Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Full Catastrophe (but not that kind of catastrophe)

My father is fond of the line from Zorba the Greek in which a character asks Zorba if he is married. Zorba replies in the affirmative, "… Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe."

Having heard my dad quote this dozens of times, I began to wonder if it was possible that “catastrophe” had a different meaning to Zorba, or to author Nikos Kazantzakis, than it does to us. After all, the word itself, like the author, is Greek. Maybe Kazantzakis knew about something that had been lost in translation. Surely Zorba was not saying that having a spouse, children and a house was akin to, say, a natural disaster or a historic stock market crash.

I did a little bit of research and found a familiar name who had studied this particular phrase extensively: Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and former director of the stress clinic at UMass Medical School. Kabat-Zinn in fact found the phrase so useful he copped it for the title of his book, Full Catastrophe Living, in which he said that the phrase “captured something positive about the human spirit's ability to come to grips with what is most difficult in life and to find within even the most difficult trials room to grow in strength and wisdom.”

This is a more profound interpretation than the way it is usually used in my family, in which “the full catastrophe” really just means all the balls that are in the air at any one time. In that sense, today was a full-catastrophe day for me, except that there weren’t really any catastrophes at all. No accidents, injuries, floods, earthquakes, fires, political upheavals directly impacted my day. Instead, there were balls to juggle.

Before 8 AM, I had fed the kids, let out the sheep, and fed and let out the dog. By 9 AM I had run two miles. By noon I had drafted four short informational articles for the encyclopedic website I write for and interviewed the principal of a high school for a Boston Globe story about a war memorial to be dedicated on his campus next weekend. Before my children arrived home from school at 3:30, I’d also circulated emails with the members of a church committee I chair to try to identify the best date for our next meeting, drafted a plan for the Walk to School Day I’m in charge of early next month, updated the spreadsheet for who is contributing what food items to the upcoming teachers’ appreciation luncheon at our elementary school – yes, chairing that one too – recruited five judges for the pie baking contest to be held as part of our townwide Old Home Day celebration in late June, talked to an engine repair specialist about taking a look at our malfunctioning boat engine, and had a phone call with a new friend my husband put me in touch with to talk about possible writing opportunities she could explore. By dinner, I’d also taken the dog to the vet for shots and, of course, made dinner. After dinner there was a meeting for fifth grade parents to start planning next fall’s Spaghetti Supper fundraiser. I’m not chairing that event, just chairing the Publicity Sub-Committee.

Full catastrophe indeed. Surely some of these events can go on without me, I hear myself saying as I look over my task list. Surely if I really stop and examine my priorities, I’ll decide some of this doesn’t matter.

But actually, no. The writing matters because I get paid for it and because I enjoy my career. The volunteer efforts, all those chairmanships, matter because living in a closeknit community like ours without pitching in to various initiatives would be like going on vacation to the Caribbean and not bringing a bathing suit: if you live here, you might as well jump in and get involved. And, of course, the dog’s medical needs and the family’s wish for dinner matter too, and so on.

It doesn’t feel to me like a catastrophe, exactly. It just feels like a lot of different responsibilities. But each one is on some level a choice I’ve made. Poet Margaret Crouse Skelly has a line I love in her poem Snow Day. In that poem, the housebound children are yelling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” and the poet-narrator murmurs in the closing lines, “That’s me. I asked for this.”

In my case, it’s not my kids yelling for me, it’s the running and the committees and the appointments. But again, in Skelly’s words, that’s me. I asked for this. This full catastrophe. Which is really not a catastrophe at all.

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