Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Why Do We Make It So Hard?

I’d like to start by saying that I know I’m not any smarter than my grandmother. Or you. My skill set is different from hers due to the time and place I live; I have no need to kill, pluck and cut apart a chicken to fix for dinner, for example, just as my grandmother had no need to learn to operate a computer.

Nonetheless, Grandma and I have some things in common. She was a gutsy lady who never gave up when she wanted to do a thing. It earned her the appellation “stubborn” from her husband and children on occasion, as it does me, my mother, my daughter and most of my female cousins. I’ve never understood why it’s ‘persistence’ when a man wants you to learn something, and ‘stubbornness’ when he finds your focus inconvenient, but that’s a rant for another time.

Grandma was also an accomplished analytical thinker, again from necessity. She had to plan sufficient garden each year to feed her family of sixteen, including an allowance for varmint depredations, weather variations, and other possible catastrophes like illness. There needed to be enough to share with those less fortunate, too. She needed to save enough seed for the next year’s planting, and devise critter-proof storage for that seed – otherwise her family would go hungry. Since canning and drying were the only preservation methods, she needed to know how many jars she needed and in what sizes, as well as how many seals and lids were required for those jars each year.

She needed to know exactly how much flour, meal, sugar and salt (not to mention other staples like baking powder and soda) she would require for 4-6 months at a time, that being the usual amount of time between visits to town. Ditto fabric requirements so that she’d have enough cloth to keep everyone covered and warm. How much yarn or fiber it would take to knit socks, mittens, scarves and hats for everyone for the winter, as well as occasional sweaters.

She needed to decide how many piglets to sell and which one(s) to keep, how many chickens to allow to sit their eggs rather than using those eggs for breakfast, and how much grain to feed the steer for proper fattening. All necessary skills, and ones she learned well enough to raise a large, healthy brood in an era when many people lost more children than they raised to adulthood. Grandma had to learn to plan ahead to manage that, so she learned.

Yes, we have it much easier day to day. Groceries come from a supermarket where we can purchase them fresh, frozen or canned in infinite variety and from all corners of the globe. Cooking can be as simple or as complicated as the cook desires. Vacuum cleaners are both faster and easier than sweeping and beating rugs. Central heating and electric or gas stoves beat a fireplace and coal- or wood-fueled stoves all hollow, even if you don’t include the mess involved in cleaning them. I’ll take indoor plumbing and hot-water heaters over an outhouse and water heated on the stovetop anytime. I prefer a daily shower to a weekly bath. If I want or need something from the next town, I can be there in 20 minutes, including putting on my good jeans and finding my car keys.

So why do we make it so tough on ourselves? We make that 20-minute drive twice a day instead of keeping a list and going once or twice a week. Our usual reason? ________ (Fill in the blank with husband, child, etc.’s name) needs it now. But why do they need it now?

I absolutely believe a sign I’ve had hanging in my office for years. It reads, “A lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.” I first saw that more years ago than I want to acknowledge, in the office of an office practices instructor at a local college. It made good sense to me – and didn’t only apply to the gentlemen (in most cases) with whom I worked.

An older lady who attended our church was horrified one afternoon to hear me tell my then seven-year-old, “I’ll take care of it as soon as I finish this.” She thought I should have dropped whatever I was doing to run and respond to a very minor request. I was astonished, and informed her that as long as the child wasn’t hurt, I considered what I was doing at least as important as his request. I’ve never seen any reason to change that attitude, and think that may be part of the reason my DH and I managed to raise three fairly considerate adults.

So I’ll reiterate: why do we make it so hard for ourselves? Rather than show and teach our children (or spouse) that they truly don’t need every single thing right now; that they can learn to plan ahead, thus saving time and resources and perhaps even fostering a bit of imaginative thinking; we jump and run. This leaves us all too often feeling exhausted, martyred, and inconsequential. Grandma may have felt the first two on occasion, but I’m fairly sure she never felt the last one! She knew quite well that her well-being mattered to the people who depended on her.
You may very well be asking what brought this on…and I can truly answer that I’m not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with having to work these past couple of weekends and not getting any of the usual Christmas stuff done; and then discovering that my DH is perfectly happy to take care of any of that stuff that matters to him all by himself. Perhaps it has something to do with my remembering how to say “no” to some of the chores I’ve always done - due to both a lack of time and a dislike for paying the price in pain and suffering.

Maybe those things are part of the reason I actually enjoyed Christmas this year. Instead of rushing around trying to do everything to make the holiday perfect for everyone near and dear to me, I sat back and reflected on the past 25 or so Christmases and the years between them. Discovering links in strange places, and abilities I’d forgotten I had, such as planning errands to all be done in a single afternoon on the way home from work. Perhaps it has something to do with combining an unplanned evening of Christmas shopping and a lovely dinner with my DH after work last Saturday. Or enjoying time spent around my son and his girl doing nothing much.

The only thing that’s been a constant is the phrase that’s been running through my head: “Why do we make it so hard?” And I can’t think of a single reason why we should. So I’ll close by wishing you a happy 2010 with plenty of time to simply enjoy the best things around you: warmth, food you didn’t have to raise (or that you did, if that’s your thing to do), and the company of the people you choose to love.