I couldn’t help laughing when I saw the photo. Helmeted and harnessed for the occasion, a friend’s sister had thrown English caution to the winds and was celebrating a local festival by zip-lining past the village church.
What caught my attention and made me laugh wasn’t so much the pair of lines stretching down from the steeple, or the absurdity of what seemed to be less-than-hefty pulleys. It was the woman’s footwear — ankle boots, with high heels.
Questioned about her sister’s decision to combine high heels and zip lines, my friend explained that her sister is shorter than many women, and wears heels everywhere. “In fact,” she said, “she may even have heels on her bedroom slippers.”
I can’t remember the last time I wore high heels. I do have two pair for weddings or funerals, but once I’d left them behind to travel a different path through life, I never looked back. Today, if I’m not in boat shoes, I’m in sandals or hiking boots.
Of course, even when you take a girl out of high heels, you can’t always eliminate the impulse toward shoe collecting, and I’m ready for any occasion.
I tend toward white or ivory shoes for work, since colors can fade onto my toes when I get shoes wet, and I often have wet feet. I keep wash-off-the-sawdust-and-go-to-town shoes in fancy colors like salmon, turquoise, and grass green. I have summer boat shoes (with cute little vents) and winter boat shoes (sturdy and enclosed, with no vents). I’m old enough to carry a vestige of the “no white after Labor Day” rule hidden deep within my psyche, so I have brown, hunter green, and beige shoes to mark the fall season and carry me through until spring.
Unfortunately, no matter which pair of shoes I’m wearing, I can’t keep the laces tied. They work themselves loose and drag the ground, streaming behind me like the snapped leash of a too-rambunctious puppy. My mother used to fuss continually, saying, “You’re going to step on those shoelaces, fall down the steps, get a concussion, and kill yourself!” Friends offer suggestions for keeping them under control. Strangers stop me in the grocery store and ask, “Do you know your shoelaces are untied?”
Most of the time, I don’t know, but I’m never surprised. The fact is that I’ve tried every known method to persuade them to stay tied, and failed miserably. Since they’re leather, I’ve wet them and let them dry, hoping they’ll shrink 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 dipped them in varnish (not my best idea) and I’ve dripped super-glue over them, all to no avail.
One sultry afternoon, sitting on the stern of a boat and glaring at the untied laces I’d re-tied only an hour before, I suddenly remembered some advice my grandmother had given me, decades earlier. “If you want to be wise,” she said, “you have to learn the difference between a problem and a fact of life.”
Looking at my shoelaces, I began to ponder. For years I’d considered untied laces to be a problem in need of a solution. I’d put significant thought and energy into finding a solution — partly to keep the laces tied, but mostly to 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? What if they’re only a fact of my life?”
After all, through years of untied laces I’d never tripped over them, stepped on them, or suffered injury because of them. Others may have fussed over them continually, but they’d never caused me a bit of trouble.
Looking at them with new eyes, I felt my burden falling away. I didn’t need to do anything. I didn’t need to find a solution. If I noticed my laces were untied, I was free to re-tie them, but the need to obsess over them was gone. They weren’t a problem. They were a fact of life. And while I don’t remember Grandma saying so, I reached a natural conclusion on that hot and humid summer afternoon — there’s no need to solve a fact of life.
It certainly is true that many 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. We can choose to see gray hair as a fact of life, or we can buy into billion dollar marketing campaigns designed to convince us the “problem” should be solved with this product or that.
Birds nest in boat sheds, and perch on spreaders and masts. Is it worth throwing daily fits about their feathers, twigs and droppings? Is it worth spending hours rigging up everything from artificial owls to water cannons to dislodge them? Or might it be better to accept them as part of life around a marina, and learn to use a water hose?
You see the issue here. Mis-identifying 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. One of the best ways to avoid real problems is to define them away as “facts of life,” as though taking that attitude absolves us of any responsibility for finding a solution. The homeless fellow who walks his bicycle through our streets and spends his afternoons under our bridge becomes “just part of the scenery”. Low voter turnout during elections is “the way things are.” Governments who continue to “disappear” their citizens are “beyond our ability to control.” The unwillingness of nations and individuals to overcome their own violent impulses is “part of the human condition.” Or so we say.
Distinguishing between a problem and a fact of life isn’t necessarily easy. One person’s fact of life may be another person’s overwhelming problem. Hurricanes and other such natural disasters are perfect examples. For those directly affected, they are terrifying, life-changing and absolute problems. Those who watch events play out in comfortable homes, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, will have a different view.
Even in nature, context is critical. Watching a hawk soar against a cerulean sky, I admire its flight as a lovely fact of life, a bit of undeserved beauty meant to be treasured and enjoyed. Watching that same hawk cruise into their neighborhood, blackbirds, sparrows, and doves see only a problem on the wing, and join forces to solve their problem as quickly as they can.
It seems that Grandma was one smart lady. Each of us is confronted by problems demanding solutions, but we also live surrounded by realities we needn’t worry over. Our task is to distinguish real problems from the simple realities of life as best we can, then respond to them appropriately — coping, solving, accepting or ignoring, as we choose.
It doesn’t take a genius to do that. It only takes courage — and a little creativity.