Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Wordy Wednesday

Marilyn Crook/Comedy Central press gallery
Stephen Colbert on grief: “The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be OK with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

I found out recently that the great comedian and performer Stephen Colbert suffered an enormous loss when he was young - his dad and two of his brothers were all killed in a small plane crash when he was 10. It's one of those heart-wrenching scenarios too difficult to contemplate. Yet, here he is, decades later, proof that life is ever persistent.

His take on living with grief really struck me. I've never looked at grief through this lens, but I think he's on to something here. Maybe grief isn't something to "get through" and "move past" as much as it is something you have to learn to live alongside. I think we sometimes beat ourselves up for not breaking free, fast enough, from the losses that will dog all of us at various times. After a painful experience, surely it's possible to both heal and also move to a place of accepting grief as a natural component of life. Physiologically, even, there's got to be something important about grieving, since it's such a base, universal experience. When we're "visited" by grief, we'd probably do better to allow it in for a cup of coffee whiskey than to pretend it's probably just that really nice guy in the suit from the Church of Latter Day Saints out there on the doorstep, who won't be terribly surprised if we don't open the door. OK, maybe whiskey isn't the answer.

We tend to place way too many qualifiers and limitations on acceptable emotional responses, at any rate. We're too hard on ourselves when it comes to concepts (and once-pretend words) like "normalcy," and we're way too scared of that wolf at the door. Not only is there not a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to dealing with mental stuff, there also isn't an ideal endgame for everyone.

What feels like coping to me might look like not enough progress, to you. But you can't fully understand the totality of another person's process. The older I get, the more I understand that I can't fully understand any other person. I can get close, maybe, in a few, select cases, but we don't get to climb inside other people's brains to check out the mechanics (at least not yet - Monsanto has something new coming out in our national corn supply, I've heard). All anybody can do is to keep moving forward. If we're honest and patient with ourselves, we figure out how to live with pain as we go. Sometimes we need a little help, and that's OK, too, so long as we're working toward fully turning toward the things that hurt.

The best I can do in the  meantime is accept you at face value, and encourage you to live an authentic life, even when that means your authenticity might make me uncomfortable at times. Something about authenticity brings out vulnerability in other people, according to all the BrenĂ© Brown I've read. And that can be scary, but also valuable. In fact, I'd say grief is one manifestation of vulnerability, which is key to fully embracing this imperfect life. It's all part of the sometimes frightening circle of Truth.

It's a lot to contemplate. I'm sure 8 out of 10 psychiatrists would tell me that my B.S. in political science and a lengthy interpretation of a Stephen Colbert quote doesn't actually qualify me to psychoanalyze all of society in broad, sweeping strokes. But 8 out of 10 psychiatrists would also have 8 different answers for why I cry every time I read Green Eggs and Ham to my sons. It's just what I do.

Knowing that I'll never have it all figured out is a gift that never stops giving me the future embarrassment I'll feel when I read this 3 years from now. Future Sarah, please don't be too hard on November 2012 Sarah. This was before that really huge thing happened with Oprah, when we all found out the true meaning of life. And to think we once thought it was free cars and Flamin' Hot Cheetos!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Things and Stuff

Our first Christmas together. The more things change...
I've accumulated a lot of Things in my 37.8 years on this watery orb. Much like a certain redheaded mermaid, I've got whozits and whatzits galore. Few of them hold any real meaning, and even then, it's probably truest to say that only a few of them trigger real feelings or memories. This knowledge won't stop me from pulling the trigger on the next adorable, kitschy owl-themed trinket that catches my eye, but at this time of the year when the ray gun is stuck on ACQUIRE in so many ways, I'd like to reflect on a few material objects that bring me joy on a regular basis. They aren't the most valuable things I own -- that honor would go to my collection of human hair and teeth, otherwise known as my baby books.* Style-wise, these objects are probably the antithesis of modern elegance, but I've always been a big fan of the misfit toy.

For instance, this mug:

I got this from my mom for my 10th birthday, which means my Sarah Mug would be well into its first career as a lion trainer if it had been born to lion training parents instead of winding up in that kiln in Korea. My mug could drink a beer with me. My mug has had a beer with me, actually. My mug has held hot chocolate with big, sticky marshmallows on a cold snow day in 1987. My mug has forced me to smile after reading its cheerful, cheesy poem at 5:12 a.m. while I bounced a colicky newborn on my knee and wondered if it were possible to be more sleep-deprived but technically conscious (it were). Recently, I let my once-colicky, now 6-year-old not-really-a-baby drink grape Powerade from it when he was sick.

Somehow, though I have moved 15+ times since receiving it, I've managed to keep track of this thing and not even crack it. And yes, it's special because it was a gift from my mommy when I was 10, and because they spelled Sarah with an "h," but it's also special just because it has been there as part of the background for so long. 

This squirrel basket:

My Grandma Bricker kept her candy in here. When I was very young and my Poppy Bricker was still alive, he would always bury a chocolate underneath all the Brach's Butterscotch and tell me they didn't have any. So of course I'd dig around in here, and lo and behold, there it was. Now that I'm older, that memory holds increasing weight. I know the overwhelming feeling of making a little kid beam with joy over a simple thing. I'd rather have this silly squirrel basket than any "real" family heirloom.

