Saturday, February 11, 2012

Learning the "Easy" Stuff


I've been excusing myself throughout this week in these essays, almost apologizing for telling things that I feel like I should already know, things that I should have known for a long time. I have that feeling often enough and ask myself how I could have gotten by this long without knowing x, y, or z. I tend to curse myself for stupidity in such instances. I don't imagine I'm alone in that.

Then I get a reminder that not everything is obvious and that we have to learn even the simple things. Sometimes we even have to be taught those things. Today's reminder came in the form of working with my youngest daughter, Evelyn.

We hadn't planned on cleaning Evelyn's room this afternoon, but things just worked out that way. First, as my wife and daughters were preparing to go out to a store for Valentine's Day supplies, Evelyn melted down. She's an emotional kid and suddenly, the idea of going out to the store was the last thing in the world she felt able to do. She was feeling as though her sister had been mean to her all day (they had had one scuffle five minutes before but otherwise been happy as can be) and that the day had been awful start to finish. I've heard this sort of thing from her before and it tends to push all my buttons.

Evelyn, like me, sees the world as either/or and she changes her decisions in a heartbeat. When one thing goes wrong she sees that the world has fallen apart. The skill I am developing of living with anxiety is one she hasn't learned yet. It's one I need too help her learn. We didn't get in that deep today. Instead, as her mother and older sister went out the door, I sought to get Evelyn involved in some other things.

We did the dishes. She was in charge of drying and needed to be taught how that goes. Most of the dishes she could put away herself, but some of them she had never put away before and again I had to show her where they went. It was the sort of thing that she expected to already know and I could hear her frustration when she realized that something as simple as drying the dishes wasn't perfectly easy for her. Talking quietly and often distracting her from the task by getting her to talk, I found that I could get her through the mild anxiety of it. By the time we finished, she was in a different mood than when we had begun.

"Have you ever taken warm sheets out of the dryer?" I asked.

We went downstairs and she pulled the warm sheets out of the dryer. I carried them upstairs and she helped me make our bed. It's the sort of thing she can't do on her own but she knows how to put on a pillowcase and she learned how to tuck the fitted sheet around the mattress. We laughed about having to move the cat and keep her off the bed until we had made it. Evelyn, without really knowing it was learning how to make the bed and how to get through anxiety. It's one part distraction and one part living with it. She doesn't know that yet, but she's had a little more experience in it now.

I have too. Seeing these things work with her teaches me the power of motion, the simple antidote to spiraling down.

Finally, we moved into her room and I told her the bad news: "Evelyn, we're going to have to clean this room before we can make your bed." This sent her down again. Evelyn has the smallest room in the house (it's little more than a nursery) and might just have the most stuff. She's a pack-rat. I kid you not, there was not a place where I could see the carpet on her floor. It was like an episode of that hoarding show on TV.

Faced with this task, Evelyn was ready to crumple. She couldn't see any way to clean it. She doesn't get that she can pick up one thing at a time and eventually get to the end. She has to be taught that skill. And so, one thing at a time, we worked together to find a clean room and find a way to feel good about doing the work. It's the sort of thing that, were I in her little shoes, I would have recoiled against and wondered, "how do I not know how to do this?" I would have been sent down a hole thinking that I was a fool.

None of these things are easy. Learning to avoid gossip isn't easy. Letting go of the past is not easy. Climbing out of mistakes is not easy. And figuring out what to do with myself and who to be is not at all easy. There is a steep curve to learning these things and along the way, I'm going to need some patient teachers to whom I listen carefully. Evelyn and I are more and more ready to take these things on every day. To that, I say, write on.

I love you, Evelyn.