, I do think that my sense of mental well-being must be offsetting the water usage in a butterfly effect kind of way. To cleanse the body really is a way to cleanse the soul.
In the world history of bathing, from the Turkish hammam, to the Japanese sento, the Russian bath houses, and Korean jimjilbang, the cleansing of body is a ritual that encourages the stripping away of the filth of the material world, and invites healing and absolution through the purification of water. I personally seek these spaces when my mind is overextended, when I need to find a space in the world that is a haven from the chaos of our wild modern ways. I think often we seek solace in the familiar, the spaces that remind us of our earliest escapes, the places that seemed safe from the start.
I grew up in a messy, loud, uncomfortable house, with very little personal space. The bathroom was the one room in the house I could plausibly be allowed to lock the door, and escape into a world of my making. When I was a little girl, I would put a cutting board across the bath so that I could draw and eat pancakes, (cue the horrible image from Gummo, the spaghetti in the the bathtub scene, but really I saw myself more of a Winona Ryder in Mermaids) and not have to deal with the clamor of complex family life.
As a teen, the bath became a place of hiding away from my evil stepmother, soggy paged novels, dreaming on crushes and lots of jazz, because that’s what I saw people in the movies listened to in the bath. Nowadays, when I travel, I will seek the local bathing culture as a way to integrate, to find myself a human amongst humans, doing this essentially human thing. Getting ourselves clean and relaxed. In a bath house it is not odd to spend many hours simply attending to your own needs. That is in fact what everyone has come for. We scrub, we soak, we steam, we rinse and repeat. And we emerge, beautiful, renewed.
I’ve been scrubbed pink and raw and baby smooth by brisk Korean women in their black bras and panties. Then spent hours cycling between mugwort baths, sweating to near fainting in dry cedar saunas and then wet saunas, still almost barely keeping consciousness, then recovered my senses in rooms constructed entirely out of pink himalayan salt (so good for the lungs!), or smooth heated jade. In Los Angeles, going to the K Spa, as we call it, is a right of official girlfriend intimacy. A place where we can be naked together, quiet together, all bodies and ages and cultures engaged in the simple work of detoxifying.
I’ve let a large Russian man flagellate me with a platza, a bundle of oak or birch branches, used in “massage” (is getting whipped by branches technically message?) for the purpose of increased circulation. Sweat out a weekend’s’ worth of bad decisions, in a Russian sauna set to 190 degrees, then eradicated all the woozy-making toxicity surfacing through my opened pores by plunging into a 45 degree cold pool.
My favorite of the bathing rituals, the one my home bathing style most closely appropriates, is the Japanese version. Whether at home in an Ofuro tub, at a Sento, a public bath house, or an Onsen, a natural hot spring, the idea of ritual is deeply embedded. First, you must cleanse the body, in a space separate from the bath, sloughing off the dead skin and preparing the body, shiny and new, to enter the waters. The practice then, is not an active place of cleaning, but a space of contemplation. The water, particularly in the chin deep cedar Ofuro tub, will be doctored with salt and herbs and oils. The senses calmed by heat and water, the bath becomes a way for the mind to relax into a place of sensual unity.
Sometimes, we must start with the physical to activate the emotional. My mother gives me a lipstick and a Vogue, and tells me to wash my hair whenever I’m in turmoil. I used to think she was shallow or just didn’t get that my problems were real, my tears were real (lipstick can’t solve this one mom!), but now I see her methods are sound. Attend to your body, feel pretty, feel like a woman, and the rest will follow. Chop wood, carry water as some would say. Or take a bath and scrub away the cellular memory of dead skin (its dead, time to move on!) and make yourself new.
It takes a fair amount of work to curate a proper bath ceremony in the comfort of one’s own home. You’ll want to scrub the tub well, and pick up the pile of panties that have accumulated throughout the week (just me?) to streamline the energies. I like to shower and scrub my body and tub simultaneously. Then, as I fill the tub, I’ll get the mood in order, removing any unsightly grooming products from my line of vision, lighting incense, candles. Sometimes when I’m really loving on myself, I’ll roll my towel as though I were at a spa. A terry robe, (I like to steal mine from good hotels, but that is technically immoral, so of course I don’t condone) is real luxury for the exit moment, when, a little psychedelic from the heat, I’ll lie in the candle lit dark of the steamy bathroom, flushed and dewy and lulled by the warm and the breathe and the quiet, I let my mind stay in that rare and newly acquired blank space. I emerge, a little ruddy in the face, but looking a good decade younger, the eyes puffy from three days of pms tears, now calm, my smile lines softened, my golden orb spinning, my center centered. Totally worth the effort.