I replaced the floor – linoleum, underlayment, and subfloor – in my bathroom last week. Twice. And I replaced the thrice-damned toilet that caused the problem. Which is part of why I’ve been radio-silent for a bit. (Shout out to my awesome wife for her support. And her help with power tools.)
As I was surveying the water damage (for the second time), I started thinking about Elemental Water in the context of how it damaged my house.
I feel like there’s something here.
Real water is essential for life. And not just in a stay-hydrated-while-you’re-working-out way, although definitely do that. You use more water in your day-to-day life than you probably realize.
When I turned the water off to the house, my wife asked if we could flush the toilet. I told her we’ve got one flush and that’s it. She was going to suggest filling the tank from the bathtub, then she realized the bathtub was off too. Then she reached to get a drink from the sink, and nothing came out. We laughed, because we really take for granted how much we rely on indoor plumbing and a ready supply of water.
Water is essential for plants. Just today, my dad (a botanist) gave me a volunteer sage plant from his garden. He mentioned that it’s not the self-watering kind, because I’m notorious about forgetting to water my plants. (Someone let me know if you hear of any of those self-watering kind, I’d like to buy some.) If you’re going through a desert and everything you see is dry and brown, but you see a stand of trees and green grass, there’s water there.
Water is corrosive and abrasive. I live by a deep canyon carved out by water. And I’ve taken pipe out of groundwater wells where the water has turned steel pipe into rusty red barnacles, and eaten holes through the galvanized metal.
Water usually follows the path gravity lays out for it. But not always. Have you ever watched raindrops run down your windshield? It seems like it should be a straight shot down, but often the trails will wind and twist from side to side. Water does this in rivers too, if you’ve ever seen a winding old river hemmed with oxbows.
Water doesn’t compress. With air, you can squeeze more of it into the same space – that’s how tire pressure on your car works. Not water. When you squeeze water, it looks for a place to escape. That’s how hydraulic lifts work; pump liquid into the cylinder, and it pushes the cylinder up. If there’s a weak spot in the metal, the pressure of the water can break through in a spraying geyser. A strong enough stream of water through a special nozzle can cut through steel plate.
If you’ve been Pagan for any length of time, you’re probably familiar with the Elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). Briefly, water stands in as a symbol for emotions and intuition.
I’ve also found that it can be a cleansing agent (although each of the elements cleanses and purifies in its own way).
Water stands for the fluid phase of matter – liquid water, as compared to solid ice or gaseous water vapor. Room-temperature mercury, to me, is watery. So is liquid nitrogen.
Water has its own style of movement. Remember when you were a kid, and would slosh the water back and forth in the bathtub? That’s a great way to experience it. Standing in the tide at the ocean is another way. Floating in a swimming pool is another. Standing barefoot in a mountain creek is yet another. There are mysteries tied up in experiencing the way that water moves, and especially the way it moves when it changes direction, or flows against or around things.
Water can be heavy, like a tearjerker movie. Too much water steals from my lung capacity, like being in a swimming pool too long.
But it’s also cathartic, and emotions overflowing in tears can be like water released down a spillway, easing the pressure on the dam.
So, my toilet apparently developed a leak. By the time we noticed the dripping, it had soaked the floor under the toilet. One subfloor and wax seal later, and it leaked again – dramatically, and ruining the first repair.
All of this got me thinking. If water is like emotions, and my house is like my self, how are the pipes in my house like my emotions in my body?
I think one way this manifests is that emotions have a “normal” or “healthy” method of expression. This is when your emotions are running properly through the subtle channels of your body. In this metaphor, the pipes are like healthy and socially appropriate expressions of emotion. For example, I might have a frustrating day at work. I would allow that feeling of frustration without suppressing it, and I might scrub extra hard on the pots and pans that night.
Taking the analogy further, fixtures (like sinks and bathtubs) are like boundaries. We need water, so we create places where the water can flow or pool. We don’t stop using water just because it can damage our home. Rather, we give it an appropriate place to be, where it won’t cause damage. This is similar to the boundaries we place on our behavior. It’s appropriate to express grief at a funeral; it’s less appropriate to express grief on a job site.
