The Great Toilet Paper War

Even on a solo retreat, you may find yourself interacting with other people and occasionally sharing facilities. Positive encounters usually give you a nice lift which lasts a short time. Negative encounters can destroy your concentration, interrupt your sleep, and fester for much longer than they should. In my case I find an incident from mid-August still niggling at my brain. True, I’ve moved on to attempting to transform it for a novel, but at odd times (like whenever I need to replace a roll of toilet paper) I still find myself analyzing the situation. Should I have acted differently?

ultrasoftWe have no bathroom in our cabin; we share a communal bathhouse with several other cabins. Each side–men’s and women’s–has two toilets, two showers, and two sinks. We have no formal system in place for keeping it clean and supplied; it is simply expected that those who use it take responsibility. Naturally this doesn’t work perfectly; it’s always brought up at annual meetings that people need to “take ownership” of problems they notice.

I made two trips to the cabin this summer, and I brought up a lot of toilet paper the first time.  I arrived late on a Friday evening the second time, and I didn’t think to pick up more when I bought groceries in town. I discovered when I reached the cabin that we were down to four rolls. The road to town is 13 miles, about half of it a washboard dirt road, and this particular summer it was closed for construction during the day. Toilet paper was suddenly not a trivial issue.

The only other people in camp were in a nearby cabin–at least five adults and four children, by my count. By Sunday afternoon I was down to one roll.

With this insecurity lurking in the background, I walked into the bathhouse around 2:00 that afternoon to find mud everywhere. Black mud mixed with ash was tracked into the stalls and over to the sink. It coated the floor of the showers, decorated the fuzzy pink and blue bath rugs, and even adorned the yellow polka dot curtains.  One roll of toilet paper was partially unrolled and happily absorbing water and mud from the concrete floor.

I assumed it was the kids, and I decided to wait patiently until a responsible adult “took ownership” of the problem.

At nine that night that hadn’t happened yet, and I was getting irritated. The people using this cabin lived locally and usually left on Monday morning. I was too shy–and too annoyed–to calmly discuss the problem with them in person, so I impulsively moved a handwritten sign from a shelf by the door to a more prominent place above the sink. The sign read, “If you use T.P., please contribute T.P.” I hoped that this would not only address my dwindling supply of T.P., but it might also hint that we are all responsible for taking care of the bathhouse and save me from cleaning their mess myself.

At eleven o’ clock this hadn’t happened.

Unfortunately, I was in the bathhouse again at four in the morning. (I know, TMI–but at least I get good views of the stars that way.) The place was totally transformed–not a speck of mud anywhere. Rugs were washed and hung up. The curtains had been rinsed and re-hung. The sign had been put back on the shelf by the door, along with three new rolls of toilet paper.

There was also a very unpleasant note left hanging near the towels. The writer had taken great offense at what I had considered to be a polite hint (and desperate request). She couldn’t understand why, in this gorgeous place, I would worry about such a petty issue as toilet paper, and she suggested that if I was worried about being taken advantage of, I should take my toilet paper, paper towels, and rugs back to my own cabin to hoard for my own use.

I rolled my eyes and returned to my bed, but I didn’t sleep any more. And in my cowardly fashion I avoided the bathhouse as much as humanly possible until the others left at noon in the one-hour window the road was open for us.

I regret not talking to the writer to clarify my feelings and explain my motives in moving the note. I hope she rethinks the situation in a calmer moment. We each owe an apology to the other.

But toilet paper is not trivial, especially when circumstances make it a scarce resource.  It represents a larger attitude toward taking responsibility for ourselves, caring for our world and being considerate of each other. We can never forget that–even on a solo retreat.

Next year I’ll stop at Costco first.

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