When I mentioned in my previous blog about Roz Savage and our mutual friend Sisyphus that I had decided to “leave high heels and dayplanners behind” in order to travel a different path through life, it was more than a throwaway line, or exaggeration for artistic effect. Today, I wear boat shoes 90 per cent of the time, and when I’m not wearing boat shoes, I’m wearing sandals.
As matter of fact, I have quite a wardrobe of boat shoes. Even if you take a girl out of her high heels, you can’t always take the impulse toward shoe collecting out of the girl. I prefer the Sperry brand, and my favorite is the “Bluefish” model. But I don’t limit myself, and I’m ready for any occasion. I wear white boat shoes for work, since colors fade onto your toes when you get them wet, and I do get wet, on a regular basis. I have wash-off-the-sawdust-and-go-out-in-public boat shoes in fancy, coordinating colors like salmon and turquoise and grass green. I have summer boat shoes (with cute little vents), and winter boat shoes (sturdy and enclosed, with no vents). Since I apparently still carry a vestige of the old “no white after Labor Day” rule hidden deep within my psyche, I have plenty of brown and hunter green and beige boat shoes to mark the begining of the fall season and carry me through until spring.
Unfortunately, no matter which boat shoes I’m wearing, I can’t keep the laces tied. They’re always in the process of working themselves loose and flat dragging the ground, streaming behind me like a snapped piece of leash around the neck of a too-rambunctious dog. My mother fusses continually, “You’re going to step on those shoelaces and fall down the steps and kill yourself!” Friends offer suggestions for keeping the things under control. Strangers stop me in the grocery store and ask, “Do you know your shoelaces are untied?”
Well, yes, I do. And the fact is that I’ve tried everything I know to persuade them to stay tied. Since they’re leather, I’ve wet them and let them dry, hoping to shrink them into a nice, secure knot. I’ve double and triple tied them. I’ve cut them back and tied the newly-shortened laces into square knots. I’ve tried dipping them in varnish (not my best idea) and I’ve super-glued them. Nothing works.
One day, sitting on the deck of a boat looking at the untied laces I just had retied less than an hour before, I remembered something my grandmother once told me. “If you want to be wise,” she said, “you have to be able to distinguish between a problem and a fact of life.”
Looking at my shoelaces, I began to ponder. I always had seen my untied laces as a problem that needed solving. I had put a good bit of thought and energy into finding a solution: partly to keep the laces tied, but mostly to silence my critics and prove I was at least as competent as the average second grader. But with Grandma’s words echoing down the years, I saw those shoelaces in a new way and thought, “What if those straggly pieces of leather aren’t a problem at all, but only a fact of my life?”
Thinking it over, I realized that in all my years of untied laces, I’d never tripped over them, stepped on them, or suffered injury because of them. Despite everyone’s fussing, they’d never caused me a bit of trouble. Looking at them with new eyes, I could feel my burden falling away. I didn’t need to do anything. I didn’t need to solve anything. If I wanted to make an occasional attempt to keep my shoelaces tied, so be it. But there was no need to worry about them any longer. They’re not a problem, they’re a fact of life. And you don’t have to solve a fact of life.
A lot of the so-called problems of life aren’t “problems” at all. Gray hair and wrinkles come to mind, along with the rest of the aging process. You can see gray hair as a fact of life, or buy into billion dollar marketing campaigns meant to convince you the “problem” should be solved with this product or that. Birds nest in boat sheds and perch on spreaders and masts. Do you throw daily fits about their feathers, twigs and droppings and spend your time rigging up everything from artificial owls to water cannons to dislodge them? Or do you simply accept them as a part of life around boats and learn to use a water hose? You see the issue here. Misidentifying one of life’s realities as a problem can lead to enormous wastes of time, energy and resources as we try to “solve” something for which a “solution” is impossible.
Sometimes, it goes the other way. It also can be tempting to define things which are real problems as “just a fact of life”, as though taking that attitude will absolve us from responsibility for finding a solution. The homeless fellow who walks his bicycle through our streets and spends his afternoons under our bridge is “just part of the scenery”. The low voter registration and electoral participation in the U.S. is “just the way things are”. The fact that governments around the world continue to “disappear” their own citizens is “beyond our ability to control”. The unwillingness of nations and individuals to control their consumption of natural resources is “part of the human condition.” Or so we say.
Distinguishing between problems and facts of life is one of the most important and most difficult tasks we face Context is everything in these matters, as one person’s fact of life may be another person’s overwhelming problem. Hurricanes such as Katrina and Rita are perfect examples. For those directly affected, both were terrifying, life-changing and absolute problems. For folk watching the hurricanes play out from the safety of North Dakota or Utah or Connecticut, not so much.
A photo snapped by a friend illustrates the point perfectly. Watching a hawk soar against a perfectly blue sky, I tend to see it as a lovely fact of life, a counterpoint to nature’s song, a bit of undeserved beauty waiting to be enjoyed and treasured. Watching that same hawk cruise into their neighborhood, those smaller black birds saw a problem on the wing, and joined forces to solve the problem as quickly as they could.
Perhaps if I had been as instinctively attuned to my shoelaces as those birds were to their space, it wouldn’t have taken me so many years to figure out that untied laces weren’t a problem I needed to deal with. It’s just another bit of proof that Grandma was one smart lady. All of us live with problems, and all of us live surrounded by assorted realities we can’t, or don’t need to, do anything about. All we are called to do is to sort out our problems from the simple facts of life and respond appropriately: coping, solving, accepting or enduring, over and over again.
© Text Copyright Linda Leinen, 2008