You know those early days of a relationship where everything’s still “adorable”? Then comes the day you learn something about the new object of your affection that still falls into the adorable category, but it’s combined somehow with a behavior that’s a little…not quite off-putting, just disconcerting? You’re not sure how to deal with it. Let it go? Bring it up as a joke? (“Hey, I had no idea you and your parents still wear matching outfits. Cute.”) Well, here’s mine.
My husband who was once my boyfriend loves to talk about the news. And not just the big stuff, I mean the stories that get buried on page seven. The question “Did you see that story…?” became a hallmark of our early relationship because usually I hadn’t. I scanned a headline, swigged coffee and then headed for the subway. I knew who was running for president, but not much more. (It became a point of contention after a while, actually. Him: “Did you see–?” Me: “Stop yourself. Probably not.” Him: [Eye roll]. I’ve since changed my ways, just as he will concede that a meal can be meatless and still count as sustenance.)
He’s a chatty bugger, my husband, so regardless of whether I’d seen the story or not, he’d go on to tell it. Invariably, when he’d do the dishes after dinner he’d stand at the sink and keep right on talking. Then he’d get to a story that really frosted him or that he felt required a little more explanation and for some reason, he’d walk away from the sink to tell it. Hands dripping, soap suds dropping on the floor, water running. Let me make this clear, he wasn’t stepping away to make one quick point. He was stepping away as if he forgot what he’d just been doing. I half expected him to wander into the living room and sit down.
It was weirdly endearing, his getting lost in a topic, but it was also awkward. There he was, chatting away, gesturing wildly, making his point, and there I was, staring at the faucet.
“You’re not listening.”
“Sure I am. It’s just…”
“The water’s running.”
“I know that.”
And here’s the awkward part, because what I wanted to say was, “Well, turn it the hell off, or stop talking for five minutes.” But we were in the throes of something, you know, real. True. Lasting. So what I probably said was, “But…it’s going away.” Which probably led him to say, “What’s going away?” At which point I would think, but not say: The water, you damn fool. The gallons and gallons of unused water you’ve turned your back on to tell me a joke about Newt Gingrinch. At some point, I did say something like that, but not back then. We’ve come to a compromise since then. I now pay attention to what’s going on in the world on a daily basis, and he tries really hard to tell stories and scrub pots at the same time.
Years later, I met a woman who told me a story about watching her college roommate dump out the water in their teapot and refill it. The woman telling the story came from a country (can’t remember where now) where water was scarce, and not particularly clean. When she mentioned to her roommate that she could have boiled the water in the teapot again, the roommate shot back that she was in America now, they didn’t need to do that. What stayed with me from that story wasn’t that this woman knows what it’s like to worry about her water supply, but the response from her roommate. I walked away from that story wondering how much I take for granted: the water from my tap, the fact that my lights go on and stay on until I turn them off, the garbage trucks that are outside my house right now.
More recently, I’ve landed myself among a group of people who think about water all the time. They think about it in a lot of different ways: development, taxes, agriculture. What it means when you find a Tiger Spike Tail Dragonfly. What you can learn from the size of a trout. Hanging around with them, I learned about stuff like watersheds and headwaters and that there are a whole lot of people out there working on all the issues that surround the gallons of water my then-boyfriend let wash down the drain.
It’s too much to keep track of, frankly, and I’m not sure anyone expects the average person to pay that much attention, but we could pay more attention. We could take a minute to be amazed that in the U.S. we can pull a lever and water comes out. A lot of water. Mostly clean water, too, but it could be better. Then we could wonder, just for a second, what it takes to get that, where it begins and ends, and what it would take to make that stop. It’s not much. It’s also not much of an effort to get a little information on it, so you know when to pay closer attention. If nothing else, pay attention to what might affect you, since it probably affects many thousands of other people, too.
Do something for me, check out the page for Blog Action Day 2010 and read at least one other blog from someplace far away from where you live. Put yourself there for a few minutes and think of this: it’s all the same water. Some of us have it, others don’t. Some of us don’t think about it much, others are forced to think about it every day. Those of you reading this who don’t need to think about it on a daily basis, put yourself in the shoes of someone who does, even for a few minutes. Then go turn on the tap and see what comes out.
I’m not sure if this happens to everyone, and it probably does to some extent, but I’ve been thinking lately about the time I decided I could probably do my life a lot better than I was doing it. (I actually have some form of this thought almost every day, but this one was big.) I was twenty-one, and I was sitting across from my mother in a hospital. I was in some barely washed outfit and she wore a pale yellow sweatsuit and nice clean sneakers. She looked good; I didn’t. A social worker sat between us talking about how sad my mother was about our relationship. I was probably angry to be there, and also ashamed that this woman was telling me how I could do better, but we’d done this a dozen times before and I was tired.
