Thursday, March 27, 2008

"It's Better to Have Love Than Fancy Things"

I started this post as a comment on Milk For Spice, but I found it getting long, and it tied indirectly into a conversation I had with The Sun last night, so I figured I'd just write it here.

Her post, "Why is a half-full glass so hard to see?" started talking about her Aunt's positive outlook on life, and then she goes on to say that often her kids and the Bull will stomp around looking at the world as if the glass is half-empty. And that her aunt, who's vision is failing, is happy to be able to see what she can, rather than what she can't. And she wondered why it was so hard for her family to see the glass as half-full. And so my response started out saying:

"The only way people can see to be grateful for what they have is to be able to see what they don't have. Which might sound like it's at odds with your Aunt... but I don't think it is. Although I dunno... lemme try to explain."

Then I realized I had a lot more to say, so l had to start at the beginning of the strand.

Firstly, having been in an abusive relationship, I can tell you that one of the reasons I stayed so long was because I only "saw" the positive aspects... the things I liked about him. The "half-full" part. When the "going" was bad, I would get through it the best way I could... but it was AMAZING how quickly I could "forget" the bad stuff. Until I found myself feeling fundamentally unhappy in my core, and decided that that couldn't be normal. I guess I had the comparison of a good happy family life, where Poppy (though a tad OCD-like... think Jack Nicholson's character in the movie "As Good As It Gets") was very respectful and loving of my mom. And Poppy always told me his eleventh commandment, which was "Neither a doormat or a dishrag shall ye be."

So finally I left.

Secondly, I've "seen" hard times... I know how bad/tough/sad life can be... and I try to stay positive when I'm going through things because sometimes there's no choice. But on the other hand, once I'm out of the bad times I allow myself be sad or wallow, if only for a minute.

I guess the common thread between the two is, you have to know bad, before you can see good. And in order to know bad, you have to know good. Once you know bad... you can tell that "well, on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being 'sucks ass' (or as Shark-Fu over at Angry Black Bitch calls it "FUBAR-Fucked Up Beyond Recognition"), this is only a 2, so I can deal". You can be grateful for what little you can see if you know that your vision is failing and eventually you may not be able to see anything. You can be grateful for good health... even with aches and pains, if you know how bad it is to be really sick. You can be grateful for the little bit of food you have when you know what it's like not to have ANY.

Yesterday I had an email conversation with a lady I see on the bus out here. I have to confess that for a long time I detected a "need" in her, and because I'm drained and am reluctant to get involved with people who have needs (that sounds callous but there's a whole other story behind that, which stems out of a sensitivity I have to people in Mental Distress) I've kind of avoided her. But she sent me something yesterday, one of those "the sky is falling!!!!" partially-true medical-condition/disease-du-jour emails, which of course I had to debunk with a link to Snopes. She thanked me for the correction, and one thing led to another and she told me that her eldest daughter had sickle cell, and that right before moving on to the Rock (a few years ago) her daughter had suffered a stroke, and was reliant on regular blood transfusions to stay healthy. She also mentioned that she (the mom) was looking for a way for her to feel more fulfilled in her life, that she felt she wasn't living up to her full potential. I wrote her back that truly, there was nothing like watching your kid suffer to make you sit up and take notice of your life.

Now, I've been blessed that the Sun is pretty healthy. Once when he was about 11 months old, he came down with a really nasty virus... maybe Coxsackie (and I say "maybe" cuz I HATE when your kid is nastysick and you rush to the doc and (s)he scratches the head and says "dunno... looks like a virus!" and there's nothing you can do about a virus but let it pass) but man was he sick. He was even throwing up breastmilk... and when a kid can't keep breastmilk down you KNOW there's a problem. I couldn't control his fever and at one point he suddenly went completely limp and I freaked out. I was alone (of course) with him at home, and the only thing I could think of was to strip naked with him and sit in a cold shower, and nurse him. So I did, and I think I called ShoeFly and after the shower we took him down to his doctor. After some Motrin and an antibiotic he perked right up... and he wasn't seriously ill like my friend's baby I mentioned the other day (who's coming home tomorrow) but I was scared shitless.

