Warning: If you’re here for a pleasant account of some small incident in my looming days or a blurry photo of snow geese, give this entry a pass. I’m stuck at home and feel contemplative about this seven-year old mission to matriculate an entire year without expressing complaint. The product of my pen (translated through keyboard) might bore you. But I have never sold much of my writing because I want to write what flows. My videographer friend will doubtless turn away and say, “Too long to read”, but nonetheless, with time on my hand, I intend to let the words come as they might.
Most of that about which I initially wanted to stop complaining involved what I’ll call #firstworldproblems. Annoying bureaucrats, careless clerks, fickle friends, and garbage consumer goods topped the list. I have enough food and adequate shelter. I’ve had a satisfying career, even if I didn’t achieve financial success by most people’s standards. I made enough money to send my son to private elementary school and currently acknowledge that I buy organic eggs which come from pasture-raised chickens and cost $6.00 a dozen. For more than a third of the world, that would be considered insanely unreachable. Just now, I tossed a handful of cashews into my mouth not two hours after eating breakfast.
I do not credit myself for understanding the luxury that my behavior suggests to many. On a scale of poor to posh, I’m squarely in the middle. As one of my favorite Jackson County Circuit Court clerks would say, “I’m blessed and taken care of.” (You should excuse the dangling preposition.) Whether you believe in a divine entity, the grace of the universe, or merely credit my dogged refusal to surrender, I’m one of the lucky ones no matter the source of my good fortune.
So why should I complain, I asked myself seven years ago. Why should I voice any degree of dissatisfaction with the trivial components of my existence? I had this argument with someone (and I’ve recited this conversation in other entries, so my apologies for this redundancy). I’m so much better off than many, how can I voice anything except gratitude? His reply haunts me: “That’s not how it works! It doesn’t matter if you’re worse or better off than other people! You should have more than you have! You deserve it!”
The argument did not really focus on whether I should have more than others, but whether I had a right to complain for having less. Our conversation had started with a discussion of my health situation at the time. I remarked that I could have cancer, or MS, or lupus and since I did not, I felt grateful. He rebelled against that concept, insisting that I deserved to be free of disease or malady. He could not explain why. Since we were in the middle of a divorce requested by him at the time, I assumed that he spoke from a sense of guilt. “If you were healthier, I wouldn’t feel so bad about leaving you.”
I might have been mistaken in my conclusion about his motives but regardless, in reality, I don’t deserve better health than the next woman. If good health is supposed to be dolled out according to merit, I’ve got a bone to pick with whomever determined the diseases with which to bestow Stephen Hawking, Helen Keller, and my sweet cousin Paul Orso who died of ALS a few years ago. I don’t believe that a person’s “worth” determines their allocated benefits or burdens. Something else drives the allotment: Chance; genetics; the vagaries of social biases; or, perhaps, the sweep of a godly arm.
Once I had determined that I needed to focus my quest for tolerance of adversity on a whole stratosphere beyond trivial circumstances and comparatively lighter difficulties, I found myself examining the stuff of headier contemplation. I spent five or six years exploring emotion, spirituality, and human connection. I tried direct discussion and fell flat. I reminded myself, “Don’t tell; show.” So I embraced what one disparaging person called “warm fuzzy concoctions”, sometimes contrasted with bleak snippets of my inner turmoil.
My audience seemed to like those passages. Thanks to the prick of conscience from the afore-mentioned videographer, I supplied the out-of-focus snapshots of the life which I described. I admit to feeling a bit smug as the statistics rose. Readers increased, as did the number of clicks on each entry. As my “year” grew ever longer, endless maybe, someone who once cringed at the thought of having to read my writing expressed the relieved belief that I had found my voice.
And now I’m here to disappoint you, because I think every word that I have written belies my original quest to pass through 365 days without complaining.
You see: I still complain. I still bitch, moan, and lament. I still wince, wish, and wail. I haven’t foresworn complaint — I’ve made it an industry. My only saving grace lies in my insistence that I give my words away to anyone who wishes to partake of them. No ads, no paywalls, no click-bait, no monetization. Just my passages, accounts of my days, a chronicle of the #journeytojoy of a #MissouriMugwump.
