📩 Letter #33: Crisis mode

Why are we at our best when things are bad?

Dear Ali,

Last week, Jared went to the emergency room for what ended up being a nasty migraine. The first day, he was very nauseous. At the store, I bought applesauce, crackers, and electrolyte sports drinks. I filled the car with gas, just in case. His vision was blurry; I turned off all the lights, and wrung out cold cloths for his forehead. The second day, when he still couldn’t see, and when parts of his body were numb (the inside of his mouth, the tips of his fingers) we went to the emergency room. The nurses filled him with fluids and painkillers, and scanned his brain for clots or masses. The scan came back clear. A few hours later, we were home. While Jared slept, I washed blankets. Later, I distributed doses of medication.

All in all, this was a minor episode. Jared was sick; now he’s back to reading law books and eating regular meals. But in the week since, I’ve had a familiar feeling, one I’ve encountered before after small crises have passed. It’s gratitude, yes — even small interruptions make you thankful for daily peace. But it’s also a recognition that when I was buying the ginger ale and asking questions of the doctors and running yellow lights on the way to the ER, I was happy. Not happy, exactly: fulfilled? Content? Certain, momentarily, that I was doing the right thing, in the right place and at the right time.

Some hospital visits last weeks, months, even years. Some sorrows drag on. I’m not talking about these kinds of protracted difficulties. I’m talking about the momentary, urgent needs that occasionally surface, and that you, yourself, are able to address — not because you are especially smart or compassionate or good but because you are there, a warm body who’s able to take out the trash and drive the car and heat up the soup. You are not making a choice to help. You are the only choice.

Perhaps we are “happy” in these moments because our own opportunities are limited. When you are called to a scene of need—a hunger that needs to be fed, a thirst that needs to be quenched, an anxiety that needs to be soothed—then you know that day will not be the day that you write thousands of words, start a business, or make the investment that will make you rich. You will not exercise or eat three balanced meals. You will not be frugal or beautiful. Self-discipline will go out the window. You will end up in an ER with no deodorant on and pimples on your chin. For lunch, you will eat a Shack Burger with fries and an iced tea. For dinner, you will eat cereal. Somehow, everything will go on, even without your daily obsessions. Why do you obsess about those things anyway? They suddenly seem extraneous and insignificant.

But like most “lessons learned,” this one—serving others is the surest way to satisfaction—doesn’t take easily. Make too many demands of me, and limits get hit. Make even a few demands, and I’m done! One week later, I’m already tired of reminding Jared to make a follow-up neurologist appointment, already forgetting the fear I felt that morning when I packed a bag, mapped a route, and went. I’m back to defining the value of days by an established set of criteria, back to my old professional panic. It’s the project of a life, perhaps, to live in “crisis mode” when there is no crisis— to learn how to hold things lightly so you can drop them and go.

How does that happen? Definitely not by hoping your husband goes back to the emergency room. Perhaps we just need practice, to put ourselves in situations (food lines, conversations, gardens) where people and other living things need us. That can become its own kind of trouble, the need to be needed. But let’s worry about that later. For now, someone needs our help.


My book rec: An American Marriage

As you can see from the festive seal on its cover, this novel was selected to be part of Oprah’s Book Club—so if you haven’t read it already, I’m surprised. I’m just a few chapters in, and I’m already enthralled by both of the first-person voices, Roy, a textbook salesman, and Celestial, a seamstress. When the newlywed couple returns to Roy’s childhood home, he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit. That’s the part I’m at now.

From an interview with Tayari Jones:

The thing about novels to me is that novels take place in a space of ambiguity. Almost all the research I did on mass incarceration, let alone wrongful incarceration—there was no ambiguity there. If you arrest and convict an innocent person and subject them to the penal system, there is no second side to that story. I realized I had to write kind of to the left and to the right of the issue. 

The book: An American Marriage

Rating: So far, so good.

Read more: If I Can’t Cry, Nobody Cries: An Interview with Tayari Jones”