I was giving one of those ridiculously long, lectures from the front seat of the minivan one day, rattling on about how honesty and integrity, along with kindness, are the most important things in the world. But I explained to Emma that my quest to stay on the honest path has sometimes made an odd layover.
“I was the kid who never stopped moving,” I told her. “I was always dancing, or doing cartwheels, jumping off our high cement porch, climbing trees, and acting out plays.” I checked my rear view mirror. “You’re not reading are you?”
“Hmm…No, I’m listening.” Her big blue eyes zoomed wide on mine, framed by a perfectly tangled web of curls as if they’d just been arranged by a stylist.
“Except in the bathroom.” I swallowed. I knew many ten year olds would be laughing by now, but the intense energy between us—for better and worse—has always sliced through any childish notions like bathroom humor. “Sitting down on the toilet was the only time I ever stopped long enough to be alone with my thoughts.”
I can still see the mustard paint that walled me in from three sides as I sat alone in the chamber. At those times, my body became a barometer as something deeper than a gut feeling arose from the faded linoleum of the bathroom floor haunting my blood and my bones. Every time I tried to isolate the feeling, it dodged. There in those yellow, hallowed walls, I spoke deeply with myself, in a way I never faced myself anywhere else. I dug deep into the jagged edges until I felt around for the source, for what ailed me, be it a chore undone, a untruth told, some sort of guilt.
For a long time, I felt like I was made differently than most people, as if I were transparent. I believed that my skin was so thin you could see right through me to the inside at everything I did or ever thought about doing, like people could peer right into my heart. I didn’t know that other people might also have something like this “toilet feeling.” Even less did I envision that great thinkers like Martin Luther had been famous for his toilet reveries, and Alexander Chase had called the toilet “the seat of the soul.” Bumping around inside my own not-so-innocent bubble of ignorance, I don’t remember learning how to handle when I did something wrong; I was always supposed to do it right.
After awhile, I learned to recognize this symptom, the “toilet feeling,” though I sometimes chose to ignore it. It ate at me like a deeply buried tumor, weighing me down, making me grow more and more lopsided until I could barely walk.
Even in one of my earliest memories, when I was four, the seeds of my heavy conscience had already taken root. My mother told me not to eat any more Tootsie Rolls from a giant Tootsie Roll bank my great-aunt had given me. Nevertheless, I snuck more, shoving the waxy wrappers in my pocket, as I hid behind the kitchen counter before I headed back to my great-grandparents’ house. Walking along alone with my dad, I couldn’t resist unwrapping one more and popping it into my mouth.
“Didn’t your mother tell you not to eat anymore of that candy?” he asked.
“No, she didn’t say anything.” The lie grabbed me like a noose by one side of the throat. I dragged the ignored “toilet feeling” like a plow down the dusty, red-dirt road in East Texas toward my great-grandparents’ house. After what felt like eternity—but was actually probably only a few seconds—I suddenly burst forth my confession through snot and tears. “Actually, Mom did say not to eat any more Tootsie Rolls.” I imagined him turning red as the road and thrashing me with his belt.
But after a pause, neither his color nor pace changed at all. He simply looked at the ground. “Well, just don’t eat any more of them.” His subdued tone draped me in more shame than any lashing ever could have.
Not long after my lecture, Emma approached me after school. “Mama, I had the ‘toilet feeling,’ too.” She admitted having taken some candy without permission from the candy basket in the kitchen cabinet. Though I can’t say I was glad to hear the details of the “crime,” I took some solace in the confession. I already knew, of course; I’d found the wrappers in the back of the cabinet. While I’m sure my explanation in the car that day had gone on way too long for her taste, at least she understood the basic sense of conscience I was trying to impart.
When you become a mother, you give up any sense of privacy in the bathroom, so I rarely have the chance to meet myself there in the same way I did as a child. The term “toilet feeling” sometimes sounds absurd, even now, but it so fully exemplifies that sense of shame that comes when something’s not right in my own private world: when I’ve broken a promise, misled, or need to make amends to someone. I still think of it as “the toilet feeling”—that pulls me back and reminds me to stay honest and true to myself.