Not Everything Needs to be Fixed

I think about what I’m going to do tomorrow. That’s as far as I go.

And old things? Things that are done? I just leave them where they are. Eventually they fall over and become part of the earth, artifacts for future explorers.

Take this gate. Its partner fell over in a storm several years ago. When both parts of the gate were healthy and straight, they held up a sign made of small branches that read “Big Water.” Constructed by the previous owner of our beach house, the gate and sign were his statement. He was a big man with a big gate and a big sign. But so what? The wind still did him in.

The other half of the gate lays in the tall grass; it’s already started its disintegration. Years from now, the wood will have soaked into the earth, the rusty hinge mostly buried by years of shifting sand. A little girl will pull the hinge out of the sand and show her dad. “I think there used to be a gate here,” she’ll say.

And she’ll be right. There once was a gate but now it’s gone.

Puzzle

The phrase of the day is “legitimate complexity.”

Stay with me. This is useful. Suffer through this quote.

“Science shares with the democratic temper an antagonism to all that is obscure, vague, occult, and inaccessible, but it also gives rise to complexity and specialization, which then remove knowledge from the reach of lay understanding.” (Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine, Basic Books, 1982, 59)

Some things have legitimate complexity. Like whatever is causing the Check Engine light to be on in my car.  There is no hope of discerning the cause because it takes a special ‘car computer’ to do that. This is a pity since people used to be able to diagnose and fix their own cars’ ailments. Not so anymore. It’s a loss. Knowledge of the inner workings of the modern car has been removed “from the reach of lay understanding.”

There are other things that have legitimate complexity but not as many as we think. Separating conjoined twins. Managing the machine that is walking around Mars looking for water. Achieving a sustainable peace in the Middle East. There are probably others.

My argument is this. We think too many things have legitimate complexity and because we do, we give up on understanding things too quickly. We let the keepers of the complexity scare us off. Then they build higher and higher walls around the complexity until we are afraid to tie our own shoes lest we do it incorrectly.

If we believe that knowledge is power, we probably need to be very spare in what we hand off to experts to figure out for us, particularly anything that involves the places and people we love. Or ourselves. Things like health and mental health. Who to marry and when. Where to live, where to travel. How to raise children. How to be an old person. How to be happy and joyful. How to die and grieve.

It’s scary, though, being expected to know more and to trust our own instincts. It makes us more responsible for what happens next. I contemplate all this while thinking of the times I handed over the power to others because I thought I couldn’t wrap my head around something big or complicated or terrifying. I could have, I think. I have that capacity. What would it have changed?

So that’s the phrase of the day: “legitimate complexity.” Mull that over.

 

Graveside

We sat in folding chairs

My father who had forgotten me

My forgiven self next to him

The minister closing her Bible

Looking at us, waiting with us

Earth, lush and dark and waiting

Loamy, asking to be held

Then soft tapping on my shoulder

Janice, it’s me, Carolyn

We ran through the barn doors

Weaved around trees with hanging buckets

Stood in the yellow heat of the sugar shack

Licked the earth’s plums from our fingers

Said goodbye for fifty years, fifty years

Felt the silvery, light rain on our heads

Remembered everything and nothing

Studied the thick beautiful earth for answers

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Written in response to The Daily Post prompt: Earth

No Waves

Lately I’ve taken to asking people if they’re happy. We’ll be having a pretty normal conversation and I’ll blurt out, “Are you happy?”

I’m not sure why this has become the question du jour.

Today I was having lunch with a friend and he seemed to me to be not happy and so I asked him the question. As it turns out, there was just a part of his life that he wasn’t happy with but the rest was fine. So the job was a headache and unfulfilling but what he did with the rest of his life was okay. Not fabulous, but reliably okay. He didn’t seem exactly taken aback by the question but did have a look that said, “Is this germane to anything?”

Why are you asking me if I’m happy?

A while ago, a therapist who worked with teenagers told me that the most important question you can ask a teen to see if they’re doing okay is “How are you sleeping?” The thinking behind this, I believe, was that, first of all, if a person isn’t sleeping well it influences how able they are to cope with the day, and second, what is keeping them from sleeping well? Is it anxiety or depression, nightmares or caffeine, or the drugs that psychiatrists prescribe so that tired people can get it together during the day that they often take too late in the day because they can’t get to sleep until dawn?

I like that question, “How are you sleeping?” But I also really like “Are you happy?”

Both are disarming. For someone to stop our conversation to ask me if I’m happy puts me in a strange, reflective place that I didn’t expect to be. Am I happy? I think to myself. I don’t know. Sometimes ‘happy’ seems like am extravagant word for what I usually am which is a fairly robust okay. Still, I appreciate someone asking although sometimes it makes me think they suspect I might be seriously unhappy, depressed, clinical and maybe they should call someone to get me help. I’m suspicious of mood checkers, a fact that should deter me from being one but it hasn’t so far.

So are you happy?

These days the bar for happiness is set pretty high. Now to be really happy, you have to be flying on a plane that used to be labeled joyful. Being okay, even a fairly robust okay, hints at the potential for descent into an unhappy place, a precarious place; okay, but barefoot on a thin wire strung between two distant poles. When did being okay become so insufficient and tenuous?

“How are you doing?”

“Okay.”

“Really? Is there anything I can do?”

So if I ask someone if they are happy and they respond by saying they’re okay, I need to remember that it’s okay to be okay. Being okay is not a symptom in search of a disease. It hints at an even, uneventful keel like my friend today explained as he moved his hand in a straight line, “not a lot of ups and downs.”

And that’s good, right? Yes?

____________________________

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash