My last living grandparent, my paternal grandmother, Granny, died just shy of her ninety-fourth birthday. She passed a few days before Christmas. She took her last breath in her own bed, while living in her own home, as one of her three daughters held her hand. Since death is inevitable, the end of Granny’s human experience is about as good as it gets. Granny survived the Depression, wars, raising four children, and giving all she had to several cherished grandchildren. She used to joke that her sole reason for birthing her own children was the assurance of grandchildren. She loved every, single one of us. Granny was a force, a gentle force, who imprinted creativity, toughness, and love on all she encountered; especially those of us lucky enough to be called her grandchild.
When my dad called to inform me of the news, I didn’t cry. I didn't cry because I wasn’t sad or wouldn’t miss her, but because, with my Granny, there wasn’t anything unsaid or unlearned. Christmas night, my aunt, the aunt who so lovingly cared for her during her final years and held her hand as she left this world, asked us each if there was anything of Granny’s we wanted or that was sentimental to us. I actually couldn’t think of one thing I desired as a remembrance. All of my memories are alive in what remains in my own life. The way I so vigorously clean a sink, the way I insist on clean sheets and the proper way to make a bed, or how I set a table. How I know it’s okay to have dessert for dinner every once in a while and the way I cook mountains of food and barely sit at the table long enough to eat it. The parts of her I remember most are the pieces I live each and every day.
The past few months proved to be particularly rough for me. I am not quite sure why. I can’t pinpoint exactly one thing that forced me over the edge or caused me to lose my footing. The truth is, I asked, begged, prayed for change, and boy did my request blossom. Anything I thought was constant and forever and stable blew up and shattered into a million little pieces. I’ve struggled to collect bits and pieces and find new homes for them over the last fourteen years, but recently, an entirely new box of these pieces spilled all over my floor. At first I thought, oh what a mess. I lived in this space of oh my god what a disastrous mess for quite some time, and then I finally let go and realized the reason, discovered the momentum behind the scattered pieces. Life is a puzzle and I must fit the pieces back together again, no matter how many times they come apart. Each piece relies on another and the gift isn’t in the finished product, it lies in the puzzle, the fitting of each piece to its match.
Granny loved puzzles. We often had a large collective puzzle set up for days on the round, wooden table by the huge window in the living room. During moments throughout the day, we would take turns focusing on a section and piecing together what we could fit. Sometimes we were quiet as we concentrated and other moments we were loud and boisterous as we celebrated a completed corner or the dreaded middle part of the puzzle. When the puzzle was complete we stared at it in awe, but always wondered what to do next. We would leave it for a few days and Granny always offered to glue it and have it framed. I can’t remember if we actually ever did frame any of them. However, what I do remember, is her suggestion, a suggestion I adored, that we take it all apart, destroy it, and start a new puzzle. Pulling it apart piece by piece was more fun than actually putting it together and reveling in the finished product.
As I struggled to determine the source of my discomfort, I figured out new pieces of my puzzle are always popping up, and needing a place to fit. I relax because I complete an edge only to find a new section that begs my attention. Even though I work very hard to overcome my obsession with perfection or the finished product, this obsession can derail me at a moment’s notice. A house that works for me is just on the horizon, but isn’t yet complete. Loose pieces continue to pop up and need a spot to fit. On the other hand, waiting for the perfect fit teaches patience and a confidence I can live in a world that isn’t quite right and has ugly wallpaper and a pink toilet. My health isn’t exactly where I desire it to be, but this creates space for improvement and greater balance. But, the largest piece, the piece I thought I didn’t need, the piece I thought belonged to a past puzzle, an old Sarah, was hidden and surfaced just recently. This piece is called letting go and having fun.
Self discipline is my thing. I thrive on ritual. Mediation and exercise are my lifelines. Eating well and avoiding preservatives and toxins and plastic comfort me. I try not to plan too many events in a row so I don’t get off schedule. The problem is, I live a little bit out of fear. While all of these things help me immensely, I am also afraid to just let go and live a little. I allow my health and my concern for doing the right thing, at the right time, and concern for my body to take over and letting go and just living hides in a dark closet inside of a sealed container. An energy entered my life and shot a gust of wind through me and forced this piece of me to surface. I picked it up, held it for a bit, and decided it needed a place in my puzzle too. Finding where it fit was hard at first. I went out with a few friends, had dinner with a friend, and quickly jumped back into my regimented life. It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it, I just felt the fear of oh now something bad will happen, and I felt pangs of guilt because I let go for a minute.
And then a switch flipped. It was time to fit this new piece into my ever-changing puzzle. So, I let go. I let go for the first time in so many years. I brushed my hair, put my boots on, and headed out the door for the St. Patrick’s Day parade and a day of bar hopping with my dancing friends. The weather provided and offered a sixty degree, sunny day. I wasn’t sure how the day would pan out, but I didn’t care. I let go and allowed the day to unfold. And boy did this trust deliver. I didn’t feel one tinge of stress. The bars, which usually make me crazy and feel overwhelmingly paralyzed, were comfortable and fun. My friends ran to grab tables and stood in line for drinks. We ended the evening at a wood fire pizza place, sat outside because we were so loud and laughing so much, and ran into two very special friends. Letting go could not have turned out better. This act precipitated more change and more fun. I let this tiny flame that barely flickered deep down inside have a little air and turn into a blazing fire. I’ve ventured out and stepped outside my comfort zone more in the last few weeks than I have in a long, long time.
And while I am not quite sure where this piece fits exactly, I know the effort to find its place is rewarding. I now know it’s a vital part of me, a part I thought I didn’t need anymore. I spent today back on my schedule and feeding my soul with my ritual. As I walked my dog at the river, I felt tears falling down my cheeks because I knew this broken mess, found one more part of herself and put it back together again. I also cried because I opened up and learned that even though joy definitely does shine through ritual and discipline and treating my body well, it also radiates through letting go and allowing. The finished product isn’t the point, the discovery of where each piece goes, no matter how painful, is where we find life. And if my puzzle is peacefully complete at the age of ninety-four, I hope, like Granny, I can bust it up and pass pieces out to all of those I leave behind in the hopes they create new and beautifully, unfinished masterpieces. You can’t frame joy. You can’t glue it together and preserve it forever. Joy doesn’t arrive neatly packaged or easily salvaged. Joy comes from a lifetime of breaking apart and coming back together again and then doing so all over again. Joy is a beautiful, untethered mess.