One of my favorite things about living in a tiny peasant village in China was going outside to the loo at night, when everyone else was asleep. I know that sounds ridiculous. To the other volunteers on my ethnographic research team, having to pee in the middle of the night was one of the worst things about living there -- if they couldn’t hold it, it was a terrible inconvenience of bodily function begrudgingly executed to return swiftly to bed. For me, it was a special and languid time. As I walked outside, I felt sly and smug, like a kid who’s stuck her finger deep into the icing on the corner of a wedding cake without anyone noticing.
The moon threw shadows on the little village of Dang Jia Shan that made its reality accessible in a way in which it wasn’t during the day, when the sun illuminated the sights and sounds of timeless peasant life so fiercely that they reflected off my notion of reality rather than sinking into it. I was so busy trying to capture everything around me in various digital formats that there wasn’t much time to simply exist, to be a part of the world around me. In the stillness of the night air, I could feel how deeply nestled into the earth the village was -- a catacomb of cave-homes dug into the steep hillsides of ancient seabed and windblown loess; how deep into the belly of humanity its culture, like an ancient seed stuck in the pit of a stomach, living on the fruit of the same technological revolutions that dawned millennia ago -- wooden hoes and stone mills to produce food in the day, and leaping flames of fire to cook it at night.
To reach the loo in the middle of the night, I had to unzip my sleeping bag, then crawl to the end of the kang (the raised sleeping platform) and slip on my red rubber sandals. Then I hopped down onto the dusty floor and walked across the uneven cobblestones through two rooms until I came to the doorway. There, I reached up to the top of the wooden doors, above the latticed windows covered with rice paper, and gripped their thick frames, pulling them back toward me, opening a space for my body to pass through. I emerged from the cool cave into the warm courtyard.
The abandoned animal pens stood empty and silent, their stone troughs dry. I walked across the courtyard through the soft, powdery dirt, to the heavy wooden doors of the front gate. I had to unlock the gate by pulling two roughly-cut wooden poles out of the holsters which held them like bars across the seam where the two doors met. This medieval act I relished in particular. I pulled back on the hefty doors, allowing one to creak all the way back until it rested against the mud-brick courtyard wall, and stepped over the threshold into the wilds of night. A cuckoo bird lived in the valley to the east. He seemed to be the night watchman at the loo, for he always called out when I approached.
I walked up to the stone grinding mill, and usually I got stuck beside it, dead in my tracks. The paralysis was both physical and mental; I thought no thoughts then, I was just stunned all the way through except for the sensation of a crevice creeping open somewhere in my core. When I recovered, I walked to the chest-high mud wall at the back of the loo and around to the other side where it was only waist-high; then through the break in the sculpted mud to the hole. There, with moonlight on my shoulders, I squatted over the mass of maggots squirming on the watery surface of the accumulated excrement. I breathed only through my mouth to shut out the smell of the waste that waited not to be flushed away, filtered and cleansed, but to be scooped out with tin buckets and used here in the fields in immediate renewal as fertilizer. Beside me inside my “stall,” a beautiful ceramic pot and a well-worn metal bucket stood in the corner, and a bright green, fluffy sprig of an unknown plant embraced them from behind.
Even though it was nighttime and the children, who in the daytime sat on the hillside above the loo and gazed down at the foreigners, were tucked into bed, I was still a little self-conscious about standing up before pulling up my pants. But as I straightened my stiff and cracking knees, I always felt as if I were a jack-in-the-box springing out. Boing. Now I existed. Somehow, having emptied something out of my own body into the earth here in the little village, I was now a part of it. (I know I’m sounding more ridiculous all the time.) Naturally, I peed during the daytime also, but the sunlight obscured intuition; there was only the feel of heat and the sounds of curious and friendly children: “Hello!” they called out and waved to the foreigners, completely unfazed by our compromised positions.
My presence there was completely anachronistic, and the villagers had little means with which to grasp the kind of life I flew in from on a jumbo jet. For example, most villagers didn’t even know that men landed on the moon, which is weird to me because my dad was a rocket scientist during the Apollo era, and the villagers who have heard of it can’t believe it. They believe in jumbo jets but the idea of it is like a fantasy. They’d never seen a digital camera, a computer, a backpack, hiking boots… they were fascinated with things like my sunglasses and the fact that I colored my brown hair blonde; it was almost beyond comprehension that at my age I didn’t have children and that my husband allowed me to travel around the world on my own. So in order for us to meet, I had to be the one to grasp their lives on at least a rudimentary level.
Night after night, as I walked back toward my yao (my cave-home) after I used the loo, I took the time to sit down near the mill. I had no camera, no recorder, no pen and paper or laptop computer, not even my hiking boots or my glasses. Unencumbered, I could hold all my thoughts in a thimble. Taking in village life and displacing my own, my intuitive perception of this sphere of molten rock we live on grew into a distorted shape with so many lines and angles I could no longer identify it. The moon comforted me, suspended above me on its tether, unchanged by the evolution racing across its sister.