A little while after the Sun's virus, maybe three years or so, another mom-friend of mine's kid was diagnosed with Neuroblastoma, a reasonably rare but particularly aggressive and usually fatal form of pediatric cancer. I went to visit them in Sloan Kettering, and I've never seen anybody sicker than that. My dad, even when he was at his worst, wasn't as near death as this baby was (I have to make note though, that I've never felt a spirit as big as that kid's. The room was filled with his fighting spirit, and I knew that that baby was going to fight with all his might. And I was right). Currently the littleone is in remission and doing extraordinarily well and has been labeled "No Evidence of Disease" (NED) for a few years (knockwood). But during the worst of it, his mom posted regularly about his day-to-day fight, and I became aware of the other Little Ones who didn't make it, and I shed tears over children I never met.

This is, in my opinion, about as bad as life can get. Especially when it's your kid. And other than the maybe-Coxsackie virus, we've been blessed with no major ailments. So compared to all that, it's all relative.

I don't shield the Sun from these things, like sadness or poverty or the death of a loved one. I don't overburden him of course... I only give him as much as he can take. And he'll tell me "Mom, I don't want to talk about it anymore--it makes me sad" when he can't handle it though sometimes if I feel strongly enough I'll push him a little past his limit. But I tell him. I tell him because I need him to know that he's got a lot, in comparison to others. He may not have everything he could possibly want, but he's got a lot and he should be grateful for it.

Because he doesn't really know "bad". He can't see "half-full" cuz he's never known "empty." And yes, I pray that he never really knows "bad"... at least until he's strong enough and old enough to handle "bad", but I also know that since he doesn't know "bad", he can't know "good".

It's one reason (out of the many) that I make my kid trek to Harlem every day (not that Harlem is "bad" anymore and certainly parts of it never were), or walk across 103rd street where until very recently the wino's hung out, or take him along Fordham Road in the Bronx, or trek him up to Yonkers. There's a funeral parlor on 103rd, and every so often when we pass by there on the way to school there will be knots of people darkly dressed, with a hearse out front. I point these things out to him, make him see the sadness of the people there. I believe he needs to "see" how other people live... not everyone speaks English, not everyone is clean and polished and has iPods or drives in cars or lives in suburban homes with porches, not everyone lives on a quiet street. Not everyone has a great, clean, office job. Not everyone is healthy. And these things, while not necessarily "bad", will give the people living life like this a different way of looking at the world.

I would make him come sit with me in the food stamp office, or trek him to Housing when I was trying for the section 8 voucher. It was amusing to me that he hated going to those places--especially the Food Stamp office which was usually horribly lighted with awful government-grade fluorescent lights, beige walls, industrial tile and too many people. Sleeping people, coughing people, children with runny noses. Stressed out and sad people. (When you're in the Food Stamp office, you can't leave to pee or go drink water or eat unless they tell you, because it's all "first come first serve." When you get past the initial application part, they may issue you a number, but they didn't call you in number order. So if you left, you missed your turn. And food and water weren't allowed in the office, and if you snuck food or water in there, the security guard would make you put it away or worse, throw it out. So kids were always screaming, and people were always crabby.) But I made him go with me, even when I had the choice to leave him somewhere because I felt he needed to know what life can REALLY be like.

When I'm broke and can't buy him something, I tell him why. I don't hide my struggles from him, because he needs to know that he should appreciate what he has. It ain't free... everything he has comes at a price. Sometimes we're in Target, and he wants a $2.99 deck of Trading Cards. And I tell him I don't have the $2.99 to spare today. "Why NOT! It's only $2.99". "Yes, but so is a box of juice for your school snack. And today I need to buy the juice, so today, you don't get the cards." And truthfully, sometimes I want to relent and overspend and get the juice AND the cards, but I don't, because he'll never learn the choice if I do.

