Armies of Angels or, This is Not a Pain Contest

October 27th, 2010
Seven Weeks After the Fire

Last night at dinner, my friend Sandy Hockenbury was telling me about the effects of stress on the human body.  “Intense bursts of short-term stress are actually good for the brain,” she explained to us as we sat eating Mexican food, “But prolonged, ongoing stress, like in people who have lived through trauma…” she said, looking over at me. I looked at her and said, “I know! I know,” exasperated but laughing. “I’m a mess! My adrenals are probably shot!”  “Yes,” she said, “They probably are.” And then the flan arrived, and it was sweet and smooth, and I stopped worrying about my immune system, my adrenals, my stress levels –  for there are moments of sweetness in every catastrophe.

Yesterday the housekeeping staff came to clean my cottage for me, for free. They don’t normally do that for long-term residents, but they just decided they wanted to help me – that girl with the little dog who lost her house and everything she had in the Fire.  They arrived like an army of angels with their mops and buckets and brooms and spray bottles, and I started to cry when I saw them walking up the steps.  How can people be so good, so kind? How can this world be filled with such terrible news each day, when quiet miracles like this one are happening all around us?  I dried my tears and put Nellie in the car and went and did errands while they cleaned.

And when I came home, the cottage was sparkling, and in the bathroom were fresh towels. They had folded them into little triangles, like in a hotel, and had left me cute little soaps and shampoo.  I ran my hand over the towels – so sweet, this gift of their time.

Generosity is our nature as humans – I have come to believe this lately. We have to give and give and give – to our friends, our families –  and when they are taken care of, we give to strangers.  What is it about us that compels us to do this? Biology, natural selection, some intrinsic connection to each other? What are these webs, these golden threads, that connect us all? How is it that when one strand is broken, we all rush in to help it mend?

Tonight I walked the few blocks up to the Laundromat to do a bunch of wash. I have not been in a Laundromat since I was in my twenties, and it was ten o’clock at night and I was exhausted.  As I loaded the small washers I thought, “Okay, I can do this. This is no big deal. Lots of people do this, it’s not so bad.”  And when I came back later to move the wet clothes and towels and dog bed and dog towels and sheets to the dryer, I realized I only had enough quarters to dry two loads, and would have to take home all the towels and sheets wet.

This was kind of the last straw to a very long and difficult day, and I was so tired I just sat and put my head down on the wooden bench by the wall.  I thought, This is what it’s like when your life falls apart.  This is what happens when you get divorced, or your partner dies, or you lose everything in a flood, or you run out the back door while the Secret Police kick down the front door, and you flee into the night with only the clothes you have on. You end up in a strange place at night, exhausted just from getting through the day, three quarters short of a load, and you feel like you just can’t take it any more.

Now, I’m a middle-class American with an education, a job, insurance, and more privilege than you can shake a stick at. Some day I will get to go home again, unlike real refugees, who have to run from Death Squads and wait for decades to go home, and often never get back there at all. My life compared to theirs is a walk in the park –  I know this. But you know, it’s all relative, and people have killed themselves over less.

Walter, my eighty-something, up-the-hill neighbor on Sugarloaf, survived the Holocaust. He said that compared to Auschwitz, losing his house in the fire was No Big Deal. That doesn’t mean we’re both not in pain, and suffering – It just means our experiences are different, and of different orders of magnitude. Some people endure great hardship with grace and wisdom. Some people sink into bitterness and never emerge. And some decide to just check out from This Life, and see what’s on the Other Side.

People hesitate to talk about their troubles around me, because what I’m going through right now makes their own worries pale in comparison. I tell them it’s not a Pain Contest. We’re not all competing for the big Who Has the Worst Life award. We all have our own problems, and Life sends each of us those little Trouble Trolls that come and kick us in the shins and leave us hopping around in pain.  Sometimes they just leave us bruised; sometimes they can take us out completely, and leave us writhing in the dust, unable to breathe. Some of us fall, and never get up. And some of us have friends who come over, extend their hand, and quietly get us back on our feet – dusty and battered, but standing once again.

