There’s a scene in the Tina Fey comedy “Date Night” where Fey’s character reveals her most luxurious fantasy: spending a solitary afternoon in a professionally cleaned hotel room while sipping a diet Sprite. It’s played for laughs. Imagine a woman who, even in her wildest dreams, isn’t drinking the full-calorie version of a beverage.
The scene seemed crazy the first time I saw it, but as time went on, it seemed less crazy, to me and to a lot of order-starved people I know. It represented the brief alleviation of the endless to-do lists running in our minds. Vacuuming was constantly on my to-do list, a reminder of all my tiny failures. When I shared this with a friend she told me she’d purchased a Roomba and now sometimes she came home, saw the freshly tracked carpet, and burst into joyful tears. It was one thing that was always going right in her life, a solution that only required her to press a button.
When the robot vacuum arrived, we named it MoRo and followed it around like it was a puppy. What would it do? Where would it go? MoRo had an app; you could set him to vacuum on a schedule. What I preferred, though, was sending him on spontaneous, therapeutic expeditions: Reduced to scrounging dinners of peanut butter crackers amid a crazy workweek? I could still have clean carpets. Death threats from readers who hated the feminism in one of my columns? MoRo could help, softly gobbling at least the mite-size particles of unpleasantness.
In between MoRo’s cleaning appointments I was keeping my own, at the doctor. I’d had a miscarriage earlier in the year and then, a few months later, a pregnancy test that was positive for several days and then gradually not anymore. By the third time this happened, two pink lines were merely a cue to steel myself for loss. A battery of tests followed, ending in the ultimate diagnosis of a uterine abnormality occurring in only 1 out of 4,000 women — one whose name literally contains the word “unicorn.”
Truly, if you’re going to have a rare medical condition, I highly recommend one with a name that brings to mind glitter and princesses. But a unicorn uterus is something you do not want. Nothing makes the concept of “average” seem more of a fairy tale than being a medical unicorn.
There are support groups: message boards emanating endless goodwill, with stories of successful pregnancies and the things women did to reach them: acupuncture, reiki, eating a core of ripe pineapple. At first I thought these women were a little too woo-woo. But what they were really doing, of course, was trying to wrest a piece of control from a situation that was uncontrollable. They were then bestowing that tender, woo-woo hope to total strangers.
I’m finishing my first full year as a columnist writing about gender, a job that’s meant thousands of emails arriving in my inbox. They’re often searingly personal. A woman sharing long-buried details about the boss who once groped her in a closet, for example. Or a father wrecked with grief by his daughter’s sexual assault.
The ones that touch me the most are the ones in which people explain how they’re wresting tiny pieces of control away from the chaos of daily life. An older couple in North Carolina, alarmed by statewide discussions about a transgender bathroom ban, wanted to make their own personal toilet available for any trans person in their town. A young man, whose school mandated see-through backpacks amid school-shooting fears, had female friends who were embarrassed to be seen carrying tampons. So he’d decided to carry them himself, in his own see-through backpack, to show there was nothing to be ashamed of.
I heard from women volunteering to open their homes to others who needed to cross state lines for abortion access. I heard from readers who were so afraid that one of my columns might result in death threats that they’d gone out of their way to tell me to keep my chin up.
My God, the kindness in the world is breathtaking sometimes. In the face of overwhelming panic and overgrown sadness, people manage to cultivate the most beautiful plots of kindness and order. They find a way to bend the universe to their idea of what’s good and right, even if it means reducing the universe to a manageable size. We’re all in the same mess together, and I am tremendously moved by the people who recognize that the only sensible solution is to break out the dustpan, for your own corner of the universe or someone else’s.
As this year comes to an end, I’d love for everyone to have endless good fortune.
But since I can’t, instead I’d like to wish you something more realistic: a freshly vacuumed carpet. A plot of calm in the middle of chaos. Small things are sometimes the things that keep us sane, so I wish you the soothing whir of a tiny robot, cleaning up the things it can.