I am surrounded by gremlins with good hearts and under-developed brains.
This is what I tell myself as I collapse into our big yellow armchair (IKEA STRADMON) and survey the wreckage of an ordinary summer day in a house with four children.
It’s early evening and the house is quiet for the first time in fourteen hours. Two of the kids just left to go to their mom’s house for the next few days. Two of the kids are settling into bed upstairs. Ellen just left for the late shift at the hospital; she’ll come home at four a.m. and I’ll wake up briefly to say “I love you too” as she buries her face in my armpit and dozes off. Toby is half asleep under the coffee table, his chin resting on his paws, his tail wagging when I look his way.
It has not been a very productive day, by any objective measure of productivity. When it is summer and there are four kids and their brains are still developing, some days consist almost entirely of listening to shrill squabbles and inane tattle-taleing. Some days it seems like a major battle has been waged over every object in our house, every corner of the couch, every random penny found in the kitchen. I’ve fielded complaints about property rights, minor hate crimes, screen time, unfair intra-child alliances, and every other sort of petty conflict imaginable (though, if you have ever been adjacent to children between the ages of six and nine, you don’t need to imagine — I’ve been in this game long enough to know that, while absolutely maddening, this is also perfectly normal. The kids are fine. Their hearts are good. Their brains are just under-developed, and when you don’t have much of a frontal lobe you have a lot of shrill squabbles and inane tattle-taleing instead.)
So I’m sitting in the big yellow IKEA STRADMON listening to the silence and ignoring the whisper in my head that tells me I should stop procrastinating and go clean up the aftermath of Taco Tuesday (“I hate tacos!”, “He’s taking all the avocados!”, “Why can’t we have spaghettios?”, etc.)
I wander over to the corner of the internet where the longreads are stored and for the next two hours lose myself in exquisite journalism. I should be cleaning the kitchen or making the August budget or folding laundry or working out or building Annie’s website or writing a book, but it’s quiet in the house for the first time in fourteen hours and I’m alone and gravity feels particularly strong in this corner of the living room at this moment so I’m going to read instead.
I wonder if my life has any meaning.
I wonder why, with the incredible privileges of food in my belly and money in my pocket, I feel entirely unmotivated to do anything beyond consuming long-form journalistic essays.
I have a bad habit of consuming so that I do not have to face these questions.
I consume two or three cheap beers.
I consume pounding music with the bass turned up so high it makes my head throb.
I consume books in half the time it takes most people. I don’t always remember what I’ve read.
I consume pizza and nachos and anything else I can find in my kitchen that has enough salt and fat to trigger a dopamine response inside my skull.
I consume consumer goods on Amazon. Headphones and coffee mugs and HDMI cables and skincare products and more books than I’ll ever read, because a friend wrote them or because I heard a brief interview with the author on a podcast last week.
But a day or two ago I swore off my most common consumptions — alcohol and grains — and I’m trying to be conscious about my spending so instead of eating or drinking or shopping I’m consuming words and stories instead.
After finishing the essay about super-centenarians I go outside and lie down in the hammock I installed in our back yard last Sunday. I think about all those stories I read and all the lives they represent.
Most of those stories were familiar from the news headlines:
RICK & MORTY RENEWED FOR FOURTH SEASON
NORTH KOREAN PRISONER RETURNS TO U.S. IN COMA
HEAVIEST MAN ON EARTH UNDERGOES SURGERY
BACHELOR BREAKS UP WITH FIANCE ON CAMERA
DOCTORS COMPLETE FIRST SUCCESSFUL FULL FACE TRANSPLANT
OLDEST MAN IN THE WORLD DIES
but the headlines never capture all the details and texture of these lives. The self-doubt. The hope. The loneliness. The mundane errands and ordinary meals. The complexity. The humanity.
It’s the same with us, isn’t it?
We write our own headlines every day:
I AM ON VACATION WITH KIDS
I AM READING ABOUT THEOLOGY
I ADOPTED A DOG
I AM HAPPY
but the headlines don’t capture the details:
I spend all day trying to be a good parent to four kids with under-developed frontal lobes. I wash the same dishes every evening that I washed the evening before, wipe the mess off the table so we have a clean slate to do it all again the next day. I read a chapter or two of a book I bought on Amazon, mostly to procrastinate. I give the dog his food, his water, his insulin and let him outside to pee. I go to the hardware store every week to buy screws and windshield wiper blades and a hammock stand and sometimes this feels like the most consistent thing in my life. One day passes into the next and I feel like all I do is care for these small needy creatures and stave off the inevitable disintegration of this big old house and answer emails and try to consume enough to quiet the nagging whisper that perhaps all is meaningless.
In the hammock, I stare through the branches of a birch tree at the one visible star high in the night sky. It flickers, and I wonder if it’s actually a planet or a satellite. The glow of the streetlight in the alley turns the tree leaves orange, and when a cool breeze drifts over me it feels for just a moment like the last day of October instead of the last day of July.
I know there are more stars above me, but tonight I can only see that one.
I know that there’s more meaning to life too, but tonight I have only this — these children and this dog and this messy kitchen and a good woman who’s working the overnight shift at a hospital an hour away.
I tell myself that is enough. I try to believe it.
I let the hammock sway my tired body for a few more minutes before the mosquitos get the best of me and I head inside, start the dishwasher, and fall into bed.
published August 1, 2018
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