Sometimes, just contemplating the vastness of the world as we know it is just too big. Add in the universe, and the little we truly know of it, and feeling overwhelmed is not only a justifiable emotion but an expected one. I know that some people never give the vastness of it all a moment’s thought. Lucky them. Then there are the rest of us to whom considering the magnitude of what’s going on out there can elicit responses ranging from mild concern to catatonia. I’d categorize myself in the frenzied thoughts crowd.
When Michael and I had been together for a few years in the early ‘70’s, he started calling me his little existential soulmate. I spent lots of time thinking about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, the meaning of everything, analyzing, turning things inside out and outside in, upside down. He was of a different bent, able to distance himself from the overarching big questions that I wrangled with regularly. He would always look at me and slowly intone his mantra, “ Mellow, mellow.” He was perfect for me, so relaxed that being near him was practically sedating. At least temporarily. I used to tell him that I wished he had a zipper in his chest that I could pull down so I could climb into his actual physical space, if only for a little while.
For the almost ten years we lived together before we had kids, my busy, questioning brain wasn’t much of a big deal. But then we had offspring number one, our daughter, who from an early age, was occupied not only by the meaning of life questions, but a skepticism that bordered on nihilism. Having a kid like that changed everything for me. I no longer felt like I could just indulge myself in this heavy thinking. I needed strategies. I wanted my girl to enjoy her life, to not worry all the time, to find joy instead of blasting through all the iconic moments of childhood when she was still so little. Like her asking me with a stern face, “ I want to know if there’s really a tooth fairy and you can’t lie.” “Santa Claus is a cartoon character – how can there be so many of them all over the place at the same time?” No illusions for this girl. And that was just the beginning.
My daughter was a most desired and welcomed baby. In addition to us, her doting parents, my sister and parents played a big role in her life from the minute she was born. Everyone was taken with this bright, engaged imp, but my dad was putty in her aggressive little hands. She was just months old when he was confronted by his mortality; a serious heart issue threatened his life after his having undergone five coronary bypasses only three years earlier. He was scared, angry and adamant that he wasn’t going to have another big surgery after the failure of the last one. I brought my little one to see him in the hospital. When we stepped around the curtain which divided him from his roommate, my daughter began shrieking with recognition and excitement. An astonishing performance from someone so tiny. My dad cried and immediately announced he’d changed his mind and was going ahead with treatment. We were all grateful.
Seven years later, dad had been diagnosed with metastatic bladder cancer and was slipping toward the end of his life. My parents had moved to our town a few years earlier so my kids were really intimate with them. Explaining his illness and treatment failure to my son who was under three was really difficult. That was not the case with my daughter who seemed to have a secure grasp on what was happening. She was unafraid and remained affectionate and loving to him, climbing carefully on his lap to avoid hurting him. I’ll never forget him embracing her and remembering from his deeply diminished state, the beautiful words from the Robert Munsch book, “love you forever, like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be,” as they snuggled together. On his birthday, barely two months before his death, we had what we knew would be his last birthday party. He stood alone for a moment, tears streaking his cheeks. My girl walked up to him and wrapped her arms around him and asked why he was crying. He told her he was terribly sad about dying and that he would miss everyone so much. She replied, “Well, you’re still alive and right here, right now, so let’s try to have the best time.” That was a stunning and unforgettable moment I never forgot.
So here we were with this bright, intuitive, direct little girl starting to question the meaning of life following the death of her beloved grandpa. And that’s the time you really begin to stretch yourself, both as a person and a parent. Not just to be helpful to your kid but to answer your own questions, to find substantive ways to make sense of a world that’s often dark and ugly. A place where despite doing your best, there’s so much challenge and disappointment. To make life meaningful.
The advantage to having your first child at thirty is that I had plenty of time to muddle through my own big questions to formulate some ideas that worked for me and that hopefully, might make sense to them. As my kids grew, I was able to formulate these cogent little maxims that I could share with them, things I could repeat over and over ad nauseam that might help them through the tough times. I can just hear them right now, saying, “I know, I know, I’ve heard you tell me this a thousand times.” Actually that would be correct. But I’m still saying the same things to myself as life’s process is exactly that – a mutable, morphing thing that requires the application of a skill set that makes it work for, rather than against you. I may have referred to them in other blogs but they’re worth repeating. And there’s one that I haven’t written before.
First, I believe that if you choose to do something, do it because you want to, not because you expect anything in return. That payback stuff should come from inside yourself, not from the outside world. Next, there’s the five year rule which means that when you’re feeling your worst, try remembering what you were feeling exactly five years ago. It’s pretty much impossible. As this moment will be hard to remember five years from now. Perspective is everything. One of my most favorite core precepts is this one – the people with the best lives are the people with the best coping skills. Life is always presenting situations which require coping, essentially on a constant basis. No skills, tougher life.
Chronologically, my last theorem may be the most important one. I was in my 40’s when it dawned on me. Our family was on a trip that took us to Fredericksburg, Virginia, site of a bloody battle in 1862 when the Union Army assaulted an impregnable position on an elevated position called Marye’s Heights. Wave after wave of infantry were sent up the hill where they were mowed down by Confederate soldiers dug in behind stone walls above the embankment. When night came, the freezing field was filled with the bodies of the dead and wounded who were crying out for water. A Confederate sergeant was so moved by their cries that he, Richard Kirkland, with filled canteens and carrying a white flag, made multiple trips down the hillside, ministering to soldiers from both sides, risking being shot by everyone. The story was unforgettable and I took a photo of the statue which was surrounded by shrubs which were a natural barrier between the statue and the visiting public.
When I returned home, I thought a lot about the difference one person can make, in the smallest way or the biggest, often at just a random moment. At the time, I was serving on my park district’s citizens’ advisory committee. A local park had a beautiful statue of a young Abraham Lincoln which was currently away being cleaned from the multiple acts of vandalism perpetrated by high school students who gathered around it on their lunch hours or after class to smoke or fool around as kids do. During our committee meeting, I brought out my photo from Fredericksburg and suggested that after the statue was returned, perhaps plants could be placed around it to create a natural barrier like the one in Virginia. The park commissioners agreed, the statue came back and the plants were put in the ground. Since that time, many years ago, there hasn’t been a single mark on that statue. Whenever I pass by I always think I’ve left one positive civic mark on my community which will last forever, whenever that may be.
Which leads me to that last piece of advice I told my kids and which I still tell myself regularly. Stretch your arms out and turn in a circle. Whatever you can touch is something you can change, fix, help. The big stuff feels unmanageable, too complicated, too difficult. But what’s within your grasp is different. A lot of small efforts make you feel like you’re doing something positive to impact the world. They kind of kick existential thoughts to the curb. And what a relief that is in the hardest times. I think this idea has helped center my kids. I know it works for me.
I put on my red fist growing like a flower shirt this week to remind myself that it’s still my job to resist the madness of the political nightmare in this country. I voted in person – forget that mail-in ballot. I got my flu shot. I bought extra sandwiches so when the increasing number of unfortunate people ask me for money when I’m out and about, I can give them something healthy. I made friends with a woman who admired my garden. In an incredibly dry spell, I watered my plants and filled my birdbaths to make sure that all my critters survive. I pulled weeds. I read books and listened to music. I’ve reached out to friends who are going through hard times. I went to my Zoom classes, started Spanish classes online and brushed the dog. I took my grandson for a drive through for dinner and answered a million of his questions. All together, not bad for living in this dystopian universe which will end one day or not. It’s the best I can do for now and taken as a whole, keeps the darker thoughts at bay. You have to work at it, bit by bit. So far, it’s working for me. One foot in front of the other.