Growing up, I learned that the world was a dangerous, threatening place. Every summer, when our family left for our vacation, we drove with the grim knowledge we might not get back alive. The fact we were only traveling from Texas to Oklahoma was of little note. Who knew what could happen when you crossed the Red River into a different state?
So, that worldview is in my background and my blood. I’ve struggled with it most of my life — this is how I don’t want to live, how I didn’t want to bring up my kids — but it seems as if it lies in wait, one of my primary default emotions ready to take over. (Life is terrible and ultimately depressing! We’re all doomed! What part of “vale of tears” don’t you understand?)
But, what the hell. I also reminds me of everything I want to rid myself of — the fear, the self-pity, the helplessness, the hopelessness. It’s always helpful to have stark examples, even if they are of the highly negative variety.
Similarly, I’ve watched other people throughout my life, thinking, no, I don’t want to be like that. I don’t want to make their mistakes, bathe in their waters of slights, bitterness, and unfairness. No, I’ll go out and make different mistakes. That will show some generational progress.
Sometimes, I think I’m getting better at it. A year ago, when my husband and I had a wreck in his brand-new Prius, I spent a few seconds contemplating the usual why us? why our new car? questions, which I usually regard as utter, self-involved bullshit. Why not us? Why not our spanking new Prius? Didn’t I remember that the rain falls on the just and unjust, the Hummers and the Japanese hybrids? Get a grip, honey.
In fact, that whole if only we’d left a few seconds later scenario only led me to think of other what-ifs: What if we’d been going faster? We might have been seriously injured, as opposed to a little indignant and pissed off. And — who knew? — how many times in our lives that we’d avoided disasters by leaving later, earlier, taking a different route?
None of which was on my mind last night, till I tried to unroll a heavy set of Venetian blinds at a window at the top of our stairs last night. Unattached, they plummeted from eight feet above, crashing on my right foot. A little blood, more than a little pain, some glancing nausea. AAAGGGHHIII!
My husband brought me some ice and dabbed at the blood and we went downstairs and watched my toes turn purple. I do bruise spectacularly well, if I do say so.
Later, standing at the same place just inches from the stairwell, I realized I could have come crashing down the stairs, just like Amy Robsart, the wife of Robert Dudley. Dudley, who was Elizabeth I’s favo(u)rite, was free to marry the queen after Robsart broke her neck. That never happened, since Elizabeth was too smart to gamble away her sovereignty by marrying. (I may have vast black holes in my knowledge of English history, but I do know my Tudor gossip.)
Could have crashed down the stairs, could have broken my foot or my neck, instead of merely hurting my pride and been forced to hobble for a few days. So I watch my poor foot swell and bloom with bruises and cuts, and think, oh, hell, life’s been so much better than I ever expected it to be.
(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)