This is an essay from the Dispatches franchise, a collection of personal writing. To read the last one, click here.
What do you do when you feel like shit to make yourself feel less like shit?
I’ve been kicking around this concept in my head — “ground level living” — where I’m not on a pedestal (thinking I’m hot shit) or in the basement (thinking I’m worthless shit) but find that actually getting there (to ground level) is less simple than it seems.
Or no, that’s not right — getting there is very simple, it’s just hard as hell to stay.
The first time I thought that I might prefer to live on the ground level was also the first time I realized that I was not on it. I was packing for a family trip and let my daughters choose their own clothes and thought to myself how nice it was that I was walking the walk. That for all the time I spend talking about developing confidence and exposing curiosity as key features of building kids into well-adjusted adults, I was actually doing something about it.
My mom, I told myself, would have never.
Let me pack my own suitcase I mean.
When we got to the trip, I learned I’d forgotten to pack shoes and bathing suits. It was extremely inconvenient -- an unnecessary added expense of money and time swallowed by the pursuit of kids’ stuff that could have been easily avoided.
Of course my mom would have “never”! Was it worth the hassle, will those kid-selected dresses really mean anything of value to their burgeoning characters in the long run? In the end, it seemed to come back to the recurring fact that I’m an idiot.
It’s funny now to observe the conversation I’d had with myself — to hear me ping-ponging across the table from the paddle of good mom to the paddle of idiot in such rapid succession.
Because of the contents of a suitcase.
I wondered how often I play this game -- if this was just the first time I was noticing the paddles swinging back and forth — or if actually, it’s not even a game. If it’s just how I live. How I talk to myself.
What happens when the ball drops? Do I get out of my way?
I think you know you’re on the ground level when you can actually hear feedback — sift through the shit that is probably not actually for you (“You’re a bad mom!”) but also listen to what is (“Hey, seems like you had the right idea asking your kids to pack for themselves, but the process is pretty hectic as is, so you might want to make a checklist next time, flying balls are tough to catch when there’s no gravity where you are”).
But feedback is tricky. You really do have to learn to sift. I’m inclined to say I haven’t been particularly good at giving it — maybe I nail the criticism part (you’re a bad mom!) or the advice part (that’s not actually true! unless you want it to be! eye on the prize! keep loving your kids! pay attention to what of themselves they show you!), or shun both to deliver overwhelming praise (because, you know, “you like me, right?”) but haven’t quite figured out the way to meld it all. Now that I think about it, that seems like an essential tool in the order of mastering how to talk — to other people, absolutely, but also to yourself.
It’s like if I can’t give feedback, can I take it? And if I can do neither of these things, can I ever actually get to and stay at the ground level?
What’s great about the ground level is that it doesn’t lie to you the way a basement or the pedestal does.
At the ground level, there are simple truths. Simple truths like my hair is brown. My kids are in nursery school. I am not currently employed.
These simple truths compel me to make meaning either by walking down or up depending on what sounds better and this is the motion that robs them of their simplicity. It’s tricky because the simplicity is faint. It is faint but so fucking essential.
Essential because on the ground level is also where you don’t have to meaning-make. Where friendship is reflected in a feeling, not a credential.
And my partner keeps form, but can also lose form and become more than a person — a definition of home, someplace where I know my head will meet something soft.
And my kids! This is where I get to be with those kids, so self-possessed -- one by an unapologetic, off-kilter confidence best illustrated by an answer to her recently being asked, “Why are you so shy?”
“Because I am shy.,”
the other by sheer, tender bewilderment, mostly with life but what I really mean is love.
When I can look at the path and see a cluster of goldenrods and wonder if they’re mustard plants, or look up and catch the sun reflecting off a building’s window to make more light, or off the river where it sparkles like an exploded jar of glitter, or I can smell cut grass and get the feeling it’s all fine because it’s still going and growing, because the day starts and then it ends and then it does it again, over and over — that’s because of my daughter.
It seems ground level is the only place I have yet to uncover where elements of the pedestal and of the basement are deadpan and stripped of their rankings, just bland facts that exist, to address or to wield or to yield or to not as I go, or you go or anyone else does, one foot in front of the other.
At the beginning, I asked what to do to feel less like shit. It seems the answer was right there in the next sentence: find a way to ground level.
But ugh, how to stay?
Get out of the basement, stay off the pedestal seems like a good start.