When the World Feels Awful

“So there you have it: two things & I can’t bring them together & they are wrenching me apart. These two feelings, this knowledge of a world so awful, this sense of a life so extraordinary—how am I to resolve them?”
―Richard Flanagan

There is something to be said for living life with open shutter eyes, peering around wildly in a steady, honest gaze. For looking beasts in the face, calling them by name. For wising up to what is.

For closing those same eyes gently in prayer, in sacred chaos, in crumbling awareness of the perils that be.

It is easy for me to champion a life extraordinary. I am quick to see the good, to believe the idea that people are well-meaning and lovely and we’re all just over here on a spinning rock trying not to damage one another too terribly.

I have, in the past, thought this to be an exclusive ideal.

As in: the world cannot be awful, can it?
As in: aren’t we doing our best?
As in: wouldn’t it be despairing, joyless, pessimistic to call our very best awful?

But it is: our best is sometimes awful. The world is feeling terrible and tumultuous, and also extraordinary, and I cannot resolve the two.

Of all the skills parenting has bestowed me with – the opening of the olive jar with one hand, the successful finding of the missing shoe, the knowledge and recollection of each and every Moana lyric – it’s the vestige of nuance that I love most. The astonishment that our brains are complex enough to contain multiple emotions within a single experience.

The pain and fear and joy of childbirth.
(The pain and fear and joy of everything after.)

Early this week, Bee lost her turtle figurine in the front yard landscaping. She’d placed him in a low weed, then turned away for a minute or two and he’d camouflaged himself right into obscurity. Can you help me look? she asks.

I start to try, but I’m busy chasing Scout, keeping him from the garbage cans, the garage tools, the street. I can’t see it; I’m moving too fast.

So I pick up the baby and settle him onto my hip, and I scan and search from my own 5’5 height, but it doesn’t work. I can’t see it; I’m standing too tall.

The weeds are too much; the turtle too hidden. The problem too big; the solution too complex. Bee and I give up, vowing to work together during the baby’s nap once we’ve both got a free set of hands for digging deeper.

This is how the world feels to me now. Too much, too hidden. Our brains hard at work on problems too big; our hearts hard at work on solutions too complex. Few of us with a free set of hands for digging deeper.

Conversation fragments around dinner tables offer multiple theories: Is it less guns? More modesty? Less hashtags? Better healthcare? Less money? More clarity? Less Hollywood?

Which is it: less or more?

If it’s half empty, can we pour more?
If it’s half full, what does that mean for the parched?

Surprise, surprise, I have no answers.

But there are two more things.

#1.
Yesterday, the littles and I drove to an across-town neighborhood to drop off roasted chicken and kale to a new mother we ran into by happenstance, in Target of all places. I’d given up Target long ago, and we were there just long enough to pick up the changing table for a different new mother, a changing table that had been put on hold and lost in the back room causing a delay just long enough to run smack dab into the familiar eyes of a woman two weeks postpartum returning a onesie. Just long enough to strike up a conversation and all but force her to give us an address where we can please drop off dinner, Lansinoh, anything. She said yes, and we said yes, and people still want to help and people still want to be helped, and none of us are above either.

#2.
I don’t believe in just long enoughs.

I don’t believe in happenstance, in coincidence, in the idea that our world’s connections and energy and wavelengths have been so spliced that we’re no longer each others. I believe we were created from the same dust and rubble and clay, and I think that makes us all both awful and extraordinary, so terrible and lovely and beheld.

We’re back in the front landscaping now, and Scout has fallen asleep but the sun has grown colder and the afternoon more dim, and Bee and I return to our knees just long enough to dig and search through the mess of the weeds, and there – waiting, expecting – is her dear turtle hiding in absolute plain sight.

We just needed to get lower, is all, with wide eyes and a bit of dirt under our fingernails.

And that’s just the thick of it, right there. The knowledge of a world so awful – of a brush so dense – is precisely what begs us to dig in, to sully our knees, to peer harder at a life so extraordinary that sits right in front of us.

We’d have no reason to do it otherwise.

We don’t get one without the other.

There is a temptation to steer clear of the world’s awful. To walk away from the obscure brush toward the tidier, more obvious treasures – pink sunsets, crisp chardonnays, eucalyptus in a jar.

Who wants the toy turtle? What’s it even worth? Why work so hard for such little reward, for the disappointing hope of cracked plastic and cheapened paint?

Here’s why: because it matters. Because the fresh air and the cool sun and the dirt under your nails, after a while, start to feel good, start to feel right, start to become extraordinary. Because sometimes you find the turtle and sometimes you don’t. Because you search anyway, for just long enough and it ends up changing you.

