Thursday, December 22, 2016

Skeptical survival

Some friends stopped by the new old house last weekend to check it out. They have an even older house of their own, so they were curious about ours. I gave them the grand tour, which in this case meant pointing out the strange, the inexplicable, the ugly, and the just plain messed-up in each room. It ended with an excited recitation of what K and I planned to do in the way of fixing all that—a garden out there, new drywall in here, flooring and plaster everywhere—and at that point one friend turned to me and said, “Uh, didn’t you used to live in Manhattan?”

He was right; I did, in an apartment in the East Village, where microwaving leftovers is pretty much the only thing that qualifies as a DIY project. Now I’m looking into growing veggies, raising chickens, and possibly starting an apiary, which always sounds like it should house apes and not bees. We do have four acres, probably enough to support at least a few of the great primates, but that’s a bit ambitious even for us.

I don’t know what it says about me that I’ve taken on so many different lifestyles over the years. “It means you’re adaptable,” another friend has suggested, and I do like this assessment, since it implies a certain Darwinian prowess. And in fact, Chuck D. never said anything about survival of the fittest—almost the opposite, really, since a critter that’s fittest in one set of conditions will almost certainly falter when those conditions up and change, which they almost certainly will, without notice. One day you’re the mighty T. Rex going “RAWR!” and eating everyone, the next day it starts to snow and your arms are too short to put on a parka. Bummer.

I was born a skeptic, so I never did believe all the motivational bullshit about how you can do whatever you want if you just want it badly enough and try hard enough. That’s simply not true. If it were true, we’d all be rock stars or professional athletes or gourmet chefs or prize-winning, best-selling novelists (just to pick a completely random example). It’s probably a good thing I didn’t become a parent because I’d have most certainly dashed my kids’ hopes to bits, kind of the way my own well-meaning but deadly pragmatic parents did, as soon as they shared their dreams for the future. That wouldn’t have been my goal, crushing them, just a side effect, but when someone shares their dreams with you, it starts to feel like there are only two possible responses: enthusiastic encouragement and everything else.

I don’t think it should be that way. The problem with saying “you can do whatever you want” is that when you’re young, you have no idea what “whatever” means. Your world is still so small that any goal you choose may very well narrow your focus instead of broaden it. Decide your urban lifestyle demands dining in fancy restaurants every night, miss the chance to learn how to cook. Assert that you have no interest in settling down and growing roots—seeing the world, that’s for you!—and deny yourself the possibility of discovering what adventure lies in your own backyard. Insist that you only run if you’re being chased, well, that’s just sad. No, you can’t do whatever you want, but you can do many things you probably don’t even realize are possible. The trick is to figure out what is possible and, hey, why not, give it a try.

This is all well and good when you have the privilege and resources to redefine yourself whenever you feel like it, but part of being adaptable is dealing with adversity. I’m lucky; I haven’t had to deal with a lot of that. I come from a family of self-definers who might have pragmatically suggested I choose something more sensible than “writer” for a career but never stood in my way when I went off on my own. The only challenges I’ve faced have been largely ones manufactured by my own brain. And even when I think about the adversity this country—this planet—is about to face going forward, I have to admit that I’ll probably fare better than others will (though I do occasionally pull the covers over my head in the morning and decide I just can’t, nope, not today, and maybe not tomorrow or the next day either). But even the adaptable get tired sometimes. Every new challenge wears you down a bit, every endeavor undertaken takes something out of you. You start to think, why bother? What does it matter, the silly things I do? What am I really accomplishing?

Those questions could be answered with requisite enthusiastic encouragement—it matters, you are making a difference, you’ve got to keep trying—but sometimes the best answer is a shrug and a smile. Eh, you got to do something; why not this. So you go for a run, you cook a meal, you plan a garden for the spring that includes native flowering plants. You’ve never been the least bit interested in growing a flower garden before, and you know a few bee-friendly flowers isn’t going to save the planet, not even close, but it’s something you’ve never done before, so hey, why not give it a try.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Try to remember

This has been an interesting week for me—interesting in small, subtle, personal ways, which is good because I’m getting awfully weary of interestingness that’s huge and horrible in soul-crushing ways. On Sunday K and I (and he’ll be K from now on, rather than “the husband”) worked together on our new old house, scraping away at the kitchen walls in companionable silence while tufts of wallpaper fluttered down like snow. Outside real snow swirled over the prairie, reminding me how nice it is to have a roof and walls, even if those walls are kind of a mess right now.