I left there shaking and panicked, with two thoughts racing through my head: my mother was actually furiously angry (and looked great doing it), and I was just like her (minus the looking great). For three years before that I had done everything I could to distinguish how I was happier than my mother, and that day I realized that all my efforts had only created a mirror image. Things weren’t going well for me then; I had grand plans for myself that I knew were ridiculous and I was in the midst of using that understanding as an excuse to throw everything away. I spent the next few weeks proving what a fool I really could be. The whole time, I couldn’t shake the image of my mother and her pretty yellow sweatsuit and wondering how much longer it would be before I might wind up in a hospital. It became an almost physical sense of pressure inside my head, the warring factions of “You’re an idiot” and “You don’t have to be.” The hardest part of choosing to see what would happen if I stopped doing the stuff that was wrecking me was that I had no idea what the end result might look like. There was no guarantee that I would get a PhD/write a book/win awards/enjoy my life. But I felt the urge to try it, I felt that pull, and I stumbled in that direction.
What’d I do? In the classic tradition of “what the hell,” one Friday morning I opened my mouth. I told someone what was going on, and as soon as I did things slowly shifted. They didn’t shift easily–notice that I used word “stumbled” up there–and I didn’t always like it, but one thing I kept hearing over and over was that I needed to stop using the word “no”. My life until then was all about what might go wrong if I took a chance, and over the next several years I trained myself to remember that the worst case scenario was never all that bad. It took work, though; it took a lot of opening my mouth. It took walking blindly into situations that might be good for me with no guarantee.
My dad always talked about the gift of desperation–that moment when you realize there’s nothing else to do but try something different. 20 years later, I don’t get particularly desperate anymore, but I’ve internalized the habit of asking myself if I need to open my mouth. The problem for me comes when I decide that yes, I do, but that’s okay. A little dread never hurt anyone. Keeps the blood flowing. The point is, I’m conscious of those moments, those pivot points, because even if they’re very small, or they’re leading me into doing something that might be difficult, they remind me that I have another chance to take a step in the right direction, if I choose to. It’s always invigorating when I do, even if I have no idea what will come of that decision, and I’ve done it a thousand times by now. It’s rarely one set of questions, one session of wondering; it’s always days, weeks, months, sometimes years of questioning. This thing you’re reading is the direct result of one of those little internal tangos–that started in 2006.
The thing I’m leading up to may sound small to most of you, but to me it’s pretty big. I signed up the other day to write something here (and someplace else, too) for Blog Action Day.* Frankly, I’m terrified. It feels like I’m pretending to know something that I don’t, taking on a position of authority I don’t have. The scenarios of all the ways I could do it poorly are vivid and horrifying. This is exactly the kind of opportunity that 20 years ago I would have considered, decided I’d suck at it, and then read with the world’s most poisonous envy what everyone else did. So in the spirit of “what the hell” or “how bad could it be” (both very different from “what could possibly go wrong”, which is a question that always leads to disaster) I’m going to write here about water on Friday. Big topic. Important. One I have no expertise with besides drinking, bathing and swimming.
So, on Friday morning I’m going to open my mouth. My decision to do this is a much smaller version of the decision I made 20 years ago, but it’s no less intimidating, and in some ways no less important to me because, just like that other Friday, it gives me the chance to take the next step in the right direction.
*There’s supposed to be a widget on here about it, but I can’t get the damn thing to work.
The other day, a friend sent me this and asked me if I’d read it and what I thought of it. Having read it a few weeks before and loved it, I sent back an email with lots of capital letters and exclamation points, to which she responded with something like, “How can I have known you all this time and not had any idea you’d like this?” Then she lamented how we lived closer to each other than we have since we were 20, but still can’t hang out in my car talking until 3am. It would solve a lot of problems, it’s true, but I don’t hang out in my car with anyone anymore.
Skip ahead to the other day when I was at a party for another friend. She and I and the little crew that sprouted up when we all met years ago somehow established a joke about not hugging because one of us in our group is averse to hugging. Something stuck in my head that none of us hugged, although I do, but I hold off with this group because what was once a joke grew into something true and false at the same time. As we were leaving the party, everyone hugged her but me and one other friend. I felt foolish; of course I should hug her, but I never have before, so I didn’t. It’s a stupid little mistake that grew into a whole characteristic of our friendship. Next time I see her I’m hugging her, even if she kicks me out of her house as a result.
Which brings us to a third friend who called me the other day to tell me, lovingly, what a jerk I am for being so hard to find lately. I finally met up with her and after about half an hour of laughing and catching up and whatnot, she burst into tears and told me all the stuff that she’d been leaving out of our brief, admittedly infrequent, conversations for months. I couldn’t have heard the story any earlier; sometimes a thing like that needs to ferment before you tell it. You need to know what it’s going to become so you can know how to set it up. I hugged her, all right. A lot. I held on to her arm as we walked as if she might slip and fall, kept her close, demanded a task so I could be useful. Then I probably told a joke. I only have so many tricks.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had my husband read some things I’ve been writing lately and one day he said, “I had no idea you could write that stuff. You should write more of that.” Then he looked at me the way you do when you’re trying hide the fact that you’re recalibrating your definition of someone you thought you really had a handle on.
It’s been that kind of a week–one of those weeks where you’ve been gliding along with your life and then realize the same thing over and over until it almost becomes a message. Not a big message, but just enough of one that you look around a little more closely. It’s like a new traffic pattern on a street you’ve traveled for years. You move more carefully, suddenly conscious of the habits you developed from driving the old road, and for a while you’re a bit more attentive.