Just Keep Swimming

“When nothing goes right…go left.”

Last week I had a day when nothing went right, and everything took way longer than it should.  I tried three times to complete an online insurance form, only to have the website shut down each time. Then I spent half an hour on the phone with the company trying to get an answer, but was cast repeatedly into an automated phone attendant loop, like an escapee from Groundhog Day. Next, I spent an hour, not the 20 minutes I’d allocated, getting a flu shot at a local pharmacy. And on and on the day went, in a series of frustrations large and small to which I responded with neither grace nor equanimity.

At 4:30 I realized that I had not worked for even 10 minutes on what I had gotten out of bed early that morning planning to do. So, I stopped trying. I put away all thoughts of book writing and turned to a photo project that I’ve been working on for a few months. As I looked through the pictures, I recalled the nature drama that had unfolded the day I took them.

I’d been sitting at my desk staring out the window (not all my unproductive days are the result of external misfortune, some just spring from laziness). I saw a hawk land in the yard, and I jumped up and took this photo.

Right afterward, all hell broke loose. With a lightning quick move, the hawk launched into the air, then did an amazing high-speed, almost vertical drop, down to the river. He rose carrying a prize in his claws—a little bird that wriggled and writhed in what seemed to be a doomed escape attempt.

But as I watched, both fascinated and horrified, the bird twisted out of the hawk’s grasp and fell back into the water. I ran to the river’s edge. Just as I reached the bank, I sensed something behind me. I turned to look in time to see an eagle swoop over my head, zeroing in on the little bird that had just escaped from the hawk.

Something–maybe my sudden movement into the line of the eagle’s downward trajectory—threw him off his game. He veered away, leaving his would-be prey to swim another day. And swim she did, with an odd, herky-jerky style, in loopy circles, round and round for several minutes.

Her day had definitely not gone as planned. I stayed on the bank watching her and taking pictures. Several times she attempted to climb up on some rocks, only to slip back into the water and flap about before making another wobbly approach to stable ground. On the fourth attempt, she made it.

I moved in to get another photo, but finally realized that my large human presence was probably even more alarming to her than the two predator birds that had tried to make dinner of her had been. I left her in peace.

As I relived the story yesterday, I thought about that bird, going about her daily business, when out of nowhere a hawk snatched her away from her happy bird life. She didn’t give up, even though the hawk was many times larger and stronger than her. She twisted and turned and gave it her best shot. Wonder of wonders, it worked!

But she didn’t even have time to recover, let alone rejoice, before an even bigger predator zeroed in on her. Now, that’s having a bad day. You slip away from one looming threat, only to be confronted by an even larger one. When the danger unexpectedly passed, she started swimming again. Not in any particular direction at first, but she was moving. And really, if you’re going to stay afloat in life, what else can you do?

Things large and small swoop down on us daily. Sometimes they come so fast they knock us right off course, sometimes they just bump us around a little. The solution for peace of mind is to remember that when things go wrong—and they’re usually of far less consequence than the predator-prey drama I had witnessed—just keep swimming. Sooner or later you’ll get back on course.

This post first appeared in October 2014.



Come in, the door’s open

When my six siblings and I were growing up, our family finances hovered between lower middle class and working poor. We didn’t realize it, though, because many of our neighbors were in the same shaky socio-economic bracket.

But years later, as adults looking through old family photos, laughing at unfortunate clothing choices and epic hairstyle failures, it finally hit us. “Look at this!” One of my sisters was pointing not to the people, but to the background in a photo: TV trays used as end tables. A bedspread thrown over a sagging couch. A television set with a pair of pliers next to it—for use in turning the broken TV dial. “Geez, you guys, we lived in the Sanford & Son house!”

Which made us laugh really hard because it was true, and because it had never occurred to us before, and because we’re fond of a little dark humor in my family. We then recalled other unrecognized-at-the-time signs that our family had lived on the economic edge. Macaroni and butter five nights in a row. We just thought, Yay, no vegetables. Hand-me-down clothes—from people we weren’t even related to. A house furnished entirely with garage sale purchases.

Our lives as adults are different. We all enjoy a more secure financial footing than our parents did. No one is fabulously wealthy—I’m quite disappointed by my siblings in that respect. I’m looking at you, Tricia, Janet, Jim, KK, Barbie, Tim. Because how great would it be to have a younger sibling shower you with financial tokens of affection in return for the loving oversight and guidance you provided during their early years? But, I digress.

I’ve always credited our successes in life to our parents. Not because they inspired us with the exhortations and expectations of “tiger” parents, or subscribed to the interventionist guidance of “helicopter” parents. If anything, their parenting style might best be described as laissez faire. Their goals for us were modest: do your best, be honest, be kind, don’t kill each other. They stepped in when we strayed too far from those basic standards, but it was primarily by their example that we learned what kind of people we wanted to be.

But I think there was another factor, too, that tipped fortune in our favor. Although we lived in a rundown house, in a middling neighborhood, on the raggedy residential edge of a street that at its other end boasted a scrap metal junkyard, we also lived only two blocks from Alma College. The small liberal arts school was very friendly to neighborhood children. Perhaps because liability and child safety worries didn’t loom large in those days, the college was part of the landscape of our everyday lives. We rode through campus on our bicycles, cut through the wooded area behind the president’s house, played on the bleachers at the football field, trick or treated at the fraternities and sororities and sold Girl Scout cookies in the dorms.

And we saw students, not all that much older than we were, walking back and forth to class, studying in the library, playing Frisbee on the grass. We came to view attending college as the natural progression of things—like going from junior high to high school. Our proximity to the college, and its easy acceptance of our presence, gave us the expectation that we had a place in the world that Alma College represented.

I believe that success in life is about hard work and developing your talents, but it’s also about opportunity. A lucky accident of geography helped the children of a man who didn’t graduate from high school, and a woman who dreamed of nursing school but had to go to work instead, believe that other doors were open to them.

In an era of reduced opportunities and narrowing choices for children from families like the one I grew up in, I was happy to read that Alma College will be offering 10 full-tuition scholarships annually to area students. Good fences, as the saying goes, may make good neighbors. But open doors make even better ones.