Because Target checkouts can become sanctuaries, and so can low income schools and local libraries and your neighbor’s back patio.

Because you can only self care for so long before you care only for yourself.

(I can’t see it; I’m standing too tall.)

Because I am rubble and you are rubble and the things that are the most inconvenient, the hardest work, the dirtiest jobs, are part of our DNA, are the very dust we were born from and born for.

Because distractions aren’t really distractions.

(I can’t see it; I’m moving too fast.)

Because the world looks really awful from far away, just absolutely terrible, and when we get closer it gets just as messy, just as jumbled, but the turtle is still there, sitting right atop the extraordinary.

Because we are still here and we might as well do something about it.

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  • So glad I read this today. Beautiful words so needed in times such as these. Thank you.

  • Stumbled onto your blog via someone else’s a few days ago. From the start I knew it was a space I wanted to spend time in. Read this today and it’s exactly what I needed. This is a fresh breath from which to start my day. I appreciate that within this space you don’t claim to have all the answers. So many sites push you to think and believe just as they do, as if anyone of us has got this life all figured out! But this — it feels like a safe place to read and think and prod me toward a better understanding of who I am and just what I believe. Thank you!

  • This left me speechless…so BEAUTIFUL! You continue to help me grow.

  • The world does look awful right now from far away, disjointed and ugly and passionately angry, but then I snuggle in with my little man and my big man and know it’s not all bad, there’s still magic and life and yes, the work is hard some days even here in my blessed and easy existence but I can’t help the outside world if I can’t help myself too.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful read. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Thank you.

  • ahhh…thank you. just thank you for writing and sharing what so many of us are leaning into and for your realness and rawness. it’s just incredibly refreshing and grounding. i am a little fixated on your words about self care evolving into only care for ourselves. i completely agree.

    your voice resonates erin.

  • Thank you for your beautiful writing. For taking the simple, raw materials of life and creating art that opens our minds and hearts.

  • I want to say so much about this post but everything I attempt to write in response to your beautiful blog post, sounds trite to my own ears. I will say this though: Erin, you write beautifully and thank you for having a dedicated space to share these moving words with us :)

  • Erin,
    You are the mom friend I’ve been looking for…
    I love your thoughts. They are refreshing and needed.
    Keep up the inspiring life. We need ladies like you!!
    Sincerely,
    Monique G.
    Columbus, Ohio

  • Erin,
    THANK YOU! You made me pause and think on how every little thing can have a beautiful meaning. Thank you for blessing us with your thoughts.

  • Reality check…don’t let your children go to the bathroom at Target by themselves. They might not be alone when you find them.
    Kum ba yah is a catchy tune. As long as the law-of-large-numbers protects you, you can and should be an idealist. If fate [ i.e. statistical improbability ] does not protect you and you don’t protect yourself and your kids, as a statistic you may just get an opportunity to learn that “the only thing to fear , is fear itself” was spoken by a man with his own heavily armed secret service. Scars act as reminders to some while others seem to blindly wear them as some badge of courage.
    As a pilot I had more than just my own life to be responsible for. I actually believe in planning the route and fuel required, checking the weather, doing a walk around pre-flight and accomplishing the whole of checklists…but then I am just an OCD old white man without a heart…but a damn fine head still on his shoulders. I don’t want to fly on an aircraft piloted by someone guided by feelings over thought.

  • “Because you can only self care for so long before you care only for yourself.”

    Yes!!! I mean, I’m not saying we don’t need to take care of ourselves, but it’s amazing how the hard stuff and the hard relationships can give us what we truly need. Mostly connection and perspective. Thank you for writing this. I needed this.

  • Echoing Sabrina’s comment here… I’m so thankful I found your blog recently. Gorgeous words for a world that needs them!

  • my favorite line:

    Because you can only self care for so long before you care only for yourself.

    Thanks for writing it!

  • thank you for continuing to help me grow and hold my heart open during these difficult times. It can be easy to point the finger, name somebody to take the blame and become the problem, but the world is so much more complex than that. I love how you captured what our stance should be sharing a story about your children. we should all go lower. Thats what Jesus did when a group of men wanted to stone a women for her sin… He went low.

    Thank you Erin for your beautiful words and insight!

  • Erin,
    A beautiful way to remind us that even in this chaotic, broken, spinning world we can choose to impact for good. Thank you for this.

  • Erin,
    I wish I had stumbled upon you when my children were young. However, it is never too late to see the world through another’s eyes. Your insight is breathtaking and inspiring. Thank you for bringing color to a colorless world.
    Shelley

  • thank you Brooke – keep ’em coming! I hope it gives someone else PEACE (as it did me)

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