A few days ago I was driving across St. Clair and I saw this sign in a dentist’s office window: “Give your bridal party the gift of white teeth.” Holy crap! How do you call up your friend and ask her/him to be a part of your wedding and then add that you’d like their teeth cleaned? What happened to giving them a butter dish engraved with your name and the date of the marriage? I pulled away laughing and wondering why the world is so intent on finding ways to make everything need fixing. Fix your teeth (get braces, have your smile adjusted, whiten up). Fix your nose (so no signs of ethnicity are left to give you away). Fix your breasts (make them bigger, make them smaller). Will we never learn that everything doesn’t have to be “new and improved”? It could just be … couldn’t it?
Driving a little farther I continued to dwell on the notion of fixing things. Ah – fixing. That’s something I know a lot about. It’s also something I need to reframe in my life I think. Let me explain.
I’m a fixer. I know that immediately puts me into a particular demographic; one that grew into adulthood when it still cost far less to fix something than to replace it. Best of all was when I could fix it myself, living out Anthony D’Angelo’s advice to “be a fixer, not a fixture.” My proclivity for fixing things developed while watching my mother who was a master fix-it person; TVs, toasters, radios … if it was broken she’d open it up, figure it out, and fix it. I learned how to tune an engine and adjust a timing belt when I drove a Triumph Spitfire which needed this done every weekend . I learned how to paint walls and hang wallpaper and make art out of discarded items or pieces of cloth stretched over a wooden frame. I can sew well enough to repair tears (and actually make a tailored suit jacket too). I once reshingled a roof; it needed fixing so I taught myself how to do it. Took a course called “leaky faucets” once to learn how to fix household plumbing. I like fixing things.
Somewhere along the way – really bit by bit as my life unfolded – I took on responsibility for fixing more than things. My family life was complex when I was growing up; my parents were both holocaust survivors new to Canada and trying to make their way to raise a family and live their lives – carrying their histories and memories and losses. The stories of my early childhood years, the tales of events that had unfolded, well … they were full of things and people and families and love being broken. And I was here. I was blessed with being born just after so many had died. I had, therefore, some responsibility to fix what I could in the world; partly in memory of those who’d been killed, partly as my response to the question “why did they die while I was born free?”, and partly to ensure that this was less likely to happen again. I grew with the belief in my heart that it was my job to fix everybody and everything.
When you take on a responsibility like this you have to develop a kind of continuous personal radar; I’ve spent much of my life scanning the emotional horizon to make sure everyone’s okay. You – the one reading this with a frown on your face – are you alright? Is there something I can do for you? The radar’s always on. I’m always on edge … ready to respond. This doesn’t mean that I always read the radar correctly or that the things I try to do to “make it right” are the right things. It does mean, though, that I’m always … as the Canadian national anthem says … standing on guard. It also means that on an emotional level I’m mostly pretty tired; after all, keeping track of all that radar input keeps the mind pretty noisy and busy.
So I’ve come to see that another retirement challenge for me is definitely to stop trying to fix everything. I’ve got to move more to trusting others to take care of themselves. I’ve got to learn how to love others without taking on their struggles as my own. Does that sound heartless? I hope not. It doesn’t mean I intend to stop loving anybody as much as I do … in fact one of the real joys for me in being retired is having more time to choose to be with – and help out – others.
I can’t continue losing sleep because I’m worried about how someone else’s problems will be solved though; in the end, we each have to face – and solve – our own problems … best with the love and support of family and friends of course. Instead I really am going to try to listen with compassion, care deeply, and stay out of the way while others take care of their own lives.
Good thing I’m in a new meditation class; might need that skill to stop me from following the well-established “jump in and fix it” pattern.
I’ll try this and let you know how it goes.
Meanwhile a couple of my kitchen cupboard doors aren’t swinging open quite right so I’d best go and fix them. Then there’s the dip in my front sidewalk where rainwater (and ice melt) likes to gather; need to fix that too. Got to get some tree branches down as well … might need help with that though.
Or perhaps I’ll think about those things while I read a novel in the sunshine. What do you think?