In the deep, penetrating silence, everything that was unexpected and profound coalesced into a single entity that tip-toed up my spine. A kind of chill emanated from inside me, sort of internal goose bumps. And though the surface of my skin rose slightly, elevating my mammalian hairs as if the moon was tugging on them, the bumps originated so deep inside it was as if they were rising from my bones. The world wasn’t forming inside my brain—it wasn’t squeezing into letters and grammatical structures to be extrapolated from denizens of conceptualized words; it pierced my skin and came straight into my bones, into the latticework of calcium, and that’s how I was assured that everything around me was real—its nighttime tangibility exposed the proof, which always seemed to be written cryptically in the margins of daytime.
Oddly, many of my most profound experiences in life have come from having to go to the bathroom at night in places without plumbing because it has forced me out beneath the sky and into a time that I would otherwise sleep through. You might think there is nothing special about the dead of night, but I beg to differ… The Milky Way and all the unnamed stars, the moon, the quiet that comes when all consciousness around you is occupied in private dreams—this is when the world lets down its guard, when everything around you becomes permeable, even you yourself.
Scientists say neutrinos pass through us all the time, millions of them right through our skin, our organ tissue, in fact right through the center of the earth, filtering down through the molten iron core as if none of us are in any way relevant. Nighttime is the only time I can fully accept this. I can feel not just neutrinos but all kinds of things passing through me. I think often of Emerson: “… the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Having grown up backpacking with my dad, I’ve squatted outside on innumerable nights beneath the cosmic tug-of-war of gravity fields—between gaseous masses of stars and mineral masses of planets. Leaving a warm fireside and snuggling into my sleeping bag, I’m always adverse to the thought of having to leave the tent in the middle of the night because we are usually camping at high altitude, where the sun scoops out a much larger chunk of warmth from the atmosphere and pulls it away with the light when it retires each day. Whenever I do wake up and begrudgingly unzip my sleeping bag and then the tent, and slip on my hiking boots, my first few steps outside in my long-johns are miserable. In fact, generally everything is miserable until I’ve finished peeing and pulled my long-johns back up. Then I look at the sky.
And despite shivering and being sleepy, and wary of nocturnal predators such as mountain lions, it’s a very rare night when I don’t stand still in my tracks for at least a couple minutes, staring with my head tilted back at the landscape of stars. Like in the village in China, suddenly everything around me gains its reality—my isolation; my puniness, tucked into some huge mountain range like a snowflake on a polar icecap; my insignificance to the epic geologic forces that have shaped everything around me; my sublime irrelevance to the even greater cosmic forces that put the planet together in the first place. Time unleashes its depth upon the solitary stargazer. While everyone else sleeps, I become privy to secrets unseen, vastness unheard in the daytime, or even around the fire pit in the evening, where crackling embers and slurps of box wine and hot chocolate muffle the starkness of our existence. While everyone else is curled up in their sleeping bags, I stand, vulnerable, in my underwear at the very center of the centerless universe.
One particularly excellent loo I got to use was on an island in Lake Titicaca (the Peruvian side). My husband and I had left our candlelit room to empty out our night’s consumption of Cusquena beer before turning in for bed. Our host family had already tucked themselves in. Despite being the middle of summer, the night air was so thin and crisp at 14,000 feet above sea level, I was afraid I might crack it if I stepped too carelessly, and we’d be sucked into a vacuum. Carefully, quietly, we padded out in our hiking boots across the courtyard, down a dirt path, to the little state-issued orange outhouse. We each huddled outside the door while the other one peed as quickly as they could. Walking back with anticipation for my warm sleeping bag and woolen blanket, I glanced up at the sky.
I grabbed my husband by the elbow. He looked up, too, and our knees buckled. We were reeling and had to sit down on a stone retaining wall, one of the countless walls that terrace the entire island to secure the fields of potatoes across the steep topography. We were drowning in stars. Our breath caught in our throats and hung there suspended until we could swallow the beauty and breathe again.
Too stupefied to speak, we just sat there. I’ve seen some amazing night skies in my lifetime, but this was a sky of fables—the stars like heaven’s waterfall, foaming on night’s shore. I nearly cried from the sheer, resplendent weight of it. The figures of the Inca mythology are not fashioned from stars, as in our northern hemisphere Orion, but from the black spaces in the sky, for the stars are almost too copious to separate into single points, only the emptiness is pointed. I looked at the locals differently from then on, aware that they knew a completely different night than I did.
I had just peed into the raw earth, but I didn’t think about its immediate journey for I didn’t know what it would be, unlike how I knew in China it would soon go to the crop fields. I thought, rather, about its ultimate origin and ultimate destiny: stardust and stardust. Though the deep cosmos is the manifestation of time itself, its stupendous scale stretches time to abstraction. Though I know academically that we live among billions of stars, nothing could have prepared me for such a tangible confirmation.
