On Laundry and Letting Go (For Bapa, ztz"l)
There were a lot of things about me that I think he didn't like: my fast-talking Yankee speech pattern, my extreme bookishness, my fear of...everything, and my questioning/argumentative nature. (One of his lines was, "Don't ask 'why?'" and I practically ask "Why?" in my sleep.) I didn't approve of some of his ways, either. There was a lot less disapproval in both directions as I matured and he mellowed in his later years. No matter. I know that he loved me and was very proud of me, and that's what really counts.
When I think about my grandfather now, two years after his death, I think of his many triumphs in life and his several flaws, and I think of how I loved him despite and because of it all. We're all human, and just because someone dies, it doesn't mean that we should stop honoring the humanness, the possibility-for-failure, in them. I want to remember my grandfather for who he was, flaws and triumphs alike. I think that is how it should be. Maybe he would understand. I know he knew I loved him, and that's what really counts.
It's funny, my grandfather and I. We are (were?) so different in so many ways. He was rather brash, impulsive, and adventurous, while I think options through until I nearly kill them off. He loved camping and hiking and fishing; I thought fishing was boring and worms were disgusting, and was afraid to go down hills while hiking. He thought children should ride their bikes and play outdoors when they had free time; I was too scared to learn to ride a bike until I was twelve and hated all manner of sport and physical exertion. My grandfather, who lost many relatives in the Shoah, thought every Jewish person should know how to shoot a gun; I didn't want to shoot a gun for a long time. (Eventually I did, and he taught me, and I loved it.) He thought that doing things was the most fun; all I ever really wanted to do in the summer was read books. My grandfather grew up in Omaha, Nebraska in the 1920s and '30s; I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts in the 1980s and '90s. It doesn't get much more different than that!
And yet, the older I get, the more I become like him, in ways both good and bad, and the more I understand him for who he was. It turns out that the thing that we most have in common is that we are (were?) both control freaks.* I don't know if I'm becoming more of a control freak as I age, or if I'm just noticing it more. My grandfather, ztz"l, wanted everything to be a certain way, and so do I. For both of us it comes, at least on a superficial level, from the conviction that our way is right. Of course it is the most efficient, logical way to do things! Why can't everyone else see it that way?
On a deeper level, it may come from a feeling that there is so little that we really have control over in life. It is existentially frustrating and sometimes tragic that we cannot truly affect other people's lives, that we cannot necessarily create peace or eradicate violence, and that we cannot control life or death. In response to this very real lack of control over the world at large, we assert control where we can. Where can we assert control? Over the cleanliness of the kitchen counters, the length of time that milk stays out of the refrigerator, the way that the pots and pans get washed and then put away in the cupboards. Over how the car door is closed, and how the shower looks after it's been used. Over how the broom is put away and how much the bike tires are filled. Over the temperature at which whites, darks, and delicates are laundered. So we, my grandfather and I, request(ed) that people do things in very specific ways, and get exasperated (or worse) when people ignore our wishes. Or, if they don't do things the "right way" (our way), we hustle and bustle and follow immediately after them, fixing what we perceive as their mistakes, while making it extremely obvious that we are doing so.
Is this any kind of way to live? This desire to assert control over every controllable thing in the universe? It seems to me not so much, but I'm not sure what I can do to stop it, this urge to make everyone do things right, i.e., do things my way, to be efficient and organized and logical about everything from the way things are arranged in the refrigerator to the way plates and bowls are stacked in the cupboards (large ones under small ones, of course) to the way toilet paper is loaded onto the roller.
Maybe there is something to be done about this control freakishness, despite the fact that we will never be able to control the humongous uncontrollable things in life. My recent thoughts on being a control freak were inspired by a laundry incident that occurred last week, wherein I took my clothes out of the washer and found that two of my favorite shirts had acquired bleach stains, right on their fronts, from bleach left in the washer by a previous launderer. I was so pissed off. There was no saving these shirts. It left me fuming. Both shirts were new (purchased within the past four months) and were two lovely shades of purple, were cut well, and, of course, were bargains (never pay retail!). And they were ruined.
I was fussing and fuming and then I stopped and asked myself, "Could I have done anything to prevent this atrocity?" And the answer, of course, was "No." There is no way to see if there's bleach in the washer after a load has been run through. And I asked myself, "Is there anything I can do about these ugly white spots on my lovely shirts now?" And the answer, of course, was "No," although I did briefly consider whether it might be possible to dye the whitish stains. So I asked myself, "So what is the point of being pissed off about it?" And there was no point. So I let it go.
I have inspired myself to try to ask these questions of myself in the future, when I'm agitated about something that I want to control but cannot. It might also be useful to apply similarly reflective questions, such as "Does this really matter?" to situations when asserting control would be useless or, worse, detrimental to personal or work relationships.
I know that this is easier said (or blogged) than done, but from now on, I will try to remember the lesson of the laundry when I feel the control freakishness encroaching on my life in unhealthy ways.
* As my paternal grandmother often says about various traits that I've inherited, at least I "come by it honestly." I don't want to mention any names, but my maternal grandfather is not the only control freak in my family. You know who you are!