“When they knock you down, don’t break character/ you’ve got so much heart…Rise up like the sun/ And labor til the work is done.”—The Killers “Be Still”
There’s a lot going on for me these days. As my esteemed colleagues Angela Turner and Brian Theodore have already pointed out in these pages, it’s the start of a new school year, and when you are a teacher or a student, that’s the real New Year’s Day.
My sense of hope and my eagerness for change are always at their highest as summer fades into fall, which is good because there are some changes coming down the pike for me that I’m not quite in a position to go public about just yet. But soon.
In the meantime, I’m trying to sand off all the rough edges and tie up all the loose ends in my life before I leap into something new, and there are a lot of rough edges and loose ends.
Some of these are things I’ve been battling every summer for as long as I can remember. For one thing, I’m still at least 20 pounds overweight. These are the same 20 pounds I’ve been promising myself I would lose over the summer since 1984.
At least they are the last 20 pounds, and I try to tell myself that thinking about them consciously at least keeps me from adding to them.
I never remember a day in my life when I was completely happy with my back-to-school wardrobe or felt I had accomplished as much with my summer as I’d hoped.
I buy books faster than I can read books, until the stack of books to be read on my shelves far exceeds the hours available in any single summer.
For another thing, my convertible needs a paint job. The clear coat is starting to chip. (Okay, “starting to” is pretty generous; the clear coat is chipping.) I can’t let this go forever or she will start to rust, and she’s too well-preserved at 23 for me to let that happen.
I have a mystery leak in my basement that needs attending to. At first it was a trickle, but it has become, well, more than a trickle, and I think I know the culprit, but I don’t spend much time in the basement, and it’s been easy to dismiss because out of sight is, as the cliché goes, so often out of mind.
However, the litter boxes are in the basement, and the cats have begun to complain. A complaining cat is never truly out of mind because it will contrive to never be out of sight unless you just get out of the house, and it’s hot outside.
Lately, it has also been hot inside because my air conditioner is having hot flashes. I find it difficult to be too angry with it. I know how it feels. Still it would be easier to regulate my internal temperature if I could more reliably regulate my external temperature.
The repairman came once, solved the problem, and warned me that it may crop up again, and if it kept happening we would have to replace the part. (This is more or less what doctors told my mother about my ear infections when I was a child.)
Since then, I have solved the problem by turning the whole system off and back on again. The problem at issue is a computer control problem, you see, and computers respond well to being completely shut down and restarted, so they can clear their heads for a while.
You know what else responds well to being shut down and completely restarted? Human beings. I used to have a friend who would say that the best thing to do with a bad day is to end it. It sounds simplistic, and sometimes it is, but when it comes to many issues, we never outgrow being toddlers: if we are hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, or tired, we are cranky, and cranky is not good for problem-solving.
God knows this is true, and I mean that quite literally. In the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah is praying for death, God says, “Son, talk to me after you’ve had a nap and a snack.” (I’m paraphrasing here because this takes half a chapter in I Kings, even in the most modern of translations, and I get dirty looks from readers if I go over 1,000 words.)
Not for nothing, this is also the passage where Elijah looks for God in the storm and the earthquake and the fire and finds him at last in the still, small voice, after he has had two naps, two snacks, and a very long commute, and has holed up in a cave for a while.
My point is that it is often easy to get so caught up in the big problems of life that we forget to attend to the little things, and the little things matter. “Arise and eat,” the Angel says to Elijah, “because the journey is too great for thee.”
One of my favorite touchstones when I am feeling overwhelmed is from Robert Fulghum, the author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” He’s not Mister Rogers, but I think he often comes close. In an essay is which he enumerates all the hundreds of thousands of hours he has spent coping with the odds and ends of life (eating, driving, brushing his teeth, mending, filling out forms, and so on) he has this to say:
“The good stuff has to be fitted in somewhere, or else the good stuff has to come at the very same time we do all the rest of the stuff. Which is why I often say that I don’t worry about the meaning of life—I can’t handle that big stuff. What concerns me is the meaning in life—day by day, hour by hour, while I’m doing whatever it is that I do.”
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