While I was staying with a host in a mud hut on the shores of Lake Bunyoni in Uganda, to access the loo I had to walk a dirt path for a fairly significant way across a hillside. A couple of the nights, rain came down like heaven was throwing out the dishwater. The path became a diabolical slip-and-slide. (The Ugandans seem to have a natural agility in the mud, they wouldn’t even sully their shoes - those who wore them - whereas I was caked with it from the knees down.) One night, I admit, I wasn’t about to get soaked to the bone and I knew the rain would wash it away, so I just stepped out beneath the slim awning of thatch and let go of my processed Nile Special beer.
But on the clear nights, after spending the evenings around a campfire with my host and his school-teacher friend, learning from them their incredibly different perception of the world, I would walk down to the edge of the rickety peer to see the stars reflected on the lake. I would try to imagine the map of the world they had in their brains ... I had to draw for them with a stick in the dirt where America was in relation to Africa, where Canada and Mexico lie and correct their assumption they were part of the United States. But most contemplatively, I pondered on the peer the question people in Uganda asked me repeatedly: “Can you see stars in the sky in America?”
How fascinating to consider these blazing white carpets in the night sky might be your own special sight to behold, as if they are an aurora borealis over Uganda, as if the rest of us might live in pitch-blackness at night. If we did, a trip to the loo at this time would be quite unpleasant, indeed. I was also asked if we have lakes in America. To think we might have nothing to reflect the sun and clouds, the moon and stars … how dull and unremarkable the rest of the world must seem if this is what you imagine.
Of course not every single nighttime trip to an outhouse is a magical moment of wonder, contemplation and awe … for example, my husband and I spent a few nights in the High Tatras of Slovakia, where you must stay in a chata rather than camp in a tent. For me, it was the same familiar dragging my feet to the loo after leaving my warm bunk bed in the chata dorm room full of snoring, mumbling, rustling people, and then the wondrous return toward bed in gratitude for the beauty surrounding me – the silent looming mountains, the soft alpine grass I laid down on momentarily to gaze at the star-scape above. Yes, there are stars even in Europe. But earlier in the night as my husband and I stood in line outside for the loo just before bedtime, a poor girl had gotten locked inside one of the stalls in the multi-hole outhouse. Erik could hear her rising panic as she jiggled the door more and more frantically, emitting small yelps of desperation. He was finally able to help her from the outside to escape the devilish latch which had gotten stuck and imprisoned her. She probably was not quite as enthralled with the rustic accommodations at night as I was.
By the time I came to the little Chinese hamlet of Dang Jia Shan, I was well acquainted with the power of nighttime. Yet, it seemed exponentially greater in this remote peasant village tucked into such an anonymous, obscure fold in the planet, estranged from technology and global communication, as if there is a proportional relationship between isolation and revelation.
In the dusty yellow moonlight—soft, downy light—the crystalline quiet and stillness that cradled the village carried upon its back something incomprehensible. Incomprehensible not as a corollary to complexity, but simply to a depth and stratification for which I have no measuring instruments. From where I stood in Dang Jia Shan, if I dropped a line down into this well, it simply couldn’t span the distance from middle-class Colorado to peasant China; it would run out of slack. It was a relief, actually; I didn’t want to reach home. As my time in the village drew near to an end, in the last days of my last stay, when I got up and shed my sleep to walk outside, as soon as I started traversing the courtyard I would feel a looming melancholy. By the time I reached the grinding mill behind the loo, I was all choked up. I don’t really know why.
But if there’s one part of the village I could throw my arms around and protect, it would be that area around the loo. What a nutty place to want to cradle so tenderly. What an unlikely setting for so many wordless epiphanies, for such an intimate interface with the texture of the world. So this is my secret place, a place I’m pretty sure no one else thinks to go to acquire spiritual, metaphysical and intellectual revelations: a stinky hole exposed to the night sky where mankind performs only the most crude function necessary to our biology and then leaves as quickly as possible. I like to think that I alone have conjured, and will ever have conjured, such a ponderous collection of reflections as the upshot of heeding “nature’s call” at the crux of nighttime. I hesitate to trust you with my insider’s knowledge of this meditative space, for I never want to run into you. I’m hoping that sleep will overpower you anytime you should think of investigating the veracity of my claims.
In the sunlight there is so much scenery, so many people, so much activity, so much history, it’s too much all at once -- it’s difficult to actually grip and hold onto something to gain leverage with in trying to understand our gratuitously diverse planet. But outside all alone at the loo in the Chinese village, the night offered tiny nubs to wrap my fingers around. Each time I closed the courtyard gates behind me and walked back inside to the kang, I thought, Tomorrow night I will have to pee again; perhaps there will be something larger I can grasp: a door within the door of the wooden gate. And I’ll lean my feet against the lintel and pull, pull, pull—until I can see inside.