A Sunday in January, 2021, and I am on a walking trail at a local park. The sun is setting. There are maybe six people here; in pre-plague days, I would see closer to a hundred. This park consists of a lake, a trail, and around 15 different picnic areas. We walked here often when my son was young; now I come here maybe once a year.
it is a new year, and I know I need to get up and move around more. Working from home, even though it has been for public health reasons, has seemed like the next logical step in web connectedness: to somehow be with everyone, without ever being with anyone.
I’m deliberately unplugged while I am walking, though. No earbuds, phone left in the car, even took off the Apple Watch. I thought I’d give my own thoughts a listen for awhile, just to see if I am still in there. It turns out that guy is enjoying the ambient outdoors: frogs, crickets, cars in the distance. I genuinely like being alone: it limits the number of people I’m disappointing.
I am always disappointing somebody, it seems. Both the people I love and the people I work with have very high expectations on my account. I am thinking about this now, in the car, driving back home. People have a clear, strong idea about what I’m supposed to be, and I’m rarely exactly that: hence, the disappointment.
Why people have such firm conceptions about my role and expected performance levels I am less sure of; however, that has been true for as long as I can remember. As a child and teen, that phenomenon manifested itself most often in discussions of my ‘wasted potential’. Others knew what I was supposed to be, and I was not that, so I was a guilty of a moral failing, having (in their eyes) squandered some precious natural resource. That has never really changed: I was supposed to be better than I am.
As my headlights swing into the driveway, I see my wife’s car is gone. Checking my phone, after parking, I see she has left me a text indicating she has gone over to her mother’s to do some things around the house. My mother-in-law turned ninety-two this last year, and she also had clear expectations for my wife that were never met. My wife was supposed to be Miss America; as it was, she Miss About-Twenty-Different-Pageants, and close to being Miss Georgia. But she wasn’t, disappointing her mother and brother, who had her life planned for her.
In turn, my mother-in-law had disappointed her family, having married a non-Jewish boy and stayed in the South. Her family had emigrated from Poland about fifteen years before the Nazi horror; marrying outsiders carried an emotional weight I am sure few of us could understand, now. But the cycle of disappointing our families stretches out in every direction I can see. So it is in no way unique to me.
This is a very common pattern for me: I start out talking about myself, only to end up realizing that the problems I have are shared by many. “Children Will Break Your Heart” is the name of one my favorite Garrison Keillor stories. And they will. Children are part of us, but they are not us. This is a situation that only the very lucky end up on the happy side of.
I have five children I have been a part of raising (one child and four stepchildren from two marriages). In my experience, with parents and children, it is always a contest as to who will disappoint whom more; who “wins” that contest, in any individual case, depends on your perspective, I suppose.
My wife texts me to say she is on her way home and would I like her to pick us up something to eat. I am not really hungry, and tell her so, saying I’d be happy to sit with her while she eats so we get a chance to talk. My wife is a minister, and Sundays are very busy days for her. She comes home with a salad, and we sit down at our chronically cluttered kitchen table.
I honestly don’t know how my wife gets everything done that she does. She carries the concerns of a large number of people on her heart and shoulders at any one time. I try to be the person in her life who doesn’t ask for things and who listens to her concerns, as she might not have any such person otherwise. The concerns she carries she often cannot share: illnesses, betrayals, and other things shared with her in confidence. She also presides over 50 or so funeral services a year, and the sheer amount of grief she deals with staggers me.
In addition, she spends six to ten hours a day, most days, with a three year old and a five year old, occasionally supplemented by a seven year old. That seven year old also spends the night once a week. Her emotional capacity to deal with all of this is amazing.
We talk about her mother, various congregants and relatives; what the upcoming week looks like for both of us; how much each of worries about how little the other one sleeps; how many doctor visits she will be accompanying people on this week, and so on. In a fictional story, any night with a couple that ends with them having a conversation and not going to bed together would be a let-down; in the real world, it is a thing that commonly happens, and it’s perfectly okay.
At the end of the day, it isn’t about the disappointments we’ve suffered, or inflicted: it’s about the good we do, or have done.
Greetings from home, please do ignore the mess. We all have our joys, our secrets to confess: The great disappointments burdening our hearts -- But we understand each other in these parts. The way that life goes, the way things have to be; The tendency to a general entropy, Where we let the days go thoughtless into blight Instead of us savoring each day And night