Instant Dilemma; Just Add Text
Every once in a while you get faced with an issue that seems completely unsolvable, until something changes to make it eminently solvable.
Here’s how the timeline went:
4:50 am: Wake up to take partner to her work at the coffee shop; I plan to write and do other work there until 10am, when I have a volunteer shift at the VA Hospital.
5:00 am: Find text that Middle Daughter sent previous night asking for some study time together. We’d tried to find that time yesterday, but scheduled meetings, transportation, etc. hadn’t allowed for it. “I’m totally serious about it this moring,” she wrote. “Let’s make it happen!”
That’s a fun word – it means “when two equally urgent but opposing needs express at the same time.” My whole moving back to Madison, WI has been one gigantic lifehack, an experiment in happiness. Since research shows that (statistically) people are happier when they volunteer and when they focus on family and friends, I’ve been doing that. And you know what? It’s working. I’m happier these days than I’ve ever been.
But the volunteer work is just that: volunteer. Nobody forces me to go, I’m not (like many other volunteers) filling in hours for Med School or somesuch. Really, it’s an excuse to wear sexy scrubs and bring smiles to vets who don’t get a lot of positive attention or respect in their day. The staff of the hospital treats them amazingly well, mind you – when I’m being treated there, it’s amazing how many times I get “sir’d” or thanked for my service.
In the rest of their worlds, though, a lot of these men and women are struggling with persistent problems with little help. I can’t solve their problems – in fact, I’m not allowed to even try – but I can be a pleasant and respectful person who pushes their wheelchair down to radiology or brings them a warmed blanket. And at the end of my three-hour shift I do, in fact, feel happier. Since there’s nothing urgent about my time there – at best, I’m a dose of “nice” in their day – I need to prioritize it myself. I need to push it ahead of the write more – make clients happy – do more stuff priorities to make it happen.
But Think of the Children!
On the other hand, my daughter is working her way through the difficult second year of medical school. She and her sisters and my grandsons are the primary reason I came back here, to get to both spend time with them and, when possible, be a help. They already have a great support system here, but I manage to fill in the gaps here and there with rides to appointments or Emergency Grandpa Childcare. I made a promise to myself a while back that I would make them a priority in my day-to-day planning – so I cancel most plans if possible to help them out, and given a choice between “spend time with them” or not, I always opt for “spend time” even if I don’t really feel like it. Time with them is the one thing I can’t make more of, after all, so it’s best to make it happen when I can.
The ultimate goal is to get good enough at this kind of family priority to extend it to my sisters, parents, nephews and nieces. I’m not quite that good yet, but I have seen them more in the past year than in the several before that. Kaizen: getting better, little by little.
Two priorities. Two responsibilities I’ve given myself, and I can’t do both. Sure, kids would normally be much more important than volunteer work – but Middle Daughter is an adult, she doesn’t need me to study with her. But the VA doesn’t need me either. Wouldn’t I be modeling good behavior by keeping my shift? Or would M.D. (heh, just realized, that’s funny) feel that she wasn’t important enough for me to reschedule volunteer work?
This was what went through my head as:
5:15am I settle into my chair, open my journal, and start writing.
My pen hesitated over the page. What was I going to write about? Was it going to be rationalizing my decision either way? Was it going to be “Today I get to spend time with my middle daughter…” or “Today I made a Vietnam Vet guffaw and smile as I shook his hand…“? As I paused, trying to decide, a question popped into my head:
What do you want people to read here?
At that, the dilemma disappeared in a puff of smoke. Because while I don’t know who, if anyone, will read my journals down the line, in my imagination it is someone like my grandson Harvey or Victor, and I know I would want them to read about how I had spent more time with their Tita (that’s Tagalog for “Aunt”). I would want them to know how much their grandfather loved his daughters. In fact, I’d want them to think I loved them far more than I do, because, after all, the real me is imperfect. The journaled me…well, as Heinlein said, autobiographies are often true but rarely honest.
Which is why I get to write this post while my daughter sits next to me, drinking the coffee I bought her and her roommate, studying the Krebs cycle. Is it a perfect morning? No. But it’s a happier one. And all it took was asking myself not What story do you want to write? but What story do you want to have written?