I desperately needed to take a dump, and there was a monkey in the toilet.
I was in the city of Agra, in the Indian state of Uttar Predesh, at an internet café across the street from the Taj Mahal. I’d just spent several hours watching the sun rise over one of the most beautiful buildings humans have ever constructed. The café was run by a kindly man who’d booked a driver to take me into the country for the rest of the day.
But before I could ride around in a 30-year-old car with no shocks, I needed to take a crap. Badly.
I’d arrived in India a few weeks earlier, backpacking while I tried to reboot my body and mind after my journalism career had stalled, and I’d been fighting Delhi belly ever since. Up until then I generally had experienced the kind of dysentery that’s only mildly annoying and easily remedied with access to a Western toilet and at least four squares of toilet paper. But this day, I had access to neither. Worse, whatever I’d just eaten for breakfast — some kind of fried bread, scalding masala chai, and the kind of spicy watery bean liquid that looked much like what I’d soon be evacuating — was not going to wait anymore.
I was embarrassed to ask the café owner if I could use his bathroom. His family lived behind the business, very modestly; I knew it would be their personal, possibly humble toilet I’d be asking to soil with whatever was percolating inside of me.
I also assumed they wouldn’t have toilet paper, and I only had two, maybe, at most, three squares in my backpack. These sheets had been in my bag for a couple of days, were doubtlessly squished up, and I vaguely remembered they might be wrapping a leftover pancake.
“Do you have a toilet?” I asked the man smiling, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Yes,” he said, to my relief. “Pee-pee or poo-poo, my dear?”
He had been addressing me as “my dear” over the past couple of days. I’d tried to adjust, but it felt especially odd exchanging such formal English while sitting atop a Mt. Vesuvius, waiting to erupt at any moment.
“Ah, poo-poo,” I said.
“Do you have everything you need?”
I caught his meaning. “I think I have paper,” I said in a half-truth, not wanting to embarrass either of us anymore.
“Good,” he said, ushering me out back. “Indians, we use the water, but Westerners — you like the paper.”
While that pancake had rendered my TP useless, I hatched a backup plan. As my stupidly big feet could not fit into the Archaeological Survey of India-issued shoe protectors at the Taj, I still had them in my backpack. In a pinch, I figured, I could wipe the shit off of my ass with those acrylic shoe covers. The only problem, I worried, was that they might clog the toilet.
But my thoughtful host solved that dilemma for me, saying, “If you use toilet paper, please, PLEASE!” He stopped dead in his tracks and stared into my eyes. “Please, make sure you throw it out the window.”
My embarrassment melted with the naked sincerity of his request. (Besides, with the number of roaming goats, dogs, cows, and wild pigs rutting through the rubbish of Agra, whatever I threw out the window would either quickly be eaten or burned in the trash fires that made the air so acrid.)
As if off to an excavation (or maybe a CIA black site), we descended a flight of dirt steps into the earth and toward a small wooden shack. When I opened the door, I wasn’t thrown that the “toilet” was just a hole in the ground, or that the two footholds were each about a third of my size 16 feet.
I was thrown, however, that there was a monkey hanging out on top of the toilet.
The monkey — a red-faced rhesus macaque about the size of a 4-year-old child — was impervious to my arrival, and looked at me, if he noticed me at all, not as a foreigner or an intruder or even as the ticking time bomb of human excrement that I was. When my host loudly shooed him away, the simian ambled off slowly, as if he’d forgotten something he needed to do somewhere else.
Not a moment too soon. Like Divine trying to squeeze into a phone booth, I stepped inside and tried to fit my feet onto platforms no bigger than the stirrups of a horsey ride at Chuck E. Cheese. With precious little time, I used some serious David Blaine skills to take my pants off entirely before I went about my business, lest I miss my mark. Somehow I figured out how to hold all my clothes, spread like there was no tomorrow, aim for the minuscule hole below me, and say a prayer. (I’d been praying a lot on this trip.)
