This is how it is for me with the first essay I ever heard from what has become Phantom Canyon—“Bathing.” I remember sitting at a long table in a big room with tall windows at Ashland University four summers ago when my poet colleague, Kathy Winograd, busted out with this essay. I remember the quality of the light—it was evening, and the room’s ambience was no good, too bright for what was happening. Her fingers wrapped around both sides of the paper. I remember sharing a body when this room full of writers, the whole room, took a big breath and held it.
Winograd’s “Bathing” begins:
In 45 years, since I was a young child bathed by my mother, I have taken, I think, exactly five baths. Most have been this past year, in a claw-foot tub my husband and I hauled up Rainbow Pass to this cabin in the shadow of Nipple Mountain, where longhorns still linger at the brink of old prospecting glory holes. It’s not that I don’t understand the need to purify the body: the dark stain of consciousness still flowering out of the old garden, out of the old wounds—Eve the rib fleshed and wanting. I have stood at the mouth of ancient baths in underground ruins, know of the ritual mikvah baths of my husband’s Judaic heritage: lover, bride, menstruating wife, all the grieving who have placed their hands on the newly dead—equally impure and so immersed in the living waters of springs and deep groundwater wells. It’s simply that I did not bathe.When we study “Bathing” in my classes, I always begin our discussion by reading this opening paragraph aloud, myself, because—selfishly—I want to juggle Winograd’s words on my own tongue, memorizing the rhythms of the language, and then pulling up short and abrupt in the final sentence: “It’s simply that I did not bathe.” Then I have some questions.
How does this opening paragraph contain the images and concerns of the rest of the essay?
Before the manuscript begins, there is silence. The manuscript breaks this silence. Why here? Why now?
Patterning. Silence and sound. Cracking into time. Folding the now-self over the then-self. Withholding and revelation. Winograd’s first paragraph begins the thoughtful work of layering: ghosts, sex, and grief; stains, bruises, and shadows; the weight of things, what we pull up from deep underground, the light of the moon, a woman’s body; death, religion, and history; and of course, water—for purifying, ritual, and simple bathing. (Insofar as being naked and wet is ever simple.) The narrator is middle-aged and she begins by telling us this intimate, uncertain thing: “I have taken, I think, exactly five baths.”
The second paragraph deepens these patterns, touching each one as she tips back to give us the Ohio farm where she lived at thirteen: “. . . behind a cemetery where the metal hulls of parked cars glinted beneath the moon, where high school lovers swam into each other above the soft and dented graves, mornings the damp grass I wept over littered with their beer bottles and spent balloons.” We are moving through the paragraph with her now, touching everything she has told us to notice—the moon, the lovers, the graves, the littered, left-behind relics. Along the way, the moments that matter stick to these artifacts, accumulating, piling up like treasures in a pack rat’s midden, rich for our discovery. Why is she weeping? We don’t know. Not yet.
Then, in paragraph three, we get into the bath. We strip off our clothes. We sink beneath. In Winograd’s claw-footed tub, we soak in present tense—“I sit now in water pumped from an aquifer some 465 feet below me, where I imagine the calcified bones of thirsty dinosaurs must rest”—and from this fulcrum of time and space we can go anywhere, imagine anything, maybe even make out the shapes of our own wounded selves in the rising steam.
It’s so deceptively simple. By climbing into that bathtub, with forty five years of bath avoidance behind her, Winograd opens up a scope of time she can swoop through like a time traveler, touching only what she wants, and keeping us—her readers—secure in that impossibly heavy claw-footed tub that she and her husband hauled with great effort up to that cabin in the shadow of Nipple Mountain. The tub is her base, and now she can go anywhere, we can go anywhere. In your essay, I ask my students, do you have a tub? Do you need to find one?
From here, the patterns build and deepen—until she starts breaking them, cracking language, busting out of images she’s taught us to understand. In paragraph four, we are pulled into a syntactical pattern: “I will tell you I did not bathe because I am almost 5’10”. . .,” “I will tell you I did not bathe because I’ve never had the predilection for it. . .,” I will tell you I will tell you I will tell you. And then, in the final sentence of paragraph four in this eight paragraph essay—thus, typographically, in the precise navel of this essay’s lettered body—Winograd breaks the pattern and tells us exactly what we’ve come to hear: “What I will not tell you is that I did not love my body enough.” Oh no, I think. Oh. No.
And then, another break in another pattern, and in the disruption, the terrible revelation. Everywhere there have been ghosts; we know the narrator’s mother has heard the “voices of those dead farmers passing idly beneath [their] bay windows.” But there is yet another ghost, the one who is trying to tell us something. “Once I read that young victims of rape will sometimes go through a state of promiscuity. I think of the lonely, vulnerable, adolescent girl I was, listening beneath the kitchen window to her parents discussing their concern that she wasn’t ‘over it yet,’ this girl the one ghost my mother could not hear.” And this is how we come to know the essay’s shattering event, from an angle, from the side, from “beneath the kitchen window”: a rape in her 13th year.
But this is not a story about rape, not really. Why here? Why now? “What I will not tell you is that I did not love my body enough.”
Hard though we might try to find it, Winograd’s essay won’t give up a formula we can all use to shape our own difficult stories and find the thing we’ve gotten into the bath to say, but in studying the specific way she has puzzled together these elements—the securing of the bathtub as an essayistic pivot point and narrative safe house, the patterning of close-woven images, the revelations that both surprise and seem inevitable—I think we learn something vital about the way something so small has the capacity to hold something so big: a landscape, a rape, a shame we haven’t been able to put down anywhere else.
Before the end, only three tight paragraphs away, there are other daughters—her own, twins—other baths, other ghosts, another gut-jolting surprise, and in the end, of course, she pulls the plug and gets out of the water. In the end: “The wind sings through the window like a siren, and the steam floats from my skin like thin milk.” A ghost we can see.
Did they get you to trade your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Pink Floyd, “Wish You Were Here”
Jill Christman’s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction in 2001 and was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press in Fall 2011. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Descant, Harpur Palate, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies. She teaches creative nonfiction in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children.