And that was me in the Laundromat tonight. I didn’t think I had the strength to get up – I thought I might as well just stay there, with my head resting on the wood, watching the dryers spin, for the rest of my life.

And then my cell phone rang.

It was a friend, calling to see how I was doing. “What are you up to right now?” she asked. I said, “Um… I’m kind of lying here, watching the laundry.” Then I said, “I don’t think I can do this. Can I please just go home now?  Can I be done with all this? Can I please just have my house and my washer and dryer and my old life back? I’m a grownup, I’m not twenty anymore, and I don’t even know how to have the right amount of QUARTERS,” and then I started to cry.

My friend said gently, “What about those plastic hangers you bought at Target? Do you still have those?” “Yes,” I sniffed. “Well, just take the wet stuff and hang it up in the bathroom. And you know what?” she said, “You can also say Screw It and just leave it all there wet. Let the mice eat it!” and then we laughed and laughed.

I picked my head up and dried my tears and told her I loved her, and that now I was alright. It’s just my Daily Meltdown, I said, and somehow I always manage to get through it.  I hung up the phone and looked at the wet laundry and squinted. “Okay,” I said to the pile of sheets and towels. “I have been through worse, and I am certainly not going to be defeated by YOU.”  And I plopped it all in the plastic basket, and took it back to the cottage, and when it was all hung up in the little bathroom, I smiled.  I did the laundry. Another small miracle.

Annie Dillard, in her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” So I will try to be there. I will keep showing up for this roller coaster of a life that I have right now. I will do the laundry, and eat the flan, and cherish the Armies of Angels that keep appearing, unbidden, at my door. It is not a Pain Contest, I tell myself. I am not winning, and I am not losing. I am just walking through it, one step at a time.

Sending You Love, and Wishes for Sweet Dreams,

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19 Responses to Armies of Angels or, This is Not a Pain Contest

  1. It’s okay to fall back and rally, even Napoleon did that. I remember you playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’ so bravely at Marilyn’s memorial. Remember that time – you were all strength then and I was glad of it. I am here if you need me. Your strength will return. Of that I have NO doubt.

  2. Andi says:

    Thanks Doug. I have no doubts about it either. I am Irish, after all!

  3. Marian Thier says:

    Once again you bring us into your world–unfathomable to most of us. Even though you look great, like the Andi we know, your writing reminds us the internal and external may not yet be in sync. This most recent photo was so poignant–rain spout and gutters, such impersonal items, survived pretty much intact, while, not even one highly personal item rose to the fore to say, “I made it through time and fire, and so will you.”

    • Andi says:

      Thank You Marian. There are a few small objects that survived because they were outside in the garden, rather than in the inferno inside the house. One is a small rock that says, “Say Yes.” It now sits on the porch of my cottage here in Chautauqua, reminding me of how I’d like to live from now on. Say Yes.

      Take good care,


  4. Melissa says:

    Every time I think I don’t have time to stop and read your post, I do, and my life is richer for it. Thank you for the sweet reminders of both the commonplace and heroic grace we often take for granted, and that by being there for each other we can overcome the seemingly insurmountable–as well as ease the pain of those little trouble trolls that come and kick us in the shins! Thank you for being there and sharing your heroic grace with all of us. How is it that through your “no good, very bad days” you can bring such comfort and humor to ours? Blessings to you and Nellie.

    • Andi says:

      Thanks Melissa. Your lovely words brought tears to my eyes. I’m so glad that the writing brings comfort and humor to your days. That’s my greatest wish for this blog, and the reason why I finally made these essays public – to help others, and to open up the discussion about grief and loss and how we deal with those Trouble Trolls. Thanks for your comment – it made my morning.

  5. Indeed, life is not a Pain Contest! I sometimes berate myself for feeling awful about something that’s not that huge on the universal scale, yet what a disservice I do myself. When a toddler falls down and wails, s/he doesn’t need a lecture on how a bruise is nothing compared to the aches of the world. Every hurt, every injustice—no matter how small or seemingly insignificant—is a drop in the vast bucket of planetary suffering. And each drop should be met with love, patience and understanding from those Armies of Angels you talk about. Thanks!

