Nothing/everything to see here

If you’re on the hunt for a summer read that manages to be hilarious and easy breezy while delivering some unexpectedly brutal zingers about sacrifice, then can I recommend to you Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson.

Sure, you may not be in the mood – especially for such a strange combination. I wasn’t either.

In fact, I’d picked up the book late last year for some reading therapy to help get me over the all-consuming ordeal of lockdown. I was depleted, wrung out after four months of being at home while trying to keep going with normal life. The uncertainty, the accumulated stress, the home-schooling, the working from home, and the need to care for my family and parent with patience and hope in an uncertain, bewildering time was burning me out. Since reality was proving too hard to deal with, I craved escapist fiction.

So I was not exactly thrilled to realise that a substantial chunk of Nothing to See Here centred on the sacrifice involved in caring for neglected and vulnerable kids. Moreover, 10-year-old twins who essentially needed to be locked down in a house because it was too fraught for them to be out in the world.

Not because of a pandemic, mind you – in fact, if that was the set-up I would’ve abandoned the book then and there – but because they happen to burst into flames every time their emotions get out of control. No, it’s not a metaphor: in the novel, Bessie and Roland are literal fire starters. However, if you’ve ever seen a child have a spectacular meltdown, you’ll know the imagery is apt.

And so if you’re a parent, I know what you’re thinking: this is close enough to my real life – I really don’t need to read about it.

But I promise you: you really, really should.

In the novel, it’s Lillian’s problem when Bessie and Roland ignite. Lillian has been roped in as their carer by her old friend Madison, the twins’ stepmother, who needs a temporary childcare solution while she and Senator Roberts, the twins’ dad, work out their considerable political ambitions. Madison and the senator just don’t have the headspace to care for these complex and literally combustible kids.

From this fanciful premise, Nothing to See Here offers a powerful and often very funny picture of what it means to care for others, especially those who don’t exactly fit into our best laid plans. Of course, my cranky, tired, post-lockdown self had big feelings at reading this book at this time. But in retrospect, it was perfect timing.

There’s a moment in the book when Bessie, one of the twins, sees that Lillian is visibly upset after talking to Madison. Bessie wants to know why but Lillian won’t tell her, since the conversation was about who will care for Bessie and her brother in the long run. Then this:

I closed my eyes, but I could tell that Bessie was still staring at me, wanted to know what was inside me. And I knew a secret to caring for someone, had learned it just this moment. You took care of people by not letting them know how badly you wanted your life to be different.

On first read, that last line made me deeply uncomfortable, because wasn’t parenting an incomparable joy, despite the way it demanded so much of me? Yes, absolutely. Yet I also wanted to bolt past the simple acknowledgement that even after becoming parents, people never cease to be themselves: people with their own needs and desires that frequently get sidelined in order to care for others. It felt obscene to voice this in a world that harshly judges people for being terrible parents.

But there’s more than a grain of truth here: “You took care of people by not letting them know how badly you wanted your life to be different.”

Caring for people is depleting, and all the more so this year.

And not only children, but anyone. Caring for people is depleting, and all the more so this year. There were times in lockdown when I badly wanted things to be different.

In the novel we don’t see a sugar-coated, Instagram-ready picture of parenthood with good lighting and everyone in linen. But we see the reality of what care is actually like: being present to people and constantly setting aside your own interests so that they can thrive. Which includes keeping your cool when others are flaming out around you – metaphorically or otherwise.

Since we are talking about people who are infinitely complex, precious, and so incorrigibly themselves – as Bob Dylan once said, people are “a world unto themselves” – care is the highest of all human callings. Even if it is concealed from public view, dismissed as “women’s work”, poorly paid or not paid at all. Even if it is simultaneously exhausting and rewarding. In fact, sometimes the only way to take stock of the reward is by how exhausted you feel.

And I realised: this picture of care offers a glimpse of God who is always pouring himself out for others. Why create the world, everything, and everyone if not to care for them all? A God of love does what love does: he gives himself away to others. Since the creation of the world, God has walked alongside messy, broken people and been that guiding, loving – and often, disciplining – parent to us. He is that constant presence in our lives.

I don’t think that God struggles with the self-sacrificial nature of care in the same way we do. I remember a sermon that noted the impossibility of us knowing, from the outside, the love the triune God knows intimately in himself. And yet, this preacher said, we get a sense of the inner life of the Trinity when Jesus sacrifices himself for the sake of the world. Jesus does on the cross, in other words, what he had been doing for all of eternity in the Trinity. The moment in Gethsemane when even Jesus hoped things could be different (“My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me”) quickly turns to acceptance (“Yet not as I will, but as you will”).

Of course, we are not God. We get depleted and he does not. Setting our care and the burdens we feel alongside God’s endless care for us is not meant to make exhausted parents feel guilty for being unable to measure up. But it is a reassurance that the burdens of care borne by us all – not just the parents among us – are in the end sustained by the gracious, infinitely loving, infinitely caring God who is our family, our home, and, after the incredibly difficult year that was 2021, our rest.

For a book called Nothing to See Here, the novel proved to be everything I needed to hear.