When you Shit Your Pants and Tell the Truth About It
Well. There’s just no way around it. I shit my pants in my sleep last night.
The last time I shit my pants I was 14. It was summer. I was playing basketball at camp with my little sister and was having too much fun to go back to our house. I stopped at a random cabin on my rush home, but long story short (and poop story public): I shit my pants. I didn’t weigh time and fun and risk. This is what my parents called, “a natural consequence.” I misjudged, made a bad decision, and then I shit my pants. Live and learn.
But this time, this time around I shit my pants because of a good decision. I had carefully weighed it.
I’ve been living and working in Ghana for a month, and it is a priority for me to engage here in multiple ways, including eating local foods. My friends brought me to a beautiful beach for the night. Modest, but clean and well-loved accommodations. Gorgeous, delicious local fish on the hotel menu. They had snapper and I had another variety. Eight hours later I woke by sharp, intense pains in my stomach and, well I’ll just say it, a little surprise in my pajamas. Though not a total surprise- after all, my travel doc proactively prescribed me meds for traveler’s diarrhea, which Ghanaians delightfully call “runny tummy,” and most everyone gets it at some point, like the flu in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, I will cut the shit (hah!) and avoid hyperbole and just say… I felt profoundly unwell. But not scared.
I was prepared for this. And my recent mindfulness training has taught me to simply notice. To observe the conditions at hand.
Notice: It is the dead of night. It is 95 degrees. I am sweating profusely. I feel weak. This is my body.
Ask: What is my body doing? How is it helping me? What is this sickness doing to serve me?
Also: Remember to laugh. This is actually already funny.
The toilet was not a flush toilet: not enough water pressure. So I used buckets.
I sat for hours in the twilight, pouring over and over to push contents down the drain while my friends slept.
Methodically dipping in, filling the bucket, grateful that water was flowing from the spigot on this particular evening. It wasn’t always. Then, methodically, rhythmically, bucket-by-bucket, I dealt with my own shit. Dumping and flowing and more. Again, and again. For hours. I handled it.
I handled it because there was no other choice and because my body was speaking to me and telling me it was getting rid of something bad. And speaking again. And again. Speaking at 1am for two hours, then at 4am for another two. Sweet, listless rest in between, the local megaphones from Saturday all-night church in the nearby Village blaring through our barred, screened windows.
Even in that moment of intense physical suffering, of literal shit and stink and endless bucketfulls of redemptive, flowing, flushing water, it did occur to me that my repetitive pouring was a type of prayer, or at least a practice: of sitting with and acknowledging what was, this deep physicality. Sharp pain and bodily discomfort. Suffering while sitting, waiting for my body to speak to me again and again. I sat there and read a book of buddhist advice for the heartbroken, which I had purchased (and felt) the month before. What better time to read about emotional suffering than when my body was physically suffering in a way I have never quite experienced. I was noticing.
But I was not afraid.
If You Ask Me Honestly About Fear and Sharks
My fourth day in Ghana on my way to a surf lesson in the Gulf of Guinea, a 14-year-old boy spoke of his fear of sharks. We then talked about fears in the car. He asked me, “What is your biggest fear, Anna?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Well. Aside from my family dying, my greatest fear is being raped.”
Sweet, kind, and naive, he replied with real innocence. Not malice, not challenge, just innocence:
“Rape?!” He laughed softly, incredulous. “Oh but that would never happen though.”
He wasn’t saying it to discredit me, I knew. Maybe to try to comfort me. To retreat me into his safer world instead of the sharp reality of my own.
Patiently, I responded. “I think you’ll find that very often women fear this, and that it does happen. It has happened to some of my friends. And, unfortunately, to many women. Also some men.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Yes- it is a concern for lots of women I know, and especially for women travelers like me.”
I made a decision long ago that I would constantly weigh and manage risk (like trying local food, or surfing with sharks) to work through fears and manage the reality of risks accompanying those fears, and to keep traveling and to use my life well.