The “evacuation event” went mercifully quickly, and I was relieved to see that there was nothing on my shoes. But I was disappointed that only a third — maybe 40% tops — of what I’d intended to land in the hole had done so. I didn’t want to leave evidence of my visit on the floor. True, I did throw a pair of shit-covered shoe covers out his bathroom window and into his yard, as instructed…but how could I be such a disrespectful guest as to shit all over my host’s bathroom floor?! You have to draw the line somewhere, especially when you’re representing the United States of America abroad. (Fortunately, I found a bucket of water.)
When I left the booth, I was worried the monkey would return and, angered at what I’d done to his toilet, rip my face off, like that poor woman with the face transplant on Oprah. But as I came up the stairs, I saw the simian sitting silently on top of the toilet building. The whole time I’d been struggling and sweating right below him, he’d sat above me — not laughing, or even acknowledging my pitiful state, but sitting above me, in quiet superiority.
As I trekked from the Himalayas to the Alps last year, people kept referencing a book called Eat Pray Love. I’ve never read this book or seen the movie, but, since I heard it stars Julia Roberts, I can’t imagine it shows the heroine defecating her brains out over a squat toilet, which is an integral part of most Americans’ backpacking attempts to find enlightenment at some point.
I did set off on a bit of a spiritual quest when I left New York City — though if anything, I went to India to work on my soles as much as my soul. Both were in serious need of repair, as the foundations of my body and my faith had largely disintegrated in the previous year.
My feet were too big, too flat, and without an arch; over the years, they had just started to collapse in on themselves. The stress meant I had developed pretty bad bunions, which is the condition where the bones on the sides of your feet push outward. By the spring of 2011, the searing pain of every step became excruciating, especially as I had to stand on my feet a lot as a reporter for The Village Voice. I was loathe to take any time off from work to have my feet surgically corrected, as gay marriage was my beat and the Marriage Equality Act was working its way through the New York State Legislature. But, losing the ability to run, then to walk, and then even to stand without agonizing pain, I had the first of five operations in the summer of 2011.
Initially, I didn’t stop working. After that first surgery, I used Twitter from the operating table, before the anesthesia had even worn off, to see if the bill I’d become very attached to had moved forward while I’d been under. Within days, I was hobbling around Albany with a surgical boot to see the bill pass in person. A month later, I limped across the city to cover 11 weddings the first day same-sex marriage was legal.
My dedication to working through such pain seemed to pay off. In the summer of 2012, I was named Journalist of the Year by the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. Briefly, I felt on top of the world professionally, and new job offers seemed imminent. But it didn’t last long. Two weeks after receiving the award, I was rewarded by being laid off by the Voice. (I suspected I was being fired when I was locked out of my email, and my suspicions were confirmed on Twitter, before my boss even bothered to tell me anything.)
By this time, I was also becoming increasingly immobile; it became obvious that more foot operations would be needed if I were to ever walk normally again. With too much time on my hands, my money, my sense of self, and even my sense of spirituality were all rapidly depleting.
I had never believed in “prosperity theology,” and my spirituality had never dictated that “God” would reward me for my hard work. However, my sense of self was predicated on my ability to work, a belief that was intertwined with my faith. I like the practicality of Christianity, and the way it brings the ethereal concept of God into the works of a human. A lot of what has drawn me back to Christianity over the years is summed up by St. Teresa of Avila’s belief that:
Christ has no body but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
I have never been one of the “Jesus died for my sins” school, as that seems too abstract and not especially useful. But I like the way St. Teresa puts the onus on me to do good deeds: If I believe in Jesus’ teachings, it is up to me to execute them. God is not some ethereal presence out there; it is up to me to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven in my actions.
So, as I lost the use of my feet and my job, I also lost any sense of what I could do in the world. I was neither able to take care of myself nor anyone else. I started to question why I was even in the world, if there was no way I could meaningfully use my/Christ’s feet (the only “feet on earth”).
In this way, I felt like I had abandoned the world, and that God had abandoned me.