For the last year, I’ve joined many Americans in having an extraordinary amount of time on my hands, even more than usual. I live alone. I work in a small office. I moved 2000 miles away from my dearest and nearest family and friends. I’m not good at making true alliances, despite having an uncanny knack for spotting quality in humanity. I already had entered a life of largely empty hours, voices only heard on the radio or through the phone, and Saturday nights with nothing to do but contemplate whether I still own too many sweaters. The California stay-at-home orders didn’t keep me from working but it did stop cold any effort at distraction in the public places which are sufficiently noisy to drown out the mantra marching through my restless brain: You’ve come sixty-five years with little of merit to show for your time in this world.
Besides hours spent assessing my personal achievements, I’ve devoted a good chunk of my pandemic pondering to identifying truly important issues worthy of expressing dismay. My son has devoted himself to anti-capitalism and to the cause of equalizing opportunities and resources. His example has opened my eyes to modern champions of such causes, as well as historically significant figures about whom I once had a vague notion but whose work I had forgotten, such as Frank Chapman. I’ve started listening to progressive podcasts such as the Young Turks, but also to whatever mainstream media has to say from which I could understand whether the everyday American enterprise acknowledges the disparities which haunt our society. I asked myself: What does society say about the relative importance of human beings; and can my inner drive towards living a serene life be understood in the broader context of the social compact?
Does my mission of striving to go a year without complaining have wider significance, or am I just seeking validation for my veneer of self-righteous composure?
Lots of people have a reputation for not complaining. Entire swathes seem to nobly bear the hallmark. I’m sure that I have heaved many an audible sigh and proclaimed my intention to sit in the dark when the lightbulb went out rather than ask for assistance and bother someone. I see the first seven years of this endeavor as fitting within that category, though I give myself partial credit for the recently passed months in which I’ve striven for a more enduring message.
When push comes inevitably to shove, Marshall Rosenberg again provides the basic and unerring truth. We have basic needs. We seek to meet those needs. We ask others to behave in ways which allow our needs to be met. We stand in vulnerable supplication, ready to aid others but also asking to be assisted. Nothing else actually matters; therefore, the single only subject worthy of complaint can be expressed as the tragedy of unmet needs.
I’ve come to the end of this morning’s flood of thought. I don’t claim to be any closer to understanding where this rambling train ride ends. I only know that I want to continue trying to foreswear complaint if only do also abandon my regard for the trivial and the trappings by which I have judged my performance for the last six and a half decades. I have been known to proclaim that I do not mind if my only legacy lies in giving birth to an accomplished advocate and gentle, accepting soul. In truth, though, I find myself now driven to greater good. Rather than simply going a year without complaining, perhaps my mission has evolved to spending the rest of lending an effort to lifting others from the muck of life so that they, too, might have the luxury of idle contemplation afforded to me and documented in this self-indulgent journal.
Last night’s windstorm swept away cobwebs from the roof of my #tinyhouseonwheels and perhaps a few which have long lingered inside my soul. The electricity has not yet been restored to Rio Vista where I work. Oddly, despite hours of the relentless 35 mile-per-hour battering of an ancient infrastructure, power endures where I live. I have plenty of propane and a few extra hours. I count myself fortunate. I intend to make the most of whatever time remains, today, tomorrow, and beyond.
Though I have not met the goal with which I tasked myself in December of 2013, nonetheless, I welcome its evolution into something more enduring than mere complacency, than merely staying silent in the face of small inconveniences. I’ll keep you posted on my metamorphosis. For those of you who have grown accustomed to lighter fare, take heart. Along the way, I will still share a few lovely stories along with a plethora of blurry photographs, of red-tailed hawks, lone egrets skirting the edges of the San Joaquin, and flocks of snow geese rising into the glow of a Delta dawn.
It’s the twenty-seventh day of the eighty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.