The internet is telling me that back-to-school from five years ago in our family went something like this:
Eric (then 9): We are supposed to write about something that happened in our lives for school. I am writing about the time we all got Hepatitis.
Me if I were a self differentiated, not anxious mother: That’s nice, honey.
Me if I were a controlling-but-in-a-good-way mother: That’s nice, honey. You know what I was thinking about? Do you remember that time we all went on that family train trip filled with love?
Actual Me: Make sure you write that it was Hepatitis A. The “A” part is important, because that means you didn’t get it from intravenous drug use. Also, please write about how we didn’t spread it despite having that big lemonade stand while we were contagious which means we are VERY GOOD HANDWASHERS. So hygienic. Write about how hygienic we are.
Anthony (then 7): I’m writing about how we got bed bugs.
Me: What? Why?
Anthony: It’s asking how we spent the summer. So I’m writing about fighting bed bugs. Because that’s how we spent the summer.
Me: Be sure to say how they were here when we moved in. They’re not our bed bugs.
Pause, in which Anthony stares at me intently…
Anthony: Mom. Whose bed bugs are they?
The other night, this story kept inexplicably running through my head as I drifted off to sleep. I was not intending to think about bedbugs (as is usually the case when I am in bed). I was intending to think about how to best act as a moderator in a group I run where there’s been a “this-joke-hurts-me” vs “oh-lighten-up-PC-police” situation going on.
I missed the original conversation because it was family game night. All I saw was a message that said “this joke and this thread are hurting me”, so I deleted the whole thing, without reading at all closely. Because I knew that I had about 17 seconds before my son, Captain No-Fun, caught me on my phone during family game time and gave me the speech about “noticing whether technology is acting as a tool of connection or disconnection in your life”.
In the few hours between the deletion and me getting a chance to check on the group, the usual fallout had begun. “Where is the post?” “Why are people so sensitive?” “Why are people so mean?” And, the universal “I thought we were better than this in THIS group”. Which always surprises me because “this group” is four thousand people, so there is no way that every single one of us is going to be better than anything. Frankly, I’m stunned by how rarely people are mean, given that it is a humour group. And given my decidedly mediocre moderation, which has consisted of writing the world’s funniest group guidelines and then approving posts without reading them that carefully. All sneaky-like, during family game night. Whenever Captain No Fun is busy looking things up in the rules.
So I’m drifting off to sleep the other night, trying to think of what to post as a moderator, in the group. All I could think of was “as I stipulated in the guidelines, I will not be protecting your freedom of speech. Kind trumps funny.” Except I can no longer use my catchy and pithy “kind trumps funny” tagline, because A CERTAIN PRESIDENT OF A NEIGHBOURING COUNTRY I WILL NOT MENTION HAS RUINED MY ABILITY TO USE THE WORD “TRUMP” WITHOUT BREAKING OUT IN ITCHY WELTS.
And so I'm trying to think about the moderation task, but for some reason that makes me think of Trump, and for some reason Trump makes me think of bed bugs. Even though I’m mostly over it (the bed bugs, not the president), and I no longer itch when ever I close my eyes. Just when I read international news. I no longer lament that fact that googling “Liz James” still returns “bed bugs” (this post will not help with that problem). I no longer spend all day in a blurry exhausted vigilant state of THEY MIGHT ATTACK AT ANY MOMENT, slowly rotating defensively in the produce section of the grocery store.
Then it hit me.
Donald Trump feeling = Bed Bug Feeling.
That feeling of living day in day out with a thousand little wounds under your skin. That feeling that when people google you, they get things that aren’t who you want to be. That feeling of WE MUST BE VIGILANT EVERY MOMENT OF EVERY DAY and that feeling of oh, so, freaking exhausted.
Because it’s the exhaustion that’s the hardest. It’s the exhaustion that makes everything feel like whenever you need to get from point A to point B you have to walk through poisonous jello until every muscle aches and you can’t breathe. It’s the exhaustion that means that you’re terrified of a mis-step and too tired to correct it if it happens.