My Mom’s Lesson on Knee Scrapes and Playing Well
My foster sister is eight. Sometimes (okay always) she returns from the park with a stain on her shirt, sporting bruised, scraped knees. When she was five, she would come home in this state and say “uh oh” or “oh no.” Repeatedly, my mother assured her with a refrain I knew well:
“It’s okay, honey. Good job. Scraped knees means you used your body well. Dirty clothes means you played hard. Let’s go get you a bandaid and throw your clothes in the wash and go play some more.”
Mom took a photo of me when I was eight, too. Among my favorites. I am in in a loose, brown cotton dress she sewed just for me. I am smiling, dirty, triumphantly holding up a giant mud clod: face streaked and sweaty and filled, just filled with delight. I remember: I had been wearing a brand new, not even hand-me-down powder blue ruffle shirt and pink velvet jumper and mom said: go play in the mud! but let’s get you some different clothes.
I see now that I was being trained: to prepare for messiness. Well, for joy plus messiness. To use my body well and to play hard. Not recklessly. Don’t needlessly stain the new powder blue. But mindfully. Explore. Wear the brown flower dress just for you and go get very messy indeed, Anna. Do not be afraid to play well in the messiness. Understand and anticipate the consequences. Skinned knees and stains and maybe sometimes also you shit your pants. Go, Anna. My parents read me my favorite book, Wild, Wild, Sunflower Child, Anna, featuring a strong and beautiful brown girl in a yellow dress who pretended to steer pirate ships and make flower crowns to be fairy queen:
“Anna climbs the hill/ and keeps on climbing.
Up up up a tree/ that turns into a ship/ Captain Anna stands on deck/ sailing to a new world.
Brave, bold Anna./ High in the air,/ tall please don’t fall Anna.
Running and jumping, silly and wild/ is Anna in the morning.
Wild, Wild, sunflower child Anna.”
Of course we know, though, that tree climbing sometimes means tree-falling. And that’s okay, even expected. My foster sister now returns from the park with happy stains and sweaty brow and doesn’t say “oh no” anymore. She says, “Can we go again tomorrow?” And she is free, adventuring, captaining, voyaging.
How to Fight A Mountain Lion
I deeply enjoy solo voyages, my travel friends know. We arrive together at a destination and I either plan an extra overnight or have taken a day to wander alone, through Atlanta and Amsterdam; San Juan and Dublin; Seattle and Montreal; Boston, Berlin and Brooklyn. At least in those moments, those bold and select moments, I can manage whatever comes my way. Captain of my day, navigating exchanges and connections and sweaty wandering on strong long legs, wild. I have handled it. Any joy or silliness. Any meanness or predator I’ve encountered. I have handled it.
One of my favorite things about living in the remote wilderness of the Cascade mountains in my early twenties was that human risks were replaced by natural ones. Human predators were mostly replaced by animal ones. We lived in a very safe, small, secluded village community, the most remote year-round populated site in the lower 48 states. It took me two days to get there, by train, boat, and switchback. There I was instructed how to manage natural risks: I know what to do if I get caught in an avalanche, how to respond to a fire, how to purify stream water, interact with a mother bear, or fight a mountain lion.
When I was 14, my grandfather taught me to kill a person with my hands. We talked about how and when I might use this (or not use it) as a woman. Usually, almost always the “or not.” Still, we practiced in the living room. I was prepared.
As a woman, after years of both formal and informal training on how to manage human, gendered risk (keys in knuckles, arrival texts, emergency words, whistles, sprays, stances, body language gauges) managing the natural risk of the Cascade mountains felt cleaner, less personal. Not more predictable. But much less terrifying and malicious.
On one occasion back in the city, a new man I was seeing invited me to his apartment to make a meal together. We had met up twice before and as I considered his texted dinner invite I closed my eyes and pictured him. This was not a romantic Julia Roberts Rom Com Moment queuing a montage of our imagined future together romping through daisies. I closed my eyes to remember his stature, his musculature, his heft. I did this not to objectify him, but to realistically gauge if I could physically overpower him or even kill him if he attacked me while we were alone in his house, cooking.
Let me be clear: this thought exercise AKA “what would I do if I were attacked and could I win or escape” is one that women around the world must conduct daily when navigating streets and schools and relationships and work. And sometimes they don’t win. All too often, they don’t escape.
