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Blessed Are They that Take Cold Showers" by April Vzquez

In 2010, my husband and I packed up our clothes, dishes, and nearly 3,000 books and
moved to his hometown of Len, Guanajuato, Mexico. The life we've forged for ourselves here
is made up of a few solid advantages--my not having to work, living in a bigger house than we
could afford in the States, and being part of a lovely, child-centered culture, for example--along
with a lot of sacrifices that, for the most part, we consider worthwhile. We don't own a
dishwasher or clothes dryer, which entails more manual labor on my part. There are no Kindles,
iPads, or video game systems in our home, and only my husband has a cell phone. Our
daughters' lives are centered on books and play rather than technology, which I think is all to the
good. The older two, ages eight and nine, read a novel a week in English, another in Spanish
(we homeschool), and they always have some independent reading going too (currently
Pseudonymous Bosch's Secret series and Harry Potter). They both write poetry and short
stories, and along with five of their cousins, they recently performed a play that my nine-year-old
wrote, on a stage that my husband built for them in our patio. Most of the extended family was
in attendance.
We don't often eat out (though there is an amazing Indian restaurant that we visit a few
times a year on special occasions) and have trouble finding certain foods here, including the
preponderance of meat substitutes available at virtually any grocery store in the States. There's
only one store, on the other side of town, that sells almond milk, and organics are relatively
expensive. But the abundance of fresh, locally-grown fruits and veggies--many of which I'd
never tasted until we moved here--almost makes up for that.
Even so, there are times when I just wish things were easier and more convenient. I don't
like standing at the sink each night washing the dishes by hand, or hanging every single tiny little
baby sock on the clothes line. I wish I could eat lima beans, kale, black eyed peas, okra, kidney
beans, tempeh, ginger snaps, and many other foods that aren't available here (and believe me,
I've searched). I look at the blisters on my hands after performing even a minimum of routine
housework--sweeping and mopping a five-bedroom house with a front and a back patio--and
think, "Why can't we just have carpet, and a lawn?"
But the moment of my day when I most long for the comforts of my own country is
before bed each night, when I take my shower. After some months of discussion and putting
back money, last year my husband installed a solar hot water heater on our roof. We rejoiced in
the knowledge that we were doing the right thing, taking a stand against fossil fuel dependence
and preparing to save money to boot. But it's winter now, the days are often gray and chilly, and
the water not only doesn't get hot, some days it barely gets warm. I heat water on the stove for
dishwashing and the baby's bath, then the older girls use the water from the boiler for their
showers, so that by the time they've both bathed, the water is no longer even tepid: it's cold. This
happens every evening that follows a cloudy day--and with a three to four month summer rainy
season besides the usual three months of wintertime, it ends up being a lot of evenings. Even
when it rains all day in the summer, bathing isn't too unpleasant; the temperature is high enough
so that I don't lose feeling in my fingers. But in the wintertime it's torture. My husband, heartier
than I am, takes his showers in the mornings, but I insist on bathing at bedtime, when at least I
can jump into flannel or polar fleece jammies and under the bed covers afterward. Not that that's
much consolation during the actual moments when the frigid water is hitting my skin. I feel
particularly mournful when I recall how showering used to be one of the highlights of my day;
living in a house with no heat source, I was accustomed to using the shower to warm up on cold
days. And though we live in central Mexico, we do have some cold days. The temperature can
get as low as the 30s; last winter it snowed.
I know, of course, that what my mother used to call a bird bath--cupfuls of heated water--
is always an option. It's even an option I've availed myself of from time to time on the very
coldest days. But generally speaking, I take my showers just as I used to back when natural gas
heated the water and all was right with the world. Call it stubbornness, a slavish devotion to
routine, but lately I've been thinking of it differently. That's ever since I saw a documentary
about the Yamabushi monks of Japan who follow Shugendo, "the way of testing and
training." The idea is to achieve spiritual enlightenment by disciplining--and ultimately
overcoming--the flesh. One of their forms of meditation involves sitting outside under a
cascading waterfall in the dead of winter.
