the paradox of choice

To be free is to be able to choose and stick to that choice even when everyone else chooses differently.

the paradox of choice
Photo by Marivi Pazos on Unsplash

Today, D will stay at home and continue to learn online while most of his classmates will be back in school.

This was to happen two days ago but with the blizzard we experienced on Sunday night through Monday afternoon, the streets and sidewalks could not be plowed in time for people to resume their morning commute. D's school reverted to online learning for the past two days given this scenario, so all his classmates were at home.

Today will be the first day when his friends go back to school and we have made the choice to keep him at home for a few more days.

Having spent a good part of the night sleepless, I woke up late this morning and found that familiar angst had taken root again in the base of my throat and in the pit of my stomach.

I am so terrified that my child will 'miss out' by not going to school when most of his friends are there that it is showing up as this ball of anxiety in me.

You may wonder what's the big deal about missing a few days of school. I asked myself the same question too, and it led me down yet another path of exploration, which is why at 7 AM this morning, while D and KrA are engrossed in their Lego play, I have decided not to write fiction but instead focus all my attention on these thoughts that are swirling in my head, the worries that are clutching my heart, the ball of anxiety that is swelling up and pushing against my throat and my belly, and write it all down.

The first thing that came to my mind was the paradox of choice.

D has often been the only child to stay home and attend classes online during a period of recovery from illness while his friends were in school. On those occasions, even though the fear of missing out did grip me tightly, I could tell myself, "He's unwell, so we don't have a choice."

Now, when I'm choosing to keep him home for a few more days before sending him back to school right away, I find myself buried under a truckload of doubt and guilt. Because I'm making a choice here, it's not the situation that is compelling me to behave one way or the other.

And this is the paradox of choice for me, I have come to see.

When I am given the ability to choose, and I make a choice that runs countercurrent to what the rest of the world is doing, I rail against it, I rail against myself.
And then I quickly want to override my initial choice, the decision that I'd have arrived at after careful consideration and listening to my gut, and throw it all out the window for the assumed safety of being part of the crowd.

Our decision to keep D at home for a few more days was based on many factors.

Given that KrA is still home-bound, and in fact bed-bound for the most part, I haven't been able to go out and get the recommended 3-ply or 4-ply of N95 masks for D.

The child has also receieved only one dose of his vaccine yet, and will receive his second dose in early Feb (although we don't plan to keep him home for that long).

The healthcare system in Ontario is overwhelmed right now, and access to tests and medical support is quite limited.

Even though we have accepted the reality that the question now is not 'if' but 'when' we will be exposed to Covid, we are already quite severely constrained on the home front. The last thing we need right now is an avoidable exposure to Covid when KrA still can't walk around much, my herniated disc is flaring up, and we don't have a network of family or friends nearby who could help look after D if we are further incapacitated in any way.

So very early on, when the province announced that all children will return to in-person schooling this week, KrA and I immediately arrived at the conclusion that it would be prudent of us to wait for a few days before sending D back.

But as the date of return drew closer, I started to wobble and began to reach out to some of D's classmate's parents to find out what they had decided. Most were sending their children back to school. Some had already gotten their children double-vaxxed sooner than the recommended interval of 8 weeks between doses, which came as news to me. I asked his class teacher and she said that two other children had opted to remain online – this was as of last week, I don't know if things have changed in the interim with the snowstorm delaying return to in-person school.

The instant I started looking to the world outside for guidance, I found myself derailing from the path we had chosen. I started to doubt our decision, I started to question our judgement, and I began to operate from a mindset of lack and fear and scarcity.

I hastily started to inquire avenues for getting D his second shot sooner than the 8-week interval. I felt mad that I hadn't kept up with the news and that I hadn't contacted people sooner, for if only I had, D would have been double-vaxxed by now and we'd have been able to send him to school, knowing we've done all we could to protect him.

It didn't take long for me to convince myself that it was all my fault that D was missing out on school and the socialization opportunities being in school with other children brought.

Eventually I had to sit down and confront what was going on inside of me. Because, truth be told, D mentioned only once that he'd like to go back to school too, but that it was OK if he had to stay back home for a few more days. And so, I couldn't understand my own resistance and struggle in the face of my child's willing acceptance of his situation.

About a year ago, two Burlington-based authors launched a project called 'Writing the Roller Coaster' for which they invited Burlington residents to write about their experiences of the pandemic and submit their pieces, which they planned to compile into an anthology. (A PDF version of the book is available online. My pieces are on pages 97 and 101.)

Writing for the anthology was a cathartic experience, to say the least. The first piece I submitted was titled 'Finding Self-Love in the Time of Coronavirus'. That piece is all about the isolation I had been feeling since I went on bedrest for several weeks when I was pregnant with D.

Looking back now, I'm pretty sure that feeling of isolation had been haunting me for decades but were exacerbated when I found myself confined to a hospital bed for most of my pregnancy.

