The Small Things
Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.
As heart-on-her-shirt hard-boiled-egg of a comic strip character Cathy would say, “Ack.”
I feel ill-equipped to have the big conversations. When it comes to politics and violence and hatred and opinions, my stomach compacts into a dark, hard knot; instinctively, my spirit folds protectively into a crouch in the corner; invariably, my brain pushes my eyebrows down and squinches my eyes.
Too often, public discourse makes me sick inside.
Part of my reaction comes from this: I don’t feel smart enough to hold my own in the fray. Do not read me wrong: I’m very smart. My admission is not one of self-diminishment. But I’m not smart about things happening in the world. The details of the goings-on are not something I’ve internalized. I have not mastered all the angles. By and large, I avoid the news, keeping myself informed just enough to know sketchy basics. Willfully, I lack “issue smarts.”
Part of my reaction comes from this: when I do read public conversations about big events, I see how everyone has a point. I don’t agree with a good lot of ’em, but everybody has conviction and reasons. Even more, as I age, I believe more and more that all people deserve respect. The only way to get anywhere with anything is to treat all people as though they have merit. This is the attitude I take into my teaching — and, while I’m not always amazing at conveying class content, I do think the genuine regard I accord to the human beings in the room is the core of the successes. However, when I watch intransigent people debating the issues, my respect radar goes haywire, leaving me jangled.
Part of my reaction comes from this: I’m a work in progress when it comes to conflict. With each passing year, especially in my job, I have gotten better at standing firm when someone’s energy blows me back onto my heels. I’ve gotten better at rocking forward, centering on the balls of my feet, regaining my balance. I’ve gotten better at not blinking, not crumpling, not crying. Yet it’s never easy. Always, it’s exhausting. Without fail, I feel battered for days. Months. I lie. Years. In a climate where discourse and debate are more yelling and argument, this work in progress feels best with her head under the duvet, a headlamp beaming a circle of light onto a world of fiction.
Finally, part of my reaction comes from this: more often than not, the tone of public debate dances riotously across a field dense with thriving, thigh-high scorn. The crop waves brightly — condescending and self-righteous and mean, fertilized by several tons of “I’m throwing this provocative statement out there so that I can find reasons to mock you, should you dare to engage” manure. There’s something of the bully behind this tone, and I got enough of bullies when a couple of girls followed me home in fifth grade, loudly remarking “God, that ass is huge” and “Isn’t it hard to be a hog?” while the twig-like friends flanking me, having no idea attacks could happen to someone they loved, froze in horror. Already, by the age of 10, I was intimate with baleful strikes; the worst of the bullying was the futile desire, roiling around my round belly, to protect my friends’ innocence. All of which is to say: when nasty words fly around in public air, I am reminded that no matter how much I love people, I hate people.
Hating people erodes the shape of my heart, whittling it into a sharp stick good only for stabbing through soft tissues.
Thus, when the world is too much with me, and I am scared and mad and hating, I retreat into the joys of small things. The other day, when yet another headline broke, and the shouting began, and disappointment welled in me, I went for a run — the activity that reminds me many things in the world are beautiful.
- Living up to the name of the trail, the Lollygagger, I rolled up and down the hills, dodging the roots and rocks jutting through the clay, and my mind shifted into that sacred, peaceful space where the next footfall is all that matters.
- As I ran, I listened to the conversation on the WTF? podcast between host Marc Maron and guest Louis Anderson. Maron has done some great interviews, and he’s done some tense interviews, but this conversation between two comics who have reached the “Hey, man, we’re okay. We’re finally fine” stage of life delighted me. Anderson is the 10th of 11 children, the son of a “nice” mother and an alcoholic father, and how is that story not a worthy distraction?
- As I ran, I marveled again at the book I’d slammed through the night before, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. Maybe a half hour read, this book lodged in my head. It’s short; it’s unconventional in form; it’s funny; it’s poetry; it’s prose. A mother dies. A crow — grief made manifest — shows up and hangs out with the bereaved husband and sons. When it’s time to go, the crow leaves. Desperately, I wished to have been in the room, even watching through a video feed, as Porter wrote. How did he do that? Four scrabbled words at a time? Ten hours of marathon word vomiting? Seven years of anguish to write 110 pages? How did that writing happen? I had no answers. I could only keep dodging mud puddles.
- As I ran, I chuckled as I remembered Paco’s predictions about the contestants on The History Channel’s blacksmithing/weaponry program called Forged in Fire. As the show began, he tipped me off with a quick, “Just so you know, Mom, they’re all going to be men, and most of them will have ponytails. But my favorite part is that at least two of them will have intriguing accents.”
- As I ran, my thoughts ricocheted into the idea of sleep. When Paco had his tonsils out a couple weeks ago, I figured the pain would make sleep difficult. Yet, without fail, he sacked out, totally and completely, for a solid twelve hours. Still traumatized from the kids’ early years, when our kids slept not at all — to the point that I will get petty and engage in “No, you don’t understand. We would have paid money to have them only wake up eight times a night” competitions with other parents — I couldn’t help recalling a time when Paco was six months old. Standing as spectators at a trail race, a couple of us moms watched our kids slide down a pile of gravel. Conversationally, the other mom asked me, “So his first name sure is unsual! What’s his middle name?” Blankly, I stared at her. My baby’s middle name. Hmmm. Good question. I had to wait until Byron finished the race and ask him.
- As I ran, I smiled at Allegra’s excitement and appreciation during her 10-day trip to Europe with a high school group. Her messages to us detailed food, sights, hotels, similarities and differences among cultures. But more than anything, she was delighted by Italian wayside stations. Such snacks! Oh, the crackers! What a unique atmosphere! The espresso bar! In a gas station!
- As I ran, I snorted when a mental image flitted through my head: craving tube-shaped food, I’d gone into a speciality meat shop in town to find something sausage-like for dinner. The workers at the shop, to a one, are dear as baby pigs and are in exactly the right line of work — fulfilling all their potential there behind the counter. After some discussion with the nice young man in his white jacket, I decided to try the seasonal rhubarb bratwurst. When I ordered four, Nice Young Man advised earnestly, “You’re really going to like these. They are sweet. But they are sour. You are going to come back and buy 20. Come back soon because they’ll be gone. So come back soon and get 20. You’ll for sure want 20.”
Done running, I hopped in the car and tuned the radio to music, not talk. I wanted to protect, to store those good feelings from the trail, the comics and the crows and the contestants and the fatigue and the wayside stations and the bratwursts. Happy inside the bubble of my car, I let the goodnesses float free, let them bounce off the windows in time to the beat of the song.
On the way home, I stopped at the liquor store and bought a six-pack of Lollygagger beer.
Later, even though I poured slowly, the head of the beer foamed high.
Guns. Bombs. Death. Terrorists. Neo-conservatism. Trump. Brexit.
At least in that moment, my glass was full.