How to live in an unjust world (The answer involves Angry Birds)

My stepdad asked my mom if I’m depressed. Perhaps jokingly. He thought I’d been writing about a lot of hard stuff lately.

I don’t feel depressed. But I have been feeling a bone-deep sensitivity. And it’s had me thinking about fairness. I’ve heard that the happiest people understand that life is not fair. That life isn’t even about fairness.

I’ve never understood this, and I fear it will be my undoing, that I’ll become an angry, cynical old woman. Because while I understand logically that I cannot change the world, that I cannot make life fair, my heart does not. My heart aches, too much I think, when a child dies of cancer. Can a heart ache too much over this? Maybe not. Maybe I’m just envious that while others can redirect their thinking, can avoid thinking about awful things that happen to people they don’t know, I have a hard time with it. Perseverating, my mom used to call it while I was growing up. “Don’t perseverate,” she’d tell me. But perseverate is what I do, and it’s part of what helps me write, it’s part of the same urge that makes me want to write in the first place—to document, to bear witness. I think about things—I think them through until I can almost feel what it’s like to be that other person, to be a mother watching her son die.

It’s gotten worse, much worse, since I had children. Heartaches over injustices last longer, penetrate deeper. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by all that is wrong with the world. I don’t want this to happen. I don’t want to hate the world, to hate the people who make it this way, who don’t join in the effort to make it a better place.

I used to be a bright-eyed idealist. Now I’m a beaten and battered idealist. Note—still an idealist. I’m often as passionate about all that is great. But the world is crushing. Simply crushing. And I’ve got to figure out a way to hold myself up.

Come hell or high water, I will have a hopeful post for you next time.

***I wrote the above draft, then closed my computer and went to pick up my son from school. I brought him home, we played, and then I wrote this, which is your promised hopeful post. Warning: It involves various “I’m thankful” phrases:

I am thankful that I hear my two children playing upstairs right now. My son is directing my daughter on how to play with his Angry Bird stuffed animals.

I am thankful we just shared lunch together and grouped my son’s dinosaurs by time period (his idea). I got to do that—to sit, in the middle of a Monday, on a soft couch in our cozy house and play dinosaurs with my son while my daughter, who is fighting a cold, snuggled against me with her blanket. The magic of being an at-home mom.

I am thankful for my husband, who still writes me notes.

I am thankful for winter in all its ferocity this year, for the moon on the snow last night, and the bare branches against the sky.

I am thankful we do not have to travel for the holidays. We get to wake up Christmas morning with our children; they’ll wait on the stairs while I make coffee first (I learned to prioritize from my mother). They’ll beg and plead and when I have a hot cup in one hand and my video camera in the other, I’ll say, “Okay, sweeties. It’s time,” and they’ll come tripping down the stairs to the Christmas tree.

I am thankful that my son just walked downstairs with two round Angry Birds stuffed under his shirt and said, “Look at me! I have fat nipples!”

There is nothing—nothing—like six-year-old humor to lighten things up.

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Alice

At the age of 39, my great-grandfather, Arthur, went to the hospital to have his tonsils taken out. I imagine they’d been troubling him often and he just couldn’t stand it anymore. He was a coal freight agent for the Chicago Eastern Illinois Railroad.

His wife, Alice, 37, and their two children, ten-year-old June and fourteen-year-old Arthur, Jr., dropped him off the night before the surgery, which was to be performed the next morning. Even back then, it was not considered too significant a surgery and so they dropped off their husband and father, said goodbye and see you tomorrow.

Alice on her wedding dayJune 10, 1914

Alice on her wedding day
June 10, 1914

The following morning, Arthur died on the operating table, his heart too large, literally, to endure surgery. It was 1930, and Alice was left alone with two children at the start of the Great Depression.

The bank took the house in Chicago, forcing Alice and the children to move to an apartment in Rogers Park, the first of several apartments. It’s left to me to imagine what it was like to lose a husband and then give up her home and the belongings that wouldn’t fit in the new apartment; to leave her friends and neighbors, maybe a tree she used to like to sit under, or the way the front door creaked a welcome home. To imagine how she told the kids that now that their father was dead, they had to go to a new school with new people. She would never own a home again.

Then Alice took the only job she could find: curling dead people’s hair in a funeral parlor. Every day she got up and went to the funeral parlor to sit in silence and curl hair so her children would have a place to live and food to eat. After a few years, she found another job in the ticket office at Riverview amusement park on the city’s Northwest Side. She got her children through the Depression, and during the war she worked for the government.

She didn’t remarry until the 1950s, until her children were raised and raising their own, until June toddled my own mother on her lap.

This is one of my family’s stories.

Bertie

My mom told me that when I had my first child, I would realize my dog, Bertie, was just a dog.

She was right. My husband and I stopped taking Bertie to see Santa. We stopped fawning over her every accomplishment, and turned our attention to our newborn son. Of course we did.

But when Bertie died on Sunday, we lost something precious. And if we’re supposed to go through life trying to learn what lessons others and our experiences have to teach us, here’s what I learned from Bertie:

1. I have to grow up. Bertie was the first time I was responsible for someone else. I had to plan for her and around her—trips to Pet Smart, vaccinations, walks, feedings, puppy-proofing, finding a sitter for vacations—versions of all the things you have to do with children.

2. Trust their instincts. My husband and I worried over Bertie as a puppy because she often wouldn’t eat. Our vet told us, “Don’t force it. She runs on instinct. She won’t starve herself.” I love this lesson because it carries over well to children. Picky eaters will not starve.

3. The more I cater to craziness, the more “crazy” I will have. When I responded to every whine—usually with a terse, “Hush, Bertie, I’ll let you outside in a second”–I got more whining. When we realized Bertie didn’t like walking on wet grass, we walked her down the street to the apparently drier boulevard in front of a neighbor’s house. This did nothing for our stress levels.

4. You have to cater to some craziness. In other words, you have to allow others to have idiosyncrasies. Forcing Bertie to walk on wet grass didn’t do anyone any good, either.

5. You get what you get. When my husband and I decided to get a dog, we pictured a long-term relationship with a family dog who would roll around on the floor with our future children, fetch sticks, and live to please us. This did not happen. Bertie had a mind of her own and she lived for herself. But she greeted us with love every time we came home, followed me around as I performed chores, checked each room in the house before going to bed at night, alerted me every time she heard a noise outside (this could be frightening), and loved to cuddle (on her terms).

Bertie’s favorite things, probably in this order, were: lying in the sun, running at full speed with leash trailing, hotdogs, and eye scratches. Then us. But I wouldn’t have changed that. Anyone can have a Lab. We had Bertie.

Nothing could have fully prepared me for motherhood, but Bertie took me a good ways. So, thank you, Bertie.