Cleanliness and Godliness, For Amy

Mèt Anténor and Madanm Mèt were having an amusing little argument. They like to argue, really to tease each other. It never seems serious. This argument peaked my interest, because they were arguing about me. Madanm Mèt asked, “Is he some kind of animal?” Mèt Anténor answered with a chuckle.

They were talking about my bath. I was about to take a bucket bath in the small room we have for that purpose. The floor of the room is slanted towards a drain that leads outside. When you want to bathe, you bring a bucket of water in from outside and use a small cup to pour it over your body a little at a time. You can, of course, adjust the water pressure: You can pour the water quickly or slowly as it suits you.

The water is cold. It’s spring water that’s collected in a cistern next to our house. The cistern is mostly underground, so the water never really warms up, even when it’s hot outside. Lately, nights in Ka Glo have slipped into what I guess is the upper 50’s. Many people, mostly children, choose not to bathe – not unless they’re forced to. They are said to “fear the water” or “pè dlo.” Madanm Anténor had suggested to me, for the first time since my arrival, that I heat some of my bath water over the propane stove. Her husband was making comic, not heart-felt, objections. She argued that I’m not an animal, that I deserve more consideration, and here he laughed. As I turned on the fire under a small pot of water, just enough to take the edge of the chill out of the bucket of water I would use, he turned from her to me. “Hot water is for old men,” he said, walking away with a mock-sneer.

Anyone who knows me will be shocked to hear that I have come to think that cleanliness is indeed next to godliness. But I need to explain myself. It’s not that I plan to start vacuuming my apartment more than once a semester when I get home. Or that I plan to learn to dust, to straighten my desk, or to keep my sink or stove top or refrigerator sparkling clean. I make my bed in Ka Glo, but only because I live in someone’s dining room. When I return to the States, I expect to live in a cluttered little apartment, with disorganized bookshelves, and layers of various papers on my table and desk. I’ll try to leave an open space in the middle of each room. I’ll try to keep my piles of stuff around the sides. But I don’t expect my home ever to look like my mother’s always has.

When I say that cleanliness is next to godliness, I mean much more that it strikes me as a gift from God. I’ve learned here to see bathing as a great luxury – even when it’s a cold bucket bath. I don’t mean to pretend that I wouldn’t prefer a hot shower. Though can honestly say that I don’t miss hot showers, I must admit that when I arrive in Miami for a visit to the States a hot shower is the very first thing on my mind. Or perhaps the second thing: just after my parents and grandmother, and just before everyone else.

But it’s hard to explain how difficult it is not to feel dirty here. In the city, one feels filthy, constantly covered by a layer of grime. Even in the countryside, sweat and dust accumulate quickly. One hardly ever feels truly clean.

I suppose most people adjust, more or less easily, to the situation. Almost everyone in Haiti has problems both more serious and more pressing than staying clean. For most Haitians, access to water is much more difficult than it is for us in my lakou. They might have miles to walk to the nearest reliable or not-so-reliable water source, and then the same miles to walk back home carrying whatever water they need. And water is heavy. I myself carry water only about 25 feet from the cistern to the bath. For most people here, then bathing is, in this sense, expensive. It’s an enormous investment of their time and their strength. And it can hardly seem important to do it much. Quickly rinsing one’s face and hands in the morning can do perfectly well.

But I really look forward to my baths. Or, to be more precise, to the moments after them when I’ve had a chance to warm up a little bit, but not yet to get dirty or dusty or grimy again. Moments of cleanliness are contemplative moments, moments where one can feel somehow apart from, or freed from, the day-to-day world. Bathing really is a very good thing.

By the way, for all his pretended contrariness, the first thing Mèt Anténor did when I got out of the bathroom was tell me that he was about to heat water for himself. He is, he said, an old man too.