Paul Mathers on the Toilet

by Paul Mathers


You pay for owning a home in two ways. One is the traditional way, usually with a mortgage. The other is that you are left entirely to your own devices whenever a repair needs to happen. In our house, this naturally emerges into a joint effort because, say for example, when the toilet breaks, what am I going to do, quote Byron at it?

The short version is that we noticed moisture around the base of the toilet. We immediately crafted a narrative in which my dog Schubert somehow got the idea to use that device in that way from carefully observing us. This hypothesis crumbled when we wiped up the moisture, flushed, and saw the moisture return. Unfortunately, that happened this morning before I went to work. I began to reflect on the spiritual aspects of the toilet, specifically in moments like these. Much like the afterlife, you would like to pretend that you believe that everything is going to be okay, but experience has taught you that it will probably be very bad.

The toilet is one of those human universals that we end up taking for granted until there is a threat of its removal from our use. It was a very early invention in various formats, an early indication of civilization. One can begin to grasp a more reasonable view of humankind when one realizes that everyone, no matter how great or beautiful, has been a frequent user of toilets. It and death are the great equalizers and about as close to fairness as we shall see in this life.

We have created such a culture around them which, when you think of it, almost borders on idolatry. Before you write that last comment off as hyperbole, let me ask you, how many times have you “held it” through extreme discomfort until you could get to a restroom? Because you do realize that what you were really succumbing to was public shame, right? I mean, as far as ability goes, you could have gone right in the middle of the meeting. It would have been frowned upon, of course.

In disassembling our toilet, I had this overwhelming sense of the simplicity of the device wash over me. This is a device that is placed in just about every place where humans live and do business in the first and second world. It is made of porcelain and they are about the last remaining universal fixture that are made with the intention of having them break as rarely as possible. It is one place where we will not tolerate complete focus on consumption, which has a dash of irony as it is the place where the last effects of consumption are conveyed away from they who have consumed.

I have seen the underside of the final effects of consumption, and it was as filthy as the soul of humankind.

But I also had this new sense of the impermanence of the device. I had always felt as if a toilet was such a sturdy thing, but four bolts turned slightly and the bulk of it was sitting in my backyard. There was a moment of crisis as I realized that I sat upon something as temporal and mortal as this sack of meat I call myself.

Beneath the porcelain is a ring of wax. This was what needed to be replaced. The seal had broken over time. We scraped off the old wax and put a new wax ring in its place. There it sits in yonder bathroom, a thing of porcelain, water, and wax. What else in our modern world is made with such elegance and simplicity. My feeling of accomplishment was only slightly soured by the foul revelations and the sense that my hands will never be clean enough to eat finger foods again.