Progress = (Yikes!)


by Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

Last weekend I heard the very unwelcome sound of water dripping inside my house. I followed the noise, panic in my chest.  I crossed the kitchen.  Rain was leaking through the roof, through the attic, through the sheetrock, and landing with a gentle, dreadful, plink-plink-plink on the floor.  I made my own, much louder accompanying stream of swearing and climbed into the attic with a flashlight and a bowl.

Finding the source of the leak was not easy. There were several spots of moisture on the underside of the roof but a giant roll of fluffy insulation masked the landing. I had to wait until the weather cleared up and get on the roof with sealant and spray the heck out of the base areas around the vents, pipes, and skylights.

Each time something goes wrong in my house: rats! leaks! mold! I panic, thinking that there is no way I will ever be able to manage running a business, raising kids, keeping up a busy social schedule and to also tackle the latest problem.

I like my problems small and friendly and preferably well known in advance. Give me a gluten intolerant guest attending a spaghetti dinner. Or a Daphne O’dora that dies because I planted it in the wrong spot and then forgot to water it.  Give me a kid who refuses to clean his bedroom floor.  Give me a misplaced sports participation permission slip the morning of a wrestling match and which—surprise!—is discovered hidden under a pile of clothes on said messy bedroom floor.

And yet, somehow these crises—big in the moment and little in retrospect—always do pass. I scrub the mold off the walls. I antagonize the rats with traps that fail to catch as much as a whisker into either going away or becoming quieter residents. I seal the roof and start planning for a total replacement.

I think we are all more capable than we give ourselves credit for.  Or maybe we are more capable than we want to need to be. Capacity comes with experience and it grows when we tackle new problems. But these new problems, they piss us off. I don’t want to have to deal with the messy and chaotic and unexpected. I don’t want to worry about the roof or rodents or fungus walls.

But I feel good when I succeed in beating back one of the endless homeowner harbingers of decay.  A sense of progress is the best antidepressant not on the market!  I am happy when my house is clean and dry and warm and beautiful and I can snuggle under a blanket with a good book and glass of sparkling water.  But when I can do that after meeting one of the myriad challenges of Old House/Wet Climate I feel ecstatic.

Today I am grateful for whoever invented spray on roof sealant. I am grateful for a sturdy ladder and Mrs. Myers cleaning products and the plaster and paint that will allow me to disguise the water invasion. And I hope that right now, you have some sense of progress in your life too. I hope that whatever today’s struggle is, you turn it into tomorrow’s story of your very own awesome, badass, competent self.

An Unexpected Twist


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

I clung to the black steel ladder forty feet off the ground as best I could, repositioning the oversized leather gloves that my wet, sweaty hands were swimming inside of.   I looked up but not down.  Never look down when you are climbing a seven story ladder. Thirty more feet to go. My sons were ahead of me and my friend and her daughter behind.  Individual harnesses attached to a steel cable astride the ladder kept us safe from death if not bruises and fear. We were in the final stretch of an eleven course zip line in Guatemala.

This whole week had been one uncomfortable experience after another.  Our first night found us sleeping in a pantry in a Guatemalan house with no hot water, a barking dog, and two tiny single beds for me and my two children.  We transitioned to another home stay, but still tossed and turned in a boiling hot room on mattresses that would have been garbage north of the border.  The city of Antigua lacks almost all grass and trees, and as a result airborne dust permeates skin, clothes and hair from the moment one steps out of the shower.

All this because years ago I saw my sons were getting an imbalanced picture of the world. One based on comparing their possessions to television actors and other American children rather than humanity at large. It made me mad and worried to be raising youngsters who thought they should each have their own latest model I-phones just because they wanted them.

A trip to a developing country with a home stay and a language immersion program would be just the ticket to resolve this little prince syndrome. A dear friend agreed to go and to bring her daughter along as well.  My boys balked at the idea so I offered the compromise of ending the trip with a fancy hotel and then added the zip line experience to boot.

And so we found ourselves climbing a steel frame high in the air. I was terrified and sweaty but also somehow triumphant.  I used the same skills I teach my clients of positive self talk to get through. “You can do it!” I told myself, “I got your back.” Weirdly telling oneself that you have your own back–as three-dimensionally impossible as this promise may be—is greatly reassuring. I ascended to the wooden platform and sat down while cheering on the others.

The day after our return one of my sons looked around our house and proclaimed, “We are so lucky.”  During our trip we had seen a pre pubescent child singlehandedly running his family bodega late on a school night and a teenage boy sent around to beg for stale bread. We saw babies and toddlers hanging out in the street all day while their mothers sold handicrafts from large baskets balanced on their heads.  We heard the stories of our Spanish teachers who lived with parents in surrounding villages in order to make ends meet.  Even in the relative affluence of our hosts’ home there was not enough food at meal time.  There were positive experiences as well: The people were friendly and kind, the city was beautiful, with ancient churches and Spanish architecture.

We returned gloriously awake to the lifestyle we take for granted. The washing machine was praise worthy. A trip to the grocery store: exquisite. The backyard so lovely I could kiss each tulip.

I am trying to hold on to these lessons about unearned good fortune and gratitude.  So in the end, it turns out the trip was at least as much for me as it was for my children.