We've had discussions on why I can't buy him the exact same thing the Moon has (the latest item was the Wii)... I don't have the money. "Why not? Can't you go to the bank and get some?"
"Well, you have to put money in there in order to get it out. They don't just give it to you."
"Well, put some in there."
"I need a job or some work in order to do that".
"So you should just go get a job."
Sometimes I tell him I'm looking, but sometimes I explain to him that part of my job dilemma is being able to be home with him... to pick him up from school or take him to violin or karate. I explain to him that the choice is... mommy working full time and you get that Wii/toy/every-trading-card known to man but you may probably also have to give up a lot of things because of time and I won't be there to pick you up from school... or, mommy not working full time and you don't have every toy you want, but you have my time and you get to go to karate and violin, and I get to pick you up from school. Which do you prefer?

I'm happy to say that about 90% of the time he chooses me.

But the point is... there are choices in life. You have a choice in the way you live (pretty much, things like race and class notwithstanding) but you certainly have a choice in the way you view life. However... you have to KNOW you have a choice, and you can't know that if you haven't been made to see.

My father once went into a discussion with us about Adam and Eve and the Tree of Life. Why the Tree of Life was ultimately more important... but the warning was not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That if Adam and Eve had eaten from the Tree of Life, they may live forever, but that wouldn't necessarily mean that they would also eat from the Tree of Good and Evil... and wouldn't become "God-like". But once they ate from the Tree of Knowledge... they would then know that if they also ate from the Tree of Life, they would be God-like. When they did eat from the Tree of Knowledge, their "eyes were opened" and they could "see", and they were turned out from the Garden of Eden... not solely as punishment for what they did but to prevent them from eating of the Tree of Life. And just in case they tried to double-back and sneak the fruit, God put a fiery sword at the foot of the Tree to prevent that from happening.

You could also argue that the "punishments" inflicted on Adam and Eve weren't punishments really... they are the consequence of knowledge. Hell... if you've every been pregnant and faced the idea of vaginal delivery for the first time, the more you know about it the more scared you are. A uniquely human perspective, since "dumb" animals don't face childbirth with the same fear. But I digress.

Longwinded spaghetti post... the conclusion of which is that while most parents actively seek to shield their children from the horrors and the not-so-horrors of life, there is something to be said for letting them see parts of it... so that they can see "half-full" because they will know the difference between "half-full" and "empty".

And the title of my own post came from a conversation I had with the Sun last night at bathtime. He was being annoying... whining about something and mimicking a friend, and I told him as much. Typical kid, he started exaggerating his behavior and I told I'd just arrange for him to live with that family. He "snapped to": "No, I'll stay with you. There's hugs here." Startled, I asked "You don't think there's hugs there?"
"There is, but not like this" and he gave me a big, nakedy hug. I laughed.
"It's better to have love than fancy things" he said, and I was so dumbfounded by what he said that I just started to laugh.

I laughed with the understanding that he was saying something important, in his own words, and that it wasn't about the "fancy things"... it was that he "saw" what is that we do have. That he could see the difference in the way people lived, and that he appreciated what he had.

And that made me feel really good.

4 comments:

professor said...

I love fuzzy...that last part brought tears to my eyes...yes, he does see what he has as does all our kids (even thought they give us a totally hard time)...

Fat Lady said...

I think I have to work backwards through this. I love what the Sun had to say. I might have to make a sign of that and post it up somewhere prominent in my apartment. That's something good to remember.

I don't particularly like 8-9 year old boys. Never have since I had some harrowing babysitting experiences with a few as a teenager. And these days, most of the ones I encounter, or hear about from Sugar are as annoying as anything! But the Sun is different. I mean, he's a boy all right, but he understands things that most boys his age seemed to be determined to be oblivious to. He's an exceptional kid.

