Showering in Eden
Recently, my family visited relatives who live in the outskirts of a small city in Panama. They’ve built a lovely home out in the jungle. As usual, the weather felt hot and humid, a welcome relief after a few weeks of a dreary Chicago winter. Behind the house, there’s a shaded terrace that overlooks a yard abundant with tamarind and mango trees, a small lake where caimans regularly eat turtles and lizards, and troupes of monkeys scamper through the trees to get to the bananas they’ve left out for migrating birds.
The front of the house, that’s where the master bathroom’s shower is. This sounded perfectly romantic when they were building the house. “Oh?” I asked. “Yes, it’ll be in front of the house.”
I paused. “In front?”
“Well, sure, but plants will grow around it so no one will see anything. It’ll be kind of like Eden.”
“I see,” I responded, clearly doubting the ability of plants to offer appropriate modesty, no matter how primeval.
Over the past few years, large-leaved tropical plants — bougainvillea, rooster’s tail, and large-leaved lobster-claw heliconia — have indeed grown up around the shower. Although on previous visits I’d showered in an indoor bathroom (much less romantic, but complete with hot water, shower curtain, and tiled walls), this time the hot water either refused to arrive or simply scalded the hapless guest. “We always get great hot water outside,” our hosts said of their front-of-house shower. I decided to give it a try.
The next day, I received a lesson on how to bring the water to the shower: turn on the hot tap on the indoor sink, turn the shower on all the to hot, and once it starts to scald, move the handle back to a more reasonable setting. It seemed easy enough, but I was hardly listening. I was looking across the street. The neighbors had a large, very visible, very prominent house, whose wide front windows looked directly down at this very shower. Many of the stalks of lobster-claw heliconia, whose leaves are over a foot wide and whose stalks were a promising several feet in length, had fallen over. The driveway, the road, and the big looming house across the street stood right there in plain sight.
“You’re sure no one is in the house across the street?” I asked. “Yes, they’re here seasonally,” I was told. “No one’s there.” I forgot to ask whether the street was a cul-de-sac.
Gamely I stepped into the shower. If I stood with my left side in the water, what I saw could best be described as jungle. A mango tree towered behind bird-of-paradise plants and heliconia. Hummingbirds flew to red and pink hibiscus flowers looking for their nectar. Tanagers perched on branches and peered at me with their beady eyes. Could they tell I was a different person from the shower’s regular occupants? So intense was their beady-eyed curiosity, I felt as if I could have been the first human they’d ever seen. No wonder my family thought of the jungly garden before me as Eden, the first place on earth, and this warm shower a waterfall, gently washing away — what?
I shifted to rinse my hair, but as I did so, the street bounced into view directly in front of me, along with the large home across the street, up there on the hill. If this were Eden, and Adam or Eve wanted to worry about God coming to find them in the garden, I’d have suggested they stay out of sight of the large house across the street. Without my glasses, my near-sighted eyes could just barely make out the curtains in the windows of the house, but there was no way I’d be able to tell if the curtains concealed any faces.
As I thought about the Eden-like jungle and the possibility of being watched, I couldn’t help but take my thinking one step further. The thought that something divine might crash through those large leafy plants, be it an ancient Israelite deity still walking among humans, or perhaps Zeus, come to find a young woman in a pleasant grotto, filled me with a not-quite-holy terror. I was too focused on the house across the street to worry much about divine fear. “No wonder Adam and Eve covered themselves in the presence of God once they had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge,” I thought to myself. I could barely stand to shower naked before something as human as a house, much less anything divine that might have walked through the jungle on that bright, tropical morning.
I rinsed the shampoo from my hair, feeling each one stand on end despite being sopping wet. I quickly grabbed my towel, wrapped it all the way around my body, and with palpable relief, ducked inside the four tiled walls of the adjacent bathroom.
The second time I showered outside, I asked again, “Are you sure no one is in the house across the street?” “Yes, we’re sure,” came the reply; “no one is at home now. And yes, the street is a cul-de-sac.” I thought of a long-ago camping trip, when I’d chanced to change into my bathing suit on a grassy hillock, with only a meadow for walls and the sky for a roof. I felt free, the warm sunshine reflecting off my pale skin, bathing me in warmth. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” came to mind: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
Unlike that moment in the grass, I was not standing on bare ground, but on a wet tile floor. Maybe it was that solid floor that got in the way, but I didn’t feel any particles of God while standing in that shower with a looming house across the street. I just felt spooked, and it wasn’t the spooky feeling of holy dread or wonder, either. If’ I’d wanted a religious experience, this was not the right place to find one.
The third time I showered, I still didn’t feel like a transparent eyeball. I did try to relax. It helped to keep my back turned to the house; that way I could pretend no one might be behind me — certainly no not-so-transparent eyeballs that might chance to be in the vicinity. It helped to look very carefully just at the beautiful tropical plants surrounding two-thirds of the shower. Sunlight poured over them. Insects buzzed in their branches, and the tanagers still perched there too, their beady eyes still regarding me curiously. But when I turned further around, which I had to do to get the conditioner out of my hair, I saw the house and the street again. I knew full well that if there’d been the smallest hint of a particle of God nearby (or even just a neighbor, masquerading as the presence of the divine), I’d grab the nearest towel and, with the water still on, throw it over myself with all the convenience of a fig leaf.
After that final shower, as I retreated inside once again, it occurred to me that religious experiences might be best left for more fully-dressed occasions. And perhaps with time, as had happened for my hosts, I would forget about the house across the street and the tile under my feet. The only thing I’d really notice about the shower in the jungle was the birds, the wind, and the awe.
Emily Ruth Mace is co-editor-in-chief at KtB. She's a freelance editor, writer and religious studies alt-academic with an interest in religious liberalism and life at the borders of traditional religion and spirituality. She holds a Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University and a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. In addition to KtB, her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Mama, Religion Dispatches, the Chronicle Vitae, and others. A one-time bicoastal resident of California and New England, she currently lives outside Chicago, and can be found online at emilyrmace.com and Tweeting occasionally at @lemilym.