Chaos theory from a five year-old

One of my dearest friends went through a spell of self-inflicted chaos recently. It was the good kind of chaos, the kind sparked by a dream and the need for newness and growth, and where opportunities waited eagerly behind each possibility — the greater of several goods, if you will — but it was never clear what form the culminating opportunity would take.

Oh, there were plans and groundwork and checklists and a schedule, but even with all the strategy it was still stressful, and enough things were up in the air that both the timing and the landing place were uncertain — like when a cat jumps at night from a moving train.

My primary job during all this was to listen, which has become easier as I’ve grown older as I seem to have less to say, or at least less that I feel I must say. Listening (as opposed to merely hearing), is a talent, perhaps even a gift, and I take the job seriously; plus, it’s typically inside work with no heavy lifting. Not that I was a silent partner, that I didn’t add my two cents in now and again, because I did, offering an outside (if not entirely disinterested) perspective during lulls, quelling any rising panic, tossing logic into the mix occasionally, repeatedly pointing back to the big picture, wiping away the occasional tear, looking for ways to lighten both the load and the mood. And encouraging, always encouraging.

The dream eventually took shape exactly as it should — exactly as we would have known it must, had we gotten far enough ahead of it to look back on it before it got here; but that doesn’t happen with dreams, and it’s why we’re each given a measure of faith. A few weeks before the dream came true, as an offering of cheer and to fan the cooling embers of enthusiasm during a worrisome ebb, I had written an e-mail which ended with “because you, my friend, are inevitable.” And she was. And the tension drained away. And her path is now sure and clear of obstacles.

The whole business reminded me of one of my own bouts with self-inflicted chaos. Many years ago, stuck for four years in a foreign city two thousand miles from our beloved Maine, I’d finally had enough. One hot day, I gave my notice at work and drove a “For Sale” sign into the dusty ground in front of our suburban bungalow. Impulsive? Perhaps. But I missed my old friends and the sound of rain on the roof and spring peepers and the smell of living earth and wood smoke; and, well, I just knew I had to go home.

Driven by resolve, caffeine, faith and prayer, our young family got down to the messy and wearying business of uprooting ourselves and heading east. My wife and children were excited, expectant and seemingly without worry, but as our impending departure date loomed, I felt the ever heavier and shifting loads of uncertainty and responsibility.

One frantic day, while painting the house to get ready to sell it, I stood on a stepladder in the blazing sun, sweaty and miserable. I’d lost sight of the big goal, the dream of being home in Maine, and saw only the overwhelming tasks that blocked the way. When my five-year-old daughter, Amanda, came bouncing out and asked to help, I reluctantly said “yes,” seeing only inescapable inconvenience. And I was right. She needed constant attention and assistance: sleeves rolled up, the proper small brush selected, instructions on careful dipping into the bucket, and so on. And when she finally got down to business, she only dabbed in tiny splotches when there seemed acres to cover. Then, I felt a wet yellow splash on my left calf. “Oops,” she said. “Be more careful,” I scowled. Then, a moment later, “Oops” again, followed by another splash and a giggle. I was in no mood for such silliness in the face of grim reality, and so I steamed a bit.

Then, out came happy Mom, all smiles and wondering what was going on. “What are you doing, honey?” she asked the little girl. “I’m painting with my dad,” Amanda said. “Actually,” she added with a whisper and a finger to her lips as if giving away a secret, “I’m painting on my dad.”

And then came the laughter, peals of laughter, yes, even from up on the stepladder, and all the tension just drained away. The big picture had been standing right in front of me the entire time as a little girl with a paintbrush and a giggle and a disarming preposition. For Amanda, the future was now, right here with her dad, and life need be no more complicated than that. And so on we painted, and then we sold the house, and then we packed the huge van and drove east toward home. Maine, as it turned out, was inevitable.

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