While writing the piece, I came to the realization that all my FOMO - fear of missing out - had stemmed from my efforts of trying to find something in the world outside to fill a large, gaping void inside of me. Fruitless efforts, to say the least.

I concluded the piece with the following passages.

It took me a pandemic and the innate wisdom of my 4 year-old to understand that the most important relationship we can nurture in our lifetime is with ourselves. How we love and value ourselves shapes how we perceive the outer world and our place in it.
Socialization then simply becomes the ability to present our true, authentic selves to the world and embrace everyone for who they are.
It has little to do with whether or not we have friends and playdates, birthday parties and backyard barbecues. It has everything to do with the ease with which we become our own best friend under all circumstances, irrespective of any external achievement or lack thereof, so that authenticity, and not desperation, drives our decisions and relationships. And the most beautiful truth is that children are naturally adept at this fundamental life skill of self-love.
~ An excerpt from my piece 'Finding Self-Love in the Time of Coronavirus' in the Writing the Roller Coaster anthology

Barely a year later, I seem to have forgotten my own learnings, especially when it comes to socialization opportunities for D. I still moan the lack of play date mates for him. I still beat myself up for not having more friends and family to fill our home with.

I still look to the world outside to tell me what to do. I still doubt the merit of the decisions I make for myself when I see others making different choices.

When I make a choice today, I inevitably want a validation, a guarantee, that in the future that something 'good' or 'favourable' will come from the choices I make today so that I can then look back in time and tell myself, "Oh, I did the right thing back then, how awesome!"

When we decide to keep D home from school for a few days, I am secretly hoping something would happen that would validate our choice. Something like ... dare I even say it out loud? ... an outbreak or classes being cancelled because of extenuating circumstances, whatever those may be, so then I'd be able to say, "Gosh! Wasn't it a good thing we chose to keep D at home?!"

When I decide to pursue a full-time career as an author, I want a guarantee that I'd be raking in the moolah five years from now, so that then I can look back and say, "Wow, I followed my passion despite all odds, and now I certainly deserve the fruits that I'm reaping as a result of the tough choices I made and my perseverance in the face of all odds."

Even as I write this post, a tiny voice pipes up inside me and suggests I should post this on my Facebook page, despite my decision of only a few days ago to stay away from social media even while continuing to create so that I'm not caught in the trap of constantly checking whether or not I've received the validation I so desperately seek.
See how I want people to read this post and tell me how awesome it is, how my words echo their thoughts, and what a gem of a piece this is?
It is not enough that in the writing of this post I am unearthing something about myself, discovering something about my own life experiences and behavioural patterns, and moving to a place of more clarity and self-assurance.
I want someone else to grade me, give me a 100/100, write 'Excellent' or 'Very Good' on my paper, for it is their stamp of approval that matters to me more than my own.
The trouble with living life thus is that it never feels satisfactory, it never feels like our own, it feels like a life in which we allow the wind to buffet us whichever way it likes, and when the wind dies down, we find ourselves lifeless and limp, unable to move of our own accord, having forgotten completely what it feels like to do so.

While I have waxed eloquent about acceptance and self-love in my writings, clearly I am coming up against more and more situations that call upon me to deepen this practice. And I have the best guru right here in my own home. My 5-year old. Little D. Lucky me!

So, yesterday KrA had a physio appointment, and D and I decided to make use of that time to go sledding. Only, when we reached the sledding hill after dropping KrA, we had to park about 300 metres away from the usual parking spot at the base of the hill because the area had not been plowed and all the spots up ahead had been taken up. Well, actually, we had driven up all the way but I didn't capitalise on the chance to snag a spot because I had gone too far ahead and a pick-up truck behind me had already moved in.

The only course of option left to us was to park at the farther location and trek through a large field of snow to get to the sledding hill. Which wouldn't have been an issue otherwise, but we had to go pick up KrA within half an hour when his appointment would conclude, so we figured we'd barely have enough time to plow through the field and back.

I mentioned this to D, adding that I had missed that spot up ahead, and he said, "That's OK, Mumma. I understand. These things happen. We can have fun playing here too."

KrA called us just we traversed the length of the field and reached the other parking spot (where the car is parked in the image above). His clinic was open for another hour, so we decided to get to the hill, sled down once, and then make our way back to pick up KrA.

And that's what we did. The sledding itself was not of the usual speedy type. The snow was too thick and the sled came down in slow motion. Nonetheless, the funnest part of the adventure was our trek through the field of snow, those unsteady steps, not knowing how deep our legs would sink. After every few paces, D would dive into the white, powdery snow. It was truly a delightful experience.

D's acceptance of any given situation inspires me to accept my reality rather than rail against it. Funnily, KrA's stoic acceptance of any situation used to irk me, and I'd get all caught up in concocting plans to make things happen faster or sooner or go my way somehow. But the same trait in D feels magical somehow, even though I know he inherits it from KrA through and through. I have not an ounce of patience in my bones.

