“A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior, nor—important though this is—in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going.” –Anthony Giddens
“What’s a poor boy to do but keep singing his song?” –Springsteen, “Shackled and Drawn”
I suspect that the only time we learn according to our own terms is when we are two-years-old. Clara has become ferociously independent and insists on doing a variety of emotionally and physically demanding tasks exclusively on her own. We’ve even managed to cajole this ferocity into her planting a few poops in the potty. Mostly, she likes to dress herself, pick out her own spoon, feed the dogs, and walk down the steps by herself.
She also has a strange affinity for punishment that I find interesting. We have a nice routine; we read and do puzzles, we go see Bekah, we come home and bathe and eat and read and do more puzzles. If things are going too smoothly for too long, Clara gets to craving a “timeout,” something she only gets, so far, when she hits living things. So, she’ll saunter up to me with the sneakiest little smile and raise her hand to bring it down. One time, I caught her mid-slap and asked before she actually hit my leg, “Clara, do you just want to go to timeout?” “Yes,” she smiles back. She trots to her room, closes her door, and sits with her baby for thirty-seconds or so. She then peeks out a couple times and when we say, “Clara, you can come out now,” she walks contritely back to me and gently rubs the place she planned to hit in apology. She seems to need penitence or some other emotionally difficult experience every now and then, contrived or not.
For Clara to feel like she’s doing something herself, like she’s learning, resistance is crucial. She likes to buckle her own seatbelt, and if I try to slip in, ever so stealthily, to guide the clip in the slot, she screams. She may not see my effort but she immediately senses when the task has become too easy—when she is no longer working against forces of resistance. It’s the same thing when I try to help her get dressed. She often walks around the cabin with about three inches of diaper peering out over her pants as she tries to hoist them up. I often try to alleviate her frustration by guiding the pants over the diaper. Even with her back turned, she again immediately senses the shift in resistance. I have made it too easy and she cries in protest.
I left a coveted job and Aaron left coveted job prospects two years ago in Tallahassee. We had a house, savings, security, furniture, shelving, and more than one hallway. We sold bikes and guitars and pianos and a car to take a five-month-old and two giant dogs on a drive through Canada. Now, we are moving back. The decision to move here could easily be called a mistake.
What I can’t forget, however, is that while we were in Tallahassee with all our various perfections, I couldn’t shake the feeling that someone else was pulling up my pants. That I was being buckled into my car seat by an invisible hand. And since I gave up screaming and thrashing thirty years ago, I did what any grown-up two-year-old would do: I insisted that if I’m going to be buckled in, I at least want to do it myself.
So, we gave our life a little slap and went looking for a “timeout.” We went looking for resistance. John Dewey said that we only learn when we are confronted with a problem. In a winter that never stops, in a cabin where I routinely stub my elbow and toes on the walls, and under the totalitarian glare of a mean and fascist budget, I have learned something.
I have learned that the only freedom we ever know is in commitment. When we commit to families and friends and communities and a personal narrative complete with plenty of conflict and resolution. When we take others and ourselves for better or for worse. I also know better what makes me happy—that is no small thing.
They say that when you get lost, you should stay in one place until someone finds you or you remember where you’re going. I am ready to stay still for awhile and be found. Meanwhile, in the timeout I arranged for myself and from behind the doors I’ve closed, I’ve thought about what I’ve done wrong and what I’ve done right. Peeking out, I see that this is a warm and welcoming place to be.