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
The flood is upon us. Literally, in that the trunk of the new-to-us Honda turns into a lake every time it rains and the whole car is starting to smell distressingly musty. And figuratively, in that the element of water is associated with the power of the emotions, and emotions are running high in the family. Iím writing this column late, with my lovely editor probably gnashing her teeth, in part because our household is typically busier than a desert ecosystem after its lone annual deluge, and partly because I donít want my monthly column to be a long miserable rant and I havenít been able to slog my way beyond that to a genuinely meaty topic. Iím also, sleep deprived and contrary, clearly destined to babble in endless meandering run-on sentences as I attempt it, a flood of language. Mea culpa, but so be it.
Every human being has the capacity to feel overwhelmed. I guarantee that you canít be a parent without it. I remember my friend Brendan telling me, as he worked on his masterís thesis in philosophy, that he considered the effort and dedication with which he approached his studies as equivalent to that of a parent with their child, and me laughing out loud. Did your thesis ever cry inarticulately for hours in the middle of the night and make you insane attempting to figure out whatís wrong? Does it force you to find and call forth inner resources you never imagined you had because you can never actually put down the responsibility? Our boys are sophisticated enough that those days seem fairly distant, but the running of a household is work. It never ends. As regularly as dishes and laundry, family circumstances continually require emotional adaptability and personal evolution. Itís the only job from which you can never just take a vacation.
Chaos tides are rising all around us. Individuals I know personally have endured everything in the past year from cancer treatment, brain surgery, spinal cord surgery, and repeated eye surgery. A family weíre very close to is being driven out of their home by a vindictive landlord and neighbors falsifying charges against them. Cash crises are epidemic. Now Janice has been ill long enough for my attempts at double duty to make me pretty ragged, I have occasional phantom symptoms myself, and weíve both been directed to a variety of sobering medical tests. Anxiety is simmering on the front burner of my mind.
Once the majority of the Halloween wrappers were swept from the sidewalks, Christmas displays began popping up in local stores and social obligations piled up faster than a rugby scrum. We had a dozen dinner guests this weekend, although only seven of them stayed through the next day. I like them, but it was a lot of work, and the aftermath of overextended children is likewise. Itís early enough that I still intend to make almost all of this yearís gifts, although I may yet throw up my hands in defeat. Itís probably too late to say ďDonít buy me anything and I donít intend to buy gifts for any other adult.Ē I often enjoy the opportunity to show off that entertaining provides, but this year it all seems so much. Iím not scintillating company, Iím just muttering to myself while I clean the kitchen at one in the morning.
The chill that hits me while putting out the trash reminds me that winter is imminent, so I had better batten down the hatches. Maybe I have seasonally affective disorder. I predict a long cold winter with fairly little precipitation, but that claimís made with reservations. Normally I get my cues from the natural world, but the animals are clearly confused. In the past couple of weeks Iíve seen squirrels showing sweatshop-level industriousness, as well as caterpillars that havenít pupated yet and clearly arenít going to survive to wear wings, and a mournful looking bat circling around a sky forlornly barren of insects. The fact that even the natural critters donít seem to have reached consensus about what to expect suggests climate change to me -- as if four hurricanes hitting Florida in the span of six weeks wasnít already a hint. Is there going to be balmy t-shirt weather in January that everybody loves but me, or should we set up a glacier watch on the tip of the escarpment? Scratch that: itís just me. Iím jumpy.
I remind myself to be grateful and count my blessings. Success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you have. I have a lot. I love our home. I love my wife and our children, and I know that they love me. Itís just an unfortunate part of human nature that the great blessings we live with from day to day become something like background noise in the monologue of our minds. I really have no excuse to feel miserable. Sure, like many parents, and dads in particular, I wish Jan and I had more opportunities to be intimate. Okay, I wish Keefe were more willing when it came to little things like the occasional chore. Yeah, Iíve got too many writing projects and not enough time at the keyboard (sorry!). Granted, I should get more sleep if I intend to function well, and I should find a way to earn more money if we donít want to drown in a chasm of debt. But I shouldnít/should myself. Iím a strong, healthy, whole and competent man, well-regarded and comfortable in my environment. I enjoy and get use out of the gifts Iíve managed to cultivate in myself, and really, the world is my oyster. I know enough about the larger world to identify myself as one of the planetís fortunate few. I have dozens of brilliant ideas to plant and water, and when I miss a meal it's because I'm distracted rather than because there's nothing to eat. None of this delightful information stops me from alternating between caged animal and depressive weariness.
Like all of you, Iíve developed routines to help me process these
feelings, and like most of you, they arenít 100% reliable. I
determinedly wring every molecule of remedy and reinvigoration from a
late night walk or twenty minutes in a hot bathtub. I soothe my spirit
for moments at a time with infusions of healing dark chocolate, and I
shelve my dietary obsessions for occasional meals of convenience or
leave the kitchen a sty until the next day. Somethingís clearly got
give, so Iíll let the obstacle course that the floorís become evolve
organically and hope civilizations that develop there are friendly
ones. The boys are learning from me on a deep level, even while Iím
half sleepwalking, so I fumble for the best tools I can muster. No
pressure. If previous experience holds true, I wonít be able to
sustain this level of misery and one day itíll just drain out of me,
Iíll get a good nightís sleep and awake my more or less usual self.
make a mantra out of remembering that the boys are far more self
reliant than they used to be and will inevitably become more so.
catch up on my sleep when theyíre in college or something. And
after all, a skilled swimmer can
tread water for days, can't they?
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