Here in Mannionville, or pretty much anywhere, 2009 wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, and 2010 doesn’t look to be a whole lot more fun so far.
When things start to wear on me, I try to remind myself that, bad as it gets, there’s always someone who has it worse, because that’s what my mother taught me to do.
And when I forget, life has a way of making me remember it.
Back in the fall, when I was fighting my way through another bout of self-pity, my father-in-law had a stroke. He’s recovering pretty well although his right leg is never going to be strong enough to support him again and his best hope is that he’ll soon be able to ditch his walker for a cane.
Not too long after that, Uncle Merlin lost his father.
Things evened out a bit in November and early December, but I was getting gloomy again around Christmas, which is when one of favorite librarians had a stroke, far more catastrophic and incapacitating than Father Blonde’s and it’s still not clear how well she’ll be able to recover except that it won’t be very well.
And this morning I said hello to a neighbor I hadn’t seen in weeks and asked him how he’d been.
“I being treated for prostate cancer,” he said.
I know people who have lost their jobs. I know people who are dealing with divorce. If somebody isn’t sick themselves, somebody they’re close to is. The blonde’s aunt has a degenerative lung disease. My aunt’s cancer has recurred. A good friend’s father has Alzheimer’s.
There are young men and women marching off to Afghanistan and Iraq. There are their mothers and fathers who have to watch them march off. There are people who have to live in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There are a lot fewer people living in Haiti.
And I’m bummed because the basement sprung another leak?
Well, yeah, I am.
I’ve been counting my blessings, reminding myself that there are people who have far greater troubles, but so far that hasn’t plugged the hole in the foundation or taken an inch of water off the floor.
I still need to get down there with a mop and a wet-vac.
The wet basement’s a metaphor, by the way.
It’s a commonplace to say that someone’s so wrapped up in his problems he can’t think about anyone else. But sometimes that’s like saying someone’s so swept up in the rapids he can’t see the shoreline. We can hug problems to us like blankets and get tangled up in them. So to speak. But generally problems wrap us up, like pythons. Or it might be better to say, rather than our getting wrapped up in them, they get wrapped up in us. They get inside us.
We worry. We’re anxious. We’re uneasy. We feel sick. Worry and anxiety don’t just cause spikes in our blood pressure, sour stomachs, headaches, weariness, illness. They are higher blood pressure, ulcers, pounding heads, exhaustion. They are dis-ease.
We have no other way of feeling our feelings except to feel them, and, boy, doesn’t that sound glib? But it’s a fact. We don’t just live inside our bodies, we are our bodies, and our bodies have to do all our experiencing for us, including our mental and spiritual suffering. When our thinking gets un-well, our bodies feel it. We get sick.
Works the other way too, because our brains are stimuli processing machines. All we know of the world, really, is the part of it touching our bodies, which means all we know is what’s happening to us physically.
Our body gets sick then that’s what our brains know. Sickness.
I could tell you “I’m feeling a little stressed today,” but I could say, more accurately, I am stressed or I am under stress because what is happening---what I’m feeling---is exactly what steel feels when it is stressed.
I’m being pushed towards my breaking point.
I may be a long way from it. I may be built to withstand a lot more stress. The point is that the stress is a physical fact. It’s not an abstract outside force. It’s as measurable a change in my skin as in the skin of an airplane or the hull of a submarine.
I’m using me as a stand-in for you here. And for him, and her, and them. And me. For all of us corporeal beings.
Counting blessings, remembering there’s always someone who has it worse, these are distractions. Simply ways of telling ourselves not to pay so much attention to our selves’, our bodies’ dis-ease.
But we are still sick.
Times are hard. That’s literally true. The stresses and strains of the Recession are hard upon us. They rub, they weigh us down, they wear us down. We’re tired, we ache. We slog around with pain in our hearts and minds that are like pains in our heads and backs and stomachs and legs because they are pains in our heads, backs, stomachs, and legs. We’re sick, we’re diseased, and we’re infectious.
Telling ourselves to count our blessings, remember the people who have it worse off, maybe this doesn’t work to make me feel better, but it should make me think before I open my mouth to complain, make me feel foolish about what I’m about to say, make me shut up and stop whining.
I think I’ve fallen into a habit of complaining on the blog. Not just about home repairs and annoying trips to the big box store and not being rich, and that’s what all my posts about money and the economy come down to, I’m not rich. I hear a whine underneath everything I write about politics too. I’m tired of it.
No, I’m not about to stop. And there is a lot to complain about anyway. What I’m going to try to do is write more.
At least, write more about stuff that doesn’t inspire me to whine but makes me feel like---well, not necessarily standing up to cheer, but to say, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”
I’m going to try to be more like Kurt Vonnegut’s Uncle Alex.
And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, ''If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.''
That’s my new year’s resolution. I don’t make new year’s resolutions on January 1. I make them on February 28, because that’s the date I started my very first new year on. My resolution is to try to notice when I’m happy and write about more of the times I do.
Won’t make me happy, but at least it won’t contribute to making you feel sick.
Unless I get all sappy and goofy about it.
Then I’ll probably whine about how I’m not whining enough.