The instructions said
to lay it deep
six weeks at least
before last frost.
You followed the steps
more or less.
The instructions said
to lay it deep
six weeks at least
before last frost.
You followed the steps
more or less.
We are the compulsives. The chameleons. The deluded. The wounded.
Addicts. Bigots. Enablers. Aggressors.
Gossips. Accommodaters. Over-sharers. Fixers.
We are the guarded. And the stuck.
We are passive. People-pleasers. Avoiders. Myopic.
We envy. We compete. We keep secrets. We give up.
Liars. Caretakers. Impulsives. Fanatics.
Re-enactors of traumatic events.
Prisoners of mindsets we refuse to reject.
We frame resilience. . . as the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.
– Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy in Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
Having hit all the deadlines for Phase 1, I steered eagerly into Phase 2. Blocks of writing time for the season ahead peppered my calendar. Accountability buddies jumped on board. To celebrate the milestone as well as the momentum, My Mister dipped into the Treat Jar and agreed to host a game night.
Then on the second-to-last day of the first month, my project ran aground.
“Mommy, what is res-ill-ih. . .?”
We are taking turns sipping sparkly water from a red mug. I lean in to see the words on its side. “Oh, that’s ‘resilience.'” The mug is a forgotten souvenir from the Learning and Leading with Resilience conference earlier this year. Because the three grownups sharing this address take their careers a bit too seriously, the house is littered with such schwag.
Bug traces the word with his finger, sounding it out. “Res-ili-ence. What it mean?”
“Resilience is. . . ” I fumble. Apparently, the mug was not the only forgotten item from the conference. “It’s sort of when something gets messed up but comes back again, either into the old shape or into something new and better. Resilience is bouncing back.”
“Like a magnet?”
“Hmm.” I think about this. “Not exactly. More like a nerf ball. You know how if you mush it, twist it, anything, it still spring back into the shape it was before?”
“Yeah.” He is making a squeezing motion with his hand, mimicking me.
“It’s not just things. People can have the quality, too,” I go on. “It’s a way of living life. Just imagine some big unexpected change happens. Like. . . maybe a big glacier comes and busts up some guy’s house.”
“What’s a glacier?”
“An iceberg. You ever see any icebergs around here?”
He laughs. “No, they’re in the north pole!”
“Right. So this would never happen here, right?”
“I know, Mommy.” He rolls his eyes. “Just say the thing!”
“Okay. So, say some guy down the street is just strolling home after work, and he sees this big glacier roll through his neighborhood and right through the middle of his house. Everything he has is destroyed. He might cry and stomp like anyone would, even like you and I would, if all our stuff was gone. But then the guy spends the next 30 years still being sad and mad, and saying, ‘Bad things happen and it’s just no use trying, I’ll never have anything good ever again.’ And guess what? He ends up not living a very happy life, just because one bad thing happened one time. You know what that guy doesn’t have?”
“Resilience. He couldn’t ever get himself to see a way past the glacier and the stuff he lost, even a long time after it happened. He was stuck back in the bad thing.”
“Okay, okay, okay.” Bug takes another sip of seltzer and lays back on the couch.
“Maybe instead,” I go on, “the guy stomps and cries at first, but then decides to gather his neighbors and work together to re-build. Maybe he decides to stop being miserable after a little while, and he finds the energy to design a whole new house, and maybe he likes it as much as or even better than the old one. Maybe it takes him a few years to save up his money and do the work, but he still keeps plugging away. He and his friends and family and neighbors all end up with a community that’s not quite like the old one, but it still really nice even if it’s different. You know what that guy is?”
“Yes, duh. Resilient,” he says.
“Yeah, duh, you got it.”
“Legos are resilient,” he tells me.
“They are? I’m not sure.” I’m still thinking nerf ball, and legos seem too hard.
“Yeah. Even if you break them all apart, you can put them back together like they were before or even build something else.”
“Yes! They are resilient! You’re right.” I reach over and give him a squeeze.
“Mom! Get off!” He is grinning but trying not to.
“You know what else is resilient?” I ask.
“We are. We had the grumpiest, growliest, no-good-very-bad-day on Saturday. And even though we were both in yucky moods, we decided to make it better. We visited friends, and played, and spoke nicely. It could have stayed an I-Hate-You day, but it didn’t. We worked together to turn the day around. It was so much fun after that.”
“Can we be done talking about this now?” He sets the cup on the side table and ooches down under his blanket.
“Only if I can have a kiss first.”
“No!” He squeals and throws the blanket up over his head. I smooch against his protests and then offer to carry him up the stairs to his bed.
“Okay,” he says. “Like a baby.” And so I slip my arms under his knees and shoulders, heft all 50 pounds of him off the sofa, and cradle him to my chest as I maneuver him up the stairs. It is getting harder to do this without banging his noggin on a door frame, but it’s okay. Sometimes feeling like a small thing is worth the risk of minor injury. I am finally coming to understand that my boy will be fine. He is resilient, after all.
We had five good hours after too many to count of the other kind. The day started with the grumpies and turned into the yelling and the kicking before the sun was even up. It was all scowls and meltdowns from there.
Bug was not the only one having them, I am ashamed to admit. We tried to save the day every which way, even letting Giovanni whisk us off to Manassas Battlefield so we could clamber over cannons and caissons in the unseasonably warm November light. Even so, the afternoon was all tears and grumbles and the push-pull of some unscratchable itch.
Then the child care fell through. Along with it, the evening plans.
At 7:00pm, generous friends found extra chairs and squeezed in two more place settings to make room for us as the table. Other children wrestled and played with Bug. My son turned sweet just minutes after we arrived. He stayed that way, more or less, until a little past midnight. He didn’t even turn back into a pumpkin. He simply fell asleep in my arms.