Friends in India, Switzerland, and France invited me to visit them. I would eventually visit each country, even though I fretted about not having much money and being in a lot of pain. The thing was, I didn’t have any job prospects either. If I was going to be broke and broken anyway, I figured, I might as well change the scenery for a few months.
So I donned a backpack and set off first for India. It felt risky when I left, but I realized shortly after arriving in Mumbai that leaving New York was the best thing I could have done and that the trip was saving my life. I actually saved money by suspending my cell phone contract (and yes, it cost me less to eat and sleep in India for a month than to pay a month of iPhone service in America). Every step on NYC pavement had been a violent assault on my post-operative feet. By contrast, the dirt streets of Mumbai’s slums were a welcome balm to my soles and soul alike. An unpaved, unfamiliar road, even with my rucksack, proved to be better path for me than the one I’d been on.
I slowly started to feel my sense of spirituality return in seeing such beautiful people who worked so hard, had so little, and who were clearly not “bad people.” The people in the Dharavi and Mankurd slums hustled hard just to stay alive; it was not for lack of a work ethic that they had little material to show for their lives. I certainly didn’t see them as losers, the way I had been thinking of myself.
I started to decouple my worth from what I could accomplish.
Instead, I started praising God not for what I could do, but for what I could see: kids playing cricket on the shores of the Arabian Sea; saffron-robed monks near Mt. Everest; children yelling “Happy Holi!” as they painted my face in Kathmandu; entire families on a single motorcycle; and monkeys, monkeys everywhere.
I started praising God not for what I said or wrote (I didn’t publish anything for months), but for what I could hear. I found that letting go of the verbal diarrhea of my blogging life allowed me to listen in ways I hadn’t been.
And I sure as shit praised God whenever I was delivered to a toilet with enough time and paper to meet my needs.
According to Jad Abram’s biography Gandhi: Naked Ambition, Gandhi himself also found going to the bathroom to be a spiritual exercise. The Mahatma was obsessed with the nature of defecations — his own, and others’ — and would greet the women at his ashram each day saying, “Have you had a good bowel movement this morning, sisters?”
I spent a lot of time praying in India, and a significant portion of this was done while using or looking for a toilet. It dawned on me that I hadn’t been taking time to pray much at all, or even to rest while taking a dump, when I’d been a working journalist. Hell, I’d even set up a space for my laptop in my home bathroom so that I could keep working from the can! (And I wasn’t alone in this, either, judging from the number of guys I see at American urinals with their dick in one hand and smartphone in the other, unable to detach long enough to take a piss.)
My epiphany turned out to be as excremental as it was existential: In feeling like I had to keep working even while going to the bathroom, for a job that would fire me two weeks after receiving my highest professional honor, I had been more of a monkey in the toilet than that macaque in Agra!
How had I been I living like that? How had I not only given up smelling the roses, but not even taking the time to shit in peace?
This kind of living almost kept me from appreciating the most of basic of blessings: that I did have a pot to piss in, that the backpacker hotels I stayed in all had Western toilets, that my friends’ Mumbai apartment had four bathrooms for the three of us.
By contrast, in the slums all around, untold millions had no access to flushing toilets (not to mention anti-diarrhea medication). I routinely saw kids go to the bathroom on piles of rocks, with goats eating nearby (goats that were probably also used for milk). I often saw naked babies without so much as a diaper.
Being forced to reckon with myself in Indian and Nepalese toilets taught me that I needed to slow down and accept that I am connected to the 7 billion humans sharing this planet. Just like Jesus Christ (who hung out with the poor, centuries before the modern toilet), I am not above the most basic functions most people experience, like using a squat toilet.
Having pondered such questions scatological and theological in Central Asia, I was prepared to trade in monkeys for monks when I arrived at the Taizé community in the Burgundy region of France. I was also planning to meditate on capitalism as I experimented with the monastic life.