I disagree with pregnancy comparison. Through two pregnancies that went full-term, I found that the more I learned about how that baby was getting out. The more I knew - not about the horrors, but about the ability of the female body to open up and send a baby out into the world, the less fearful I was about it was all going to happen for me.

I struggle a lot with how much of reality I feel comfortable sharing with Sugar. More and more as she gets older and we can have conversations that really let me gauge how she's dealing with it. She, like her mom, is prone to over-thinking things and worrying about them, so I have to be careful not to get her all worked up with too big a dose of reality. But then other times, she surprises me by letting things roll off.

The (very elderly) man in the apartment next to mine was discovered dead in his apartment today. I debated about whether or not to tell Sugar and how to tell her. But when I told her, she already knew because the Bull had seen her before I did and told her. She was amazingly un-fazed by the whole thing. And was most interested in the story of how the Super found him because the cops he called refused to go in to the apartment to check. A good reminder that she just fine with the harsher realities.

You are a better woman than I to be able to deal with carting your kid to any kind of social service agency. I took Sugar with me once to go to ACD about getting reduced childcare costs and I took Spice with me to get out of jury duty and both were torture - never again.

I agree with you though that kids have to know empty to be able to appreciate half-full. But it's something I have to think about more.

But adults. I don't know. I get so frustrated with the Bull's inability to be able to be excited about or appreciative for any of the good in his life. He just sees everything as a hardship and can't find the fun in anything. It's exhausting and demoralizing to be around.

And that brings me to whether or not it's possible that optimism can make a person stay in a relationship they shouldn't be in. Sadly, though my first reaction to you saying so was to protest quite loudly in my head - I have to admit you might be right.

Certainly there is an ability, in focusing more on the good than the bad, to be able to withstand situations that a less optimistic person might do something about. I see myself doing it. And Aunt Happy did it for 45 years.

And yet, for me, this optimism - this determination to see what's in the glass rather than the empty space - is fairly new for me. Before that I was just as unsatisfied and unhappy - but I thought I could fight to make it better. And I long since discovered that nothing is ever going to change. So it's not just that I refuse to see the bad and only focus on the good. That's not it.

But I do think, in general, that we all have times when we choose the lesser of two evils. We look at our choices and find that none of them are ideal or what we want - so we pick the one we think we can live with the most.

And the optimism comes in when you decide what person you want to be within a less than ideal situation. You can walk around being miserable and resentful of the situation you're in. Or you can decide to find the good in it and eek out some joy from life. I'm trying hard to not be the miserable person and to squeeze whatever drops of happiness I can get out of this situation.

I figure I picked this dark path - I might as well go skipping down it, rather than cowering in the shadows.

The Bear Maiden said...

Well, I don't know that "optimism" is the right word. Certainly it wasn't the word I was thinking of. It wasn't that I was "optimistic" about the relationship I was in. As a matter of fact, I wasn't at all optimistic. I hated the thought of being stuck with him for the rest of my friggin' life, and I truly believed at the time that no matter how I tried to disappear, TheFucker would find me. But... if I concentrated on what was "good", the things I liked about him, I could temporarily obliterate the darkness. Well, at least I thought so. The darkness was always there underneath... kind of like looking at sheet of ice over deep, cold, menacing water. Cuz the bull, well... I like him well enough, but I know there are issues and I say to you... if you spend THAT much time wondering about it, it's already too much time.

Or at least that's how it turned out for me.

And the Overthinking thing. LOL. Really, can anybody overthink things more than me? Even as a kid I overthought.... but kids don't tend to overthink concrete things like death. They overthink abstract things like how your neighbor (may he rest in peace) was actually found.

Thanks to both of you for compliments about my boy. I too, hate 8-9 year old boys. I actually I hate most kids from about 7-12. But ours happen to be an enjoyable bunch :) But I try hard with him... we need good people--particularly men--in the world and I hope that he will become one. It's my major goal in life :).

Jacqueline said...

I love this post of yours... I am all about choices in life... decisions made and natural consequences..... thanks for a great spaghetti post. ;-)