Without advance warning, friends shared their pasta and their hugs. They gave us five hours of noise and light, which was, in its way, five hours of peace.
What a gift.
Our house is among the 80,000 in Virginia still without power. The number is down from one million, so we are headed in the right direction. We sit in a pocket of about twenty unlit homes surrounded by humming air conditioners and flickering televisions. Virginia Dominion crews work alongside hired tree services under unrelenting sun to saw through and haul away a giant oak that toppled lines on the road bordering our neighborhood.
“Power, power, power,” Bug sighs as we sit in the back yard. “All anyone ever talks about around here is power.”
We are eating our way through a spoiled-food banquet at a steady clip, trying to stay several paces ahead of the e.coli. As a mother, I suppose I should be more risk averse. We grill the last of the thawing cow from the deep freeze, playing infarction roulette by devouring steaks the size of catcher’s mitts. Bug and I together plow through half a leftover birthday cake. The rest of it lands in the dumpster. We body-bag the the limp boxes of popsicles, dripping Costco pork chops that had been neatly re-packaged into family-sized ziplocks (sorry, Mom), all the salad dressing and pickles and yogurt, and one entire 10×13 pan of homemade lasagna (really sorry, Mom).
Bug and I read books by candlelight in our living room encampment. We sing songs. He strips off his shirt. “It’s too hot,” he moans. The night finally cools down enough to open a window, but we cannot conjure up a cross-breeze from the sedentary air. I keep reminding Bug to be still and to try not to let anything upset him. Hot tempers make hot bodies. I stroke his back with the tips of my fingernails. He shivers, his giggles a low moan.
In the morning, Bug walks out with me through the garage. “Mommy,” he chokes. “It smells really bad in here.”
It is no small blessing that the garbage service is operational. Today is trash day, and I am thanking the gods of infrastructure for this gift. Our provisions are now down to a single cooler plus one bin in the freezer. My father has taken on the role of ice hunter. Last night, he had to travel to three stores, but he did return to camp lugging two giant bags. I can keep Bug’s Amoxicillin cold for a couple more days. The lunchmeat, the mayo, and at least four Yuenglings might hold out, too. These events have a way of clarifying priorities.
I see the pinched expressions all around me. Several of my co-workers are also spending their nights stranded on islands of foul heat surrounded by oceans of restored power. Even those who have electricity grumble about being tired and about the slow pace of restoration. No one in the whole of the region had a restful weekend. One friend reported that her childhood bedroom was gutted by a downed tree for the second time in a year. The desire to help fights against the pull to lay low and conserve energy.
Even such minor tragedies narrow the gaze. The work on our to-do lists languishes on our desks. We are in the middle of something else for the moment. I’m not sure what it is, but it feels a little bit frantic. Primal, even. We talk and talk of people we know whose houses suffered damage, of trying to find fresh milk or a patch of shade. We take turns being cranky. We map out our routes home past supermarkets or gas stations offering the supplies we need to carry us through another night. Sometimes we are all ornery at exactly the same moment, and we retreat to the safety of our offices.
The misery here baffles me. We have so very much. I can’t fathom why a few days of heat is so upsetting to those of us who live out in the suburbs and have access to cool amenities just blocks away. Unlike the crews up on cherry pickers re-hanging utility lines at high noon, my co-workers and I pass our eight-hour workday in an office with air conditioning, an ice maker, and internet. Unlike tens of thousands of others, the utility crews and my team are all bringing home paychecks.
This is more than manageable. This is luxury.
Attend to the absence, and the sense of loss become a loss of control.
I keep my mouth shut, though. Nothing worsens a mood more than hearing someone say, “Lighten up. At least you’re not in Colorado Springs. Or Syria.” Each of us has a unique yardstick for comfort. The precise texture of our suffering is based on a corrosion of that comfort. The location of one’s security is not fixed, however. Experience a deprivations or two, and all things rattle into a novel arrangement. Upheaval is a lot like Boggle. Shake, and the familiar text disappears. A new vocabulary materializes before your eyes.
I have to be honest here, though. I can appreciate the vaguely prickling comfort of complaint. It is a little like Bug’s shivers when I run my fingernails down his back. The sensation can become addictive.
When my marriage and camp life unraveled, I exceeded my quota of self-pity. There was a time in the not-too-distant past when I was reeling from a sense of such profound displacement that I felt homeless. The divorce pulled the floor out from under me. I’m sure anyone around me could have said, “Homeless? Who are you kidding? You’re not living under a blue tarp in a refugee camp.” No one cut me with that particular glinting truth, though they would have been right to do so. I am grateful for the friends who endured my relentless moaning.
Now, I have a safe place, a path, a voice, a name of my own. I can live with the unknowns. My son is well. My mind is clearing.
So, it is not entirely fair for me to say, “I can’t understand what everyone’s bitching about. Things are not really so bad.” I have to remember to listen with an open heart and keep my attitude to myself. Privately, I am pleased to notice that riding out this power outage is not nearly as hard as I thought it might be. The lights have been out for a few days, but a few other things are also true.
I quietly reserve the right to maintain a Pollyanna attitude in the face of DC Storm 2012. It is not pretense to acknowledge that this is not the apocalypse. I actually am thankful for what I have. I am even thankful for the fact that my house is one of the few still in the dark. Without a little struggle, how do we know our strength? When we wake up to find that we are Syria, how else will we know that we can survive? How else will we discover that we have the power to overcome cataclysm, even despotism?
Power, power, power. All anyone ever talks about around here is power.
Practice is good. We need to know we can continue to look with fresh eyes and seek new vocabularies no matter how rattled the foundation, no matter how prickling the heat or the fear. It is good to know how to live without power of one sort so we can tap a greater reserve of the stuff when the time comes. The time will come. It always does.