Started as the world’s first Protestant monastery during World War II (as a haven for Jews fleeing occupied France), Taizé is an interdenominational Christian community populated by white-robed “brothers” and visiting pilgrims. It was founded in 1940 by Roger Louis Schütz-Marsauche, a Swiss theological student. In the 1960s, young people started showing up at Taizé, wanting to hang out with the brothers for a week and share in their life of simple eating, chanting, and prayerful silence. Today, with up to 5,000 young pilgrims gathering during busy weeks, Taizé has become like Burning Man for Christians.
There are currently about 100 brothers living there. Brother Roger was the prior of the community until he was 90, in 2005, when he was giving communion in front of a couple thousand people and a mentally ill woman stabbed him to death in the Church of Reconciliation.
The week I visited was a slow one, with only about 700 pilgrims, and I was one of only a handful of native English speakers present. It didn’t much matter, as we spent three to eight hours a day chanting or praying in silence. It rained all week, further cutting down our chance to socialize, as the only indoor spaces were the church (where talking was forbidden) or our dinky dorm rooms.
Before arriving, I was nervous about going to Taizé for two reasons: that I’d grow bored, and that I wouldn’t fit into a French Christian community as an American homosexual (particularly one who’d spent most of his recent spiritual energy engaging with Buddhism, Sufi Islam, and Hinduism).
On the first point, I wasn’t bored for a minute. I think, in slowing my mind down via my travels to the point that I could go to the toilet again without tweeting, I was actually prepared to meditate. My “monkey mind” — which Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön describes as the thought-filled psyche with “the out-of-control nature of an untamed horse” — had been reigned in by the monkey in the toilet.
On the second, I now felt so connected to Christianity because of my recent experiences with Buddhists, Sufis, and Hindus. The power of the original crucifixion story, as I learned in my Taizé Bible study (my first in decades), was not that it was an exceptionally gruesome way to die, but that it was a very common way to die 2,000 years ago. Jesus had lived as a human and died as a human, as any human of any religion would have lived and died. Feeling reconnected to my fellow humans from my travels, I felt ready to wrestle with a Christian concept I had always eschewed until I was at Taizé: the idea of being “born again.”
As a liberal Christian, I’d never liked that phrase. It had too much baggage, and (unlike St. Teresa) treated Jesus like a supernatural force that could affect me internally, rather than as the practical application of a theological idea which I could externalize. European Christians are not big on being “born again,” either. But, I realized at Taizé, they use another term I like much more that basically means the same thing: “resurrection.” As I started journaling at Taizé shortly after Easter, in what would become the first piece of writing I’d publish in half a year:
“Resurrection” simply means, “to get up again.” I am skeptical of the phrase “born again” for the way it has been defined in modern American theo-political terms.
But do I not fall down, again and again? Did I not fall down with my feet, only to rise again? Did I not fall down in my ability to trust and love openly many times over the past year? Do I not fall asleep (sometimes with anxious difficulty) each night and wake each morning?
It is living and loving with a “circumcised heart,” as Christianity has exemplified for me personally, which allows me to be born again each day; and this grace and love, given by all who have loved me and cared for me, resurrects me when I need it most and am least able to help myself.
Whether I wanted to admit it or not, I had started to feel that I was being “born again” into a new life throughout my trip. Even though I wasn’t sure what that life would look like when I went “home,” I was as grateful to be as back from the dead as Kenny on South Park, Spock in Star Trek III, Shirley MacClaine in Out on a Limb, Lazarus in John 11, Jesus in Matthew 28, or even Cher herself on the 1999 Believe Tour.
My last day at Taizé, the rain clouds finally gave way to blue sky and a double rainbow appeared. I took it as a divine (and gay as The Wizard of Oz) message to me personally. Through monkeys and monks; through my monkey mind and my bowel movements; through Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, Christians, and atheists, God had, indeed, found me on my way and helped me to hit the reset button on my journey.
Life would be hard when I returned to the States. But, I sensed, my healing heels and spirit would be up to the challenge.
Born again am I, I remember thinking to myself when I looked up at that rainbow over France, remixing the syntax with a little Buddhism as I imagined Yoda might.
Born again am I.
Read more from the Fresh Starts series.