Stranger in a strange land

To be worth something to my family; to do my duty, to compensate for my inability as a father or a teacher or a writer, or an LSA; to be included, I needed to work. For them. I needed domestic achievements to set against Jo’s career and parenting triumphs. I needed to cook, clean, wash the clothes, hang them out, go shopping, feed the rabbit: make myself indispensable.

These were demonstrably, measurably useful targets. They could be ticked off. They could be used to structure and control a life that felt wayward, that seemed to be getting away from me.

We live in a post-religious age, yet Love remains our objective, and family has become its most exalted institution. Tending to our family has become our most elevated purpose, but it is a practice. It begins in practical, physical actions that keeps our children alive: labour, breast-feeding, protection, cuddles. These expand, early on, into doing necessary chores – sweeping floors; chopping onions.

It’s unclear how such earthy roots lead to transcendence. The implication is that somewhere inside the experience, there must be an evolutionary, ontological leap, perhaps the way the brain, a lump of flesh tormented by chemical spasms, projects a mind and identity as a side-effect of its ability to self-monitor: a shimmering, electrical halo.

It was one of life’s inexplicable mysteries, but I hoped that, by tending to these foundational activities, I too would be subsumed into the profound, soulful existence family seemed to offer, despite how foreign it all seemed to me: Per Ardua Ad Astra. While the messiah is preaching, somebody still has to take the bins out, but they, too, are a vital part of his numinous project: salvation by the kitchen door: grace by means of a toilet brush. I could be like Kierkegaard’s Abraham, serving the spiritual by embracing an ignominious, quotidian reality.

But I didn’t really want to do it. I was too selfish, uncaring, lazy. I had to force myself, fiercely, nose to the grindstone. All the time. Without stopping, because the flip side of the doable is that, well, anyone can do it. if I didn’t, Jo would, weeping with the stress of it, but capable, nonetheless. And then where would I be? What would I be? Why..?

And I also needed to hide my reluctance – another secret. Every demand for tea made me swear, inwardly, as I hauled myself up to make it. I had to resist that and be constantly vigilant because it wasn’t just the unceasing effort of parenting and husbandry that was exhausting, but also, ironically, the effort required to hide it. At any moment I was likely to collapse onto the sofa groaning “fuck this!” and never get up again, revealing myself to be exactly the useless scrounger I’d been denying, an illegal immigrant in the land of industry. (I could be sacked. I could be deported!)

It was a paranoid and negative version of the immigrant mentality: the same lack of entitlement, but without the hopeful self-belief.

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