When our friends Markus and Almut had their third child, we asked Markus how it was to go from being a family of four to a family a five. He’s a Classics Scholar—insightful, deliberate, a little quirky with a pleasing neurotic edge. “Well, it’s less…monolithic,” he said, making the shape of a column with his hands. “Four is just so tight. With five, there’s more movement. It’s more dynamic.” Then a bewildered look crossed his face. “Sometimes,” he said slowly, “I try to keep them all in my head at the same time and I can’t.”
It stands to reason that the more people in the house, the more dynamic things are. My mother just sent me a lovely book, written as a tribute to a man who had eight children, and was by all accounts a wonderful father and a truly extraordinary human being. I knew him; he really was. One of his children shared a memory of family meals at which they would discuss theology, politics, food and sports, often with friends—a large, dynamic, vibrant, happy crowd. I want to say that this inspired me to be a better, more interesting, more welcoming mother, but it didn’t. It made me want to tear out each page of the book one by one and pour coffee grounds on them.
Because I am often just trying to keep things under control, the regular interplay and movement of family life feels like too much work, too much conflict. Sometimes we seem like a bunch of jabbering crows, making loud, repetitive noises, meaningless even to ourselves. We don’t seem to rise above to the level of interesting debates or even witty banter, at least not as often as I wish we could.
Here, for example, is a standard daily menu of argument items in our house:
- Why Gabe cannot watch Open Season, or any other movie at 6:30am
- Why the presence of Noah’s iPod Touch at 6:45am is unwelcome
- Why the boys need to wear their winter coats in the winter
- Why Gabe cannot wear his space aliens shirt EVERY day
- Why no one else flushes the toilet except me
- Whether a thermostat setting of 65 degrees at night is “too high”
- Why we are not morally obligated to help the boys clean the “family” room
- Whether “suck” is a curse word
- Why our house does not “suck”
- Why being outside is better than being inside
- Whether is it acceptable to whistle in the car
- Why we will not sign Jacob’s French horn practice sheet when he DID NOT practice his French horn
- Why Jacob cannot practice his French Horn at 9:45 at night
- Where to go for Spring Break & why camping is not fun for the whole family
- Who didn’t clean the top of the microwave
- The volume of the television
- The last glass of lemonade
Just for fun, I did a little study, (n=7, the people living in my house + my siblings), and came up with some Arguer Profiles. Preliminary observations suggest that one’s arguing style is closely related to one’s place in the birth order and amount of common sense:
The Alpha Arguer—this is the person for whom arguing is like breathing; it is their MO, their first response, their unexamined, default way of being in the world. On the whole this makes them foolish and conspicuous, and therefore very easy targets. In our house, there is one active and one recovering Alpha Arguer.
The Anti-Arguer—this is the (pathologically) nice person who views arguing like mud-wrestling—trashy, cheap, distasteful and base. It may seem as though it would be easy to live with someone like this. It isn’t.
The Stealth Arguer—this is someone with strong survival instincts and the ability to keep things to themselves. They are very good at negotiating, muttering under their breath, and acting secretively. I have one and am related to one.
The Loud Arguer—a loosely defined category reserved for small children who yell, hit and throw things. I have one of these too.
When I was working on this post, Noah reminded me of the very important difference between bickering and arguing: that grating, irritated picking at each other over dumb things vs. the raw, painful, wounding acts that diminish one another’s humanity. “It’s like when Jacob and I call each other nerds,” he said. “We don’t really mean it. But when one of us is really pissed off, well, that’s bad.”
Gabe’s conflict mantra is: “I don’t like you! Go away! I still love you.”
Sometimes it just seems like that’s all there really is to say.
Today’s poem is by a Russian poet named Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), and it’s going to seem like an extreme, or at the very least, clunky transition from my thoughts on arguing, so I’ll offer a little explanation. Tsvetaeva wrote at a very brutal time in Russian history—she witnessed the Revolution first hand, and after it ended in 1917, she was trapped in Moscow for five years during a terrible famine. One of her daughters died of starvation after Tsvetaeva placed her in an orphanage believing she would be safer and better cared for there.
One of the extraordinary things about this poem, “I Know the Truth,” is that in the face of tremendous personal suffering, the “truth” she speaks, the final truth, the last word, is that in the end, we are all going to end up the same: “soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we/who never let each other sleep above it.” It is, as David Whyte says, “the grand perspective.” And she is speaking to the people who literally wanted to eliminate her and people like her (liberals, intellectuals) from the earth, including them in the offering of this poem, “what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?”
And that’s the amazing, life-giving thing about poetry—it touches every part of human experience, and though one’s historical context may be absolutely different from that of this poem, this poem does indeed speak the truth. It also speaks up for the truth: “Look—it is evening, look, it is nearly night;” it is saying, look—we don’t have forever. And we all know how this turns out: “soon all of us will sleep under the earth.”
This grand perspective is not depressing; it is empowering because it gives you the chance to choose what is important and human over what is diminishing and belittling, peace over conflict, love over fear, life over death.
I Know the Truth
I know the truth—give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look—it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?
The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.