There is a bathroom upstairs that needs my attention; yesterday I stripped off half the wallpaper border in preparation for painting, spraying vinegar and hot water on the scored surface, peeling it away painstakingly with sticky fingers and a putty knife. I have to finish the stripping, scrub the walls with TSP, tape door frames, remove outlet covers and towels before I can paint. There is also weeding to be done, reading and writing, strawberries to pick and jam to make, with any luck.
But there's something I want to say first. When I was separated from my husband many years ago, I offered once to babysit another couple's children; they were also in some kind of crisis but were going to tough it out. At the time, I probably thought they were better Christians than I was, or that I was transitioning to a more livable faith that allowed me to breathe without guilt. Chatting with Sandy, the wife, when she came to retrieve her children, I mentioned that my part-time job was working with disabled adults. She lit up and said, "It always helps our own problems when we reach out to others." I suppose she meant that I would eventually see how foolish I was to consider divorce, to take my known life and shatter it; she also echoed a common sentiment: don't focus on yourself too much. Focus on others.
This sentiment is one version of a larger idea that we are supposed to rise above our problems, to be bigger or stronger or better than whatever gets us down--in other words, not to give in or show that we are struggling or pained. It also carries the connotation of taking the moral high ground, resisting the urge for self-pity or revenge or even anger. It suggests triumph, though it also suggests a separation and a perspective--to literally rise above is to see the life we inhabit from a revealing height, more completely than we can see it while standing in its midst. Think of a valley, whose shape and contours you can't see while walking its spine; but if you climb a hill, you can get the bigger picture, see the whole animal.
All those years ago, Sandy's comment made me wince a little; I agreed, but I WAS in pain and angry and struggling. My work was to make money so I could live, and though I did enjoy the work, my motive wasn't that noble. I wanted to focus on my problems so I could decide whether it was worth it to stay married.
My childhood prepared me, however, not only to accept but to spout such sentiments as Rise Above. My father left us, my brother died, my sister became ill; but we were admonished not to cry too much, not to let these setbacks hinder us. I made good grades, played sports and eventually the clarinet, enjoyed my many friends. We looked happy on the surface and that counted for a lot. Never mind that I started keeping a journal when I was around 14 where my darkest thoughts and questions spilled out. Never mind that I drank and smoked pot for a couple of years, seeking escape from emotional turmoil that I kept to myself.
My decision to keep quiet about my anguish (it really felt like that) was related to another mantra of my childhood: don't talk about myself too much; that's bragging, and no one wants to listen to a braggart. Acknowledging my real feelings would have broken that cardinal rule; how could I talk about what I felt without talking about myself, admitting that I felt devastated about my father's lack of involvement in my life, that I missed my brother, that I wanted something different from what I had?
Turning 50 this year has freed me in some surprising ways. I give myself a break, sometimes, a rarity. I care a little less about what people think of me. When I want something, such as the Honda Accord I am currently in the market for, I allow myself to trade up; why can't I have the car I want, rather than the one I had to buy in a hurry so my son could take the other car to college? I bought a bike, too, a brand new one, and am searching for a food processor, things I deemed luxuries before.
But there is still a niggling sense that I must Rise Above other struggles and complaints. I want to be a writer. I am a writer. I want to publish more, and the long waits for inevitable rejections carve away at my resolve. It is discouraging. The first book is on its way, and there is another manuscript in the works, but I don't know if it will ever be accepted. It took so long for the first one. Some days I feel cheated, unlucky. This is not Rising Above.
I want to have a wonderful marriage and to get in shape and to have another child. But I can't have these things all at once, if at all. The easy glow of early romance doesn't last, and my aging body resists dropping pounds. Not only that, but injuries (plantar fasciitis) and aching joints (hips) plague me. Working out is harder than it used to be, and my resolve to exercise more often runs headlong into my aging pains and exhaustion.
And the other child? The discussions about it were one-sided, my-sided. And now it's too late.
The palpable sting of these disappointments is intensified by the fact that I don't want to Rise Above. I want to yell and complain and direct my frustration outward. I want to blame. I want to rattle the cage, make some noise. And sometimes I just want to lie down and do nothing, which is more frightening than anger, being the underside of anger, the white belly of surrender.
That bathroom will get my attention today, eventually. And a bike ride seems likely. Dinner will be on the table at the appropriate time. Productivity will accompany the stirring in my mind that probes, Why me? that wants to know when and how and at what cost.