The Zen of Ostomy

I believe, among other things, that this is a lesson in humility.

When the doctor first mentioned the possibility of an ostomy as part of an upcoming procedure my first reaction was one of embarrassment and shame. It sounded gross. What if it smelled? What would other people say? Why couldn’t it be anything else? The final decision has yet been made on whether an ostomy will even be necessary, or if it will be temporary or permanent, and yet my ego immediately projected all sorts of horrors even on the possibility. So, I had to question my reaction.

And then, gradually, it occurred to me that it could be something else and my thoughts drifted to this: “Where is my gratitude?”

“Why am I not thankful that with amazing medical procedures the doctors are saving my colon and possibly my life by doing this? Why am I not amazed that they can repair a badly damaged part of my body and bypass its usual functioning so that I can continue to live and breathe in this world?” I should be thankful if this allows me to continue this incredible journey. The first lesson was in gratitude. I am thankful.

If a colostomy bag becomes necessary, then I need to wear it like a badge, a reminder that certain things like human waste and death itself are equalizers. It doesn’t matter how many possessions or what positions of power one has in a world where those things are distributed unequally and unfairly. Like the children’s book reminds us, “everyone poops.” Everyone poops. Everyone dies. Everyone has the opportunity for growth in the best and worst of circumstances. Instead of choosing to wallow in self-pity or shame, it is a far better path to choose growth and understanding.

I am humbled by the potential daily reminder that we humans are a grimy, dirty species, both figuratively and literally, that so many things in our lives are waste–not only the food that we cannot process, but the opportunities we fail to take, the relationships we fail to develop out of fear or other strong emotions, the full potential we have in the short time we are here. If this reminds me to do better, then I will make every effort to do better. If the ostomy becomes necessary, then I will accept it and learn from it. If not, then I hope that I have still learned some lessons that I will not forget.

About Callen Harty

Originally from Shullsburg, Wisconsin Callen Harty is the author of four books and numerous published essays, poems, and articles. His most recent book is The Stronger Pull, a memoir about coming out in a small town in Wisconsin. His first book was My Queer Life, a compilation of over 30 years worth of writing on living life as a queer man. It includes essays, poems, speeches, monologues, and more. Empty Playground: A Survivor's Story, is a memoir about surviving childhood sex abuse. His play, Invisible Boy, is a narrative with poetic elements and is also an autobiographical look as surviving child sex abuse. All are available on (and three of them on Kindle) or can be ordered through local bookstores, He has written almost two dozen plays and 50 monologues that have been produced. Most of them have been produced at Broom Street Theater in Madison, Wisconsin where he started as an actor, writer, and director in 1983. He served as the Artistic Director of the theater from 2005-2010. Monologues he wrote for the Wisconsin Veterans’ Museum won him awards from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the American Association of State and Local History. He has also had essays, poems, and articles published in newspapers and magazines around the country and has taken the top prize in several photo contests. His writing has appeared in Out!, James White Review, Scott Stamp Monthly, Wisconsin State Journal, and elsewhere. He has had several essays published online for Forward Seeking, Life After Hate, and The Progressive. Callen has also been a community activist for many years. He was the co-founder of Young People Caring, UW-Madison’s 10% Society, and Proud Theater. He served as the first President of Young People Caring and as the Artistic Director for Proud Theater for its first five years. He is still an adult mentor for the group. In 2003 he won OutReach’s Man of the Year award for his queer community activism. OutReach is Madison, Wisconsin’s lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender community center. He also won a Community Shares of Wisconsin Backyard Hero award for his sex abuse survivor activism work. He has been invited to speak before many community groups, at a roundtable on queer community theater in New York City, and has emceed several events. In 2016, Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault named him their annual Courage Award winner for his activism, writing, and speaking on sexual assault.
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