The onset of hot summer weather makes me nostalgic for a winter story. (This may have to do with my aversion to perspiring through my favorite summer cottons, and I’m just trying to convince myself that I’m more comfortable than I feel.)
Imagine with me that it’s actually January, and I’m trudging through wintry weather to get to a family whose fear and loathing of certain tiny beasties has led them to banish every stick of furniture to the small front porch.
In a snowstorm.
Patches of white flakes stick to the sofa; ice crystals have formed on the stack of dining room chairs. A narrow pathway that barely allows me to pass sideways leads from the front steps to the door.
A mother stands framed by the doorway, hands full of baby, dishtowels, and some kind of caterpillar toy. She’s still in her robe and slippers. She’s got bed-head. The baby’s got bed-head. A five-year old stands half hidden, clutching her mother’s leg.
She looks as if tragedy has struck. Her face shows the strain of feeling overwhelmed and a little lost. I’ve seen that look before. Just before the crying starts. And I’m not talking about the kids.
Her story unfolds in a torrent—the lice are flying around everywhere and they’re all scratching their heads and her husband is mad about the interruption in their routine and her mother-in-law wants to know how something like this could happen—it’s given her another reason to criticize the way her son’s household is being run. “Who is responsible?” she wants to know, as if somehow assigning blame could undo the damage, but really because she wants to prove that her daughter-in-law is as incompetent as she feels at the moment.
I listen. I avoid the temptation of agreeing that her MIL needs to stay out of her business, and that her husband needs to be slapped into a state of compassion. It’s not my place to have an opinion, so I begin my work.
I don’t tell her, right away, that lice can’t fly.
Once all heads are thoroughly treated, I convince her that the furniture need not be ruined by the snow. Yes, I tell her, it’s ok to call neighboring teenagers at home for the snow day to help put the household back together. No, they won’t get lice by moving her furniture.
She’s grateful that there’s one major task she won’t have to tackle alone today.
The follow up combing sounds manageable, she says, even though I can see that she’s still on the edge of tears.
I can’t help wondering how different her experience would be if she stopped thinking how awful this is. That she must be a bad parent. That she alone is responsible for the infestation and for getting it fixed.
How would her life change if she let go of the notion that head lice are evidence of her ineptitude?
What if, instead, she thought, “Hmm. This is an unwelcome challenge, and I’ll get some help to get through it. It has nothing to do with my parenting, but I’m totally tempted to think it is. Lice just happens. I don’t love it, but it has potential to be a funny story.”
In this moment, she doesn’t see the funny story. She sees the event as a shame-and-blame fest. She overlooks the opportunity to see the lice as I do—a perfect teacher; one that points out our humanness, our vulnerability, and our capacity for making ourselves crazy.
I tell her that lice don’t fly, don’t indicate slovenly hygiene, and don’t discriminate based on a judgment of her family’s worthiness. In fact, she has joined an elite club that includes Courtney Cox, Madonna, and Al Pacino. She begins to brighten a little, knowing that even the children of people with “perfect” lives and nannies and full-time maids get head lice.
Today’s lessons: things are always exactly as bad as we make them, based on the way we choose to think about them. And no matter what it looks like from the outside, nobody’s life is perfect.
I look for the humor in such everyday calamities, but I realize not everyone does. All I can do is help her solve the immediate problem, and allow her to glimpse another possibility.
On the way to the door, she stops and says, “Hey, before you go, can you help me open all the windows?”
“Why?” I ask, confused. Snow is swirling in the frigid wind.
“So the lice can fly out,” she says, winking.
My job is done.