The Perils of Empathy

(This is what spring looks like in Berkeley — wisteria blooming everywhere.  This post, though, is not about wisteria, in case you are wondering.  It is about the work/life balance and the way you have to shore it up all the time.  But there is a wisteria metaphor in the post, because it seemed like a good idea to have a goal in writing it:  to work in my favorite vine somewhere.) 

It was a phone call I’ve been putting off returning for weeks and weeks, a call to a woman I don’t know, a woman with whom I have in common a single person:  our lovely housekeeper and general childminder and morning helper, Lucy. 

Lucy works for us at various times during the week.  Every time she walks into our house I want to hug her.  She’s hugely helpful and she is the reason I’ve been able to work, and have children, and write a novel, and be relatively sane through the year of having cancer.  Lucy also works for the other family.  Let’s call the woman in that family Tessa, shall we? 

The message Tessa left was that she wanted to “close the loop” on “scheduling matters.” I hadn’t known the loop was open.  In fact, I didn’t even know I was inside a loop.  My heart sank.  It was obvious what Tessa really wanted.  She didn’t want to get clarity about something, and she didn’t want to “check in” as she said.  She wanted my permission to rearrange the arrangement that’s been working so well for us.

My first thought, after deciding that I don’t like Tessa because she is not straight up, was that changes in my schedule are between me and Lucy, not me and Tessa.  If Lucy wants to do something different, then she is perfectly capable of changing things with me. We’ve done it before.  I am not scary.  

After this weird loop-closing message, I asked Lucy if she wanted to change her schedule.  She made a face, as if to say, that woman is making me nuts.  She did not want to change anything she said.  She is fine with her work and her timing. 

Having learned that the person who does this work is happy with it, I ignored Tessa’s call (and the one she made a few days later) for twenty two days.  What I found more difficult to ignore is that I know she has two young children, is on maternity leave and is going back to work pretty soon.  She also has a husband, a guy I suspect doesn’t do much to help out around the house and who sees the work/life balance as her problem.  He also yelled at Lucy once (she blurted this out one day when I asked her how she was), so I am not inclined to feel charitable where he is concerned.  I know that this whole weird “closing the loop” call is Tessa’s way of trying to arrange things so she can work and parent.  The trouble is that she’s trying to work out this balance by unbalancing my own teetering effort.  

And that’s where empathy becomes perilous.   For a very long time, I responded to the knowledge that someone is having trouble by becoming so invested in helping them get out of it that their trouble became my own.   My own troubles and needs?  They did not seem to exist anymore.  

This is the sort of thing that made me a terrible litigator.  When the client’s trouble became my trouble it was as though I was the one being accused of terrible wrongdoing.  I would be defensive and upset every time I responded to the lawyer on the other side.  Never mind that I was not the one who displayed the poor judgment that got the client to the place where they needed to hire my law firm to defend them.  Their mistakes felt like my own.  Their setbacks?  Mine. 

Gradually, and mostly because I stopped doing that kind of work, it dawned on me that someone else’s trouble was not my trouble.  It was generally not my fault, and although I could feel sympathy for the person in trouble, I did not need to become them.  I could say, you and your lawsuit live over here — in a place that is not mine.  You got yourself into this mess, not me.  There is a hand gesture that goes along with this thought.  If you have trouble with this issue, you might want to try it:

Cup your hands together, and place the trouble you have been taking on inside the space in your hands.  (Obviously, you must pretend, this being a symbolic exercise.)  Now stretch your hands as far away from you as you can — across my desk is where I mostly do this.  And then gently deposit it all at this far away place.  Now sit back and repeat after me:  This is not my trouble.  This does not belong to me.  It is not of my making, nor is it my fault.  I can help, if I choose to, but only if I am clear that this is not my trouble. 

Knowing where I end and others begin has been the single biggest challenge I have faced as an adult.  That, and learning not to eat every last  bite of the chocolate cake just because I can.    

And so it is with Tessa (the trouble being her own, I mean — not the cake problem).  Her work life balance troubles live in her house.  Mine live in mine.  And in this case, I will not unbalance my own house in order to make her life easier. 