It’s the exhaustion that means that when your friend says “but, uh, Louis CK did ask first and how is a guy supposed to—“ you want to scream “I AM FIGHTING TO KEEP MY BODY SAFE AND YOU ARE ASKING ME FOR ADVICE ON HOW TO HIT ON WOMEN!”. It’s the exhaustion that means that when your friend looks at something beautiful you made and says “we need to talk about cultural appropriation” you want to scream “I AM NOT TRYING TO HURT ANYONE I JUST MADE A PRETTY THING INSPIRED BY OTEHR PRETTY THINGS”. It’s the exhaustion that means that you don’t understand why the fricklesticks you can’t just write a nice worship service about how light is better than dark without someone sending you a Helpful Article About Racial Undertones.
And it’s the exhaustion that leads us to try to figure out who is right and who is wrong. Which never works, because when we try to draw the line between legitimate concerns and granolier-than-thou-ing, we are not going to be able to figure out who is attacker and who is unfairly wounded.
Because we're all unfairly wounded.
In the summer of the Bed Bug Battle, someone had to sleep in the treated rooms for the treatment to work. That was Anthony and Gary’s job—they reacted the least. Eric--who reacted a lot--had the job of sleeping there after we thought it was safe, as a test if the treatments were complete. My job was endless scrubbing and laundry. My sister’s job was spontaneous childcare in the middle of her summer holiday. The taxpayer’s job was to treat Eric on his ER visits, the couple of times I was misguidedly optimistic about having won the fight.
And NOT A SINGLE ONE of us deserved any of those jobs. Neither did the family who gave the bugs to us. They were refugees who got them from an apartment building that left the infestations untreated because I live in a country where that’s acceptable. Their infestation was way worse than ours, and the resources they had to deal with it was way worse than ours, but that didn't make us any less itchy.
We were all unfairly wounded.
And the question, in this situation, isn’t “who deserves to live in bedbugs and who doesn’t”. The question isn't who deserves to feel itchy and unhappy even though there are other people with worse bites. The question REALLY ISN'T “given that the bugs exist, how do we divide the bites up fairly?”.
The question is “how do we get rid of these bugs?”
In the case of the crappy injustices we’ve inherited as a society, the question isn't who is most politically correct or who ought to lighten up. That approach is dividing up the bites. The question is not who should feel guilty. We didn't make the bed bugs, we inherited them. The question is HOW DO WE GET RID OF THESE BUGS.
Because their our bugs now.
Because “responsibility” isn’t defined by what you caused, or what you have a right to. It’s defined by the potential you have to help move forward. Which sometimes means giving you get a job that isn't fair, or you have to live with dividing things up in a way that doesn’t look equal. It sometimes involve setting limits when you’re doing damage—like when my kids’ pillow fight was spreading eggs all over the living room carpet and I took their pillows away.
(Let me tell you, those kids deserved to have a pillow fight. They deserved a break from cleaning and itching to have fun and forget how exhausted we all were. The did not deserve to be ambushed by the Bug Egg Police, but I ambushed them anyway. As kindly as I could, which was actually not kindly at all because I was exhausted and itchy and a little shout-ey myself. So there was some yelling “NO FAIR” and some yelling “YOU’RE RIGHT IT’S NOT BUT EITHER YOU STOP THAT RIGHT NOW OR I SWEAR I WILL BURN THIS HOUSE TO THE GROUND!!!”.
But… we kept working, together, because a) what else could we have done, and b) we were totally committed to a vision of bedbug freedom. We just. Kept. Working. Often not very well. Often with all the snippiness and bad decision skills that come with bone deep exhaustion. But we kept on, because with some things, there’s no settling.
Bedbugs are like racism and global warming and drug addictions and illness. And like Trump (as both a cause and an effect). These problems do not quarantine. They spread. And they do not effect everyone equally, but they do effect everyone. And when you know that, watching a president yell “America First!” while dismantling the stuff we all need is kinda like watching someone yell “America Last To Drown!” On a ship and building a lifeboat out of boards ripped from the hull. In the end, lifeboats will not be enough.
And watching that happen makes you itchy. And being itchy, makes you grumpy.
And in the end, that's all I have to say about this. That we are so tired. That we need to pause in the scrubbing to go for walks, to take in a movie, to laugh and play board games and go to the park. That we need to know that we are not at our best, and forgive ourselves that.
And keep going. Keep doing what needs to be done, one step in front of the other.
Because they're our bed bugs now.
But they don't have to be our children's bed bugs next.