Lately, I’ve taken to Tetris. In an attempt to retrain my brain to not immediately click on a social media app whenever I’m met with a lull, I reinstalled Tetris on my phone. And while my social media usage is down, when I fall asleep at night I see Z-shapes, T-shapes, and L-shapes. Am I using my phone any less? Not really. Has my blood pressure returned to normal levels? Eh. Only in the specific stress area of “people I want to throttle (or see tumble from their self-proclaimed pulpit -- if I’m being really honest.)”
This is not my first foray into the tiles of Tetris. Before my boys were old enough to manage a game controller (before they ditched me for Fortnite, Apex, and Madden), their Mom was kicking serious puzzle ass on the PlayStation. Tetris was and is the only video game I’ve ever been sucked into (Ms. Pac-Man, circa 1988 aside) and I really shouldn’t be surprised that a game about creating order from chaos is what interests me.
If you follow me (@anniedstutley on IG, Annie D. Stutley- Writer on FB), you know that I have spent the last week nursing my old dog, Katie, back from a debilitating case of pancreatitis. She has her good days and her bad days. I, on the other hand, have had about seven bad days in a row. And even though the outlook appears better for Katie than it did this time last week, it’s simply not good enough for me. I want her appetite to be back to normal now. I want her pain gone now. I want her mobility back now so that I stop worrying that she’ll never progress and I’ll have to say goodbye. It’s another November in which I’m begging God to save someone I love. As I spoon feed my sweet girl canned pumpkin and squirt antacids into her mouth, I can’t help but remember the endless high calorie shakes and homeopathic supplements I forced upon my father in a desperate attempt to save him in November 2018. Still wounded from two years ago, I’m left trying to fit the unexpected puzzle pieces of today into a heart still healing from the loss of a parent.
But not all falling fragments elicit such an understandable response from me.
If you’re a frequent visitor to this digital thought hub of mine, you also know that my oldest son, The Golden Boy as he was dubbed ages ago, is an avid swimmer and an aspiring Olympian. This fits nicely into the life narrative I attached myself to when he was ten-years-old -- when he lapped the kid in the lane next to his at his very first swim meet. On that day, my wheels didn’t just turn, they went full steam ahead and I may or may not have begun Google searches like, "famous Olympians and the moms who got them there.” All was going well. I could visualize the Golden Boy and me on the NBC interview couch in Paris 2024. And then, like some freak square-shape that has no sensible spot on the Tetris grid, the boy screwed things up with a sudden interest in football. It has taken every morsel of control I can muster to smile as I Uber-Mom him to football practices and listen to him drone on about wide receiver stats. He’s still swimming. Considerably, and on two teams. Swimming is still at the top of his priority list. But I can’t deny that the boy is really good at football. Last week he scored three touchdowns, an extra point, and made an interception. A normal Mom would be googling “famous football players and the moms who got them there.” (Actually, a normal mom may Google nothing…) But I’m not a normal Mom.
Or maybe I am?
I think we are all visionaries. Some of us are just less obvious about it. Walt Disney? Obvious visionary. That gal in the produce section, trying her darndest to not stuff her kids with preservatives and red dye number 40? Not so obvious. In other words, we all have goals and a plan we think best for our story to play out, but even Walt Disney had setbacks. Wasn’t he told early on that he had no talent and should give up drawing? But the tricky thing is, most of us are not Walt Disney with the uncanny talent and connections to see our plan unfold into a mega-reality. Most of us are the gal in the produce section, challenged, stressed, and just trying to get from one step in a plan to the next with a little more hope than the day before. But that’s hard to do when loved ones get sick and when kids switch things up, or when our employment loses its charm, or worse, we’re unemployed, when something stops our progress, or when it simply seems the only one onboard our vision is ourselves. Those are usually the instances when I break down, yell at God, launch a not-so-innocent, calculated attempt to manipulate those around me into my plan, or when I just crash on the couch in a pity party binge of Dawson’s Creek (which was just released on Netflix...not that I spent all weekend watching it...)