Sometimes, though, shit happens. We might experience emotions on a deep level and not recognize what’s happening. We may not be able to process deep or overwhelming emotions normally. That’s like a leak in the plumbing. Those emotions are still there, soaking out into our self and affecting our situation, but we may not be aware of it. These kinds of emotions, just like a leaky toilet, can cause extra and unintended damage. That could be in the form of overreacting to others, or simply affecting the way we perceive things. Worse, if that leak goes on ignored (or undiscovered), it can leave a lot of damage in its wake.
There are other ways an an overwhelming emotion can break out. It might be a clog, where we get slammed with an overwhelming emotional response that gets stuck in our emotional system. It might be a broken pipe, where our ability to cope and manage emotions fails catastrophically. It might be a flood, where other people’s emotions come into our house, and we are responsible for either building boundaries like sandbags, or cleaning up the mess after it happens. It could even be deferred maintenance – like not enough self-care – in which a leak starts and deposits a lot of water before it’s discovered.
When shit does happen, it’s not typically something you can just clean up with a towel. Sometimes it is, and hashing things out with a friend or loved one can really be the best fix. But the kind of leak I’m thinking of is one where the fundamental emotional processing system in your self isn’t working right. There are really two things that need to happen in order to fix this. First, you need to repair the system, like fixing the plumbing. Second, you need to repair the incidental damage that was caused by the leak.
Remediation, and when to call an expert
I work in a small business that does a lot of plumbing work. So I have a fair bit of experience around pipes, pipe wrenches, and how to put them together. It was interesting – as I was reinstalling my toilet, my hands seemed to automatically know which way to turn the fittings to tighten the pipes, without having to think about “righty-tighty-lefty-loosy.” (There’s another mystery here – learning to do something from muscle memory.) I also have a little experience with a wood shop, and I have the tools, so repairing the subfloor wasn’t too overwhelming. Time consuming, sure – it took me about 25 hours total. But certainly less expensive than a contractor.
But not everyone has those skills, or that equipment. It would make sense, if you don’t know plumbing, to call a plumber to fix a leaky toilet. Likewise, it would make sense to call a contractor to repair the damaged subfloor.
To me, it seems like there are a lot of Pagans who are do-it-yourself-ers. If you think about it, most of the folks who get good at Paganism have essentially done a ton of research and built their spiritual skills and practice from the ground up. And many Pagans craft and sell hand-made things, from incense and wands to potions and poppets. And many Pagans seem like they don’t have a lot of money to spare, to cover the cost of a professional. (Although, I wonder how much is lack of money, and how much is priorities with money. I’ve heard lots of stories about “I’ll buy my $5 ticket next month when I get paid. Oh, by the way, wasn’t that rock concert awesome the other night?!”)
So when we get into emotions, sometimes the best thing – as I mentioned above – is to just talk and hash through things with someone you trust. Or work on it yourself, in the spirit of self-reliant Paganism. With bigger emotional issues, though, you might need to talk to a spiritual counselor. Or even a therapist. In my experience, sometimes you just can’t get very far very fast without a trained, outside set of eyes.
Thinking about working with a therapist. For me, working through emotional leaks and flooding has been a process of a) setting better boundaries, and b) examining and describing those emotions. Those are a lot like ripping out the wall to see how the plumbing was jerry-rigged, then rebuilding it in a way that works more effectively. That means identifying the feelings, then setting boundaries around what those feelings mean, and how to appropriately express them. One of the feelings I struggle with is anxiety. A lot of folks in our local Pagan community also struggle with anxiety. I’ve come to realize that I may have leaky emotions in my subconscious, but all I feel is that the floor is soggy and unsafe. Since I’m not a trained professional in emotional or psychological issues, it’s probably for the best for me to get a trained and independent perspective to help straighten things out.
My intent with this post is to start digging into the symbolic aspects of Paganism, and explore ways that those connect to everyday life. I think that Paganism is falling short of its potential when it only exists in our sacred space.
I also wanted to touch on the issue of money, and when it’s better to save money and do it yourself. And maybe to note that when an issue is overwhelming, it may need a trained professional. My home repair probably would have taken a contractor 4-6 hours to complete. My way took a lot longer, but I was able to do it in a fraction of the cost (albeit only because I had a baseline set of skills).
I also work a lot with the Elements, as fundamental metaphors for life in general. I find the symbolism of the Elements creates a lot of meaning and connections in my practice, and I hope that sharing it helps your practice too.
What are your thoughts about Elemental Water, emotions, do-it-yourself, or calling a professional?