This tiny red lantern:

At my other grandparents' house, there is this little shelf in the spare bedroom where I'd always sleep when I visited, and on this little shelf are all these tiny trinkets, some of them gifts from me and my brothers when we were very small. My grandma still has an ugly little rock there that I gave her when she was in the hospital at one point long ago, and one of those weird little naked babies that fit in dollhouse cribs. I gave that to her at some point, too. I'm not sure of the origin of this little lantern, but it was there as long as I can remember, so at least 33ish years. I was at their house not too long ago, and we were reminiscing about days long gone, as we often do, and which invariably winds up focused on some childhood antics performed by me and my little brothers. I said something about the little shelf in there, and my Poppy, who is in his 80s, sick, and not always too coherent these days, said that reminded him of something. He'd told me when I was SIX that I could have that little lantern some day. So I took it home, and here it is. Love.

There are some other Things that bring on the Stuff around here, too, like the first gift Kurt gave me (a stuffed weasel) and the $2 sterling silver rings we got together in Chinatown in Chicago almost 13 years ago. A tiny hat that kept my first baby's little pumpkin head warm when he was born. Lots of pictures. My later-in-life college diploma. Monk and Roger, the stuffed animals I carried around when I was 5. My Grandma Bricker blanket. A silver perfume bottle from one of my oldest friends. A little clay vase from Barcelona. A mother's day card where the only word spelled correctly is love. 

I don't need these things to reminisce, and I'd imagine I'll hold on to less and less of them as time goes along. But they are a good reminder that when it comes to gifts and the things that endure, it's the thought that counts. I know it's hokey. But just like that prissy mermaid, there's little more important to me than being a part of the larger world, whether it's family, friends or community. I think that's probably true for almost every single person on Earth, too, no matter our differences or status. People do better when they have other people in their lives, even in the worst situations. Beloved objects conjure up memories of those people.

I hope I don't sound all sanctimonious here. I'm not above snatching up that Cyber Monday deal on a DVD I'd like to acquire or anything. I'm just making the case for the little things at this frenzied time of year, especially after this particularly painful election cycle has finally, thankfully, ground to a halt. We can't predict which little things others will imbue with their own personal meaning, or even if it's our intangible gifts that will mean the most. But it's a sure bet that all that guilt associated with the gift-giving season is a wasted emotion.

Now, tell me about your favorite nostalgia-inducing objects. I'd love to hear about them.

*Why is not creepy to collect your child's hair and first lost teeth in a book, but as soon as you start storing these items in shoe boxes in a dusty cellar, you're getting profiled as a potential serial killer?

Monday, November 12, 2012

Gratitudinously yours

Available on etsy.
I like the annual November trend where people spend time reflecting on the gifts in their lives each day in November, a nod to Thanksgiving. But I’m pretty bad about sticking to a schedule (you may have noticed I haven’t updated this blog in 8,000 months), so I’m going after this in one fell swoop and I’ll just trust that you believe me when I say I try to practice gratitude on a daily basis. If you don’t believe me, I can probably live with that, too.

1. Waking up every day as part of my imperfect family. I’m grateful that my little family is healthy, even if we include a hardiness that allows for my boys’ very healthy full-throttled screaming on a near-daily basis. I’m thankful for the Super Nanny, who taught me the proper time-out technique that keeps us all a (relatively) safe distance from the brink of insanity. I’m especially thankful that I am number one on my kid’s top ten list of most beautiful women in the world, including Princess Leia and all of his grandmothers and even his aunt and two of my best friends, Jo and Melinda.

I’m also grateful for a husband who gets me, who loves us in both word and deed, and who is uncommonly patient about irksome quirks. For example, people who have a really hard time sitting in the passenger’s seat and not completely freaking out. I have heard about people like that, and he’s really understanding.

I also count my blessings when it comes to extended family. We are way more than lucky to live a life surrounded by supportive people, who are not only interesting, smart, and loving, but on whom we could call, and have called, for help in even the most asinine situation.

2. Friends, i.e. sounding boards, support systems, hilarious companionship, sources of baked goods and fruity adult beverages. People who care about you, not in spite of your various flaws or just because you always feed the meter when you go downtown together, but just because you are you.

3. The Intangibles. No, not that movie about Al Capone. I’m talking about those often unnoticed bits of human interaction that do more to keep the world turning than anything we could actually measure. Interpret as you will, but I want it noted for the record that I’m grateful for these moments:

That time when I allowed someone else to be gracious and kind instead of commandeering the situation and trying to save face.

That time a stranger stopped by our table at a restaurant, told us we have a beautiful family, and then paid for our meal before she left.

That time we paid it forward.

That time my 6-year-old made my gravely ill grandpa well up with tears when he shook his hand after losing the peg game.

That time my dog visited that same grandpa and just laid her head on his lap the entire time, as opposed to doing her usual routine of leaping around the house knocking things off tables with her perpetually happy tail.

That time my baby boy told me he wasn’t a baby anymore but that he would pretend to be one if it made me feel better. It did.

The sound of crunchy leaves.

The way the hills pop up around my city whenever I return from out of town, from every direction.


The unexpected gifts that grief brings.

Being a big sister, a future aunt, a granddaughter, a daughter, a mother, and more, and recognizing that despite the days when it doesn’t quite feel like it, that I’m a part of something more than this.

But also, I’m grateful that I’ll never have this all figured out, and that I have so much more to see. I’ll never really grasp how tiny our lives are in the grand scheme of the universe, or how fleeting the existence of the human race really is. Astronomy totally freaks me out. I’m also grateful to have grown up in the ‘80s, because phrases like “totally freaks me out” come out so easily.

Really, though, I’m just grateful to be here with you.