But the thing is, I can cry, scream, manipulate, and binge all I want and still get nowhere, because I only have so much control of the pieces that fall in my reality. So maybe it’s less about trying to fit rogue tiles into a perfectly planned puzzle and more about rethinking the resiliency of the puzzle planner herself?
In March, I basically threw a forty-something tantrum and even told poor Mr. Rogers to screw off because I was so disenchanted with distance learning. (True story and maybe not my best look. You can read it all here.) Little did I (or any of us) know that come November, I’d still be running a little hot mess schoolhouse. Due to swim team, Golden Boy has to be full distance learning until January, and Middle-Man will likely be on a hybrid schedule until the end of time (or next school year...whichever comes first.) Middle-Man, however, is like his Mama. He re-energizes from being around others. He still likes to do his own thing (play Apex and ignore his perfectly awesome mom) just as I love a good fuzzy sock and book night-in (and 1990s teen angst dramas). But overall, the pep in our step is that much faster after hours spent with our people. For Middle-Man, online learning isn’t just a buzzkill; it’s a train wreck. In the first quarter of this school year there was no hybrid option. It was all at-home, and I watched as my former A-student slipped through the cracks and into a sluggish, unmotivated period that I know in my heart included mild depression. There was fanfare on his first day of in-person, but wouldn’t you know, just one week later, sixth grade was back to full e-learning because of a Covid case. My heart sank when I read the email. I felt the panic bubbles surface -- rogue Z-shapes with nowhere to fit into my plan.
“Did you hear about the next two weeks?” I gently asked him at pick-up.
“Yeah, but I mean, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he shrugged. And then he added, even more blasé, “Whatcha gonna do?”
“Yep,” I mused. “Whatcha gonna do? Humph...what are we gonna do about it?”
What can you do?
I think tantrums, cries for mercy, and desperate attempts to manipulate are not entirely useless. Like cursing, they ease the pain. They are a sign of resilience. If we push against the adversity in our lives, that’s a signal to ourselves of strength and fervor -- we’re alive enough to not go through life like a doormat. We need the reminder, especially when it seems like everything is falling to pieces. But when our fight hits a wall that we simply cannot change, what then?
What are you gonna do about it, Annie?
Before November 2018, I would maybe resign myself to rose-colored glasses and focus on the fragments that do fit the puzzle. Katie is eating a little more than she did yesterday. The Golden Boy beat his best Fly time on Sunday. Middle-Man has improved his grades. That Annie would be grateful enough for the small miracles and piece together a pleasing picture. But that Annie had also never been met with the adversity that was to come.
What I know enough to know now is that a pause in a plan does not immediately destroy a plan. If haphazard shapes can, in fact, make a complete image, so too can our ideas be reimagined, even when thwarted. In my best vision of my life, I am happy, healthy, loved, and fulfilled. I envision the same for my children, and yes, my dogs too. Naturally, I want to see my visions played out my way and, of course, as seamlessly as possible. But perhaps we don’t know the importance of our visions until they are tested. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to be a writer until it got so damn hard to do it successfully. You may not have realized how important your marriage, work, or family was to you until they were tested. I fought for my father because his cancer put all the other puzzle pieces into perspective and shined a light on what mattered most. It’s why I’m fighting so hard now for my dog. And so maybe that’s the key to reacting to foiled plans: Look to where the light is shining brightest and focus on that puzzle piece first before jamming together pieces that don’t fit.
Will I sit on the NBC couch, an Olympic torch outside the studio, beaming at my son? Maybe. But if all I really want is for him to be happy, healthy, loved, and fulfilled, then I shouldn’t limit our plans only to one way. Will Middle-Man be energized through in-the-flesh friendship again? Yes. In the meantime, I won’t overlook other aspects that foster positive energy -- starting with family. And as for my old girl, Katie, regardless of the outcome, I will soak up every ounce of the happiness, love, and fulfillment that a faithful companion gives unconditionally without looking so far ahead that I miss our now.
I can build a life into a plan, or I can build a plan from the life I have been given. Maybe then will I earn my top score.