I realize that in the context of Shugendo I'm a lightweight. My cold showers don't even
remotely compare to the Yamabushis' arduous treks up steep mountain passes, walks over hot
coals, fasting, and sleep deprivation. But the more I read on the subject, the more I feel that my
showers do fit into a larger context of spiritual expression. At the age of fifteen, under the
influence of a beloved camp counselor (the only vegetarian I had ever met) and John Robbins'
award-winning book Diet for a New America, I made the decision to stop eating meat. Even at
that age, I could see that my own fleeting sensory pleasure was less important than the very real
damage my diet was doing to myself, the planet, and other living beings. Three years later I
adopted a vegan diet, and a decade after that, completed Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults
(R.C.I.A.) classes and became a Catholic. Like Dominion author and activist Matthew Scully, I
saw the two events as connected, my Catholicism born of the same impulse as my
vegetarianism.
What I didn't realize then was the lifetime of health benefits I would reap as a result of
my change in diet. Like Dr. Michael Greger says, "The most ethical diet just so happens to be
the most environmentally sound diet and just so happens to be the healthiest." This point was
driven home for me last year, when, pregnant at the age of forty-one, I went to a new
ob./gyn. Reviewing my test results, he remarked wonderingly, "You're healthier than a lot of
women who are half your age."
Another example of the connectedness of body and spirit is the practice of fasting. As a
practicing Catholic, I've grown accustomed to fasting and giving up foods I like every spring
during the six weeks of Lent. The health benefits of intermittent fasts are well established; they
can help prevent cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, lower bad cholesterol, reduce
inflammation and even trigger stem cell regeneration. Trim, attractive celebrities from Jimmy
Kimmel to Benedict Cumberbatch extoll the 5:2 diet, a weekly program with two nonconsecutive
fasting days each week. I find it interesting that the 5:2 diet, described by some medical
practitioners as optimal for human health, is the very one urged by both the Virgin Mary, in her
apparition at Medjugorje (Wednesday and Friday fasts), and the Prophet Mohammed (Monday
and Thursday fasts). Hindus typically fast once or twice a week--different fast days are
associated with different deities--Mormons are asked to fast at least once a month, the Jewish
calendar contains several fast days, and fasting during daylight hours is one of the ways Muslims
observe Ramadan each year. Saints of every religious tradition have used this method of
drawing nearer to God. According to Saint Augustine, "Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the
mind, subjects ones flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble." And with a
hunger-related death somewhere in the world literally every few seconds, taking more than we
need is more unconscionable today than it's ever been before. At the most basic level, standing
in solidarity with the poor and hungry must involve a refusal of an unjustifiably decadent diet.
I see our move to Mexico as a meeting point between the temporal and the spiritual. Our
income here is so meager that, like it or not, we've been forced to dispense with luxuries. Our
children receive gifts only on Christmas and their birthdays. We rely mostly on dried beans for
our protein; a splurge for us is tofu or blueberries, American imports that cost more than local
products. I've bought new clothes for myself once in six years (a dress that cost roughly five
U.S. dollars for our goddaughter's baptism). Life is different here, simpler, honed down to the
most basic level. I know several people whose houses have cement floors, some who don't have
running water, many whose children have never seen a movie in a movie theater. Yet I don't
know anyone here who's depressed or neurotic or even ungrateful. The lack of material
possessions doesn't seem to impede Mexicans' happiness at all. Not surprisingly, among the
poor--and the poor are ubiquitous here; most of the people I know would be characterized that
way--it's rare to meet someone for whom religious faith is not at the center of life.
All of which brings me back to my cold showers. It turns out that they too offer a
multitude of health benefits, including improved immunity and circulation, weight loss,
expedited muscle healing, and increased alertness. If the research is to be believed, we should all
commit to a cold shower daily for the sake of our health. Since I know I would never (ever!) do
such a thing on my own, the words of the Rolling Stones song come to mind: "You can't always
get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need." God
always seems to find a way to give me what I need, even--maybe especially--when it's the last
thing I want.

A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vzquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language
from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a
Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in
Len, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and
Dahlia. April's work has been published or is forthcoming in The Missing
Slate, Windhover, Cleaver, The New Plains Review, Gravel, The Fieldstone Review, and others.