“Blessed Are They that Take Cold Showers,” published in The Basil O’Flaherty, March 2017
In 2010, my husband and I packed up our clothes, dishes, and nearly 3,000 books and moved to his hometown of León, Guanajuato, Mexico. The life we’ve forged for ourselves here is made up of a few solid advantages–my not having to work, living in a bigger house than we could afford in the States, and being part of a lovely, child-centered culture, for example–along with a lot of sacrifices that, for the most part, we consider worthwhile. We don’t own a dishwasher or clothes dryer, which entails more manual labor on my part. There are no Kindles, iPads, or video game systems in our home, and only my husband has a cell phone. Our daughters’ lives are centered on books and play rather than technology, which I think is all to the good. The older two, ages eight and nine, read a novel a week in English, another in Spanish (we homeschool), and they always have some independent reading going too (currently Pseudonymous Bosch’s Secret series and Harry Potter). They both write poetry and short stories, and along with five of their cousins, they recently performed a play that my nine-year-old wrote, on a stage that my husband built for them in our patio. Most of the extended family was in attendance.
We don’t often eat out (though there is an amazing Indian restaurant that we visit a few times a year on special occasions) and have trouble finding certain foods here, including the preponderance of meat substitutes available at virtually any grocery store in the States. There’s only one store, on the other side of town, that sells almond milk, and organics are relatively expensive. But the abundance of fresh, locally-grown fruits and veggies–many of which I’d never tasted until we moved here–almost makes up for that.
Even so, there are times when I just wish things were easier and more convenient. I don’t like standing at the sink each night washing the dishes by hand, or hanging every single tiny little baby sock on the clothes line. I wish I could eat lima beans, kale, black eyed peas, okra, kidney beans, tempeh, ginger snaps, and many other foods that aren’t available here (and believe me, I’ve searched). I look at the blisters on my hands after performing even a minimum of routine housework–sweeping and mopping a five-bedroom house with a front and a back patio–and think, “Why can’t we just have carpet, and a lawn?”
But the moment of my day when I most long for the comforts of my own country is before bed each night, when I take my shower. After some months of discussion and putting back money, last year my husband installed a solar hot water heater on our roof. We rejoiced in the knowledge that we were doing the right thing, taking a stand against fossil fuel dependence and preparing to save money to boot. But it’s winter now, the days are often gray and chilly, and the water not only doesn’t get hot, some days it barely gets warm. I heat water on the stove for dishwashing and the baby’s bath, then the older girls use the water from the boiler for their showers, so that by the time they’ve both bathed, the water is no longer even tepid: it’s cold. This happens every evening that follows a cloudy day–and with a three to four month summer rainy season besides the usual three months of wintertime, it ends up being a lot of evenings. Even when it rains all day in the summer, bathing isn’t too unpleasant; the temperature is high enough so that I don’t lose feeling in my fingers. But in the wintertime it’s torture. My husband, heartier than I am, takes his showers in the mornings, but I insist on bathing at bedtime, when at least I can jump into flannel or polar fleece jammies and under the bed covers afterward. Not that that’s much consolation during the actual moments when the frigid water is hitting my skin. I feel particularly mournful when I recall how showering used to be one of the highlights of my day; living in a house with no heat source, I was accustomed to using the shower to warm up on cold days. And though we live in central Mexico, we do have some cold days. The temperature can get as low as the 30s; last winter it snowed.
I know, of course, that what my mother used to call a bird bath–cupfuls of heated water–is always an option. It’s even an option I’ve availed myself of from time to time on the very coldest days. But generally speaking, I take my showers just as I used to back when natural gas heated the water and all was right with the world. Call it stubbornness, a slavish devotion to routine, but lately I’ve been thinking of it differently. That’s ever since I saw a documentary about the Yamabushi monks of Japan who follow Shugendo, “the way of testing and training.” The idea is to achieve spiritual enlightenment by disciplining–and ultimately overcoming–the flesh. One of their forms of meditation involves sitting outside under a cascading waterfall in the dead of winter.
