the Taboo of toilet paper

On a tour of the fabulous Melbourne Museum with my then seven-year-old daughter, we were in an exhibit of how early Colonizers lived and they had a bucket in a display area saying that for many people back in the day it was the only form of toileting they could use. I laughed and told my daughter that for over one billion modern people it was still the only form of toilet they have and flushing away clean drinking water is incredibly wasteful and a form of the highest privilege. She found it hard to believe that so many people use a bucket and I remind her of it sometimes when she’s acting too snobby to do a household chore like loading the dishwasher with (gasp!) dirty dishes.

Please understand, my people are descendants of Romans and have lived and worked in the same small area of the globe in the southwest of France making wine and painting on cave walls near Lascaux since before recorded history. I come from a civilized set. We brought you Versailles and kept it nice despite not having any plumbing. I’m just saying, my people know how to make even bodily functions look fancy.

This chamber pot sold for $120,000

Unlike French royals, however, I am not comfortable giving over the cleaning of my home or body to other people. I realize it’s funny to say I’m a private person when I’m writing an entire blog post about a topic we’re not supposed to talk about but these are strange times, and I think that if a fancypants lady like me can talk to you about this topic, perhaps you’ll feel better about the reality that we’re all dealing with.

My goal here is to calm your worries and to show you that running out of toilet paper is not a calamity and honestly not even that big a problem. Like dear Elizabeth Warren — I have a plan for that.

Let’s take stock for a moment. If you have running water in your home then you’re going to be fine. If you have a clothes washer and even a dryer, then you are basically living in the lap of luxury by most modern standards. (At this point I remind you that I’m a New Yorker and many of us do not have that washer/dryer luxury and I hear you, my friends. If you don’t have the option then look at one of these hand-crank washable diaper machines or just a bucket with some Napisan will have to do you. It will work though require more elbow grease. But as New Yorkers we’re used to doing it our damn selves. Love yous guys!)

Look, I get it. You’re already feeling uncomfortable even considering this topic. The idea of running out of toilet paper makes you feel panicky and deprived. But it’s really okay! Perhaps, unlike me, you don’t read NIH papers on global sanitation for fun. Perhaps, you try to think about human waste as little as humanly possible. But here’s the thing — if you’re living in a COVID-19 hot spot right now where people are lining up for forty-five minutes in order to get in a store that might perhaps still be stocked with precious disposable toilet paper and the thought of being around other shoppers who could be infecting each other gives you anxiety hives then perhaps it’s useful to consider another way? (Breathe, Sam. Just breathe. I know pandemic is your worst nightmare but chill out.) In fact, I’ll go so far as to suggest that maybe it’s on all of us with the option to do something different to do so in order to leave the disposable toilet paper to the people who truly have no other option.

A couple of years ago I was thinking about pandemic, as I am wont to do, and I decided it would be smart to put a bidet attachment on our rental unit’s toilet in the event of a toilet paper shortage. (Honestly, if a think tank wants to hire me to do disaster planning I am a little bit frightening in my prescience.) So I purchased a Bum Gun which is a very sensible option for many people. Unfortunately, I had not foreseen that the water in our Canadian toilet tank would be bracing chilly and that none of us would want to make the switch from environmentally unfriendly toilet paper to washing ourselves on that basis alone. So I repackaged the Bum Gun and gave it out at a holiday Yankee Swap party at my partner’s uptight conservative office. It has since become an ongoing joke gift that turns up at their parties to great laughter. Except perhaps starting a few weeks ago when the TP shortage might make it seem like a viable option to the last person who got “stuck” with the joke gift.

So here was my method as borne out by my experience with cloth diapering both of my children and my love of Luna Pads. Because on the one hand I am not a hippie (honest!) but on the other hand cotton is about one million times more comfortable than any disposable plastic methods and obviously also better for the planet. This, and my friendships with people from other cultures such as Persians who quite often find the use of toilet paper unsanitary, taught me a few things about a discrete use of a lota.

So, step one is a well-sealed and sturdy trash bin. Preferably one with an inner liner. Here we’ve taken the one we used for a decade as a diaper bin out of storage and rinsed out the spiders and slug eggs.

I know Brabantia never wanted to be used this way.

Your next step is to find an old duvet or sheets and cut them into squares.

My man bought this duvet in 1999 and treated himself to the most expensive item he ever bought with his own money. One hundred dollars and twenty years later we’re using it for toilet paper in a pandemic because life is weird.

It’s helpful to have some citrus essential oils on hand. You’ll put a few drops of the oil at the bottom of the can for odor control.

Get a “sport top” bottle that you can squeeze on yourself. Keep it at room temperature near the toilet and keep it filled with tap water. Best to refill it after washing your hands and give it a rinse. This ensures it’s a good temperature for the next person.

Squirt squirt.

The squares of cloth will be used to dry yourself. With pre-rinse the wiping of yourself with a cloth square is not a disgusting task. You put the used square in the bin with the essential oil so there will be very little odor. I have a super sniffer and we have always lived in tiny apartments, so please know that I’m not kidding about this. The odor is annoying when you open the bin but dissipates quickly.

Finally, twice a week you will have to do the unenviable task of laundering your toilet hankies. Do it twice a week as the longer you let it sit the worse the smell will become. Anyone who has experience with washable diapers knows it is an unpleasant but not insurmountable task. In fact, most of these squares will be about as soiled as an average pair of underpants. Do you freak out when you wash your underwear? Of course not. Calm yourself, it’s really not that bad. Oxyclean or borax mixed with laundry detergent will do the trick nicely. You don’t even need to go overboard with bleaching if you don’t want to.

So friends, we still have running water and many of us have access to washers. We know how to use soap and we know how to disinfect and we understand Germ Theory. We’re also now practicing pre-surgical levels of hand washing. There is no reason to fear if you run out of toilet paper because you know what to do and you’re prepared.

Stay strong and stay hygienic my fellow primates. And remember, don’t go throwing your poop at the neighbors for not practicing social distancing no matter how much they’re asking for it.

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