The grounds of a monastery in the mountains of Sichuan Province are a dark place to be in the middle of the night. It’s the sort of starlight-only dark that explains early-to-bed, early-to-rise lifestyles and makes nighttime travel difficult. A dark that I found myself wandering through a few weeks ago as I stumbled out the door of a guest room and tripped over a missing step that led outside. I was taking part in one of the nightly rituals of humanity: I was looking for a place to pee.
Life in the monastery is spare, without toilets or sinks, running water or soap. I’d known this when I rode in on horseback that afternoon with a newly acquired cotton cowgirl hat dangling down my back and incredibly sore legs, since I’m not much of a horsewoman. Neither am I a Buddhist, a speaker of Tibetan, or, to be honest, very woodsy. Still, I’d made the ride in good time, and found myself happily molding sampa balls for dinner, attempting a halting conversation, across three languages, with the monks and our guides, and finally, gloriously, getting to sack out in my sleeping bag for the night.
The problem was that, despite sore legs and a sharp ache in the side of my back, I couldn’t sleep. I was uncomfortable lying there in my sleeping bag, where my hands felt hot and wrong, just wrong. It was my hands. So I told my friends that I was going out to the bushes for a few minutes, pulled on my sandals, and walked through our door and stumbled down the missing step.
Here’s where the nightly ritual steps slightly out of the commonplace. While I’d expected our horse trip to be full of peeing in the woods and eating with my hands, I’d been concerned about how I’d react to it. The trip was a test of mettle for me. It wasn’t the food or the sleeping conditions or the horseback riding or the linguistic isolation that concerned me–in fact those details were much of the impetus for travel. What my fear was rooted in was my fingers, my hands, my arms, and my absolute desire to wash.
When I say absolute desire to wash, what I mean is this: I remember the day it started like a short film. In the film I’m eleven years old, sitting on the dark-stained oak rocking chair in my mom’s living room, reading the Sunday cartoons–Brenda Starr and Beetle Bailey and For Better or Worse–when I notice a smudge of newsprint on my fingers. Getting the ink off of my fingers seems suddenly urgent, so I go to the bathroom to wash. While washing my hands, it occurs to me that one lather of soap might not get all of the newsprint off my hands. I soap and rinse a second and third time and then fourth and fifth.
This is when I notice newsprint-muddied water dripping across the bathroom counter. I try to wipe it away, only to realize I’ve now come into contact with water that might have been in contact with newsprint, which means that, of course, I need to put my hands back into the sink. And it goes on.
I manage to walk out of the bathroom after 25 minutes with my hands dripping and red. The scene ends. I’ve become a washer.
Over the years, it’s gone through stages, this hand-washing: extreme obsession, mild obsession, personal quirk, obsession again, then just talent, sometimes funny story, sometimes obsession still. It’s been a problem in my life, but also just a trait. I’ve been mentally ill, and also just clean. What I am though, deep down, at my core, is a washer.
So, I, the washer, edged up the monastery’s hillside in the pitch of night, ducked down into the grass, and peed. Finished, and raising myself to a stand, I could barely see the beginning of the line of brush that led back to my room and my pillow and the edge of sleep that I was on, that which my friends had already drifted into. I was cold and tired and wanted to go back to bed, except for the fact that I, a washer, hadn’t washed. With no soap to be found and no water in sight, I knew that most people — that the three people sharing my room–just wouldn’t wash. And I knew logically that I didn’t have to, didn’t need to.
Except, of course, that I did need to. I had that feeling, in the pit of my stomach. I knew that I’d lie sleepless on my sleeping bag, if I didn’t wash. It was my place.
And so, I took a step down the hill and grabbed a bush that sat by my arm. I was blind to what kind of bush it was or what kind of leaf it had, but I grabbed a bunch of the leaves and started rubbing them across my hands. First over my palms, then across the gaps between my fingers, then across the backs of the hands and up to the tips themselves. I dumped the first clump of leaves and ripped off a second only to replay my ritual: palms then fingers then backs of hands then fingertips. I dropped the second clump of leaves and felt myself relax. I felt better. Much better.
