to curb the petty smallness

Posted by on March 9, 2013

baby doll with washcloths

Baby doll in a dishcloth bed © Julia Mason Wickes.


by Liz Waldner

If I were in a book it would be the book
in which some lesser angel bemoans
the state of my soul

and is comforted for it
and is corrected for it

by some greater angel who knows
as the reader knows that it is not one’s soul
that suffers the indignities of ignobility:
the inability to curb the petty smallness
of spirit, ungladness in the company
of bureaucrats, anger’s decay,

in the sense that my soul itself cannot be
harmed nor tarnished though it can witness
my sorrow on finding that illness alters me
from the self I thought I’d more or less known.

What can one do about one’s nature?
I look at the spider that’s finally
restrung its great wheel away from the door.

I’d like to close the door, go away,
leaving the spider be.
I’d like to preclude the possibility
of angel, as of prey.

* * *

Oh, life.

If you want to know what’s going on, I’ll tell you. On March 1st, two big things. My husband defended his dissertation and became a real PhD (this could be its own post, but now I fear it may be too late– congratulations, Jeff! — I never doubted you!), and, the same day, my father had major surgery to remove his gall bladder. My dad is eighty, so while the surgery itself is not the riskiest, it was very worrisome for all of us (my sisters and I have been in the grip of worry and doubt, calling each other every day for many days), and there was some infection going on before and after, so he has been in the ICU for many, many days following, and was only a few days ago moved to a normal recovery room.

But in the end, on all counts, there has been relief. Jeff can keep his job after all, has finally completed this six-year odyssey (a completion which I can barely wrap my mind around) and as an added bonus does not have to work around the clock so much anymore and can actually behave like a normal person on weekends. And my dad should be leaving the hospital relatively soon. I knew that things were looking up when today we talked on the phone and I put him on speaker to say hi to the girls. Esme informed him that they were watching the Wizard of Oz (or, as Elsa calls it, the Lizard of Oz). My dad felt well enough to give her one of his classic mini life lessons and said: “That’s a good movie. The wizard tells them that if they get the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West then he will give them courage, a heart, and a brain. But they have to have those things in order to get the broomstick. So really it’s a journey of self-realization.” Esme nodded into the speakerphone silently, sampling a small taste of what I grew up with every hour of every day for my entire childhood. Thank goodness my dad is on the mend. I am not ready to say goodbye to him– at all. And I’m all geared up to endure many more of his short metaphysical lectures for more years to come.

Other than that, let’s see…I attended two hours of a gardening class today at a local plant nursery which is about a half a mile from our house. I took lots of notes; it was crazy informative. The first hour was about cool weather vegetables while the second was about hot weather vegetables. The best line from the class, regarding how early in the spring you can plant your vegetables, was this: “Pick up a clump of soil from your garden bed and hold it in your hand. If it feels wet and cold and you don’t want to hold it very long, then put it back, go inside and do something else. The roots of your plants won’t like it either.” The soil we have in this area is– truly–clay. It’s a sad situation, but I did learn that although clay is hard to work with, it does contain lots of micronutrients that make vegetables tasty. I also learned that I am fearful and slightly uninspired by the thought of growing vegetables, while, for whatever reason, the thought of planting completely impractical plants like flowers and shrubs fills me with a go-get-em, can-do spirit. I guess I am just a supremely impractical person any way you slice it. But I do plan to try some vegetables this summer. We’ll see how it goes. Meanwhile, I put some gladiolus bulbs in the ground, and also planted a funny looking boxwood shrub. Jeff thinks it is puny and a little laughable, but I think that any plant that has the potential to be cut into the shape of a dinosaur is just wonderful and elegant. I won’t cut it into a dinosaur shape, but I do want it to have a trimmed, cultivated look. We’ll see what happens.

Let’s see. I am reading the letters between Eudora Welty and William Maxwell and enjoying them. It isn’t entirely gripping reading, but it is mellow and pleasant, and there are a few gems interspersed. (By the way, I didn’t know who William Maxwell was before starting the book, the real draw of the book being Eudora Welty for me– Jeff got them for me for Valentine’s Day knowing that I love Eudora.) There is one great part in which she describes her technique of pinning (literally with pins) pages from her short stories together into a sort of patchwork quilt formation. She says that in such a form her stories can be read from any direction. Knowing how her stories read almost like an impressionistic landscape painting, I believe this is true, and also just find it really charming. There is this and many other charming passages in the letters, although they do not really hold a candle to the letters of Flannery O’Connor.

Meanwhile, in real, everyday life, I struggle with the most mundane things, like my attitude with the girls in the midst of all the mundane tasks of child rearing. Just when I think I’ve made lots of progress in my development as a person, I find myself having a grumpy attitude again that is hard to shake. It’s my worst enemy– the bad attitude. I think this is why this poem speaks to me so much. I know that my soul is in there somewhere– expansive, noble, and untouchable– and yet the person slogging through the tasks of my life is sometimes so petty and so easily affected by every little difficult thing, the accumulation of many things that do not go my way (oh, how endless is that last, beginning with what my children have been eating for the last seven days or so), and I think I’ve made no progress at all. I’m no better or more mature than I was as a bratty teenager, which of course isn’t true, but it can feel that way, especially when I find myself locked in a very ridiculous argument with my six year-old. I want to control many things (like what my children eat, you know) and yet feel that most everything is generally, to a large degree, teetering way beyond my control, as, for instance, when my six-year old managed to have a cupcake, another slice of birthday cake, because we were at a birthday party, then macaroni and cheese for dinner because we went to a Catholic fish fry with the birthday party people, and then another cupcake for dessert, because it was free and came with the dinner). Today I finally told my six year old, after we had a big standoff over the standing rule I’ve tried-and-failed to implement regarding no climbing, jumping upon, and generally beating up and abusing the spare mattress which we bring upstairs for guests: “When I lose my temper and get really irritated, it’s really not your fault– it’s mine.” I think she understood, and we hugged, and things were better. I think I am going to have to reiterate this at various points in the future. My three year-old was standing witness to the conversation and she seemed happier afterward as well. What a profound affect all of us have on one another. God, forgive me.

On the brighter side, there were two great conversations we overheard between the girls just today. One was at a playground and went like this:

Esme: “Ok, you can be either a cat, a dog, or a bat.” [Proceeds to demonstrate how to hang upside down should Elsa choose the bat option.]
Elsa: “I don’t want to be a bat, actually.”

Later, while watching the Wizard of Oz:

Elsa: “I hate the witch!”
Esme: “Which witch?”
Elsa: “The wicked witch!”
Esme: “I love both the witches because the wicked witch makes the story more interesting.”

  1. Kate T.
    March 11, 2013

    I love Eudora, too. That sounds like a good book. And my dad is also fond of the life-as-journey metaphor, usually while tipsy. Oy.

    We look forward to hosting Jeff this week! Tangent: if you can figure out how to get an academic to behave like a normal person on weekends, send tips. I suspect my model is defective in this regard.

  2. Julia
    March 11, 2013

    I am really glad that Jeff is getting to visit with you guys! The irony is that he scheduled this lecture during his spring break, so there goes any credibility I might have had for dispensing advice about how to curb academic workaholism! Hopefully we will have another chance to see you all sometime soon–with no lectures involved.

  3. Kate Hale
    March 19, 2013

    Oh Lee! I could actually picture Dad giving life lessons to your littles! I am glad that they are too young for eye rolling (don't fret that time will come). love you baby sister!