I realize that in the context of Shugendo I’m a lightweight. My cold showers don’t even remotely compare to the Yamabushis’ arduous treks up steep mountain passes, walks over hot coals, fasting, and sleep deprivation. But the more I read on the subject, the more I feel that my showers do fit into a larger context of spiritual expression. At the age of fifteen, under the influence of a beloved camp counselor (the only vegetarian I had ever met) and John Robbins’ award-winning book Diet for a New America, I made the decision to stop eating meat. Even at that age, I could see that my own fleeting sensory pleasure was less important than the very real damage my diet was doing to myself, the planet, and other living beings. Three years later I adopted a vegan diet, and a decade after that, completed Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (R.C.I.A.) classes and became a Catholic. Like Dominion author and activist Matthew Scully, I saw the two events as connected, my Catholicism born of the same impulse as my vegetarianism.
What I didn’t realize then was the lifetime of health benefits I would reap as a result of my change in diet. Like Dr. Michael Greger says, “The most ethical diet just so happens to be the most environmentally sound diet and just so happens to be the healthiest.” This point was driven home for me last year, when, pregnant at the age of forty-one, I went to a new ob./gyn. Reviewing my test results, he remarked wonderingly, “You’re healthier than a lot of women who are half your age.”
Another example of the connectedness of body and spirit is the practice of fasting. As a practicing Catholic, I’ve grown accustomed to fasting and giving up foods I like every spring during the six weeks of Lent. The health benefits of intermittent fasts are well established; they can help prevent cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, lower bad cholesterol, reduce inflammation and even trigger stem cell regeneration. Trim, attractive celebrities from Jimmy Kimmel to Benedict Cumberbatch extoll the 5:2 diet, a weekly program with two nonconsecutive fasting days each week. I find it interesting that the 5:2 diet, described by some medical practitioners as optimal for human health, is the very one urged by both the Virgin Mary, in her apparition at Medjugorje (Wednesday and Friday fasts), and the Prophet Mohammed (Monday and Thursday fasts). Hindus typically fast once or twice a week–different fast days are associated with different deities–Mormons are asked to fast at least once a month, the Jewish calendar contains several fast days, and fasting during daylight hours is one of the ways Muslims observe Ramadan each year. Saints of every religious tradition have used this method of drawing nearer to God. According to Saint Augustine, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble.” And with a hunger-related death somewhere in the world literally every few seconds, taking more than we need is more unconscionable today than it’s ever been before. At the most basic level, standing in solidarity with the poor and hungry must involve a refusal of an unjustifiably decadent diet.
I see our move to Mexico as a meeting point between the temporal and the spiritual. Our income here is so meager that, like it or not, we’ve been forced to dispense with luxuries. Our children receive gifts only on Christmas and their birthdays. We rely mostly on dried beans for our protein; a splurge for us is tofu or blueberries, American imports that cost more than local products. I’ve bought new clothes for myself once in six years (a dress that cost roughly five U.S. dollars for our goddaughter’s baptism). Life is different here, simpler, honed down to the most basic level. I know several people whose houses have cement floors, some who don’t have running water, many whose children have never seen a movie in a movie theater. Yet I don’t know anyone here who’s depressed or neurotic or even ungrateful. The lack of material possessions doesn’t seem to impede Mexicans’ happiness at all. Not surprisingly, among the poor–and the poor are ubiquitous here; most people I know would be characterized that way–it’s rare to meet someone for whom religious faith is not at the center of life.
All of which brings me back to my cold showers. It turns out that they too offer a multitude of health benefits, including improved immunity and circulation, weight loss, expedited muscle healing, and increased alertness. If the research is to be believed, we should all commit to a cold shower daily for the sake of our health. Since I know that I would never (ever!) do such a thing on my own, the words of the Rolling Stones song come to mind: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.”