Crisis as Building Blocks
In 2010, we lived through what was called, at the time, a “once-every-hundred-years” flooding event. A combination of torrential rains had forced the water table to rise in our neighborhood, leading to water slowly creeping into our basement through cracks in the concrete floor.
It was, to say the least, a moment of crisis.
- “Black Hole” — boygenius
- “Seek & Destroy” — SZA
- “Tougher Colder Killer” — El-P (w/ Killer Mike & Despot)
- ”Adamantine” — Thirty Ought Six
- “Here” — Soccer Mommy
- “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” — Billy Bragg
- “There’s a World” — Sufjan Stevens
- “Dangerous” — ScHoolboy Q (w/ Kid Cudi)
- “Watercolor” — Watercolor
- “The Grip of Love” — Tom Verlaine
- “Wait a Minute” — Wipers
- “I Know” — Heiruspecs
- “I Wanna Be Down” — Brandy (w/ Queen Latifah, Yo Yo, & MC Lyte)
- “Brand New Colony” — The Beths & Pickle Darling
- “New Addictions” — Into It. Over It.
- “Guthrie” — Julien Baker
We had lived in this home for just over a year. Our kids were just three and one year old. We were completely lost — was this a common occurrence, or was it a freak accident? We pulled up the carpet and set up a complex system of wet vacs and around-the-clock friend-and-family surveillance. We called in every favor we’d ever earned and worked to keep the basement dry all day and night for nearly a week. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, and for a few weeks after, I’d obsessively open my weather app, checking for storms, hoping everything would hold out long enough to dry out a bit. To make it through.
We mitigated. We installed drain tile. We confirmed our sump pump was ready for the future. And we never once had another issue like that one.
Still doesn’t stop me from shuddering every time the rain starts pouring.
Our histories are formed by and around our crises.
When I was in middle school, I was an awkward gangly kid with a puberty-induced head of tight curly hair. I had no confidence; no standing. I was fair game to those who found the fairest of game: a middle school kid who tried too hard to fade into the background.
I never got beat up. But I looked vaguely like Screech from Saved by the Bell, which meant everyone called me Screech. The right thing to do would have been to laugh it off. To feign indifference. To look up from my Nintendo Power and give them a brisk “fuck off” before getting back to a walkthrough of Ninja Gaiden II. But I didn’t. I got upset, and every day felt like hell — not because I was scared, but because I so desperately wanted to get through one day without being called a name, building up a non-stop stream of anxiety that took years to unlearn.
To me, at that time, this was a crisis unlike any other — an extended crisis that I could only hope I’d someday be delivered from. And while every inspirational story has a bit about how this kind of bullying made the hero stronger, I can tell you that, while this is true — I do consider this teasing to be a bit of an origin story, sure — I can also tell you that the idea that “living a tough life is good for your constitution” is a lie. It’s a lie that forgets that these things suck when they happen. They make us scared and angry and sad and frustrated and those are real and hard — not to mention that, for many, “living a tough life” isn’t a side quest with a happy ending. Often, these crises are handled through a veil of systemic prejudice, poverty, and conflict.
Still, good or bad, fair or not, crises form a little bit of who we become. Far from a boomer’s Facebook post on how hard times breed tough people, it’s a simple truth that crisis, no matter how intense, is often temporary. Even if, at the time, it’s the biggest crisis in the world, it will eventually just become part of our story.
That’s what I tell myself as I try to protect my kids from the world and themselves. Each crisis will just become part of their story.
In 2019, a tornado dropped a tree on our house.
This one was a big surprise, honestly, in that we don’t have tornadoes in the middle of Sioux Falls, SD. It was also a big surprise in that it made a very loud noise as it slowly tipped, uprooted, and smashed squarely in the middle of our roof.
We were in the basement — thankfully we were in the basement — which is why it took a bit to realize that the tree hadn’t just fallen on our house, but had pierced through our roof in two distinct places: one branch directly above each of my kids’ beds in each of their rooms. Neither would have done any harm to either kid, but both would have created their own spiral of anxiety and crisis — the kind of anxiety and crisis that only comes from being woken up by a branch piercing through the ceiling of your room.
For a few minutes, all of the memories of that flooded basement rushed back in — the helplessness, the rush and retreat of adrenaline — and then we snapped into action. You can’t know how to react to a crisis unless you’ve been a part of one, and we’d been through this story before.
Kerrie called a tree removal company at midnight, and when they called back at 6 AM we got booked to make the tree go away. We had our roof hastily patched, insurance covered, and our life moved on. But for those small moments, it felt literally and metaphorically like everything was falling apart around us.
Humans are designed to encounter and grow from trials. Despite the time we spend carefully curating a persona, the personality itself is shaped by experiences, good or bad. We’re the sum collection of every feeling we’ve ever had.
But you can’t say anything about that at the time of those feelings. At the time of those feelings, they’re hyper-saturated. They’re the only thing.
I’ve had moments of crisis throughout my life — moments I still remember for how scared I was at the time: pneumonia, being bullied, hospital visits, bicycle crashes, getting caught shoplifting. I see my own crisis of confidence, my own hard decisions, my own short periods where things were really hard and I’m afraid of them. I’m afraid of those crises.
Specifically, I’m afraid of those crises as they are delivered to my kids. I want to coach them through each one, and I want to tell them that none of it is permanent. I want to do everything I can so my kids don’t feel those things. When our oldest first got sick, I thought that was a crisis. When our youngest fell and bit through his tongue, I thought that was a crisis. It’s never stopped, as hard as I try.
Problem is: I can’t stop them.
Which is probably okay. Because, more importantly: those crises won’t stop them either.
Bad friends. Getting in trouble. Difficulty in school. Performance anxiety. Mental health. They’re intense and big and important when they’re happening — the end of the world, even — but, for the most part, they’re all short. Compared to the big picture, they’re all seasons; they’re eras. They are necessary and they are hard and they happen, no matter what.
We’re born in a hole, and every crisis is a brick. Sometimes they miss. Sometimes they hit hard. And, given enough time and given enough apathy, the bricks will pile up, sharp and messy, heavy and chalky, until they cover our heads and we’re lost, forever, buried alive under the anxiety each one brings.
We can try to fight our way out. Or we can get help. We can find someone who will give us a plan. To build something as the remnants pile up. To help us escape.
In 2021, we moved into a new house. Early the next year, our gutters overflowed and we found ourselves in a familiar spot — water seeping in from the edges of the basement.
There was a moment of fear, followed by a moment of resignation, and then we got to work. We pulled out wet vacs and hastily reorganized the furniture. We were resigned but unsurprised: we had been expecting it and had a plan ready. As always, we made adjustments after the fact. We learned from the crisis, and we prepared for the next.
The crisis never really stops. Nature slowly tries to reclaim its land. There will always be breeches — more water, more trees, more insects and animals and weathering and rot. We can’t prepare for everything — we can’t protect our house or our lives or our children from every potential crisis. We just live through them. We learn to mitigate. And then we throw it on the pile, knowing we’re one step closer to climbing out.