When I was in elementary school, the mascot for water conservation was a jovial blue droplet named “Ricky the Raindrop”.
Maybe you grew up on a houseboat or in an igloo, and the idea of a water conservation mascot is odd to you- but I grew up in Southern California, and the image of the cornflower dollop of water with hollow eyes and too-wide mouth, will always hold a place in my heart.
Fluid little Ricky taught all of us, through pamphlets printed on cheap, almost see-through paper, that to waste water was worse than premarital sex.
The parent volunteers that delivered said pamphlets didn’t use those words exactly, but I was much more diligent about jiggling the toilet handle when the water was running, than I was about abstinence.
(Some stuff you’re taught sticks, some doesn’t.)
My elementary peers and I learned about the water cycle as Ricky’s creepy teardrop body bobbed from page to page of the booklet, showing us ways to save our state from the drastic droughts of our lifetime.
“Take shorter showers!”
“Don’t spray down your driveway!” (sweep it with a broom, you animal!)
“Never, EVER leave the water running as you brush your teeth!”
The pamphlets held word searches, visual water cycle graphs, and articles written by well-meaning interns. I loved a good activity packet and was up for a challenge during the time of his impressions: I made it my life’s mission to be the best water-saver in my family.
We had a pool which immediately made me feel some sort of survivor’s guilt.
Also, we had a 7 person family. The toilet was always flushing, the shower was always running and our dishwasher and washing machine were in constant rinse cycles. I couldn’t control the conservation habits of any of my siblings.
But, there was something I could manage.
Something I could control.
Switching up my toothbrushing routine?
This. This I could do.
There was a period in my life where I didn’t like brushing my teeth at all, but it wasn’t because I was saving water. It was during what I lovingly refer to as my “Pig Pen days”.
I will deny this if my childhood dentist Dr. Henry asks, but there was more than one occasion when a girl who looked a lot like me and had my exact bowl cut, would go into our family’s upstairs bathroom and lift her toothbrush out of the holder. Then, while letting the water run, she would proceed to brush the counter tops in an attempt to fool her family into thinking she was cleaning her teeth with aqua fresh.
“They’ll never know,” she whispered back at me from the mirror.
They never did- unless they’re reading this post.
That girl is a thing of the past. She abandoned her oral hygiene boycott by the time the Raindrop with the Pear-shaped body type had been introduced. And once he was, my victorious return to toothbrushing went like this:
First, I’d take my dry tooth brush and smear on a pearl sized dab of paste per the riveting material I had read at the dentist’s office. Next, I would turn the faucet to wet my toothbrush with the quickest trickle of water.
After three rounds of brushing my uppers and lowers, with one toothbrush rinse in between, I’d do a final spritz of the brush and place it back in the holder on our overcrowded bathroom counter.
Lastly? I’d give me and my bowl cut an approving nod in the mirror, knowing I’d given Ricky another go at condensation.
From 10 years old on, my brushing routine never altered. I threw in flossing and mouthwash, because I’m a woman now, thank you, but the teachings of Ricky kept my routine alive.
Cut to 20 years later when I started dating my husband, and observed, for the first time in my co-brushing history, a non-Ricky the raindrop follower.
I suppose it wasn’t by choice, more akin to a family in a third world country who doesn’t believe in Jesus simply because they’ve never heard of him. He’d never been taught about this fictional drought prophet.
The result? He left the water running when he brushed his teeth. From start, to middle, to finish, that faucet was on full blast.
It makes me shiver just writing about it.
We’ve been together for years and I still have yet to convert him. And I’m not saying he does it the wrong way, I’m just saying I do it correctly.
But a few months ago, the strangest thing happened: I started to slip.
Maybe it was the three kids and two dogs and old cat and full time job and marriage and my husband’s unexpected unemployment and homework and feeling guilt about not Tidying Up as magically as everyone else.
Maybe it was my liver weighing me down from years of marinating in Malbec.
There are excuses. Always are. There are always piles of slop that we can step into that soak us up like quicksand.
Whatever the reason, I did it. I let my water-saving routine slide.
All of those years of conserving and being aware of what a little mindfulness can do: It started to get away from me.
I’d stare at the tired face in the mirror and let the faucet stream, brushing my teeth with lackluster vigor. I would listen, unfazed, as the faucet puddled water into our slow-draining master sink.
And I would know it was the wrong way. And I was aware that I consciously began breaking my self-imposed rule.
But I did it any way. I continued to let the river run, as though Carly Simon was singing my fight song.
