Defining death. To a child.

I love words. I love reading and writing and hearing peoples’ stories, and telling them, myself. Anyone who knows me will freely say that I’m not often at a loss for words. I’m finding, though, that as a parent of a nearly three-year-old child, ¬†attempts to describe or define the meaning of words and actions often leave me without the means to accurately convey a concept. To be sure, some of it is developmental; small children are not the most abstract thinkers. But beyond that, there’s a desire to shield him from the ugliness of the world, at least for now, while still making good on my values to raise him in honesty and reality.

As we walked through the cemetery in our neighborhood yesterday afternoon, I thought of my mom, as I often do, and that I should visit her grave. It’s been awhile; I have a hard time ascribing meaning to that space. I asked D if he wanted to visit Grandma Patti’s cemetery, and he said yes. He immediately started chattering as we walked home, about seeing her, bringing her some of the chocolate strawberries his dad had made for me the day before. We talk to him about my mom a lot, show him photos, tell him stories, to help him understand her importance in our lives. It broke my heart to listen to him, knowing that I needed to try to explain the reality of the situation.

We got to her grave, and he smiled, recognizing my mom and dad on the etching in the headstone. “Is Papa Steve coming here, too?” he asked. I told him no. A car pulled up, and he stood, wondering aloud if that was Grandma Patti. He really believed he was going to see her. I took a breath, and asked him to sit with me. I said, “Grandma Patti isn’t with us anymore.”He asked where she was. Knowing that he attends church with his other papa, I tried to use terms that he might have some concept of; “She’s an angel now. She’s all around us. She watches us.” He just looked at me. I finally decided to try to level with him, as leveling with a three year old is always the smart choice (ha ha). I said, “Honey, Grandma was really sick. There was something in her body that made her very, very sick, and it made her heart stop working. We need our hearts to live-so we can breathe, and play, and be with other people. She can’t do those things anymore. Her body didn’t work, and now it’s here, in this ground, to be kept safe. This big stone helps people to remember who she was, and lets us come visit her and think about her.” The entire time, I kept telling myself to stop talking, to stop being so pseudo-biological and blunt about it.

He listened, looking at the ground and running his fingers through the thick grass around him. “She’s in heaven?” he said. “Yes, baby.” “Oh.” For a moment, he looked like he might start crying, and I regretted all of it. Enough of us had shed tears over her loss, and I didn’t want him to take on that burden. Not yet. He never even got to know her, just being held by her once, when he was three days old. And then she was gone. But, I think he understood, as much as his three year old abilities would permit him. “You miss your mommy, Mom?” I blinked back tears. “Yes, I do.” He gave me a little smile.

We started to get up to leave, and I said my goodbyes aloud to my mom. He followed my lead, and said, “Bye, Grandma Patti. I love you and miss you. The doctors will come and fix your heart to work again, and you will come back to life”, blowing her a kiss. More blinked-back tears. That innocence over the permanence of death, the desire to make someone else feel better, made me both incredibly sad and happy at the same time. He’s trying to understand how others feel, while learning to manage his own emotions within those contexts. That’s a hard thing, something that most of us struggle with well into adulthood.

As I drove home, him watching a show on my phone, I thought about what happened. Maybe it was OK that I shared what I did; after all, life does not exist within an absence of conflict and sadness. I want him to grow with the understanding that it’s OK to display emotion, to communicate pain in a constructive manner. Maybe he can’t really grasp the concept of death, but he can understand sadness and hurt and love. Something that my mom instilled in us was empathy, and to truly see people and their complexities, even if they aren’t on full display. This experience with D yesterday made me hope that perhaps I am starting to lay the same foundation for him, to help him intuit what is in other people’s hearts, even if he can’t fully know what has hurt them.

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Calling All Dysfunctional Domestics!

It hit me yesterday, while I was trying to make something as seemingly simple as apple fritters, yet still ended up getting batter all over Pickle’s head (through no fault of her own, shockingly): I’m bad at this whole being-domestic thing.

Doesn’t it seem like when you were growing up, the women (and in some cases, men) in your lives seemed to make it happen with what seemed like little to no effort? Perfectly pressed clothing, good meals, clean homes, well-kept children/pets, etc-the whole nine yards. Me? Try one-perma wrinkle in everything I iron, burned/bland meals, a home that no matter how frequently vacuumed, still boasts a rogue tumbleweed of dog hair, and an out of control canine. How, in what seems like only one generation, did we go from Martha Stewart, to Jessica Simpson? I try, really I do, but honestly, I suck. And I also don’t like doing those things.

So, here’s what I’m looking for from you, dear readers-your stories. I want to hear what it means to be the anti-domestic, as I call it, and how you manage in a world where it’s not second nature for us to be flawless at home life. I want to hear your stories (funny or otherwise), your experiences, and your ideas on the state of domestic ability in our generation. I’m looking for a series of guest writers to develop posts on the topic, to be published here on my blog. If you’re interested, please email me at: JenniferLHurlburt@gmail.com, or send me a facebook message. Come tell your story of kitchen fires and parental mishaps!

