Sunday, August 12, 2018

Third World Green Daddy 77: In a good place

Through the latter weeks of my wife's pregnancy, and into my youngest son's latest babyhood, I have been reading "The Blue Jay's Dance" by Louise Erdrich.  It is her journal of the first year of her newborn's life, and documents her observations of motherhood, writing, womanhood, and nature, from her perch in an old farmhouse in New Hampshire.  I originally got it for my wife to read, but she found it boring, meandering, self-centered.  I have really devoured it though--I feel like it has lots of great observations about life and death that really resounded for me in the wake of my mother's passing.

Erdrich has a few turns of phrase that really hit home for me.  "Dim wings will close over our conniving brains no matter what and so we lose ourselves most happily in tasks that partake of the eternal.  And once we realize that nothing really does, anything can--pulling weeds, picking apples, putting children to bed."  Often when I am lying down between my two older boys, singing or reading or talking or just accompanying them to sleep, I have my little taste of eternity.  I resolve to forever remember the unadulterated, distilled love and warmth of that moment.  I also shudder to think that one day, soon in fact, those boys may no longer want me to lie down with them, they may push me away and dislike me, and someday I'll be alone dying, years and miles away from this safe, beautiful moment.  But I do hope to remember that moment, to capture it and take it forever with me. 

Erdrich again:  "...longing seizes me.  Not only do I feel how quickly they are grwing from the curved shape of my arms when holding them, but I want to sit in the presence of my own mother so badly I feel my heart will crack.  Life seems to flood by, taking our loves quickly in its flow.  In the growth of children, in the aging of beloved parents, time's chart is magnified, shown in its particularity, focused, so that with each celebration of maturity there is also a pang of loss.  This is our human problem, one common to parents, sons and daughters, too--how to let go while holding tight, how to simultaneously cherish the closeness and intricacy of the bond while at the same time letting out the ravling string, the red yard that ties our hearts."

Here's another insightful passage about peekaboo that speaks for itself:
"What causes [Erdrich's baby daughter's] laugh is this:  a combination of the new and the expected with a hint of fear thrown in.  Just at the moment she is afraid that your face won't appear, her expectation collapses.  When you do appear she laughs the loudest.
"The source of laughter lies in anxiety from the very first.  Aside from the chuckle of bears, we are famously the only animal that finds this world a source of humor.  By what marvel?  Laughter is our consolation prize for consciousness.  The capacity for humor develops alongside the knowledge that familiar faces vanish.  Long before we speak its name, then, we know loss, and recall in ourselves the charm of hilarity that draws our loved ones back to light."
One of many points that struck me about The Blue Jay's Dance is how Erdrich's world is so quiet and solitary and centered on (and surrounded by) nature.  This is understandable--if you're living in the middle of the woods, isolated from most human contact and human artifice, your observations are bound to be heavy on animals and plants.  It initially made me wish that my life, and especially my kids' lives, had more contact with nature, with solitude, with ancient houses and timeless routines and paths through the forest.  But of course a very small proportion of people in the world today live in the woods, so while it's fair for me to appreciate the nice things about the life Erdrich describes, it's not fair for me to think that none of our lives have as deep of a meaning as hers in the woods.  If we are to find meaning and joy and transmit it to our kids, it must be in the somewhat unromantic, modern, urban world we live in. And in fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that my life is in a very good place right now, after years of my working to adjust and mold it to how I think life should be lived.

For a long time I was just trying to keep up with work and expenses, and didn't have time or money or mental capacity to invest in longer-term projects.  Perhaps for the same reason, I was really enjoying my family, prizing each moment, living consciously in the way you always say you want to so that you can look back on a life well-lived when you're on your deathbed.  Erdrich talks a lot about daily routines, the sweet solitude of shared moments when it's just you and your kid, and I feel like, within our possibilities, I have also been able to experience these.  I say "within our possibilities" because our life is very mobile and predominantly urban, so we're not able to accumulate years' worth of walks on the same route, appreciating the subtle changes from season to season and year to year, and we're certainly not as close to nature and wildlife every day as is Erdrich, writing from her cabin in the New England woods.  But as I've written about, within the two or three years we've spent in each of the last few places we've lived, my family and I have been able to establish routines, savor the natural world around us, and just live in the moment.

Over time, as I became more stable financially and even just in terms of the logistics of childrearing, I had more time and money to start thinking about larger projects I wanted to undertake.  For years my family and I would only get to Chicago once or twice per year, and we would just relax and enjoy that time.  We would go to beaches, museums, get-togethers with family and friends, but again, we were always in a rush, never able to do everything we wanted.  Little by little though, I had more possibilities of planning our visits to the States to go beyond just the basics of a fun vacation.  We managed to visit, slowly and one-by-one, more distant family members that we hadn't seen in years.  I took my kids to lesser-known museums and sights beyond the big Chicago attractions.  I have even been gradually establishing a few fruit plantings in my family's summer house in Wisconsin.  Later on I was able to invest with a friend in a property in Chicago, and now we're hoping to invest not just in another project but one that will represent an improvement for the social life of a blighted neigbhorhood.

During this phase, I would sometimes worry to myself that I was focusing too much on for-profit projects that didn't contribute to the surrounding community.  This would alternate with worrying about pursuing too many social ventures that might help a few people but that were at heart unsustainable.  At other times I would worry that, in my breathless pursuit of educational trips with the kids and new projects (for- and not-for-profit) and family visits and new experiences, I was overlooking the present, thinking so much about perfectly plotting out the future that I didn't appreciate when those plans finally came to fruition, not to mention the day-to-day sharing with my family that I was supposedly striving for.

But right now I am in a good place.  I feel in control of my professional and my extracurricular projects, I can explore new projects without too much aimless dreaming or whipping myself into a frenzy, I am happy with the balance of socially-relevant and purely for-profit activities I'm pursuing.  All the while, my wife has been on a similar journey on her end, setting up both for-profit and not-for-profit projects in Colombia.  Most importantly, I've got my projects sufficiently under control that they don't occupy my thoughts all the time.  This means I can sit down and pay attention to my kids, talk to them, hear their thoughts about the world, offer them my meager insights.  And that's the kind of stuff you want to make sure you did when, someday, you're on your deathbed, looking back on a life well-lived.

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