Thursday, December 29, 2011

Questioning ideals

My brain is swirling these days. Holidays and visits from parents aside, I have a ridiculous number of deadlines within the next week, and they're all on widely divergent topics. One's a strategic business plan for a new event promoting French food (deadline tonight); the guy I'm working for is momentarily in India, having popped through four other countries in the past week. Another project is a monthly ghostwritten newsletter on faith (due Monday, I choose the topic and write it from scratch); another is a quarterly newsletter on bipolar disorder (due the 6th or thereabouts, and I need a general interest article). I also owe a batch of posts for my other blog. And tomorrow I teach a kids' class in the park on squirrels.

Don't ask how I keep all this straight; I don't. My brain is in a constant state of either chaos or idea triage. While I tried to figure out the time zone of India (so I know when my deadline really is) I prepared for tomorrow. When I get stuck writing about gastronomy I shift to Googling various mental health topics, or pause to read a chapter in one of my Christmas books, or start cooking supper. My mom -- who has come many miles to see us -- sat down on the sofa next to me yesterday afternoon and I had to tell her, as gently as possible, "I'm not really here right now. I'm in my cone of invisibility." It's what I tell the kids when I'm hammering out a piece on deadline. And truly, I'm not there. I'm not accessible.

It's not the ideal set-up, but I'm kinda done with ideal. Or, better said, I'm past the point of thinking that ideal (or even close to it) is a prerequisite for joy, productivity, or peace of mind. Ideal is nice, but it's rarely reality. If I want to live life fully, I've got to do it even in less-than-ideal circumstances.

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A couple of months ago I decided I was done with listening to people whine about the weather. Short of a hurricane, tornado, blizzard or life-threatening heat wave, it's not news. We might as well say, "I'm mildly uncomfortable. Are you?" I think we can set the standard for empathy higher than that.

I've sometimes wondered if people who live without air conditioning complain less than those who spend most of their days in temperature-controlled environments. And I've wondered if people are better off learning endurance instead of focusing on their comfort. Certainly there's productivity loss when you're sweating your way through 98 degree weather. But what do we lose if we never endure discomfort?

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Homeschoolers are fond of the Little House books. Reading them aloud does make one kind of gape at how much work kids used to do (apparently without complaining) compared to today. I suspect that's because if you were out on the prairie and didn't help weed the vegetable garden your family could die of hunger. There were very real, and very harsh consequences to not doing your share of the work, and not just because Pa would whack you with his belt for disobedience. 

In truth, there's very little that I ask my kids to do that has any life urgency to it. I may be obsessed with having the house clean before our Christmas guests arrive, but we all know that no one is going to starve if one of my kids doesn't do his or her job. The worst that will happen is that Mom will be aggrieved (again) that others didn't do their share. It's not the same as the specter of a long winter in a cold cabin only calories away from starvation.

How does one teach children how to cope with the far-less-than-ideal if one lives too close to the ideal?


  1. Hello! I am a regular reader of your blog and found it by reading your articles in the daily guidepost books. Your family is one of the first ones i look for! :). I was wondering where the bipolar newsletter that you mentioned was published. Is it an actual hard copy or an online publication? I have a 13 year old sister who has suffered with Bipolar since she was very young and the newsletter sounds interesting. Thank you for doing what you do! I enjoy the glimpse of your life that you share with us readers. :)

  2. The web site is, and they have a ton of good info there. One tab takes you to pdfs of the back issues of the newsletters.

    I wish your sister well. Bipolar is a tough road to hoe, and I have infinite respect for the people (and their families) who struggle with it.

  3. Thank you so much for the reply :). I am Jessica btw and I live in IL. I hope you have a wonderful day!

  4. I have often wondered the same thing. I don't think you can fake hardship, but you can teach and model gratitude. Furthermore, with children, you have to appeal to the imagination, so books like Little House, A Little Princess, or Understood Betsy aren't a bad start. At least they provide another point of view, even if they don't describe situations that children growing up in Manhattan frequently encounter.

    But there are different kinds of hardship, and sooner or later everyone hits one of them. At that point, the best teacher is example. And you are teaching your children perhaps the best lesson that a child growing up in Manhattan can learn--that not everything has to be perfect.

  5. There are some good YouTube videos of interviews with Louie Zamperini, subject of the fabulous book, Unbroken. He's still alive and has a lot to say about hardship and how to live through it.