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September 19-23 (FULL)
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Well it’s summer and likely, if you’re anywhere over ten years old– actually even if you’re ten and under…you’re managing expectations. Your mother’s, your father’s, your sisters’ and brothers’, your boss’, your children’s, partner’s, house guests’…everyone’s expectations. And it’s also likely that you feel like you’re letting someone, or a lot of people, down. It’s also likely that you feel that someone is letting you down.
Except for maybe the Culligan Man. He showed up this morning and I looked out the window hearing that familiar diesel truck moan and sputter, and I smiled and ran to the front door because I knew it was for one thing and one thing only: to find out if we have enough salt in the softener. Salt in the softener so that we can have the best of our well water. And then maybe he’ll check the filter to see if our reverse osmosis thingy is working well, or whatever he does in my basement.
All I know is that he shows up with big bags of salt like he’s Santa, smiling– always smiling, takes off his shoes at the door, knows just where the light switch is for the basement, (I’ve lived in this house 20 years and I’m never sure which of the three switches it is on the panel, but he does!), and marches down my stairs. He doesn’t balk at the mouse droppings, or comment on the disarray of my son’s Man Cave. He plows right through it all to the mechanical room that I try to enter as seldom as possible, and does whatever voo-doo he does. I don’t follow him. I don’t micro-manage his little tete-a-tete with the bowels of my home. He has it under control. He knows we need him, and it’s his job to show up and he does, like Swiss clockwork. I even feel the house being relieved that someone competent and consistent is in charge of its digestive system. The house has expectations too. I try to meet them. But sometimes…I just fail. The refrigerator, lawn mower, and front stove burners are all currently broken. The gutters are spilling over, and there’s a significant ground squirrel problem under my porch, and I missed last month’s electric bill. I just can’t do it all or be it all. I have to fail something or someone.
As I explained to my daughter, home for the Fourth of July: you just can’t be all things to all people, even the ones you love most. You’re just gonna let people down from time to time. Even and especially when you’re doing your best. Something’s got to give. But there’s no shame in that. You have to learn to let yourself off the hook. And to let others off the hook. And sometimes…all the people you think should be there to help you, won’t be. And you’ll need to pay people instead. Or you might be surprised at who shows up when the primary people don’t. Or can’t. Or won’t. No matter how hard we try…people fail each other. You’re going to fail people. And I hate to say it, but ultimately…it’s not your problem. It’s theirs. Even if it’s your mother. Or your child.
I can say this to her…but do I really believe it? Truth is: I haven’t had that much experience royally failing someone I love. Recently, I had to. I had to choose: Move my mother? Or move my daughter and son?
Pretty much every primary person in my life is in a major transition right now: moving, going to college, going from college into the work force, down-sizing from house to apartment, changing jobs. Everyone needs each other’s help and no one has the capacity to give it fully. They can barely give it to themselves, teetering in the untethering.
Some of this is help we can pay for. But a lot of it isn’t. Like who gets Dad’s World War II army blanket? And who gets Mimi’s crocheted afghan, lovingly knit with arthritic fingers, even though it’s in every shade of diarrhea? And who gets the monogrammed wedding tray? And what to do with the old letters? And who will meet the roommates and get just the right toiletry case and put the Montana flag on the dorm wall, or christen the apartment with a bottle of prosecco after getting the right kitchen table that exactly fits the nook. And who will drive the U-haul through the streets of San Francisco? This isn’t just stuff you can do with a credit card online. This is stuff that needs a daughter, a sister, a mommy.
I’m all three. And I just can’t be all three right now. Not well. My plate is so full, it’s over-flowing. I can barely be one person, never mind three. I have to choose. I have to say “no.”
Sure, I can take on a portion of the help that’s been asked of me, but not all of it. Most of all, I hate that I can’t freely offer it, because I know it’s hard for people to ask—even loved ones. I have to leave it to them to divvy up their needs with other people, paid and volunteered. No matter how I shake it, no matter how much I know that I have to say “yes” where I must and “no” where I must…still, there’s shame. Guilt. Because I know that there are old, engraved, ingrown expectations attached to every request, especially the ones which are non-verbal. People show up for people they love. That’s just the way it is. Especially family. Especially when they are in big transition. They get on planes and roll up their sleeves and help pack boxes, and bring tea and food and comfort and love to the one in need. They don’t say, “no.”
Until this summer, I have never been in a position where I just…can’t…give everyone the support I want to give. My physical world won’t let me. No matter how hard I try to juggle my life, it’s just not possible. I have to say, “no” to most and “yes” to the ones who truly are incapable of doing what they need to do, without me.
That means that I just drove a fifteen-foot U-haul through the streets of San Francisco with both of my kids in the front seat, to move my daughter from college into her apartment. Yes, I drive a horse trailer, but not on insanely-vertical urban hills! Where you have to parallel park! I was afraid to drive a car in San Francisco, never mind a U-haul! But I pulled it off. She asked, and it was the best answer I could give. “Yes.” That was what I had to offer. That’s what needed to get done. My daughter: the organizing and packing. My son: his strong back and football-honed muscles, the heavy lifting. And in a few weeks, my daughter and I will do it all for him when he moves into his dorm room in college, thankfully midwestern-flat. As for my mother’s move, thank God for my other family members and the professional movers. I’ll come later to help settle them in to their new apartment. I’ll do my best to manage their expectations then.
So far, I’ve been met with grace. But I still feel awful about it. Just awful. Even my mother’s “Don’t worry. I have help now. You have enough on your plate with the kids and work. You can come later,” doesn’t feel all that great. I should be there. I should. Period. But I do feel a little less guilty. Thanks, Mom.
Here’s the lesson in it: when I say, lovingly, responsibly, that I just can’t…people figure it out.
Or someone else steps in.
The world doesn’t rely on your shoulders’ ability to hold it up. And it doesn’t end if you give it a much-needed shrug. And…so far, no one dies. And I’m not the bad guy.
I have to choose the expectation that I can actually manage, have to manage. And let the others go.
Maybe the world works that way when we claim our truth and let go of our guilt.
So today, thank you, Culligan Man, for managing mine. You do it so well. I don’t even know when you leave, I trust you that much. I just hear that moan and sputter down the driveway, and know that I have good water to drink. May we all have at least a few expectations that manage themselves as easily as that.
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