    • Andi says:

      Thank You Laurel. I love that image of the toddler. Aren’t we all, in some way, just toddling around? Wobble, wobble…Take good care,


  6. Piper Bayard says:

    Hi Andi. Just signing on to give you my support. Your comment about it not being a pain contest really resonates with me. Not only that, but when I’m going through times of severe loss, it actually helps me feel a bit less broken to have friends turn to me as if I still have something to offer them. Keeping you in my thoughts. All the best.

  7. Sherry Lynn says:

    I’ve been reading your posts regarding the fire and I think you are such an extraordinary human being with positivity and that makes me smile inside.
    I love that you love your animal friend and I love that she makes you happy.
    I live in a southeastern area that regards animals as disposable. I live in the county in NC and I’ve rescued so many dogs that I can’t even take a count. What makes it so ironic is that I’m a cat person! However, I cannot stand to watch a dog suffer.
    I work hard at a medical clinic as a general surgeon and I manage to pay my bills and take care of our furry friends. I do have some friends that are in the veterinary field and I call upon them when necessary and they are there for me.
    Your attitude is awesome and I only wish that I could be as positive as you are.
    Thank you for your inspiration, Andi!

    • Andi says:

      Sherry, I think attitude is one thing and action is another, and your actions are indeed heroic. Nellie says thank you for rescuing all those dogs! We both send love.

  8. Thank you. This discussion is encouraging. :}

  9. Once again I totally relate to you (I am having some trouble with my feed and am not getting all your posts in order…left a response for you over on my blog as well…thanks for commenting!). Quit reading my mind…I was about to write a post on PTSD and me… have been hesitating because I might need to look for a job and maybe it’s not the best idea to talk in public about how fragile I am right now. Psychotherapy Networker has a provocative series on PTSD this month:; I’m also reading Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice. I’d almost (sort of, in terms of daily functioning) forgotten I *had* PTSD because I guess it had been in remission until this past September when a bunch of things together brought it up. I could have lived without it. Anyway, I guess a bunch of people are arguing that it’s an injury, not a disorder after all, and we can heal. Interesting thought experiment. I used to know this, I think, but I also think you need a fair amount of free time for self-care, and I’m not sure people who have to work full-time can do all the other work it takes to self-regulate enough. Esp if part of that involved living in a certain place. What do you think?

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  11. sean says:

    You stated: “He said that compared to Auschwitz, losing his house in the fire was No Big Deal. That doesn’t mean we’re both not in pain, and suffering – It just means our experiences are different, and of different orders of magnitude.”

    I can’t agree with this more. I recently had a client who mentioned that people should not complain about their little problems. That there are people in the world suffering much worse. That is true. I have been in India, Kenya, Tanzania, and many more places. I have seen the poverty and the children on the street.

    However, you can not fault someone for feeling down or sad due to their situation. For each individual we have walked different paths and for what may be small to some may be gigantic to others.

  12. Andi says:

    Thanks for reading, Sean. I tell people over and over, “it’s not a Pain Contest.” Knowing that it’s all relative has helped me stay on an even keel. I think that only we can say what is a “little problem” vs. a “big problem” in our lives.

    My mother used to say that there is always someone richer or poorer than you, always someone better off and worse off. What keeps me going these days is embracing the paradox of my post-fire life – I still believe I am extraordinarily fortunate, and I’m also really grieving what I have lost. I get to feel lucky and unlucky all at the same time, in whatever way I choose. For me the key is not to get stuck in one or the other, but to keep flowing with life each day, open to new opportunities.

    Thanks so much for reading and commenting. I hope to hear from you again!


  13. Hi Andi, life is DEFINITELY not a pain contest. You really must work at taking less stress. Sandy is absolutely right, it is terrible for your physical and mental health and there is only so long one can go on with such high amounts of stress.
    I say this with lots of love,

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