But I decided that in this situation, I could if I had to, so I texted back, “Sounds great! Please don’t hurt me. :P”
Joking to make it clear: I was taking a risk and I needed him to know it. He did.
In a very open and honest conversation later that evening I revealed the thought progression that allowed me over to his house for dinner. Together we were sad about it, understood how real it was. Tried to promise never to hurt each other, tried to promise safety though we can never really promise that to anybody, even ourselves. There is always risk.
One evening, back in the mountains, I had snowshoed a mile out from the wintry village, into the valley of the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, to meet friends at a yurt for warm drinks and a fire. We had planned to stay overnight all together, but I was managing a big project in the morning and decided I needed to sleep in my own cabin back in the village to get good rest.
It was 1am in the mountains. Very different than that 1am bathroom scene in Ghana. These Cascadian peaks were sharp, the air clear, cold, 10 feet of snow on the ground, packed high and stomped by skis and snowshoe paths we had carved into the woods. I knew I could find my way in the dark, tracing that mile almost daily when it was light. I knew the stars and moon would adjust my eyes. I knew my friends would stay and sleep in the smoky canvas yurt a mile out, would keep the emergency radio, would drink the purified mountain water we had lugged along with us. I knew they would rest sound, heads on cots in a circle, safe, together.
From my wilderness training, I knew something else, too.
It echoed in my mind as I weighed my decision to trek the mile: our large predator expert, Gus, counseled us:
“If you’ve been outside of the village hiking at just about any distance, chances are about 90% of you have been stalked by a mountain lion at some point.”
I knew this was true. We were trained to spot carefully camouflaged animals in photo after photo of barely visible predatory hiding tricks. I knew well the story of two village kids who were stalked by this giant cat and hid in an abandoned vehicle until help arrived. And many times I had seen fresh tracks, eye flashes, had heard twig snaps, even. Many times.
I closed my eyes, and did the thought exercise I knew well:
I want to go home and sleep soundly, rest well for tomorrow. And I know the way.
On my journey, I may very likely be stalked by a mountain lion. In fact, I might even be attacked. What would I do? Would I escape? Would I win?
I breathed and noticed my surroundings. I went over what I had learned: If encountered, get big. Make noise. Do not turn your back to run: it will catch you. Do not climb a tree: it will follow you there and you’ll be cornered. Stand ground. As a stalking predator, look it in the eyes to remove the element of surprise. If it pounces, fight back, or it could play with you and maul you to death like a kitten with a mouse.
I reviewed tools I knew to fight a mountain lion, and I realized that the way to maim an animal in self defense is very similar to how I’ve been taught by my grandfather to maim a human in self defense.
I thought again:
This animal does not wish me harm like those humans, unfortunately usually men, I’ve been taught to watch out for. This animal is not malicious. It does not wish to use or overpower me because of gendered norms or rape culture. This mountain lion may simply be wondering. Might just be hungry. Might only be questioning why there is a random woman in this vast expanse of wilderness it roams: curious.
And that to me- all that- was far less scary than all the twenty years of human situations I’d been trained to navigate, and thankfully so, for I’ve had to use that training to protect myself from men multiple times: to manage violent gestures, touches by strangers, grabbed at, taunted, propositioned, barked at, sworn at, followed, pinched, cornered, jeered, interrupted, threatened.
But this? This was just a mountain lion. And I’m tired. And I have work to do. And I can’t control if I meet one on my hike, but if I do, I will handle it. Or, well. Maybe I’ll die fighting it. I have to weigh that risk. But I’m not going to live my life afraid and protected and always free from danger.
I will shit my pants.
Scrape my knees.
Play with mud.
Eat new foods.
Cook with lovers.
Surf with sharks.
And learn to fight.
I will use my body well, mom. And my mind.
I will play hard, mom. And work.
After that night in the woods with my snowshoes, I would later go back into the built, human world of cities, remembering how to fight a mountain lion, and it would help me walk more roads, wander more paths, hold a higher head and a fiercer gaze and stand my ground.
But in that one moment in the mountains, I simply strapped on my snowshoes.
And, guided by moonlight, I crunched home.
Wild Anna, mud in hand. 8 years old.