As an exercise today, I wrote for exactly the extra hour the departure of daylight savings time allowed me…
I believe in healthy fictions—those not-really-true things you tell yourself because, if you can only believe, life might be better. I choose to believe I’m not absent-minded. I think I can elude all those male stereotypes some people say are rooted deep in my gender. If I leave something on a counter in the faculty lounge, I won’t accept it will be gone the next day. I think positively.
But I also believe in complaining.
When I was growing up, my mother used to say, “Complaining won’t help,” and, as often happens with parental edicts, I’ve heard myself say those words. Yet, as also often happens, I wonder if I’m parroting her. My mother was right my complaining didn’t help anyone around me. In fact, my whining may have made everyone in my family miserable.
And when my children come home from school and complain about all the work they must do before bed and I say, “Complaining won’t help,” I mean it won’t help me. I have a great deal to accomplish in those hours too. I fear a helpless, hopeless cloud will descend on us all and we won’t escape. I don’t want to hear about it.
When my mother told me not to complain, I didn’t. If I was ill or sad or resentful or peevish or hurt, I struggled to say nothing. In a family of five children, you gain stature by being the maintenance-free one, the least fussy one. Though I never attained that stature, I envied anyone who could swallow tears. Spock on Star Trek was my hero and, just behind him, my older brother.
My stomach quickly filled with tears. Perhaps I’m more sensitive or take everything as personal to myself, but my complaints sat barely arrested at the base of my throat. Sometimes I couldn’t stop them. Often stopping them meant removing myself altogether and living with the loneliness. Other times I stopped them only to have them reappear like the contents of a finally-caught shark who disgorges lighters, beer can insulators, and hats. Still, I never questioned my mother.
My son questions me. He asks, in effect, “Why isn’t it okay to feel the way I do?” and “Can anyone convince you how to feel?” If keeping complaints to myself had worked, I might answer easily, but I understand what it’s like to have no right to your own feelings. I’m sympathetic. Part of me wants to capitulate. “Go ahead,” I’d like to say, “complain if it will help you be heard, if it will help you move on, if it will help you feel loved.” I also want to leave the room, but with more courage, less fear I’d be infected by complaint, I’d stay to listen.
Complaint is unbecoming, and, as writer, I also want to curb the dissatisfaction moving me to speak. Composing a tidy essay sometimes means imposing order on unease and false, insincere writing. My students complain what a downer literature is—they don’t want to hear it—but if a writer can’t be heard, where will the tears go?
My petty complaints, I’ll keep to myself. My big ones, my the-universe-is-all-wrong ones, I can’t. In exchange for the ears of those around me, I’ll listen… as long as we can negotiate a reasonable time limit.