Instead of Certainty

Instead of Certainty

by Angela Doll Carlson October 16, 2016

You know what I envy? Certainty.

When my youngest son began to go to “real” school, he was worried that we’d be late one day because of the rain. He kept asking if I was sure we’d be on time, and though I was inclined to reassure him, I couldn’t. I was already annoyed with the rain and the traffic and his newly minted, unnatural preoccupation with being late for school. Aliens must have come in the night and replaced my happy-go-lucky son with this weird kid who was panicked to be late to school.

There was no class party today, no field trip, no special programming. He just didn’t want to be late. He asked again if I was sure he’d be on time.

“I’m not sure of anything,” I told him.

In that moment, in the car on the way to school, driving the same way we have driven every single day since the school year began, I realized how little control I have over the daily reality of life’s circumstances, how little certainty I felt.

It’s raining today. My belly aches, stomach cramping because of my female biology, and aging, and hormones gone wacky. My car sputters along reminding me every day when I start it up that I’m now 830 miles past the regular service date, 835, 847, 850. One boy is home coughing on the couch today, one boy on the bus to school, my daughter away at college, and I am driving with my belly ache in the rain avoiding the pedestrians jaywalking a wet and busy Western Avenue.

I am swerving to avoid the car pulling out in front of me. I am choking from the smoke of the tar-burning trailer being pulled by the truck ahead of me, on his way I suppose, to filling some pothole up the road that I’ve avoided so far. But we can’t always avoid potholes because sometimes we don’t see them in the road. We can’t always swerve just in time. We can’t always keep from breathing polluted air. There is so much we can’t control, so much we can’t predict. Being certain is elusive, but being afraid is probably worse.

You only live once.

By the time we pulled up to Miles’s school that day, the water had pooled, deep, in the ruts next to the curb. I drove slowly alongside it, skimming and sloshing not because it was so deep, but because I wanted to avoid dousing the people on that crowded sidewalk while on their commute to work or school. Driving full steam into the water would cause a wave, a flood, ruined pair of shoes or hose and a wet commute to those people walking in the rain. We were in a rush. We were nearly late.

“Why are you so worried about this? You’ve never been late before.” I had said. “Because,” he explained, “once, when it was raining like this, I went inside and didn’t know where my class was…”

He paused, and I asked, “Were you afraid?”

He nodded.

At that point in his educational career, it had taken eight weeks to get Miles into the school routine. Being homeschooled up until that point, beginning “real school” was a struggle for that 9-year-old. There are so many factors outside of his control, so many uncertainties.

At “regular school” he’s told when to eat, and where to stand, and how long to take for bathroom breaks. He had to get used to the structure. He moved without much certainty at all for those first few weeks, crying uncontrollably every morning when I dropped him off.

He had worked hard to understand how it all works, and then it changed suddenly one day without any warning. He was thrown. Everything that felt certain to him, that they’d line up in a particular place, that they’d walk as a class to the room, that he’d know what he was doing, all of that was tossed out and there was a new plan, one he didn’t know or understand and then the next day, it was all back to normal again.

I can’t remember when it was that I learned life was uncertain, and that routine, while necessary, was always going to be temporary at best. Maybe it was when I began school. Maybe it was when my grandfather died suddenly when I was seven. It’s strange how thinking we’re certain about something can make us feel bold or even courageous. It gets us on the school bus, it gets us behind the wheel of a car, it gets us to our first day of class at college or down the aisle. It’s going to be okay. I’m going to be okay. Unless or until. But I can’t live as though I’m always waiting for another shoe to drop.

Perhaps certainty is overrated. Perhaps certainty is even dangerous.

My middle son Henry talked about becoming a pilot or a painter. He found out last year through an eye exam that he’s colorblind. He picked up a shirt I’d picked out for him to wear today and said, “I hate brown.” I looked at the shirt and said, “that’s blue, Henry.” He disagreed. When I pointed out that it only looks brown to him because he’s color blind he suggested that maybe his view of the color was right and that mine was wrong. In any case, he said, he didn’t like the color, and he chose another shirt to wear.

“How do we know that the colors I see are the wrong colors anyway? Maybe we just all see things differently,” he argued.

He may have something there. Just because his condition is diagnosable, that it has some hallmarks that we can group together and brand a “blindness,” doesn’t mean much in the day-to-day living out of things. He can’t be a fighter pilot because of it, but if he chooses to be an artist he’ll pick colors that look right to him, he’ll make art that moves him. Will his color blindness mean anything in the bigger picture?

His choices aren’t about certainty. He chooses a shirt not because it’s the “right” color for everyone else, but because it looks right to him, and that’s gratifying. Henry doesn’t need to be certain; he just makes choices and rolls with whatever life throws his way. He’s good like that. It’s taken me years to wrap my hands around that idea. I think he must have been born with that. He’s naturally curious, inventive, adaptable, courageous.

Certainty is dangerous because it’s intractable, painting us into corners, depending too much on things never changing, on the other driver being sober, on the train coming on time. And fear is dangerous too, on anticipating the accident or the illness, the other shoe dropping. Certainty doesn’t always make us courageous just as fear doesn’t always keep us safe.

Instead of certainty, perhaps it’s better to choose hope or trust, or both. Instead of certainty we can choose dialogue, and to see things differently when necessary because sometimes we got it wrong. And there’s a gift in that, a courage in that because instead of certainty, we can roll with whatever life throws our way, even as we know that the rain comes, and the traffic stops, and the air is polluted, and the potholes develop.

But then the sun comes out again and the streets dry and the potholes, eventually, get filled too. Of that we can be certain. 


Photo credit: Elly Filho

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Angela Doll Carlson
Angela Doll Carlson


Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Apeiron Review, Relief Journal Magazine, St. Katherine Review, Rock & Sling and Ruminate Magazine, among others. She has published two books, “Nearly Orthodox” and “Garden in the East.”

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