“Some day, I will live in that hotel,” the girl said, pointing to a luxury tower. She was walking with her family — mom, dad, a couple of older brothers. “I’ll let you live there with me, but I get the whole top floor to myself. Don’t forget, I’m the main character in our family’s story.”
Her family gave her a collective eye roll, reacting to a joke she had apparently told before. She ignored them, smirking at her own precociousness.
The overheard comment made me think of my mother-in-law Pat, who recently died after a long, awful decline into dementia. In many ways, she had been the main character of our family’s story, a figure of great intelligence and energy, a woman whose life we have always, without really thinking about it, spoken of in terms of chapters. Of course, we all had our own lives, but when we were with her, even after her illness had made her a different person, yet another chapter, she stood at the center of us all. Her death has felt very much like the closing of a book.
Everyone is seeking the feeling of control. Pat’s life was evidence of this. And I heard it in the voice of this little girl who insisted on being the main character, not just in her own story, but her family’s story. I see it in every child I have ever gotten to know. I feel it in myself. As the famous Serenity Prayer reminds us: there are things we can control, things we cannot, and wisdom is found in knowing the difference. The Buddhist tradition tells us that our discontentments in life come from not being able to prevent the erosion and loss of things we value.
For the better part of two decades I spent hours every day on our preschool’s junkyard playground. There had been a time when it was brand new to us: the two-level sand pit, the wooden row boat, the cast iron water pump, the raised bed garden, the swings, the workbench, the art tables, the retractible rain/sun awning. We all knew, from the very start that the sand pit, being built on a slope with a cast iron water pump at the top was going to be prone to erosion, that the sand would need to be regularly moved back up hill. So, we knew, intellectually, that things would not remain the same, but over the years as the row boat began to rot, as the nails came loose on the garden beds, as the awning began to thin and tear, I found myself fretting. Decay was all around us, every day, accelerated by children playing hard, exploring, experimenting, and discovering.
Twice a year, we came together as a community on a weekend with wheel barrows and shovels to haul that sand back up the hill, to re-hammer the nails, and to otherwise patch and repair. Most days, it would remain beautiful to me, and I know it remained that way for the children, but every now and then I would see a photo of how things had been when it was all shiny and new, and mourn what once was.
In Nobel prize winning novelist Doris Lessing’s book The Summer Before the Dark, the main character, Kate, is a woman who has made a life as a wife and mother. Her husband earns a good living. Her children are grown. Her marriage is what most would be considered successful. As Kate says, “This was a happy and satisfactory marriage because both she and Michael had understood, and very early on, that the core of discontent, or of hunger, if you like, which is unfailingly part of every modern marriage — of everything, and that was the point — had nothing to do with either partner. Or with marriage. It was fed and heightened by what people were educated to expect of marriage, which was a very great deal because the texture of ordinary life . . . was thin and unsatisfactory. Marriage had had a load heaped on it which it could not sustain.”
Marriage is not the only thing that has had a load heaped on it. It hadn’t been easy, but Kate had, over the years adopted the virtues of being a married woman in the 1970’s, but, and this is the crux of the story Lessing is telling, “it seemed to her that she and acquired not virtues but a form of dementia . . . The virtues had turned to vices, to the nagging and bullying of other people.”
It’s normal and healthy to seek control, but that urge exists on a continuum, just as virtue and vice exist on a continuum. It’s normal and healthy to mourn the loss of things as they inevitably decay, break, or simply, one day, go away.
Our children are born perfect. Our love for them is perfect. And then they cry from discontent. They transform our lives. They grow, they make demands, they behave in ways beyond our control. That is the nature of everything, and that is the point.
The girl is right. We are the main characters in the stories we are living, but we cannot be the authors in the way Doris Lessing was a novelist. No, our stories are more like our more authentic oral traditions, not set in stone or printed on a page, but alive in our words and deeds. Most of all our stories live in the learning and unlearning we must do as we live the life before us. Just as we awaken each day to a new world, our stories must have new chapters, and they need not even be connected to the chapters that came before, because the parts we cannot control, the decay, the erosion, the brokenness will always turn our virtues into vices compelling us to adopt the new virtues demanded by today. The alternative is nagging and bullying and discontent.
“Ready for a book that makes you want to underline and highlight? One that makes you draw arrows and write ‘THIS!!!!!’ in the margin? Then you are in for a treat.” ~Lisa Murphy, M.Ed., author and Early Childhood Specialist, Ooey Gooey, Inc.
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