City Kid, Country Kid

“I need isopods for tomorrow,” announced my 11-year-old daughter, Fern, just before bedtime.

Since my kids usually inform us about these school needs about 10 minutes before morning bell, Fern’s request actually seemed manageable. But… isopods? Did she mean shrimp or something?

“No, dad,” she intoned impatiently. “You know, roly-polies. Pill bugs!”

And that’s how it came to pass that Fern and I crept over a dark San Francisco sidewalk on a school night, pulling apart the yard mulch. My post-bedtime plan had been to clean the kitchen; instead, I shined a flashlight over the ground and daintily picked crawly crustaceans out of the soil. As we dug, I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “This is why I can never complete my to-do list. It grows from the inside.”

Family managers are rarely allowed to finish one task before the next crisis arises. In the middle of excavating the week’s laundry, I discover that the refrigerator has died. I’m sorting out our taxes when my wife points out how both our girls are showing symptoms of hand, foot, and mouth disease. Is the universe playing jokes on us? And if so, couldn’t it at least wait until I’ve matched the socks?

Even worse, the more life’s challenges build up, the less well I cope. I was once a housekeeping ninja, but my skills have deteriorated so far that while tidying the living room recently, I was baffled by a single misplaced toy: a doll-sized muffin tin. 

“Is this part of a set?” I wondered. “Or a game I’ve forgotten?” I couldn’t remember if it was a treasured birthday present or a classroom prize, or even to which daughter it belonged. Frozen with indecision, I feared that if I discarded this tiny sliver, the first inevitable question after school would be, “Where’s my doll-sized muffin tin?” For many minutes, I sat motionless, overwhelmed by one feeling: there’s just too much to manage.

We have too much stuff, too many activities. I cart the kids to their practices, then wash the uniforms and put away the equipment. I monitor homework, the supply of clean underwearand a thousand things in between.

On top of it all, am I living up to my values? Am I volunteering, greeting my neighbors, supporting my friends? When did I last write to an elected official about an important issue? Make a home-cooked dinner? Clip my own toenails?

These worries follow me every day, and often they impel me to wonder about moving out of the city to a tame, less-expensive suburb, or even a remote small town. Away from the bustle of a dense city, would life feel less pressured?

It would not, of course. Busyness is part of having children. I feel sure that even country kids forget to collect their roly-polies until the night before. Even in a suburb, I would want to be an active friend and volunteer. It’s true that I feel swamped with obligations, but community connections also bring me joy.

City or country, the solution to an over-full to-do list is this: at least occasionally, rip it up. After Fern and I filled the roly-poly jar, I started back inside to deal with those dirty dishes. But as we stood up, we noticed a peculiar planetary dance: Mars, Venus, and the moon formed a line so tidy it resembled three coal buttons on a snowman. Discovering this accidental constellation touched me so deeply that I couldn’t help but rouse Fern’s younger sister. Bedtimes and dishes would wait: this perfect planetary coincidence would not.

 Graham Charles blogs at

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