Somewhere, there’s a panda ant

For her second-grade insect report, my daughter wanted to research an unusual insect.

So we looked until we found the panda ant.

It’s actually a wingless wasp, disguised as an ant. It has a stinger near its mouth. It eats nectar. It doesn’t live in colonies like the typical wasp. It’s found on the west coast of South and Central America. And its pattern of black and white hairs make it look a bit like a panda.

Until last week, I’d never heard of it.

And then, suddenly, I was holding a hot glue gun while my seven year old assembled pipe cleaners and fuzzy pom-poms and black beans into a 3D model of this bug whose scientific name we now both knew.

We can become so accustomed to the world right in front of us–the routines that we follow, the geographical radius we inhabit–that we can start to act as if that’s all there is.

But somewhere on the coast of Chile, there’s a wasp that looks like an ant that looks like a panda.

And somehow, that small fact makes the world I live in feel larger than it used to be.

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Be the best damn bagger you can be

Last year, I hit a rough, complainy patch.

I could hear it in my voice when I talked to my husband about my day. My list of complaints: meetings that dragged at work, our baby’s midnight wakings, our daughter’s homework procrastination, frustration and lack of time on every side.

I felt saddled with obligations that I myself had chosen and I couldn’t see a way forward.

As I fell asleep one night, an unbidden image came to mind of a bagger at a grocery store. An honest job, but a repetitive job. A job potentially worthy of complaint.

Giving advice to other people is easy, and I knew just what to tell this person:

Be the best damn bagger you can be.

The usefulness of this advice was obvious to me. A job well done (any job) brings satisfaction. Showing up as your best right now can’t help but move you forward. Being engaged in the moment right in front of you keeps you from wallowing and waiting for some fantastical future you’re never in.

Of course, the advice was for me.

And I repeated it to myself.

When I started to mentally glaze over in a meeting: Be the best damn bagger.
When I felt too tired to read my daughter a story: Be the best bagger.
When I wasn’t sure what to do next: Be the best.

And it helped.

Tasks I had avoided became interesting challenges. I had more influence over issues that had once seemed out of my control. I didn’t have to grump about problems because I was the best at solving them.

Whether you’re a bagger or an executive or a parent or an artist or anything else…

Whatever you are today, just be the best one that you can.

The choices after disappointment

So it didn’t work out the way you expected, hoped for, planned.

You now have choices before you.

One option: You can point to all the reasons it wasn’t your fault, all the factors that were beyond your control. These reasons are true, so you are not lying to yourself. (But do be aware that along this route, you could be snared by resentment or hopelessness.)

Another option: You can point to everything that was in your control, but that you did not execute successfully. This option is harder to swallow, but potentially more encouraging because you can do something about it. (Just make sure the reasons are true. Otherwise, you may turn personal responsibility into self-flagellation.)

And here’s the surprise: You can make both choices at the exact same time.

Identify each correctly and you’ll be wiser and stronger, so that next time, you have greater chances of success.

When things don’t work out, when you don’t get picked for the team, when your plans don’t land, don’t let the disappointment be wasted.

The discomfort is telling you something

A pregnant woman has no checklist that tells her: Today, you made toes.

Or: The lungs are finished now.

Or: Good job on the ears, both are done.

Growing a human is a massive endeavor, but the milestones along the way can’t even be seen.

Cells divide into cells exponentially. But on the surface, most of that growth just registers as discomfort: nausea or fatigue or heartburn, until plain old bigness sets in and mom can’t find a good position to sleep.

Enough people have been through this experience that we know what the discomfort means.

We trust it.

A pregnant lady can be reassured by books or doctors or other women who have given birth that yes, these swollen ankles are normal.

*

You don’t have that reassurance.

At times, you are slowly, imperceptibly preparing to give life to a new experience or chapter or project. And all your invisible preparation just registers as discomfort.

Something’s not working. Something’s not right. And you don’t know why.

Because personal rebirth has no set schedule, because creative labor has no reliable timeline, and because so few of us recognize our discomfort as the precursor to change, we mislabel it. We thrash against discomfort, try to delete or fix it, when we could just allow it to give us hints of a birth to come.

You have no checklist that tells you: Today, you’re closer to something new.

But if you’re uncomfortable right now, you might growing exponentially under the surface, and you just don’t know it yet.

My hope for you this year

For me, 2017 felt like a year to appreciate moments.

My husband and I celebrated 10 years of marriage. All year, my oldest child asked me to tell stories about my childhood. And my newest little one lived her first year with delight, in awe of everything: hands, grass, scrambled eggs.

The year also ended (and the new year began) with some moments so somber I don’t even know how to write about them yet. But if they had to happen, I appreciate that I got to be present to witness them.

May 2018 bring you moments worth appreciating, whatever this year holds.

Neither one of us is getting out of here alive

Someone suggested (as a joke) that we all share a piece of wisdom.

It was Thanksgiving at my in-laws’ house. Dinner was over. A dozen of us had gathered in an impromptu circle of conversation at the end of the day. My husband’s cousin’s husband, who is always joking, suggested we go around the circle and share a truth we would tell the world. So we did.

The wisdom varied from unserious (YOLO) to pessimistic (don’t expect any of your plans to work out) to earnest (tell the truth).

Eventually, my brother-in-law had his turn.

For the past two years, he’s been dealing in one form or another with cancer. And on this holiday, his abdomen was swollen with tumors and a liver inflamed. He’d been awake for Thanksgiving dinner, but much of the day, he’d needed to sleep.

I did not feel surprised that the wisdom he gave us went something like this:

People say we’re all going to die someday, but they don’t act like it. Everybody walks around as if they’re going to live forever. They argue with each other as if they have all the time in the world. But when you’re really, truly looking down the barrel of that gun, you realize: not one of us is getting out of this alive. So we might as well be cool to each other.

I’ve been thinking about that all December.

*

Christmas Eve morning.

My daughter woke me up early and wanted an orange.

In the kitchen, I didn’t grumble at how early she was awake. (I’m more apt to do this than I like to admit.) I paid attention to the sound the peel made when pulled away from the fruit. My brother-in-law’s cancer had nearly overtaken him and he’d come home for hospice care to make peace with the end of his journey. I handed my daughter the orange segments and her mouth opened in a smile.

When someone you love is dying, every moment seems worthy of notice and appreciation.

In a few hours, we would bundle up and drive to my brother-in-law’s house, where his family planned to celebrate Christmas a day early—before his mind or strength slipped even farther away. But at this moment, before the sun came up, my daughter and I sat at the table, just eating an orange together.

I’ve written and deleted and written and deleted what I’m trying to say about this a dozen times—casting around in all seriousness for a piece of wisdom to hang onto. But perhaps my brother-in-law already said it best.

Neither you nor I is getting out of this life alive.

In each moment, let’s be as good to each other as we can.

So your creative project doesn’t change the world…

Even the best, most beautiful work you do today will not fix everything.

If the creative project that calls to you feels frivolous because it doesn’t feed or clothe anyone, do it anyway. The world needs more than just food and shoes.

Or perhaps the creative work that calls to you does feed people or give them shelter. Even then, after all your effort, someone else in the world will still be hungry, or lost, or homeless at the end of the day.

You are not required to right every wrong today. If doing so were possible for only one person, someone would have already done it.

Do what you can do. If we all do the part we are capable of, we will fix quite a lot.