Five things to improve your happiness (or mine, as it were).

Look, it’s easy for us to dismiss the world, and our current state of affairs as less than savory. A lot of things DO suck, at the moment. That’s why it’s so important to nurture your own happiness, in whatever ways you can. Here are five things that give me joy, big and small. Try a few, or feel free to tell us in the comments section below what ranks highest on your happiness meter.

1)Take a picture everyday.
-There are a million different moments and memories waiting to be snapped every single day. It doesn’t matter if they’re poignant or pretty or well-composed. The idea is that you’re chronicling your life, and telling your own story. I think you’ll be surprised at what you capture. And you don’t need anything fancy to do so-whether you’ve got a point-and-shoot, a DSLR, or a cell phone-as they say, the best camera is the camera you have on you. If you’re really into it, start a blog, or a gallery to share it with others.

2)Tony Bennett’s “Winter Wonderland” as a mood enhancer.
-As it happens, I’m either usually irritated on my way to work, or not feeling so positive on my way home. My solution? Tony Bennett’s Christmas album, most notably the “Winter Wonderland” track. I consider this an upgrade from my former pick-me-up: Mariah Carey’s Christmas album (but I still love you, Mariah). Who cares if it’s the middle of summer? It makes me feel better. Give it a try-I promise you’ll come away happier. And if you don’t, you’re a total monster, and there’s no helping you, or that little black space where your heart used to be.

3)Develop your own soundtracks for life.
-How often have you thought, “God, life would be so much better with an accompanying soundtrack?” Or, if you’re like me, you’re on-the-spot creating those playlists in your head, as you’re experiencing things. So, what I’ve done is create those track lists, in iTunes, complete with fun title (also useful for future referencing). Now, I’ve got endless track lists for nearly every situation in life. Some examples: “Smashing Mailboxes”-for when you’re feeling angry, and very Damn-The-Man; and “Sing Me to Sleep”-full of those perfect, haunting voices that disintegrate the stress of the day. Playlists are also great gifts for people, because I think sharing music with others that represents you, and that reminds you of them, is a very, very cool thing.

4)Anonymously committing good deeds.
-This can take a million different forms-paying for the coffee of the person behind you, leaving a book that someone mentioned wanting to read in their mailbox, or raking a neighbor’s lawn while they’re at work. You get the idea. You’ve made someone’s day a little brighter, you feel good, and you’ve most likely inspired that person to be more aware of the goodness in people, and want to replicate those kindnesses. You get back from the world, what you put out there.

5)Do something that scares you.
-This sounds daunting, but I’m not talking about scaling a mountain, or voting a Tea Party candidate into office. I’m talking about doing something that maybe you’ve always wanted to, but havent, due to fear. I’ll give you an example: I’ve been writing, writing, writing since I was fourteen years old. I have boxes and boxes full of journals, notebooks, you name it. It’s what I love to do, and it makes me incredibly happy. However, it’s also incredibly personal, and sharing my writing has always been an act of vulnerability I didn’t think I was up for. This year, though, I decided to take that leap (thanks in large part to the encouragement of some great friends), and start sharing my writing, and as an extension of that, my life. It has been the most freeing, amazing experience, and I can’t even articulate what joy it’s given me. Having people respond in a such a positive manner has given me the reassurance that I did the right thing. So, moral of the story? Do what you love, and put yourself out there.

This is just the tip of the iceberg in my “Things That Make Me Happy” file. There are a million things that give us joy in life, we just have to take the time to acknowledge them. So, that said-tell us, what makes YOU happy?

Ira Glass said it’ll be fine.

Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.

So, Friday night, I’m sauntering up to bed, checking out facebook on my phone, and a photographer that I follow posted this video. Of course, anytime I see the words “Ira” and “Glass” together, I’m instantly interested. Everyone knows how much I adore Mr. Glass, and the work he does. I listened to it, and it was like he was speaking directly to me. This could not have come at a more critical time, because what he spoke of is precisely what I’m experiencing. I’m up to my eyeballs in creative ambition; namely, photography and writing, and storytelling via those mediums. It’s so much of what I think about everyday. But those disconnects he speaks of? I’m the physical embodiment of them. I feel like I’m on this perpetual ledge, forever wanting to step off, jump off even, into this world of creative work, but I’m practically paralyzed by the inability (in my mind) to develop something compelling. *I* might find it compelling, but will anyone else? The (brief) forays I’ve made thus far into these worlds feel..disappointing. I may take a ton of pictures in a given day, but only 6 make the cut, and of those, I’m only mildly happy with 2. Or I spend all this time writing, only to post, or re-read it later, and say to myself, “What the hell was I THINKING?” I want to create photographs that haunt like Darcy Padilla’s, write words that are quiet, yet powerful, as Joan Didion does so gracefully. I want to give people and places a voice through my work. But it feels like a space I’ll never get to.

But Ira Glass, in all his geeky, warm splendor, made it so simple for me: it’s going to take awhile, sister. Get comfortable. Push through it. Even if it’s not so pretty. So, that’s what I’m going to do. Keep on going, until I create something beautiful.