And that is what I told her on the telephone.  I could feel her efforts to entangle me in her world — to ask me about how I had arranged things, to see if maybe I was not needing what I think I need, to ask if I could do without a little of what I’ve arranged so she could have some of it too.  Wisteria is like this.  It’s a vine — if you look closely at it you’ll see the wonderful way it’s been engineered, with little sharp hook-like twigs all along it, hooks that grab on and don’t let go.  It’s beautiful though, and it drapes itself around the front of your house in the places you’ve decided you want it to be draped.  If you don’t want it someplace, you cut it back.  You are in charge of it, as you are in charge of most things in your life, because that is what it means to be an adult.

I know it sounds cold, but I did not give Tessa much more than an inch of frontage to hook onto.   It has taken a long time to achieve some serenity and balance in my life.  I will not give it up.

There is, of course, another subtext here, which is how it can even be the case that Tessa and I can decide something like this.   I said, over and over, this is not really our decision to make, although I am happy to tell you that things are working beautifully for me.  Lucy is the master of her work and her schedule.  If she wishes to make a change, then she and I will discuss it.  Not you and I.  This is another topic for another day — how we should behave in the face of the fact that we cannot control what other people decide to do.  And in writing about that, I will try to work in some reference to the Meyer lemon bush that is also ripe and beautiful this lovely spring day, and has been well worth waiting for through the long, cold wet winter. 

The Velveteen Couch

Have you ever heard of that de-cluttering principle where, for each new thing you bring into your house, you’re supposed to get rid of something that’s more or less its equal?

Well, yesterday, we put up our Christmas tree and threw away our couch. Since the tree’s only a temporary resident of our house, that means we can import some really, really big things and still be ahead in the de-cluttering game.

Throwing away that couch has put me in the most marvelous mood. It’s older than our children (the couch, not the mood), and once lived a cushy life in my father-in-law’s office at a fancy law firm in San Francisco. Alas, that was the pinnacle of the couch’s existence. It’s been a downward spiral since then.

Like the Velveteen Rabbit, the couch (which also began its life a beautiful plush brown object) fell from pride of place when it was disgarded by its original owner. As often happens, with a change in scene and the passage of time, the couch gradually lost all its plushness. Where once its chief function was to cushion the tailored suit bottoms of corporate clients, the couch was forced to toil (for years and years) as a climbing apparatus for three young and wild children. In fact, so skilled have those children become at launching themselves over and off the couch that just the other day someone was able to demonstrate that it is entirely possible, while holding a guitar in one hand, to leap almost across the living room from the arm of the couch and still sing the lyrics to that great rap anthem, Chicken Noodle Soup Wit’ a Soda on the Side. The poor couch.

I hadn’t realized until the couch left the house how much anxiety I felt on its behalf every time someone would visit us. A friend would walk in the door, and I’d hold my breath, hoping they’d sit on the nice armchairs I’d put seductively by the fireplace. And if they did ignore my mental pleas, and sit on the couch, I’d pray to a higher power that they wouldn’t have the bad luck to sit on the spot where the boys, after a particularly vigorous display of musical and gymnastic prowess, managed to liberate a nest of sharp springs from whatever ordinarily keeps those springs from poking you or your guests in the bottom. More than one person has sat in that spot and winced and then made some excuse to get up and do something else before re-entering the living room and sitting gratefully in an arm chair.

With the couch gone (to couch heaven, of course), our living room looks large, spare, and clean. We have beautiful random plank hardwood floors and, because one of the rap gods/couch leapers is allergic to dust mites, there aren’t any rugs on them. I can only surmise that it will be a matter of moments before my boys discover that the floor is the ideal surface on which to play hockey.

But I haven’t been finding that possibility all that worrying. I suppose that’s because I’ve been having so much fun deciding what object might best replace that couch. No, it won’t be another couch. (Why would I do that to another innocent piece of furniture?) We’ve been thinking for quite some time that we’d like to buy some kind of television, something larger than our laptop computer screens on which to watch dvds. Something large and thin, but portable enough to take out and put on a table for viewing, but then put out of sight when we’re done. We don’t want to actually watch television itself (the kind you get from the networks and through cable). We just want to put in a dvd and not have to tilt the screen back and forth until everyone can see the Beverly Hillbillies. Everything I’ve looked at seems so slick and lovely and hd tv ready (whatever that means) that I can’t tell what the difference is among all these beautiful televisions.

I’m guessing though that someone among you has recently made such a purchase and will have wise things to say about what might be the best of all televisions for a family like ours. Yes, I’m soliciting your advice here! I’ll take it too. And then we’ll have to hold our breath and hope that no one decides the television could double as a piece of sports gear in a pinch.