It is this same acceptance that D exhibited when we decided he could stay at home for a few more days before rushing back to in-person school. He did mention he'd like to go back to school and be with his friends, but he also quickly made peace with the fact that he'd stay home while most others would be at school, and having made up his mind on that front, he went off to continue building his awesome LEGO creations. (The Monster Family in the second row is my absolute favourite. Oh, heck! All of them are my absolute favourites!)

D loves spending time with us. I suppose, instead of wishing that away, I can honour and appreciate that. I am so lucky that my work is flexible. And truth be told, I prioritize D and KrA over writing on occasion, but I'm meant to write, and I can't go too long without writing. Take today for instance, when I was able to understand my need to express these feelings, and could thus attend to myself first, even if only a little bit (for it is late evening now by the time I've come back to write this.)

"There’s just no peace living with a dog bred to do a job who hasn’t done it."
~ Vaughn Roycroft on Writer Unboxed

Roycroft wrote the above as part of a comment on someone else's post, but it's so true. When we do not do the work that we are meant to do, we are not at peace with ourselves, and no one around us can find peace either.

Sometimes I think of how I can organize more social outings for D, once we're past the dangers of the current wave of the pandemic. And I often come to the conclusion that I am not a very social person either. Well, that's not true.

I love talking to people, but I find that conversations often tend to dwell on the past – boasting about what we did, the places we went, the fun experiences we had – or on what we plan to do – the adventures we're about to embark upon.

Very rarely do conversations veer towards what matters to me a lot – about feelings and emotions, deep pontifications on life and what it means for us to be here in this moment of space and time, together, with each other, our paths crossing, who knows for how long.

In 'If You Want to Write', Brenda Ueland talks of her friend, Francesca, as among the "two or three very rare, extraordinary, creative people I know, when they are truly magnetic, fascinating, oracular, seem to be living in the present."

"Francesca, for example, always seems to be living in the present: now! Now! You can never get her to gossip chattily, to repeat long narratives or listen to them, not because she disapproves of gossip, far from it, but because to her, I think, mere narrative is not a thing to bother about becuase it is only memory, a recounting of the past in which nothing new can come in. It is not inspiration, the present.
No, she never says very much, but sits looking at you with loving, shining eyes, gently swaying as though to unheard music, and listens to you and understands perfectly, and wisdom seems to descend into her gently from some place, from beyond some place, as though she heard and understood in that moment St. Joan's voices. And she says something (without beginning) that at once seems to me so remarkable, true and important and filles me with something that is wonderfully consoling and illuminating.
~ Brenda Ueland in If You Want to Write

I want a friend like Francesca. And her children can be D's playdate mates.

Have you noticed how, when little kids get together, they just start playing without any preamble? We grown-ups are the ones who teach and compel them to say "Hi" and "Hello" and "How are you?" and extend formal invitations "Do you want to play with me?"

And we truly have the audacity to think that we know more about our children's social and socialization needs than they themselves do!

It was a video from Dr. Shefali that settled the debate on this matter for me.

What she says is nothing you'll expect. And the truth hits hard. And the truth sets me free.

"... the experience of being alone doesn't mean that they have to be lonely... The feeling of loneliness comes because we resist our own company, so we seek other people to fulfil our inner needs."
~ Dr. Shefali

As I sat down to write this post this morning, I remembered a song I learnt when I was 11 years old. In 6th standard, or Grade 6 as we say here.

It was Whitney Houston's Greatest Love of All.

For some reason, I was curious enough to look up the lyrics of the song. I only remembered the first few lines after all these years, so when I looked up the lyrics, I was gobsmacked. It is all about loving our own selves and not looking to anyone in the world outside to show us the way.

Our entire class learnt this song to perform at a competition at school. I remember how a few of us had brought our little keyboards for practice, but on the day of the performance itself, the two mics were positioned facing the singers, which was essentially the entire class. And whatever the few of us played on our little keyboards was drowned in the vocal music that was louder and amplified.

Our class teacher was so mad at us that she yelled at the entire class when we got back. "Shame on you all! You made such fools of yourselves on stage."

Which was ironical, because the song itself is all about loving ourselves whether we fail or we succeed.

This was probably why I never tried to listen to that song in all these years, even though Whitney Houston became one of my favourite singers in my teens and I have loved and learnt so many, many songs of hers. Writing about self-love reminded me of the song with its title 'Greatest Love of All' and I wondered what she could have been referring to. (The song apparently was originally written almost a decade before Houston performed it.)

And I was completely taken aback by the realization that I had had my first cognizant brush with self-love more than three decades ago.

Yet, here I am.

Straying from that path and trying to return, over and over again, each day, each moment of this precious life.

It is all a homecoming.

Flower Image Attribution: Photo by Marivi Pazos on Unsplash