I stood there under the stars, in the sort of scene that could be a keeling, weeping moment in a short story: mountain stars, the depths of night, a monastery on a hill, my raw hands holding a clump of unknown leaves. But I didn’t keel or weep, I just noticed a burning sensation on the backs of my hands and stuck them into the cotton pockets of my sweatshirt. The night was cold and I was cold. I had some sort of weird leaf-juice all over my hands. I needed bed. So I edged back down the path and went to sleep.
The next day, with hours on horseback to think, I came back to the image, storybook as it was, where three points seemed strung together in my mind: the stars, my attempt at washing, and the presence of a monastery just behind me.
And so, in the morning, nervous as my horse picked its way through streams and down what looked, to my eyes, like rocky ledges, I wondered what it was that the actual action of rubbing my hands together, in the universal symbol of washing, did to me. What was my need to act as though I had washed, when in fact I hadn’t, when my washing probably made me dirtier, when I was surrounded by clean air and clean mountains and everything that’s clean about the natural world, when I was surrounded by a Buddhist monastery that revels in exactly that natural element of the world. Why, in G-d’s name, did I need to rub leaves across my hands?
Scientists can determine the bacterial content of anything–take a swab and see what grows. Or they can truly sterilize a surface: put it in an autoclave and presto, it’s clean. But to me, this defeats the purpose of a deep, deep cleaning. Taking a beaker or a rod (or my hand) out of an autoclave would leave me wanting to wash it again, getting the toxicity of sterilization off with every swipe of a sponge that is, most probably, a deep deposit of filth. I don’t want to run a swab test, I just want to wash.
Because cleaning isn’t about the absence of germs for me. Or only barely. When I wash, what I really want, what I really aim for, is a sense of order and patience and a feeling, which locates itself somewhere between my stomach and spine, that I’ve shown myself to be aware of the world around me, shown myself willing to sacrifice time and effort and the skin cells on the first layer of my hands in order to make things right, somehow right. It’s an ill-defined sense of obligation that must, deep down, be directed at (and even as I write it, the cynical side of me clutches), at the rightness of the world.
Inexact as the act of washing is (outside of the confines of those autoclaves and within the confines of my daily life) it’s an act of belief for me. I wash my hands although I can’t see anything on them to begin with and I finish although I can’t see that anything has really changed. A minute and a half after I wash my hands they’re exactly as they had been, except for things I can’t see or smell or touch.
Oh sure, there’s the scientific explanation too, and it’s real. My college roommates could attest to my resilience to the collective bout of bronchitis that swept through Vanderbilt Hall in the winter of ’99, but never got me down–45 hand washings a day was all it took to stay healthy.
But the point is that while I don’t think that excessive washing makes a difference, I do believe in it. I believe that bothering to wash my hands is more important than the washing itself. Process over product. Belief over result. Faith, that’s what it is–faith.
Which is why the dirt and food and sweat and hair and blood and urine and dirt of days spent packing through the monasteries of western Sichuan could be erased by the swipe of a dirty, unknown, unseen leaf in the middle of the bushes. It was the swipe that mattered, not the sterility. Up there where there was no linoleum to wipe down and no treated water to rinse, there was no obligation to do those things. There were and are obligations to do other things, for sure: transcribe prayer scrolls, invite travelers in for dinner, keep the horse-path clear, and for each person living on the mountain there are things that I can’t pretend or presume to imagine. For me, there was the obligation to trip down broken steps and snatch leaves off of bushes in the middle of the night.
My relative comfort with an inability to sterilize wasn’t an issue of cultural acceptance or appreciation, it wasn’t about the sociological or anthropological overtones of the experience. What it was about was faith.
I scrubbed my hands with leaves even though I couldn’t see the leaves, and even though they could have been poisonous, and even though they certainly weren’t making my hands any cleaner-because it made me feel better. I wanted to bother with my ritual. I wanted to take part in what felt like the process of cleaning, even if the process of getting rid of dirtiness itself was impossible.
And then, for the first time and suddenly, I knew how washing makes me feel. I could explain. It makes me feel like I’m trying.