Detritus. Gone.

Here’s evidence. That’s my desk at the far end of the room. I have a chair to sit on now. You’ll notice there’s not a shopping bag in sight. (If you’d like to see how many shopping bags could fit in this room, go here.) The shopping bags are all neatly stowed, inside the largest of the bags, downstairs next to our refrigerator, to be used to take things OUT of our house. You’ll notice a second desk, on the right. That desk is not really under my control, belonging as it does to the other adult in this household. He’s pretty neat though, most of the time.

The most significant gain from this effort? I feel no fear when I walk in this room. I hadn’t really known just how bad it was until the anxiety left the room, along with eight bags of recycling, one bag of things destined for the shredder and a bag of stuff to give away. I’m much happier now, knowing there’s nothing in any of those shopping bags that’s going to start smelling or cause someone to come and bang on our door in the middle of the night making some sort of demand.

Here are some things I learned from this exercise. The list is illustrated, because I found the cord that connects my camera to my computer.

  • I own more colored pencils than any single woman in America. Eighty-one to be exact. That’s a lot of colored pencils, especially for someone who doesn’t color anything. What’s the half life of a colored pencil? Twenty years? Please remind me I own a lot of colored pencils the next time I decide to pick up a pack of them.

  • One of my sons managed to buy six sharp daggers, disguised as “letter knives” on a school outing for which he was apparently given too much pocket money. The daggers were stuffed into a grocery bag by me, his horrified mother. I have fished them out and secured them in a hiding place so secret no child will find them until he becomes an adult and thinks to look in the box where the Christmas cards and wrappings are kept. (To the left of my desk.) Come to think of it, he won’t find them when he’s an adult either. The only person who ever does the Christmas cards or wraps the gifts is the mother. (And sometimes the father, because he is a Nice Man.)

  • I love my pink thermos. And that is one cute child. Enough said.

  • I found a lot of things I bought to give people and then forgot about. A bottle bag (brother in law who is a vineyard manager), a package of purple pencils (pre-teen girl), a pair of candles shaped like sandals (friend who loves Hawaii), colored pencils (amazing, I know), Christmas ornaments (who cannot use a particularly charming Christmas ornament?), socks with Christmas patterns on them (ditto — sister in law gift, in particular), and an already wrapped glass bowl my husband bought for a birthday gift and then did not give because it was in his luggage that was lost and not returned until after the birthday party was over (who knows?). I put them all in a basket, and I plan to give them away this time. For real.

  • We are in less trouble than I thought in terms of getting ready for the boys to go back to school. I was able to find the lists of required school supplies and then, much to my delight, stock everyone’s backpacks with supplies we already own. You’ll note that colored pencils are listed as “optional” on the supply list. That is because the school knows, just from sizing me up at the single parent event I have so far attended, that I am the sort of woman whose son might very well come to school with eighty-one colored pencils in his backback, enough to supply the sixth grade class with colored pencils basically forever.

  • I located each and every one of my sharpie multi-colored pens. And put them in a Moroccan tea glass. This makes me especially happy. I love sharpies, especially the thin kind and the colored kind. They make many marking jobs much easier. Not having them all in one place was the kind of thing that bugged me, and about which I could do absolutely nothing. Until now, that is. And that toast rack I bought in Paris a long time ago? It’s great for holding file folders.

  • Another daunting organizational issue that arose was what to do with the cards we give each other and other people give to us. I have never even been tempted to make those into some kind of craft project, thank you very much, so don’t even think about suggesting it. But we do like to look at the cards. The solution? I discovered that I own TWO one-hole punches. It was the work of an instant to punch holes in the cards and then put them on a binder ring, the kind that costs about .25 at your local stationery store. I did not have to buy one because I already own, like, fifteen of them, knowing they would be handy for something, just not realizing what or how much.

  • In a piece of book-related news, I discovered a $25 gift certificate to a bookstore in our neighborhood. I also realized I really want to read the new Richard Pevear translation of The Three Musketeers. And so, I got rid of that gift certificate and acquired one thing I really want to read and own. Beyond the one gift certificate (and a coupon entitling the bearer to one slice of pizza), I found no negotiable paper, no jewelry, no love letters. Oh well. I did find a place to put my computer. My desk.

And that’s it, organizing fiends. I’m done here.