To Hell With It All. Take a Bath.
I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to be too perplexed about anything when you’re submerged in a hot bath.
Welcome to Ritual, Be Well Philly’s column of essays about the low-tech, inefficient things we do that pleasurably slow us down. From taking the long way home to hand-washing dishes, these simple habits allow us to be more present — even if only for a few minutes.
It used to be that when work ended, I would decompress from the fog of the day — the endless Slack messages, the long meetings, the overdue stories, the email inbox I could never hope to tackle — via my commute. Over the course of my zombified trek to the SEPTA station at 8th and Market, I would let my brain slowly loosen its grip on the insistent, tentacled minutiae of the work day. I’d try to think about nothing. I’d play Julie Byrne or Phoebe Bridgers on my headphones as I boarded a rattling train that would jolt me and the rest of the sleepy-eyed passengers north. Other days, I would walk the two miles home and let my thoughts unravel that way, so I could be myself again by the time I arrived at my door.
But these days, I don’t have a commute to help ease the transition from my Working Brain to my Relaxing Brain. More often than not, my mind continues fretting, without my permission, long after work hours have ended. Which is why I’ve started signaling the end of my work day by drawing a hot bath.
My tub is nothing fancy — just an old rowhome white porcelain oval, set against a simple white-tiled bathroom wall. But once I open the tap and let the steaming-hot water roar in, I’m delighted at the almost instantaneous feeling of relaxation that washes over me. It happens before I even get into the tub. Watching the rising water, listening to the din of it, seeing the way the ripples look kind of turquoise in the light — the whole act feels indulgent and slow and rich, even though it’s entirely ordinary and banal. (Never mind that except on my water bill, it’s free.)
I suppose I like the languidness of baths, the elegance, the inefficiency. I like that formidable and glamorous women of history and culture seem to flock to the tub — there’s something about hot water that beckons. Oprah famously said that “bathing is her hobby,” explaining that she had a marble and onyx tub hand-carved to fit the shape of her body (as one does). When January Jones isn’t ruling Instagram, she bathes several times a week in what she calls a “human stew” of ingredients like lavender bubble bath, baking soda, and apple cider vinegar. “There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them,” the late Sylvia Plath once noted.
The New Yorker writer Rachel Syme, a tub devotee, wrote of the “age of bathfluence,” recalling, with her customary dramatic flair, that in her Lower East Side apartment, around midnight, she would “scrub the pre-war porcelain with vinegar and lemon juice and baking soda until it sparkled” and then “marinate in the steamy water for an hour, reading a mass-market paperback by candlelight.” Syme added: “We are constantly bathed in content, steeping in the lives of others. But a person in the tub is someone who has slowed down long enough to stew for a few minutes with themselves.”
So at the end of the day, when I have the wherewithal to take care of myself, I take a bath. I light a candle on the ledge for effect and garnish the tub with whatever we have — bath oil I keep in the cabinet, or a generous pour of some lavender or rose salts from bags I bought at the grocery store. I lie there and watch the steam curl up, sometimes listening to music, sometimes drying my hands on a towel and reading a book. Once in a while, I’ll even add one of those fizzy bath bombs and cradle it as it dissolves under the surface, for a real treat.
I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to be too perplexed about anything when you’re submerged in a hot bath — other than considering that maybe you should revisit the concept of the pedicure, or buy a novelty rubber duck to join you, or adjust the temperature slightly next time. The hot bath, so soothing and all-consuming, can vanquish worries and concerns in a way that’s much more pleasurable than inattentively riding the subway or half-watching something on Netflix.
The hot bath is a balm, a revelation, a revolution — a daily reset that lets you float in sweet, disconnected unproductiveness for a half hour or more, if you like. It offers moments so deliciously lazy, you’ll probably feel a tiny pang of guilt that you’re not, I don’t know, folding a mound of laundry or vacuuming something. But that will pass. And then you’ll want more. You’ll never want it to stop.
Unless, of course, you only have a shower. Then I guess you’re just shit out of luck.
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