I. Am. In love…with this manifesto from the makers of sugru which, you guessed it, is a product for fixing things. But never mind all of that. They’ve just fixed my life — or explained my own unexamined efforts to fix it myself in 12 steps or less. I’m particularly fond of numbers 1, 3 and 8, which I’ll riff on a bit just for fun.
#1. If It’s Broken, Fix It.
Those who know me well will tell you I’m obsessed with fixing that which can be fixed. People respond to this in a myriad of ways. It drives them bat-watty, particularly if I’m trying to fix our relationship (though I swear by the power of the fixed relationship even so. My father and I had a gorgeous relationship in part because we both did the work to mend up the broken bits. He was a sensitive soul who drank and raged too much (though, in my experience, not at the same time, and not so that anyone but his nearest and dearest would ever know). I didn’t care that he drank (though I did hope that he could conquer that demon, and the pain that drives people to it), but the rage was a problem. In both cases, he was largely unaware that a problem existed until I pointed it out. The first time I pointed it out I said simply that, if he wanted a relationship with me, he would have to learn to speak to me in an appropriate manner. He rose to the occasion and, one fine evening when I was visiting him at his vacation home in Southern Virginia, not too far from the place where my older brother Paul was born, we had a nifty conversation about death. I was young and full of piss and vinegar and big ideas. I shared them. After a while, the conversation wound down and he went upstairs. Several hours later he came back down again and calmly expressed how upsetting he’d found my ideas. Mostly he wondered what I could know about death at my young age. I may or may not have mentioned my vague memories of past lives (if indeed there is such a thing), but what I do remember is the conversation that ensued, in which he shared his feelings and fears about death and then wept. Turned out all that rage was just a cover o’er his pain. It’s a mechanism I intuitively understood, having taken the opposite approach, covering my rage with a surfeit of pain.
The second time I mentioned his rage, I called it by its name (and threw in a mention of his alcoholism to boot). That one didn’t go over so well. It unleashed a torrent of, you guessed it, rage. It was one of two times that he vented after our initial agreement that he would manage his anger before interacting with me, with the first incident ending in an apology that earned my respect — we’re all flawed after all, and accountability for our shortcomings goes a long way. This second episode was interesting. To be honest, I respected it — even if I wasn’t having it. He was working through something real with all that rage. He was pushing through pain and denial and sometimes the most effective tool for that is rage, though, ideally, we keep the fallout from our rage in fairly good check.
For two solid months he called my cell phone and left virulent voicemail messages. I have no idea what he said. As soon as I heard his voice and heard that he was ranting and raging, I deleted the messages and moved on. For whatever reason, I didn’t take it personally. On a fundamental level, I understood that it, like his drinking, had nothing at all to do with me. I don’t remember thinking anything about his ranting at all, which anyway I didn’t listen to, other than, “hmm, interesting, time to run that errand to the bank.” Then, two months in, he stopped leaving rants on my phone and checked himself into rehab. My older brother accompanied him on this flight and discovered what I would learn shortly thereafter. Our dad was 75 years old and what I couldn’t have known at the time I mentioned his twin struggles with alcoholism and rage, is that he was knocking on death’s door. My stepmother had spared us the difficult news that he was malnourished, then weighing in at just 138 pounds, largely because his alcohol consumption filled him with empty calories so that he ate less of the nutrient rich food he needed to sustain life. Rehab did the trick. Dad didn’t stay sober, though he would flirt with sobriety off and on for the next few years, but he did gain five extra years of life. It was enough time for him to meet my future husband, which was one of the great joys of his life, and to marry us five months before his death. By then he was physically weak, but his voice and spirit were strong. He was a healthy weight. In fact, he may have liked to lose a pound or two. When he died a few months later, it was a pulmonary embolism. Just one of those things that happens, sometimes, with loss of mobility in old age.
Years earlier, when I was in my 20’s and dating another man, my father asked that man to “please take care of my daughter.” That man, who today is a dear friend, assured him that I could take care of myself. The wrong answer, it turns out. He didn’t repeat these words to the man who would become my husband. He didn’t have to. They were simpatico from the start and, after meeting him and spending a little time with him, I think my father knew that he would. My compulsion to fix things, even things that were already in fairly good shape (see #2 below), made me willing to call my father’s rage and his alcoholism by their proper name. I was willing, too, to bear the brunt of his anger and pain… sort of (after all, those rants went write to my delete box). What mattered to me was the relationship. I wanted him to understand that the rage and alcohol he used to shield himself from pain also kept him at further remove than he realized from the connection he and I both really wanted and had already gone a long way towards creating. Before I spoke those words, he’d never really considered himself to have the problems I named. He thought he got angry sometimes, but didn’t think he had rage. And as for his alcoholism, he thought he just liked to drink. I don’t know where he came down on those issues in the end, but I do know that, for a brief few years in his life, he did the work. He met me on the playing field of our lives, and it made all the difference in the world. The last time I spoke to my father, it was the morning of the day that he would die. He was fighting a virus, or so he thought. We spoke for just a short while. I told him I loved him so much. I told him to feel better. And then he spoke the last words that he would speak to me in this life. He said, “I’ll be alright.”
That is my story of fixing what’s broken. It doesn’t always work out so well — some things can’t or won’t be fixed — but the effort to fix things is a worthy one. It reveals to us what is possible and lets us attain to those heights, or it reveals what can never be healed so that we can complete the hard and necessary work of healing what has been lost.
On a more pedestrian level, fixing what’s broken has another benefit. Often times when we’re emotionally upset, it’s because we have a problem that isn’t solved. These days, at least in the circles I run in, it’s common for friends to recommend that we “talk to a therapist” about that. I think therapy is great, but I also think that running to a therapist every time you feel upset can be emotionally stunting. Sometimes, the only reason we’re upset is because we have a problem that we haven’t solved. Often, if you solve the problem, the emotional upset goes away, another fine virtue of fixing what’s broken when you can.
#2. If It’s Not Broken, Improve It.
This is what I was doing the second time I spoke to my father about his rage. By then, our relationship had been excellent for a number of years, but ambitious, aspirational me wanted more. I wanted to tweak what we had. The result is that we both got the experience of a lifetime.
#8. If You Have An Idea, Start Small And Make It Good.
I am learning this lesson now. I want a big life, but I’ve finally realized that big lives are the result of a series of smaller things. I am focusing on those small things and making them as good as I can given the time and resources I have. I trust that a small thing done well will lead to more. I also trust that a life lived with a focused commitment to doing the thing that is before me will always be big enough, whether I reach my loftiest goals or not.
Join the conversation. Leave a comment and tell us what you think about the fine art of fixing.
IMAGE via Fashion Tou Jours
PAULA PURYEAR is a Lawyer, Film & Television writer, HuffPoster and Founder of Revel In It Mag.