There’s a Hole in the Bucket

by KJ in Riffs

I can’t think.

Every day finds me standing in one room or another, asking any human or animal within the range of my voice important existential questions:

Why am I here?

What was I thinking?

Why am I holding this spoon?

Usually I do manage to sort that out (someone once told me that if you go back through the doorway you just came through, it helps you remember what you came for, and it absolutely works although I do not know why), but it’s a symptom of a much larger problem. (No, not that that I’m getting old, although I am, very very old and older by orders of magnitude with every passing madness of a day.)

The problem is that there’s a hole in the bucket.

Do you remember that camp song? There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza, there’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, a hole.

That’s Henry, singing that. Liza tells Henry to mend the bucket. With what shall I mend it, demands Henry, and Dear Liza offers suggestions, and Dear Henry objections, until eventually Liza explains that what Henry will need is a bucket of water from the well.

And you can see the problem there, even if you don’t know the song (and if you do, apologies for the earworm). It’s a never ending feedback loop, that song, and there are about forty similar songs playing in my brain at any given moment right now.

This is what we’re doing Tuesday, says my internal Liza. But what if this, argues my inner Henry. Then this, proposes Liza. But what if that? And back and forth they go, until inevitably we’re back needing a bucket to haul some water from the well—or rather, a definitive answer to some unanswerable question. Will there be school in the fall? Will we be able to see those family members? Visit that college? Play that sport? Get there on Tuesday?

Nobody knows, and it’s turning my inner Liza into a wee bit of an inner Lizzie Borden.

While these are not conscious thoughts, I believe that they are occupying a disproportionate amount of the limited brainpower of my brain, as though I were a computer taken over by malware for a Russian spammer scheme. I try to do other things—read a book, for example, or carry on a conversation while also sautéing garlic—only to discover that I don’t have the RAM.

My only respite comes in the car. Something about the process of driving from point A to point B enables me to once again think with perfect clarity, reinstating my ability to plan and embrace change and feel able to move forward. I got this, I tell myself, everything’s going to be okay.

And then I come to the end of my short journey home from the grocery store and like a musician with dementia coming to the end of a song, I’m at sea again. I walk in from the garage with no idea of what I’d planned or why I thought it was important. I spin through news sites and social media, scrambling to regain my sense of order and sanity. It doesn’t work. No matter how much I scroll, I keep coming back to that hole in the bucket. What will happen? What’s next? What’s coming?

I cannot possibly know.

The irony is that I never could. But life, pre-Covid, had settled into such a lovely if unappreciated groove. Even a recent cancer diagnosis didn’t deter me from blithely trotting off to conferences and school drop-offs, meetings and sports practices with the necessary illusion that I was in control. Bucket problem? Order a new one from Amazon. When I look back on that version of me, I don’t know whether I want to slap her or shield her. I’m convinced that she’s gone for good.

But that illusion of control is so important to human sanity that I’m almost certainly wrong about that. After 9/11, I remember sitting in a subway car, looking up at the advertising panels and reading “Poetry in Motion”—a quote from William Wordsworth:

Though nothing can bring back the hour

Of splendour in the grass,

of glory in the flower,

We will grieve not, rather find

Strength in what remains behind

Dude, I thought, you got that right. No more splendour in the grass. That’s all over and done with.

Not so. We were all pretty much back buying new buckets on Amazon within a matter of months.

This will end, the scars will fade, we will once again plan school vacations and parties and dinner dates with abandon and without thought to all the things that could stand between our well-laid plans and their fruition. Our brains will work as they once did. We will go into the kitchen and remember what we came for; we will empty the cat food from the can with the spoon we carry and get on with our day as if all of our days had always been such confident echoes of the day before.

So it has always been, so it will ever be. Or maybe—have I carried this metaphor too far?—this time, there will always be a little tiny crack in the bucket.


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