Sunday, September 11, 2011

Life Appreciation 101

I love to travel, except for the fact that I hate to travel. It’s another of the great dilemmas in my life. I thoroughly enjoy seeing new places and discovering new things, but the general trouble about doing these things is that I have to get there first. So, when I say I hate to travel, it’s not the act of being there that’s so offensive, it’s the act of getting there.

Specifically, I hate to fly. There are several reasons I dislike flying, which I am sure are the same reasons so many people despise air travel. But the overwhelming reason I hate flying is because I am convinced, every time I get on an airplane, that I am going to die. I know this is irrational and statistically unlikely, but anyone who knows me knows that things that statistically should not happen to me still do. However, the rational side wins when it must and I will fly when other modes of transportation are not a viable option.

Since I took multiple flights this summer, I am fairly shocked that I am still here to muse about this issue. As I rehashed to a friend I visited on one of the trips (the one most familiar with my neuroses) how I’d barely slept in the days leading to my arrival because of my convinced impending demise, she noted that: a) I’m a little bit crazy, and b) it’s a miracle I ever leave the house (because there are actually many things that I think will kill me).

Yet, in my sleeplessness prior to the flights that proved NOT to kill me, I had several quiet hours to reflect on the many wonderful things in life that I was going to miss, assuming I didn’t survive the flights. These thoughts got me thinking about an art appreciation course I took in college – a course dedicated to pointing out the often-overlooked details that made various projects so extraordinary - and made me wish there were a series of courses dedicated to Life, and how to focus better on the small details that so often get overlooked. I started to mentally develop a course outline for my brainchild – this non-existent class – to help facilitate an appreciation of the thing most of us take for granted most often.

My Life Appreciation course would begin with a tribute to diner pancakes. Not because pancakes are the most important things, but I think most people can rally behind the goodness of pancakes. As a teacher, it’s important to hook the students from the get-go, and I think pancakes are something that almost everyone can rally behind. Both diners and pancakes are an art form, if done correctly. A small-town, locals-infested greasy spoon diner – the kind with one griddle where everything gets cooked together – is the zenith of the diner scene, and their pancakes, and warmed cup of pure maple syrup, are amazing.

Also on the syllabus would be the Franken-Toddle. When a child is just learning how to walk, as I have recently been reminded as Liam finally mastered this gross motor skill, their haphazard and unsteady stagger is a joy to behold. It doesn’t last long, but the broad-stanced, zombie-armed lurching, accompanied by unintelligible baby grunts, is awesome to watch. Like the crisp crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet, it passes so quickly.

One of my favorite things is something I’d call Small Gestures. I don’t think of myself as a needy person and there aren’t many things I want. My favorite things are the unasked-for gestures, most always small, that speak volumes. An example: one day this summer, I was lying on the couch and Mike came over, sat on the floor next to me and rested his head on my stomach. He didn’t say anything; he just did it. I got choked up then, and a little bit now, as the thought crossed my mind, “He just loves me.” Sometimes the intimacy in a small gesture can take a breath away.

I’d classify another appreciation category Small Victories, into which would fall the smell of a clean car. The first time getting into the van after it’s been cleaned – when all ladybug carcasses, rock collections, snack remnants, stray clothing and shoes, buffalo fur (actual discovery from the most recent clean-out), etc., have been removed and the only thing that remains in the smell is of the cleaning solution on the mats – is immensely satisfying. Another sub-category is combed hair. When all people in my house have neat, orderly hair simultaneously, I just feel better about the world.

Then there’s Figuring It All Out, which occurs when kids are at the age when they are obtaining knowledge like a sponge dropped in the ocean and reaching their own conclusions. Nadia and I were talking about smoking this summer and I told her the basics in unbiased language (nicotine, addiction, health concerns, etc). When we were done talking, she summed it all up for me, in words I never used: “So people who smoke get old and smelly and their bodies get broken because they smoke.” And that’s the magical enlightenment of figuring it all out. A conversation about what a boyfriend is, mingled with an explanation of what it means to “break up,” had Nadia making some very humorous conclusions for a week or more. The world, as simplified by a child, can be a very fun place to live.

Of course, there are many things that could be covered in the Life Appreciation course, and I think enlightening class discussions would arise as people shared their own lists of favorite things. The course would be productive for multiple reasons, the most important of which would be embracing the good and trivializing the unimportant. Having faced death multiple times this summer, and thankfully emerging victorious, I am grateful for the sleepless soul-searching which, for a day or two, at least, made me a better, more rational version of myself and helped me focus on the important things, embracing the many wonderful things that often get overlooked in the craziness of everyday life.