"Mom! The cat threw up on the sofa!"

Oh great.

Why is it that I get all the messy, horrible jobs around here? Why can't someone else clean up cat barf?

Grumble, grumble. I haven't got any Real Work done for the last couple of days because it's just been one fool thing after another: taking the kitten to the vet for her shots--and, of course, nobody in the vet's office was hurrying, so a three-minute procedure took half an hour; dealing with the carpenter doing the last-minute touches on the bathroom; finishing up a project I'm thoroughly bored with; making a trip into the city to pick up the bloke and his daughter, who is staying overnight, which means at least a quick tidy-up, because the joint is a disaster.... I was starting to feel seriously aggrieved/ self-pitying (have you never noticed how closely those two are paired?) The remedy, I thought, would be to walk downtown to the bank. It is my senior kid's 17th birthday today, and naturally what he most desires is cold hard cash.

So: on go the boots and parka and warm scarf, because it is cold out there, and off bank-wards. Not even the beauty and clarity of the sky--that deep blue you only see on a clear, cold winter day --could reach me. I was still grumbling. I grumbled past the paint store, the drug store and the bakery. I grumbled at the banking machine. I grumbled back upstreet past the photographer's and the muscle-building establishment, with its photos of grotesque and brightly oiled masculine forms. I stopped on the bridge and grumbled at the frozen creek, where the skiddoos have left their tracks. Grouse. Grumble. Self-pity. Ugh.

I got up to the T-junction of the main drag and my street--and just then, the permanent resident pigeon flock erupted from the roof of the old hotel. They leapt up in a brilliant, silvery mass, the light catching the undersides of their wings, moving apparently in unison. How do they do that--maybe a hundred birds whirling, like a single thing dancing? A secondary flock swooped over my head to join them. I stood and watched as they did several tight-formation three-dimensional arabesques and then, with one accord, settled down on the roof again to sun themselves. And here if I hadn't looked up from my miserable mood, I would have missed them. Yes, I've seen them do this about a thousand times before. I don't care. It's still a miracle, every single time.

It occurred to me that when we respond to the ordinary crud of life by wallowing in resentment and self-pity, we're apt to over look what joy we should be noticing. Of course, we don't see it that way. Nobody wants to admit to wallowing in resentment and self-pity. Instead, we elevate the ordinary crud to the level of High Crimes and Misdemeanours, so that the wallow looks more in proportion and less like a wallow. I'd been doing this on my walk downtown, lovingly fingering my grievances, digging myself deeper into my crankiness, reinforcing my negative take on life --all ways of justifying being in a really rotten mood..

And if it hadn't been for the pigeons, I'd probably have gone on wallowing, snapping at my best-beloved and being generally a miserable person to be around. I take no credit of breaking the pattern; that was the pigeons. The only credit I can take is for being willing to notice things like pigeons.

How much of life to we spend gnawing on our grievances and our (wrongful) sense of entitlement, missing the good stuff that lies heaped around us like small piles of gold because we're too preoccupied with the crud? Something happened. It wasn't what I wanted. It may in fact have been something that was objectively wrong and bad and all that. (I'm not talking about great tragedy here, but of ordinary day-to-day matters.) Or it may be that I took something all wrong and got upset, or that something pushed one of my old hot buttons. An awful lot of the pain in life is self-inflicted, often because perfectly innocent events or remarks remind us of unpleasant pasts or because things hit us roughly in the self-esteem.

Life's full of elbows; wherever did it say otherwise? Cats are going to barf on sofas, inevitably, and someone (not the cat!) is going to have to clean up the mess. That's the way it is. Now, how am I going to handle this? By getting all resentful about it, or by cleaning up the mess, getting on with the next thing, and keeping an eye out for those pigeons? Change and loss will happen, and drearinesses, and crud, and necessary small daily deaths--but we'll also see growth and gifts far beyond what we could ask or imagine, if we're willing to get our aggrieved noses out of our self-pitying navels.

This isn't just Christian duty; it's common sense. If I'm going to be so stuck in my grumble that I have no attention for those pigeons, my life is going to be a pretty dreary business. My own doing, not life's or God's. But getting out of a grumble is my own doing, too, and my responsibility. I find it generally works to keep one's nose pointed in God's general direction, even if sometimes trying to get out of a grumble takes a while and some effort. It can be like walking uphill through deep slush. But at least it's heading in the right direction....

I stopped off at the video shop, bought a paper, took it next door to the coffee shop, and treated myself to a cup of hot chocolate and a break. Then, tucking the paper under my arm and tossing my grumble into the creek, I set off for home, through a day blazing with winter beauty.

Copyright © 2000 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 5 Feb 2000
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