It’s no wonder that I’ve taken a shine to the first few home improvement projects we’ve embarked upon. A lot of these endeavors strike me as being similar to—wait for it—distance running. You stand in the doorway (like the threshold is your starting line) of a very ugly room that needs wallpaper stripped, plaster repaired, and several coats of paint. You realize what a long haul you are in for, and as soon as you get started you realize that haul really is long. But everything you do is progress. Every slow, steady step is moving you toward your goal, and that’s satisfying to me, in part because even though it takes a lot of time, this kind of progress is easy to see. Not everything in life is like that—I daresay most things aren’t, because so much of what’s significant in life goes unseen.

A few days later I had an enjoyable lunch with an old friend, getting each other up-to-date on goings-on in our lives over hot soup and sandwiches. At the point where the meal was almost over, she told me, quietly, that she had some news: after several years of struggling, she finally made herself see a doctor to get a prescription for anti-depressants. This may not seem like a big deal, but this particular friend is someone who’s always struck me as having her feet on the ground and her shit in a state of togetherness. Clearly she knows she projects this image, because it was obviously difficult for her to admit this news. What’s more, this friend was always there for me when my brain went into a massive depressionary tailspin, but it didn’t even hit me until later that day, long after we’d parted, that I of all people should have suspected something about her long ago and should have tried to help. Why hadn’t I seen it?

Then just the other day one of the students I’ve been tutoring wrote and posted a lovely essay titled “America is beautiful.” He wrote it because of a discussion we’d had right after the election, when we were both feeling down and having a hard time finding inspiration to keep writing. Writing, I told him, is an act of hope, because even if you choose as your topic the worst thing in the world, writing about it is still a step in the direction of making it better. His response was to try to focus on the beauty he still perceives in this nation, and in particular how that beauty is all about differences, not sameness. In nature it’s the variety of trees that makes a forest beautiful; likewise, in the middle of a city far from nature, it’s the diversity of people. He finished his essay with a plea for human beings to live in harmony with each other and with the earth, the mother of us all.

I was tremendously proud of him for mustering the will to write this piece and the courage to post it. English isn’t his first language, of course, and it’s gutsy enough trying to express yourself in words no matter what, much less words that still feel uncomfortable like you’re wearing someone else’s shoes. What’s more, he’s wise enough to know that the kinds of sentiments he expressed in the essay might very well at best gain him some polite praise and at worse make readers smirk. It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of ideas, especially the stuff about living in harmony and calling the earth mom—easy because most of the time we don’t actually see “the earth” or any part of the natural world at all. Hell, most of the time we’re not even looking at the world but just an image on a screen. Hence we forget that most of what we eat, wear, live in, and fuel up with comes from the natural world. Even the synthetics that make up an alarming portion of all that still at one point in their creation were derived from stuff produced by that big ol’ ball of dirt beneath your feet. It’s so obvious it shouldn’t have to be said, but I’m saying it anyway: you would not be here if not for the earth. None of us would be.

Where I’ll be living next year, it’ll be hard not to see the earth. We’re surrounded by farmland, which is many people’s idea of a nightmare location (K’s kids included—they keep joking about buying us all bib overalls so we can look farmerly together), or at best a quirky lifestyle choice for quirky people like us, since we clearly aren’t farmers and intend to use our acreage mainly for the airspace above it to fly our birds. But “the countryside” isn’t just a lifestyle choice or, if you’re less fortunate, a place you get stuck in. This is not a place of natural splendor like the mountains or a lakeshore. This is not a place of manmade triumph like in a great city. It’s a place, I think, where you could easily look and not see, because there doesn’t seem to be much of anything to see. It’s flat. There’s a lot of dirt. Yes, on Sunday afternoon the snow did that thing it does where it transforms a bleak landscape into something spectacular, the air itself seeming to dance. But then the snow did that other thing it does where it melts and leaves everything even more bleak than before, and then it’s up to you to figure out what there is to see.

I admit to some very complicated feelings upon realizing that we’d be moving to a very red part of a very blue state. On the one hand, this is where I want to live right now. On the other hand, I wonder about who else is living here. There’s been a lot written lately about how people living in small rural towns like the one nearest us feel like they’ve been forgotten. I can see why they feel this, but I can also see why this is problematic. I got married this year for the first time, though if I’d wanted to I could have gotten married 20 years ago. There are friends of mine who can’t say that because 20 years ago their marriage would have been prohibited, yet so many of those who claim to be “forgotten” seem to have forgotten this themselves and a whole lot more. But it’s hypocrisy for me to tell people to do things I’m not doing myself, and as such I need to be asking myself: what have I forgotten? What am I not seeing?

Starting next year, I can at least begin to answer these questions by looking out the window.