A Meditation on Poop

Image: Woman meditates alone on a mountaintop. (Bhikku Amitha / Pixabay)

The image at the top of this article is from the free stock photo site Pixabay. I typed “spirituality” into the search box, and I got a bunch of beautiful images like this. Pixabay is not alone in classifying this photo as spiritual; I imagine it is the sort of image people think of when they hear the word.

My life is consumed with activity at the moment. I get up shortly after 6, and I’m busy until I fall into bed at eleven or later. I spend much of that time engaged with poop.

Yes, you read that right: I spend most of my time busy with poop. My life revolves around several activities: I teach two classes, work privately with some students, I team-babysit our grandson with my wife for about 40 hours a week, and I have a sick dog recovering from surgery on her behind. The latter two activities mean that I spend a lot of time cleaning up poop, examining poop, reporting on poop to my daughter-in-law or the veterinarian, and cleaning the poop off of me so that I will not get poop on anyone else.

It’s easy to explain how learning and teaching Torah are holy activities. They fit the stereotypes, like the picture above. I sit at my table, preparing classes, translating ancient texts, and then I transmit what I’ve learned to others. I am surrounded by piles of holy books, the voices of the ancestors transmitting their understanding of the Holy. This learning has a frantic quality, though, because in a few hours or days I need to transmit what I have learned, and I have no time to waste. I have to get back to dealing with poop.

Caring for a helpless infant or dog is a different, and I would argue higher form of holy activity. When I’m learning or teaching, I’m largely in control of the situation. To deal with my grandson or the dog, I have to surrender to their rhythms and needs: naps, meals, play and diapers for Oliver and naps, meals, meds, compresses and messes for Gabi. As the philosopher Emanuel Levinas would say, I am commanded by the urgent need of The Other.

Of course, I love my grandson (what an understatement!) and I love my little dog. I am happy to expend effort on either of them, and I do not begrudge it. But no matter how much you love someone, poop is poop. It’s stinky, and requires effort to clean it up. Very few people, when they hear the word spirituality, think “poop” except perhaps for the smug sort of atheist, and then they are not thinking of poop as a road to enlightenment; they are thinking of spirituality itself as poop.

I have nothing against meditation or mountaintops. Right now I do most of my meditating lying down while my grandson naps (with my disabilities, the rule “rest when they nap” has an urgency it didn’t have when I was in my 20’s.) Usually I just fall asleep for a few minutes, after breathing a prayer of thanks for naptime. A mountaintop sounds picturesque, but I think I’d rather have a longer nap and save the travel time.

This is, no kidding, the most intensely spiritual time in my life. I spend most of my waking time being as fully present as I can be to someone or something: students, study, the baby, his parents, the dog, my wife.

My wife! The other very spiritual thing going on is while there is no time “to spend on our relationship” we are connected at the hip, a team. She is caring for a different sick dog, plus the baby, plus the things I can’t do very well (laundry and the trash are two of the biggies.) I am acutely aware, in my peripheral vision, of the miracles she works, and several times a day I shout out “I love you!” because I do, I do.

There are also the friends upon whom I rely, all long-distance: some via Twitter, some via other electronic venues, and all in short bursts. They cheer for me; I cheer for them. We muddle through our days with too much poop, both literal and figurative, and I treasure those voices echoing through the expanse.

God is very much present in my world right now. I perceive God in the steadfast love of Linda and my friends, in their voices and in the million practical things Linda does. I see God in the baby’s smile, and hear God in his fussing. I feel God in the softness of Gabi’s fur, and in her patience as I wash her behind in the sink yet again.

I hear God’s cry out to me when Oliver wails in discomfort. I see God in the way that baby and his mama look at each other. I am aware of God, as I watch Gabi’s incision slowly heal.

And through it all, there is poop, lots and lots of poop.

The lesson I study these days has to do with the grubbier aspects of this adventure. I want to find God in the poop, and in the aching of my joints, in the knee that won’t heal, in the shoulder that’s gone wacky, and in the fatigue that I just can’t shake. It is the limitations of my own body and its need to say “No” sometimes that are hardest for me to accept, but I’m working on them.

Where is the spiritual growth happening in your life right now? I invite you to tell us about it in the Comments.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

12 thoughts on “A Meditation on Poop”

  1. I was simply so uplifted by this meditation, at 75 I hear you when your knees hurt, it my back hurting, when you wash you poor Gabi’s bottom I understand the love that takes. This is truly a remarkable and timely well written meditation that I could easily relate too. I am raising teen, twin grandson 15, their little brother age 11 and caring for my husband of forty years + who deals with multiple illness at once.
    It is in the care giving that see God most clearly, when we are totally set aside and only focused on the needs of the others around us we reach a reified state which puts us in God’s presence Holy and succinctly. It is in these things, the poop, the puke, the need for clean clothes and feeding and then cleaning ourselves ready to do it all again that we come into God’s realm and when the nap comes that too is spiritual in different and more intense way than we as mere mortals are used to. I send you love and prayers. and to Linda too for all she does.

    1. Leah, you are dealing with a lot. And you are right, those naps, when they come, are spiritual too. May we each be given the strength to do what we need to do, and the strength to say, “No” when that is what’s called for.

  2. In April, I turned 70. Although I’ve always dealt with my disability and the aches, pains, and quirks of my body, turning 70 have made me acutely aware of the finite. I find myself pondering more than ever how to fill my days with joy and `meaning. Your insights, as always, has given me food for thought. Thank you, Rabbi!

    1. Mazal tov on the milestone birthday, Denise – in all the Covid excitement, I did not know about it at the time. Filling our days with joy and meaning and purpose is a lifetime project. I remember hearing a sermon when I was a rabbinic intern in a nursing home: the rabbi said to the group, “You all think you are retired, but really every Jew has a job – our job is to be a mensch. We have that job as long as we have life and breath.”

      When I can no longer take care of others, I will still work at being a mensch!

  3. Dealing with poop is part of my job, since I work in a boarding kennel attached to a veterinary clinic. I clean it up, I dispose of it, I keep elaborate records of who pooped when and what was its consistency. Over the years, as people from time to time asked if I didn’t miss having a sabbath when other people did, I have always answered “Animals need to be fed and watered and cleaned up after seven days a week.” So this is healing work, and healing is a spiritual thing.
    “in the aching of my joints, in the knee that won’t heal, in the shoulder that’s gone wacky”: I am so with you there!

    1. You have devoted your life to healing – there’s a long beautiful Jewish tradition of exactly that. The fact that your patients are animals brings in yet another mitzvah, kindness to animals and relief of their pain. Kol hakavod! (Good on you!)

  4. This is one of the most profoundly spiritual posts in my memory. Spirituality as inner life is necessary, but it isn’t complete until I begin to LIVE it, to clean up the poop, as service to others and to God. Thank you so much!

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