The day after the election I awoke early to confirm the result. I knew Jay would want to know. At 6:40am I opened the door to the boys’ room and tiptoed past sleeping Wally, to the edge of Jay’s bed where I nudged him awake. He resisted for a moment, then staggered sleepily down the hall to a pile of waiting clothes. He dressed squinting in the overhead light, giving no hint that he remembered the news broadcast, the open laptop, the way we’d hustled him off to sleep the night before.
It wasn’t until he was a few bites into his cereal that he asked. From across the counter I told him. His face registered nothing, but then he began to cry. When I went over to put an arm around him, he shook me off violently, sending his spoon flying in a spray of milk. For more than a year Caroline and I had assured him that this would not happen. It felt feeble to tell him that most everyone else had been wrong, too.
After Jay was born Caroline and I imagined ourselves as a frontier family. It was mostly a joke, a way of making light of our cramped apartment and the fact that we didn’t have much money. But we meant something real by it, too. I liked the idea of frontier life as coherent and I wanted our emerging family life to be that way: work, marriage, kids, all working together, all pulling in the same direction.
This election season it’s occurred to me that my life is too narrow, too finely tuned to a set of circumstances that won’t last forever. While driving a couple weeks ago on an unseasonably warm day, I thought about what would happen if the climate really did change dramatically and caused big social upheaval. Of all the consequences I pictured, the one I found most unsettling was that in that context, the life I’m leading now wouldn’t make much sense. I have dreams for my kids, but those dreams would arrest in a world where no one cares anymore about the SAT. I have a vision for what makes a good day, but perhaps that vision depends too much on just the right kind of coffee beans.
So lately I’ve abandoned the frontier for a new metaphor – a metaphor of displacement, of a family on the shore after the water recedes. What kinds of choices, what values, would make sense in that world as well as our current world? When I say to myself that I want to live less narrowly, I mean I want to live in a way that holds up under a broader range of circumstances.
Kindness comes first to mind as something that make sense wherever you are, and patience, too. On leveled ground the thought of being in a rush seems silly. But the idea I’ve had in mind most lately is the idea of creation, of bringing to life the world you want to see. It’s a disposition that seems airy when the sun is shining and stocks are up, but necessary when you find yourself in a world radically altered. Which is to say, maybe it’s a disposition for any time.
So, after the election, when I think about raising Jay, Wally, and Leo, I think about raising them wide. And one part of that width, I think, is that while I don’t want them to take anything for granted, I also don’t want them to accept too much as a given.