When a participant at a Healing for Men Workshop asked for a plunger one Friday afternoon, I knew it was a bad sign. I declined his offer to deal with a stopped toilet and asked one of the male staff to investigate. They both returned before long and agreed the problem required more than a plunger. Ugh!

A call to our contractor and eventually a rescue plumber produced an energetic, upbeat guy who appeared within a couple of hours. He determined there isn’t a plumbing cleanout inside the Bethesda Workshops building, but he and his helper accessed the clogged lines a different way. Within another two hours the issue was fixed. Whew! Relieved, I thought the problem was resolved…. until the next workshop, which was a community of 24 women.

About the same time on Friday as before, the plumbing backed up, this time more dramatically. Within minutes from the first report, every toilet in the building was clogged.  A repeat call to the rescue plumber again produced the same guy, but he quickly became as foul as the choked disaster he faced. He mumbled something about the pipes being all messed up as he loaded his equipment back into the truck. He said that without a helper and approaching early evening on a Friday, the job was bigger than his or probably any company could handle until Monday. The situation was so bad we had to move the workshop to another location, which was no small feat.

A pow-wow of plumbers a few days later proved interesting. The plumbing sub-contractor insisted that his new plumbing overhaul was sound, and the rescue plumber was equally certain the pipes he flushed weren’t laid out the way the contractor described. Eventually, a complete examination via a camera snaked through the pipes revealed they both were right.

The nice, new plumbing is a logical grid – and about two feet down it attaches to a labyrinth of old, pitted pipes that run helter-skelter beneath the building. They are likely the original ones laid in this section of Nashville probably 75 years ago and worsened by haphazard expansion through the years. There is no simple way to access the problematic pipes, much less to renovate them.

With additional crew and equipment, the plumbers accomplished an effective cleanout. They left information about the most productive way to run a line through the tangle of pipes, if needed. Our best choice is to make some simple adjustments to keep the water flowing and hope for the best. (Now I know why most commercial buildings use flimsy, single-ply toilet paper.) If necessary, we can install an exterior cleanout closer to the building.

Since the plumbing nastiness surfaced several weeks ago, I’ve pondered how to write about it. It was tempting to bemoan that “sh—happens,” but I decided that cliché likely wouldn’t make it past many readers’ filters (or sensitivities). I’ve been grateful for the perspective that at least this issue is our sh– and not some outside crap that is affecting us.

When we completed another workshop without further plumbing issues, I realized the take-away from this crappy lesson. When you recognize you’re wading in crap, quickly do something about it. Ask for help from experts. Do what is suggested even if it seems silly or ineffective. Diligently keep following the plan. Install something new.

At the same time, address the refuse that is the source of the problem. Find a cleanout place. Recognize that many issues aren’t easily solved and a few may never be. Some traumas are so deep they will always have an impact, so compensate intentionally. Stay aware of your vulnerability to overflow. Remember that hard problems rarely have an either/or solution, and things beneath the surface may be different than expected.

Plus keep handy the number of a good rescue plumber.

Marnie C. Ferree