You know you’re in a maybe not so very great headspace, lifewise, when you grow bitingly jealous of somebody whose hands are covered in literal shit.
I learned this at the start of my daughter’s tenure here on planet earth, when so much of my life orbited around fecal matter and untold longing of one sort or another.
Two summers back, at the end of a rather trying day with a very fussy and colicky Baby G, I scooted my neglected nursing glider out from our living room and onto the front porch.
“If this baby won’t let me be out in the world,” I’d resolved bravely to nobody in particular, “I’ll bring the world to us.”
And so I plopped us down among the thirsty herb pots and the mosquito-infested rain barrels, reattached Baby G to her breasty perch, and leaned back to watch said world pass by.
People-watching is something I’ve always enjoyed, and our Northeast Portland neighborhood is never short on highly entertaining fodder.
The nutty old woman who lives across the way was at her usual prayers and supplications. I watched her work her way down the sidewalk on hands and knees, her beloved Bible tucked beneath a bony arm crook. As is her habit, she was praising the steely blue sky and the bugs and the sunshine in loud, nonsensical tones.
“Thank you Jesus,” she cried, her heart gladdened by I know not what, “We just praise you for this wonnnnnnderful day! Double blessings!”
I, personally, saw little to be doubly glad of this hard, lonely day, spent pacing the house while Baby G whimpered and burped, though in my weary heart, a flame of gratefulness did flicker. Because having a tiny baby is awful and terrible and hard, but it’s also an unalloyed miracle, and nature has seen fit to bolster frayed new moms like me with a thick resin of awe that coats those darker thoughts in thick, shimmering glaze.
Then along came another weekday regular — the homeless man on the tiny BMX bike, cruising for bottle deposit cans, the yellowed end of his cigarette trailing a wake of smoky vapor.
I called out to him, as I occasionally do, “Hello.”
“I’m chain-smokin,” he cried out gleefully as he whizzed on past, no doubt headed for the dumpy Safeway down the street with the perpetually undermaintained bottle return center.
Then it was two youngish women strolling by, each with a fluffy dog on leash. They were chattering away happily — old friends, perhaps, or maybe sisters. They paused on the corner nearest me so a chocolate-brown pup could do his back-end business near a decommissioned hydrant.
After he’d finished, the taller woman squatted down to usher the fruits of his labor into a little green compostable baggie with a flick of her fingers.
And she just looked so goddamned content, this woman, well in the flow of her Saturday, all right within her world and she tied a neat little not in the top of the baggie and scruffed the pup’s neck playfully.
And in that moment, I so enthusiastically longed to trade fates with her, to be the one strolling along so minimally encumbered, my greatest worry whether the bag of turds might begin to biodegrade before she found a public trash receptacle.
It wasn’t that I was discontented right then. I wasn’t. Not really anyway. Her fussing and fretting spent, my baby felt warm against my belly, suckling contentedly. Our porch felt cozy and safe, our house was mostly clean.
It’s just that all day long I’d had the jealous muses muttering murderously in my head.
“You can’t go anywhere.”
“You don’t get to do anything.”
“Everybody but you is going to have all the fun forevermore.”
I have these mutinous thoughts sometimes. And sometimes they scale to Very Big. Like, for example, I’ll ask myself: What compels us silly humans to continue procreating in the face of the far simpler alternative: contraceptives reliable enough to guarantee our genetic obsolescence, unless we get lazy or unlucky, and even then, there are options.
Why level it upon ourselves — this exquisite torture of rearing young?
And, finally, what on earth have I done?
These thoughts visit me in the harder or more tedious moments, and to be frank, they make feel like an asshole.
So I disavow them, resolve to be cheerier or at least more pragmatic, and then I am merely left feeling ungrateful as I stare down at my sweet little daughter, the one I’ve carried in my dreams and indeed even my body since I was a little girl myself.
Did I not, in the dull days after my miscarriages just one summer ago, with this little one of mine still nothing more than air and cloud, watch other women shepherding their familial pods through Arctic suburban supermarkets and across city crosswalks, their bellies swelled round and ripe as unplucked hothouse tomatoes, my own maternal inclinations withering on a twisting and troubled vine?
Did I not watch them and mutter the very same refrain: “They don’t know their incredible luck.”
Now I walk among them, blessed with fecundity, and I long to be unencumbered.
Now I envy the crazed and the destitute and the shit-smeared for their simple freedom, a freedom that was once mine but is no longer.
See, here’s the thing: if I hadn’t grown. and birthed this little babe to nuzzle and fret over, if I hadn’t chosen this less rambling path and had insisted instead on my freedom, I’d no doubt be mourning the children I never called forth from oblivion. If I’d chosen solitude and liberation over servitude and assorted other -ations, I’d be mourning the clean, regrettable lines of a reprehensibly unencumbered existence.
I’d be well rested and tanned and fully unmoored, and also probably rent in two from existential loneliness.
Either way, there’s something to mourn. Either way, at the end of the show, you’ll find you made just the right choices in life, and exactly the wrong ones, too.
Woe is me lounging lackadaisical and barren on some unspoilt Equatorial isle, cigarette in hand, my heart groping ever at the next horizon.
Woe is me, too, on a milk-stained rocker on the front porch of an unremarkable house in my hometown, nursing my firstborn ad tedium, as the summer slips past us unbidden, as disembodied voices call out greeting and the rattle of their many leashes sings past.
They are busy with other lives, tracking paths I did not choose.
Their mere existence feels like its own kind of annunciation, a promise of the existence of choice and of the inevitable beautiful terrible unfurling of those choices, all of it sung louder and rose higher than the murdery voices of jealousy and sour luck can ever reach.
So Praise Jesus, and praise bottle deposits, and praise sunshine and praise the pups and the babes who make too many messes for their own good.
Praise most of all the raggedy ones who follow behind cleaning up the mess, the ever-striving, ever-longing ones — the ones like me.
Double blessings on us all.