That wart. That bumpy, encrusted wart almost definitely has roots in the Apocalypse Bathroom, the one wainscoted in shit, with a smashed sink and matching toilet. Or maybe the Apocalypse Basement, where once a night hot water comes juddering out of a rusty pipe near the ceiling, serving as a shower if you’re willing to stand naked in the middle of the room. That wart has its roots in dank places never exposed to the possibility that spaces, like bodies, might be treasured, cleaned, and held holy. That wart drives around with Disabled Veteran plates and the war it comes from is the one we all try not to notice, until we have no choice.
That wart travels from foot to foot via shower stalls and puddly locker room floors. It makes public space queasy with the risk of exposure to others’ bodies. It justifies globby silos of sanitizer, mountains of rubber flip-flops, forests of toilet seat covers, and the privatization of everything. That wart is why people are afraid of public swimming pools and public gyms and the public good in general. How do you know you have succeeded? When the only warts you are exposed to are your own.
In the Delhi airport twenty years ago, there was a water fountain with glass tumbler. A single glass tumbler for everyone, and I was thirsty, and I drank Delhi tap water out of it. That wart did not grow on my tongue. A single glass tumbler for everyone means no trash to throw away. In India I drank Limca Cola out of glass bottles so many times reused that their shoulders were like beach glass. Velvety bottles so precious you were not allowed to walk away from the street seller who’d opened them for you. You stayed in place and drank squatting or standing or sitting on rickety little plastic stools. Your drinking was not private and free-floating. It was done in place, aware of the body and presence of the person who’d sold you the soda, and the bodies of all those who’d drunk from this bottle before.
That wart is a motivating force keeping millions afraid of one another. Build a wall against that wart. Wash your hands of that wart. Wart into your elbow. Wipe it with an antibacterial solution and make sure to let it dry completely before making contact. In such an environment, illness is an embarrassment, a failure of protocol. I am in the Dharma Hall, coughing so hard that I choke and gurgle and splutter. Who does that? Careless people. People who don’t know how to conceal their warts. People whose attention to the public sphere is faulty and incomplete. I cough so much tears flow. What was that lovely thing you were saying? That wart got in the way of my hearing you.
The warts of others.
Our own warts.
The warts of the Other.
My friend tells me how when he was little, there was a club for the white people and a club for the non-white people. Being brown, and also the grandson of an ambitious woman, he went to the white club with his family. What was better about this? The swimming pool at the other club wasn’t very clean, people said. Really?
Near my old apartment in Atlanta, there was a wonderful public swimming pool in the middle of the park. Some people wouldn’t go there because of that wart. I went and brought my snorkel stuff so the little kids could dive and play with it. Wearing a mask, we could see a hair extension floating like an eel. We could see a Band-Aid. Ah! Human bodies are here, we would think, grateful to be able to pay two dollars to get out the ridiculous heat.
Once I had a plantar wart on the ball my foot and my mother took me to see a white-coated doctor, who burned it alive with liquid nitrogen on a long cotton swab he stuck into a smoking, narrow steel flask. It was insanely painful while he burned me and then it was worse when a giant purple blood blister replaced the wart. Then the blood blister fell out, leaving a gaping, fleshy hole in my foot. That was medicine. It took weeks to heal.
Another time I had a plantar wart on the ball of my foot and my sweet hippie friend told me on a hike that if I took off my boot and wooly sock and dipped that wart in the water cupped at a tree’s roots, it would go away. He stood by while I stripped my foot and let mossy Georgia rainwater reverse the wrongs of the Apocalypse Bathroom. Sure enough, that wart decided it had done what it needed to do, and my foot became imperceptibly wartless.
Which is scarier? That wart, or all the measures we take to avoid and destroy it? If we think we will need to be burned alive in order to eradicate the wart, we might be willing to burn ourselves and others preemptively. If we think rainwater and kindness are available to heal us, we might have a lot more resilience around whichever warts arise or don’t arise.
That wart hurts whenever I put my foot down, until it doesn’t. That wart came from somewhere, with roots somewhere, and it goes somewhere else. Warren Zevon never went to see doctors and died of a cancer that might or might not have been burnt out by the doctors he never saw. Is it irresponsible not to go see doctors? I saw a doctor for the fierce cough I had earlier this year and he just recommended I keep squirting salt water up my nose twice a day. He refused to burn anything out of me, counseling patience and kindness instead. I didn’t like that answer. I wanted his white coat to burn out all my warts, which is what happens when I get scared. What happens when we get scared is, we call in the white coats, the military boots, the dark blue uniforms with guns and tasers, to burn out all the warts. We don’t want to think about the bloody craters before we see them, and even afterwards, some of us aren’t cratered, so it’s mostly alright.
That wart is a bellwether for my ability to tolerate discomfort and decay. It is a test of whether I mean it when I say I agree to complete embodiment. Am I holding onto an asterisk? That wart is the asterisk. It is the exception I wish I could make as I watch salt water and snot pour out of my nose. It is the fierce companionship I offer myself and all beings, all the way down.
That wart refuses to be prettied up with tape and concealer. It’s not going to shut up about the truth of these bodies and it can’t be gentrified into growing somewhere else. Build a wall around that wart, and its tunnels will be legion. Your wall will be the greatest wart of them all.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.
108 Names of Now