Thursday, June 5, 2014

This is Water

When D was a little boy he had a babysitter who taught him that his manners lived in his pockets.  When he would forget to say please or thank you, or use a disrespectful tone, she would tell him “Get your manners out of your pocket!”  When we first introduced manners to Lucy I disagreed with teaching her this method.  I figured her manners should be with her at all times.  She shouldn't think they are something you can just put on and take off.  They are a part of who you are and how you act, how you treat people with respect and how you expect people to treat you.  But before I knew they were introduced and Lucy started pulling her manners out of her pocket.

Unbeknownst to me, other things live in your pockets as well.  Like patience.  I know this because one day Lucy offered me some patience from her own pocket, since I had just informed her I was out of my own.

Since then, the idea of pockets of patience has taken root deep in my psyche.  I don’t think of them as something like an object in my pocket that I can just reach in and take out.  I think of them as pockets of air, like oxygen canisters.  Sometimes the air around you has enough patience in it, and you are fine.  You can deal with the day to day, the minor setbacks to your carefully laid out plans (HAH!), the ten minutes late to preschool.  Again.

Sometimes a normal level of patience is not enough, at least for me.  I have bad days.  Days where everything seems to go wrong, where the universe seems aligned against me, where every decision seems to lead to a bad outcome.  The baby wakes up four or five times during the night, but still I manage to sleep through my alarm and wake up Lucy late for school.  We have an argument over what she is wearing,  breakfast spills all over the floor, and despite my best intentions she is late to school with breakfast on her clothes from being eaten in the car and her hair and teeth unbrushed.  Again.  And it is downhill from there.

            Some people can get through these days easily.  They have a family or friends to anchor them.  They have the sacrament of confession to unburden them.  They can run it off at the gym or talk it away.  Usually, this is fairly easy for me to do.  I take a deeper breathe, pull in some air from farther a field – backup pockets of patience – and say three words.  A mantra, if you will, a saying that I first heard in David Foster Wallace’s brilliantly perceptive commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005:

            This is water

            If you haven’t read this piece, I cannot recommend it enough.  I will try not to quote it anymore at present, because if I do I might just end up inserting the whole piece.  In fact, if you haven’t read it just forget about reading this crap essay, and read his instead.  Right here.  I’m basically saying the same thing, and he said it infinitely better than anything I am about to attempt.

            This is the phrase that not only gets me through the comedy of errors that is life, but enables me to choose my perspective when the universe seems to align against me. 

            Some days, though…some days not even this mantra is enough.  Some days, I don’t seem like enough.  I am not strong enough to look around me and decide that the universe is not aligned against me.  I am the center of the universe, and I am being shat upon.  Nothing I do is right.  The laundry is literally in a five foot high pile in the guest room.  No matter how much I exercise, I am still hungry all the time from nursing and am sweating around an extra 20 pounds of pregnancy weight.  My body doesn't look to my eyes like it should in my mind.  The clothes I want to wear don’t fit this traitorous body and the clothes that do fit aren't “me,” whatever that means anymore.  My hair is falling out so much that the shower drain clogs several times every time I shower.  Every time.  I am an awful teacher/mom.  I hate working with my daughter on letter and number workbooks, pre-reading and spelling.  I have no patience, and want to take the pencil out of her hand and throw it across the room every time she gets tired of trying to write a “J” and starts scribbling.  When she comes into our bedroom and night and asks if someone can snuggle her because she is lonely, I want to cry “I just finished nursing your sister, and I am trying to get back to sleep!  I don’t want anyone touching me!  I WANT to be alone!”

I am the worst.

Usually my husband takes these moments as opportunities to casually, yet somewhat inelegantly, discuss some patient he had the previous shift in an attempt to give me some perspective.  I will confess to him, tearfully, how awful I am or admit that I am struggling, and he will ask “Oh yeah, the worst?  Did you turn the house into a meth lab/lock her in the basement without food for a week/give her a brain injury from repetitive beatings or give yourself diabetes/a heroin addiction/a raging case of gonorrhea?”  This usually elicits one of the two following responses: complete rage or a total emotional meltdown.  Basically, I will either throw something, or dissolve into tears.

That is a bad day.  But it gets even better than that.  You see, I was born with a blend of brain chemistry, a special mix that sometimes enables me to reach truly astounding lows.  When I am having a bad day I can see myself spiraling downward, my thought patterns growing ever darker and more convoluted.  I look around me, and I am totally self aware.  I know my thinking is illogical.  I know my life is incredibly blessed.

I see the water.  I can’t breathe.  I feel like a frog trapped in a boiling pot. 

I have said yes to every decision in my life, and still I wonder how the hell I ended up in this place.  A Bachelors and Master’s degree from a top University, every family support imaginable, any life I wanted possible.  In my thirties, overweight, pasty winter skin in my pajamas at 5pm under a broken bathroom sink covered in filthy sink sludge looking for an earring that “I’m sorry to say might have gone down the drain” while both of my children cry in their respective rooms and my husband is in Haiti saving lives and being amazing and all I can think is “please, for the love of God, just STOP NEEDING ME!”

This is water, and it is killing me.  I am suffocating.

To some people, this may sound like the most hideous thing in the world.  I live in a beautiful house, I lack nothing, I have two healthy and happy daughters.  I must be a totally spoiled bitch!  Well…what can I say?  Maybe I am.  But I guess then you wouldn’t really be allowing me my own story, would you?

            As DFW points out, and as we all know, real perspective is hard.  It is work.  As human beings in control of our own intellect, we get to decide what is important in our own lives.  We get to decide what has power over us, and over what we have power.  We get to decide how we see situations, the perspective from which we view our own comedies of error.  I decide if the Mom in front of us at church with the 10 kids, flawless figure, chic outfit and membership on the most coveted committee was giving me the stink eye because I am wearing dirty jeans to church (again) and my daughter has unbrushed hair (again) and is loudly telling me that her vagina itches in the middle of the Our Father, or if she is just smiling at me in solidarity.  Or if she has a nervous twitch in her eye from dealing with her own issues.

The point is, I know, when it comes down to it, that I have an amazing life.  And even though he doesn’t always have to point it out, it is way better than the patient D saw the other day who is addicted to crack and has lost custody of her three kids but cannot break out of the cycle she is in long enough to change her life.  It is way better than the millions of people in this world who do not have access to clean water on a daily basis.  It is way better than one of the almost 300 girls in Nigeria who was kidnapped just for trying to get an education (#bringbackourgirls).  It is better than one of the 1,000 children D is treating right now at a school in Port-au-Prince, 90% of which are just recovering from Chikungunya.  I know that my bad days are ridiculously entitled, first world “bad days.”  Most of the time I look around, thank God for my beautiful girls, my total badass husband, my family, my body that is healthy, and the amazing world in which I am privileged to live.

When I am boiling and drowning in this water, I guess what it comes down to is that I choose to stay here until the pot cools down.

These bad days that I have are sacred, because they are life.  They are MY life, the life that I give in service to my family and in doing so give in service to everyone that we touch.  The mundane life of a stay at home mother and wife, the everyday service to my family in an unending cycle of meals and cleaning and laundry and driving to and fro, is the kind of freedom that only comes from loving people and sacrificing for them day in and day out.  Sometimes it doesn't feel like freedom.  Sometimes it feels like a prison. 

This is water.