November 13, 2012 by whirlyjoy
When life hands you lemons… slap life in the face and say “Try again!”
I wish I could declare this motto my own creation, but it was in fact coined by Mimi last week – evidence that even as puberty is starting to lay claim to her moods and flood our home with alternating tearful episodes and manic activity, she is unmistakably heir to our family approach to taking on life: determined resiliency with a strong dose of humor, and a refusal to, as Nana puts it, “live in the La-La Land” of false cheeriness and forced happy endings.
The French are absolutely as supercilious and smug about Americans as they are reputed to be. During the fifteen years I lived in Paris, I listened to sometimes vicious criticism of everything from the clueless arrogance of U.S. foreign policy to the pervasiveness and inanity of American popular culture. Many of these critiques had some truth to them, but it was still a shock at first to hear them stated so baldly.
It didn’t take as long as it might have to realize that people meant no personal animosity or offense when they shared such opinions, because I’d been weathered to abrupt interpersonal relations in a small foreign high school with mostly British classmates. “Where on earth did you get that jumper, it’s ghastly!” was offered up one morning when I got to class – leaving me to process both the new meaning of the word “jumper”, and a new kind of friendship, impertinent and unafraid of causing offense. (“Why would you get your knickers in a twist just because I don’t like your jumper?”)
Americans’ two biggest shortcomings, according to my European friends, are that we smile too much, and we always look for a happy ending – or as the French like to say in a disdainful tone, “a ‘appy hend”.
This morning on the radio I heard a reporter interviewing someone from an urban development association about last month’s Superstorm Sandy, and the association’s hope that when rebuilding takes place, it will be with an eye to preventing this kind of destruction and helplessness happening again. “What’s the silver lining for all the people who are still without their homes?” asked the reporter – a quintessentially American way of approaching the report’s concluding remarks, a blatant quest for a Happy Ending. The interviewee stumbled a bit before managing to blurt: “I don’t think those people who’ve lost their homes see a silver lining.”
Personally, I wanted to slap the reporter in the face and say, “Try again!”
One of our favorite family poems when I was growing up was from Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends:
This is one of the few things I remember Opa reading out loud to me and Eenie as kids, and to this day I can hear the glee that was always in his voice as he reached the crescendo ending. He was nominally American by that time, but German under the skin – and that glee was the Weltschmerz showing through.
I moved back to the States in 2001. I’d been gone since junior high, and was returning with infant Mimi, three-year-old Aida, and a plateful of fresh disability diagnoses. Pepe LePew hovered about in a cloud of cigarette smoke and black depression – he’d already abandoned our marriage in spirit, and was just waiting for me to take charge of actually calling it quits, because taking charge was the role I had foolishly signed on for in our relationship.
All in all, though, I did pretty well in that surreal landscape you enter when profound trauma whips through your life and turns everything upside-down. True, I was surrounded by smiling Americans telling me to have a nice day; this was a bit of a culture shock, but still vaguely pleasant. The only times I feel really down is when people tried to sell me that ‘appy hend stuff. And they do it with frightening constancy:
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
“There’s a reason Aida was sent to be your child.”
“Things always work out in the end.”
“There’s always a silver lining.”
When Aida entered third grade, I finally managed to get the school to include her in a regular, general education classroom for about 45 minutes a day. She had her one-to-one aide with her and a couple of specific defined goals – to learn to interact with her “typical peers” and a different teacher, to begin to feel comfortable outside the very restrictive setting of a self-contained special ed class. After a couple of months, I went to meet with the teacher to see how Aida was progressing. She was oh so sweet, had nothing to say about progress, and gushed lovingly: “Thank you for sharing Aida with us! She’s a little angel!”
I wanted to slap her and say, “Try again!”
“Jesus wept” is sometimes the only verse that keeps me tethered to my iconoclastic faith. What I do believe is that if we have any purpose in this life, it is to be willing to enter the emotional trenches with the people we are called on to love.
Luckily, for all the misguided Pollyannas who try to tell me that Aida’s disabilities were somehow meant to be, or deny the reality that her life is and will always be marred by terrible frustration and suffering – there are others who can handle all the tears and rage along with the laughter.
To completely mangle that Oscar Wilde quote, don’t tell me to look at the stars unless you’re willing to lie down in the gutter with me. But if you are – if you can deal with the reality of a life without a true ‘appy hend – well then, let us raise our glasses together, gaze at the heavens in delight, and hope at least to hend ‘appy.