It took me back years ago when I worked at Universal Studios in California, as a tour guide on the “World Famous” Studio Tour. My job was to sit at the front of a tram, with my puffy face featured on the screens in each car, as my tinny voice streamed through the speakers while I shared the history of Universal Studios as engrained in us during our tour guide training.
One portion of the trip was near a western lot- The driver would pull all the cars of the tram up to a specific marked point on the route and make a complete stop.
I would kill time until water started shooting from the overhead sprinkler system. The location of the sprinklers gave the illusion of rain to the tourists, as the sound of thunder pumped through the speakers around us. The situation would grow more dire as the rain increased and a “flash flood” appeared at the top of the hill beside us, frothing and tumbling down toward the tram.
Some guests would panic, not understanding the magic of Hollywood, ladies screamed, babies cried, some tourists would squeal with delight, while others would be taking phone calls.
I think the line I spoke was “It was a Hollywood miracle as 10,000 gallons of water created that flood”. Something I delivered through an undoubtable hangover, 4-5 times a day.
I was reliving that flash flood in real time, at the sink, doing what I was: Living that flash flood over a choice of conservation.
And the bigger problem, more than the water wasting itself, was that after a while, it no longer felt conscious. Two weeks of running the faucet without restriction, and I had started to accept it. My habit was proving that this was how it would be.
Ricky’s plump little shadow, looming over my shoulder since the eighties, started to fade away.
My Mom came over last week after insisting she should help me get my house in order. I’m not sure what prompted her to do it, but I hesitantly accepted her offer to help, knowing full well that I was going to be childishly embarrassed throughout the entire experience.
We began removing books from my office shelves first, as tufts of dog fur floated across the floor, while my kids continually sneezed as they entered and exited the room. Old work documents, worn and yellowed, were stacked against my six year old’s Ranger Rick magazines, while day-old mugs of tea crowded my desk’s surface.
I left the tidying mission briefly, to catch my breath in my cluttered bathroom, and felt the warm blanket of shame wrap over me. I hadn’t let anyone come into our space for so long, and it wasn’t until early this year that I opened my eyes to what I’d been blind to: I had been drowning. I was for a while.
The piles of laundry stacking up, the water spots that had made a permanent home on my bathroom mirror, my slumped shoulders, my hushed children, my limping marriage. How had I not seen it more clearly? Why had I let it go so long?
Life had been flooding over me. The duties, the responsibilities, the joy, the heartache, the tasks, the calendar, the parenting, the partnership, the sicknesses, the unpredictability, the every day, the overwhelm. It was a waterfall that I was caught beneath, pressing down with so much force that I was no longer catching my breath.
My world was filled up- and although my cup was running over, it felt like surely it would crack under all the pressure.
It was a flash flood instead of a trickle. An ocean instead of a stream. And I was splashing underneath, gasping for air, losing the joy in it all. I was circling the drain and nearly fell through.
I was functional, yes. I was a good mother, yes. I answered the calls. I tucked in my kids. I washed all the clothes. I listed the houses.
But I was removed and reserved, comfortably withdrawn from life, because living it moment by moment was suffocating. I was seeing the flood but blind to the droplets. I was ignoring the raindrops that were gifted to me daily, focusing instead on the enormity of the tidal wave.
And instead of building a dam for the flood: I added water to it.
I drank until drunk as I thirsted for distraction. I ate in excess as I hungered for direction. I spent hours staring at my phone as I longed for connection. More wine, more coffee, more food, more TV, more consumption, more commitments, more goals. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted the future but couldn’t face the present.
I was waiting for a lifeguard to send me a buoy. Holding out hope that I’d come up for air… That the water wouldn’t consume me…That someone would reach me… And no one ever came. They didn’t know that I needed them to.
I hid it so well: I was a synchronized swimmer drowning in a shallow pool.
And I never hit rock bottom or had a disaster that forced me to the surface. But I was tired. So tired I could barely keep going. Everything was a chore and every muscle in my body begged me to change. To wake without a hangover, to take in air without hesitation, to fuel myself with contentment.
Then late last year I walked by the mirror and saw the face looking back. That same face that had brushed the bathroom counter. That same face that committed to preventing the droughts. That same face that kissed my babies, and sang art songs, and laughed and shared secrets with my sister. That same girl I’d always been. More rough around the edges with more shadows on her face- but her just the same: Resilient and changing and ready to take on a challenge. Ready to save the water.
And on January 1st, I did just that. I dried my body off and opened my eyes, ready to sop up the mess. Ready to shut off the faucet.
So here I am. 6 weeks in. Shivering, with pruney hands, but able to breathe deeply again.
The water is coming and the floods are all flowing, but I’m upright and wading again. Steadily now I’m facing the water- drop by precious raindrop and stream by lovely stream.