By Lydia Wylie-Kellermann
I spent the summer building an outhouse.
I spent the summer building an outhouse for my sister.
I spent the summer building an outhouse for my sister because she was getting married.
Forty-eight hours before the wedding as darkness fell and rain poured, even the groom was still drilling and cutting.
Lucy got married at our cabin in a pine grove a short walk from where my mom is buried. In order to accommodate 150 people for the service and thirty campers on our shallow, illegally plumbed crock well, we needed an outhouse.
I had no idea how much time it would take. We went up weekend after weekend digging through feet of clay with a pick ax, pulling nails out of used-gifted wood, building a platform, measuring, cutting, re-measuring, and re-cutting.
It was an unusual act of love but as I screwed in small pieces of wainscoting beside the door, I realized how big of a gift it really was. Through the process, we had taken a deeper commitment to watershed discipleship and we had built a family.
During the building, I took on my classic childhood job of nail hander, tool fetcher, snack runner, battery charger, and time keeper. Certainly no small task, but I watched with delight as my dad built the outhouse with his kid-in-laws. It was a serious team- the carpenter who designs in his head sans pencil and paper, the artisan perfectionist, and the analytical engineer. There were moments when I wondered if was too much to ask these three thinkers to build together, but instead they learned a dance honoring each of their skills. And at the end, I stood in awe at the building seeing the ways that this structure was more beautiful because of each of them. And no question, we all loved each other more than when we began and we had developed a work ethic that will carry us into our shared lives. I will hold that close as I sit in that place many times over the coming years.
I also realized as we worked that this was an act of love to this land and the water. We were pulling our waste out of fresh water and placing it deep in the earth. It was a commitment we were making towards the future of our bodies in this place. It felt like we were saying “I am throwing down right here.” It’s claiming a pooping place and staying there.
And it was hard. The work of our hands and sweat of our pores built this structure. It would no longer be tempting to use the convenient close-by flushable toilet in the house. I will delight to make the walk into the woods and use this place time and again because I built it. I know what it took to build and I am proud of that. Watershed discipleship.
I’ve been slow to relearn and love this land in part because it was so important to my mom- a grief sometimes too hard to touch. But as my three year old delighted in the first pee in that outhouse, I realized that I belonged to this land. That my body is now mixed up in this clay. The same clay that has claimed the ashes of my mom and turned them back into earth.
Bizarre to stand before that structure and feel sacred gratitude for an outhouse. But perhaps that’s why we used an old church pew for the seat, added stained glass window, and named it the St. Stephen John Center for Contemplation. The work done in that place is ordinary, earthly and holy. It is a reminder of a marriage and family created and of land loved and cared for. So to all you pastors and wedding planners- best advice I could recommend as pre-marital work- build an outhouse!
To see more about watershed discipleship, keep an eye out for the upcoming anthology Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice. Lydia has a contribution to it.