A human being should be able to
change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a
ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort
the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an
equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a
tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
- Robert A. Heinlein
When we think about our lives, the vast majority is effectively invisible -- back- ground noise. As human beings weíre so effective at adapting that the general details of our existence seem just a given. We donít think about them as blessings or in comparison to the lives of others around us because weíre used to them. What we can always see is the litany of what we havenít got. That partís easy. From time to time, we can refresh our perspective on who we are and what weíve got to be thankful for, but itís transient. Sleepwalking is the norm.
One excellent source of perspective is chaos. Watching the marriage of a couple that we know locally disintegrate into recriminations and petty nastiness was sobering, and likewise the virtual witch hunt of false accusations other friends of ours suffered at the hands of a landlord who wanted rid of them and made it personal. Naturally you feel for them, particularly the children, but with a thin glaze of silent gladness that it wasnít you, and musings on how you'd like to think you would have handled it differently. Once a wave of chaos starts to crest, however, itís hard not to get splashed. No, thatís not right Ė thereís no correlation between events here Ė itís just that we all get slammed once in a while. To the tsunami of life, we all live on the coast.
Our household chaos started with omens suggesting the technology gods are displeased with us. Two VCRs, a computer mouse, the older of the two household computers, half of the toaster, the food processor, and the washing machine are currently awaiting classification as either ill or deceased. Annoying, sure, and a little creepy happening all at once, but eminently surmountable. Money being what it is, we just have to do without for, well, a while, while we prioritize. It astounds me how much Iíve come to rely on that food processor in particular. Half of the recipes in my palm pilot are useless, but itís not nearly as crippling as losing my PDA itself might be. Now thereís a mind-numbing terror. Note to self Ė make burnt offering to machine god under next full moon.
If Iím talking change of viewpoint, though, nothing compares with looking down at the sidewalk while hanging by your knees out of a third floor window. With the weather cheerful and the school year winding down, Janice and I splurged on some paint and resolved to finally coat the battleship grey of our front porch. This became my project for the couple of hours a day Hugh was still in school, and naturally I was home alone when I lost my balance while painting a window frame. I didnít even scream. I would never have believed I had the upper body strength for the Łber-sit-up I had to make to claw my way back into the house, but my body did that amazing adrenaline thing and it all worked out fine. I sat and shook for maybe twenty minutes before putting the window back together and making the executive decision that it was going to look half-done for a while. The next day I was crampy and subdued Ė the predictable adrenaline hangover Ė but everything was right with the world. I was glad to be alive and in possession of my limbs.
The sharp intensity life acquires when you have a moment like that can go two ways. Wow, life is fantastic, and did I mention that this is the best sandwich Iíve ever tasted? You know, I love it when you look at me like Iím going wacky. But remembering that man is mortal, am I getting the most out of my life or settling for an existence I never wanted while hoping idly that it will come together differently at some vague time in the future? Nothing like a bit of spice for our annual summertime spat.
For yes, like the monsoon season, the pent up frustrations of the previous year always return. I loaded the car while Jan was at her last day of work and we left for my sisterís house that night Ė a six hour drive Ė so that we could be in Ottawa, Canadaís capital, for Canada Day fireworks and my nephewís eighth birthday. So, with no turnaround time, we packed the arguments we hadnít had in months and brought them with us, too. It took a couple of days before we were barking at each other, and late one evening instead of watching a movie or something we let loose about pretty much everything. Money. Division of household labor. Employment. Sex. Down time. Differences in our parenting styles, and why the hell donít you back me up more often? All familiar stuff to pretty much any couple, but damned if it didnít make us crappy houseguests for a while.
The next day I took some probably overdue reflective time alone, riding my bicycle for a few hours along the Ottawa river past idyllic green spots, inukshuk, and the Parliament buildings, and feeling pretty much like a shmuck. After eleven years together, Janice and I have become so consistent that even our arguments have a reliable pattern. Janice would spend the next couple of days subdued and introspective, sidling from rage into depression, and I would likewise run out of fire and blame myself, reverting to the programmed guilt response Iíll be carrying somewhere in my chest forever. Both of us would need reassurances, and slowly, through traded looks and quiet gestures, we would within a week or so stop stupidly feeling unloved, unheard or misunderstood. Weíd recognize a need for some quiet time together, and propose different ways to address the various things that get between us. Some would work, some proposed changes would manifest for a month or two before we reverted to familiar patterns, and a few underlying themes would carry on much as before. Thereís never any malice in any of it Ė weíre just acting according to our natures Ė and the near-dozen-year span of our relationship has demonstrated a consistent improvement of our lives. Weíre still interested in each other, still learning. As I said, remembering the good stuff gets hard.
There was something about that long ride and the silent pauses by the waterside that compelled me. Finding every location I parked marred by litter, I spent a few minutes picking up wrappers and cigarette butts and broken glass wherever I stopped because we as humans ought to be better than that. I stopped and shared snacks from my bag with crows, seagulls, rabbits, and a beaver, and reminisced about a feeling of connection with the natural world that used to be a part of my everyday life but which is becoming lost. I sang. It hadnít been all that long ago that I sang every day.
And you know, in my quest to find the still place in my center that I needed, I thought ďDamn, I need to make regular time by myself for this.Ē In the middle of everything else I already do, while Iím often sleep deprived and looking for a job on top of it and Iíve got a million half done projects that are making me crazy and Iím grouchy over not having time with my wife and all the rest, I need a quiet walk or a ride to listen to my own thoughts, to return to the source, and somehow, that might make everything else easier.
Now, itís a couple of days until my birthday, and weíre finally home
again, and Iíll be celebrating in part with a babysitter and a couple
of hours of having my lovely wife to myself and I donít even know what
exactly it is weíre going to do, but it doesnít matter. I am
about hanging out of that window as I write, but the immediacy of it
has dwindled again and the ache in my back and the feeling of age and
weight seems closer. Even so, Iím determined that this year is going
to be different in the way everything plays out. Some of the changes
in our lives arenít going to be conscious choices anyway, but damn it,
Iím going to balance whatever job I take with time I use to follow
through on creative endeavors, and turn my writing into something more
like a career than a hobby. Iím going to walk near water or in a
or somewhere that sounds like that quiet center in me often enough that
I donít lose touch with it. Iím going to connect with Janice more
often as well whatever it takes. Iím not going to forget what Iíve
to be thankful for, and Iím not letting anything get between me and it.
I will yearn, I will reach, and I will not settle. And Iím
to feel defeated or un-entitled again.
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