Under the stronghold of grief, it is interesting how we begin to measure time. For me, soon after my mom passed away, I did all I could to make it seem like time hadn’t really passed and that my mom and my familiar life were just a few minutes away. I remember counting down the last days of being able to refer to the last time I talked to my mom as just the other day, or last week, or a few weeks ago, or last month. I did anything to feel like the time hadn’t really passed and that she’s still close by. Even now, the fact that I’ll never say “I talked to my mom yesterday” or that I learned something because “my mom told me last night” breaks my heart.
So in place of direct interactions with her, I use things she left me and said to me to remember. I still have the $20 bill she gave me for gas money last I saw her. It’s in the exact same place I left it. Last I touched it, she had just given it to me. She enveloped my hand with both of hers and with a little smirk, she slyly slipped it to me (because I was 25 and she still gave me gas money).
Three weeks before my mom died, I got my nose pierced. It was somewhat of a spur of the moment decision. When I told my mom, the first question she asked me was, “How do you blow your nose?” I replied, laughing, “I don’t know. How to you blow yours?” I later told her that I hadn’t tried yet but that I would keep her posted when the time came.
Well, three weeks later, I was keeping Kleenex in business with my nose alone. Every time I grabbed a Kleenex, I thought of her and my nose ring.
I still have friends that just now notice my nose ring and it makes me feel like it’s still new. Like I had just gotten it and my mom is still that much closer, waiting to hear how Kleenex and nose ring get along.
Making the Unfamiliar Familiar
During times of transition, my mom used to tell me to make the unfamiliar familiar. I used to let out a big sigh when she’d say that. I love Familiar. I’m her biggest fan. Familiar has been good to me. Generally, I know what to expect in Familiar and her clean white picket fences. I know my way around Familiar and where all my favorite places are. I don’t get lost in Familiar anymore. Familiar is really comfortable.
But on the other side of the tracks is Unfamiliar. Dim and transient, Unfamiliar feels scarier and so unknown. Nobody likes to stay in Unfamiliar for too long. (I certainly don’t.) With a tough reputation, Unfamiliar is where Unrest and Discomfort make their homes. Unfamiliar is uneasy and dodgy.
During these last few months, I was kicked out of my home in Familiar and dragged my feet as I relocated to Unfamiliar. And you know, the overall feeling of unfamiliar has become familiar. I can see that Familiar is like over-watered green grass. It’s vibrant but it’s also saturated and used up, given what it can offer. There aren’t many new things to learn in Familiar because we’ve already learned them. Now that I’m in Unfamiliar, I notice maybe it isn’t as icky as I originally thought. It’s where real growth happens, that’s for sure. Citizens of Unfamiliar realize that this place challenges us in ways that make us strong, more determined and more focused. It’s a lot of work though.
If Familiar is a nice, easy walk with your gal pals, Unfamiliar is a body building competition.
I see that what I’m learning in Unfamiliar will serve me no matter where I end up. Right now, I’m living in Downtown Unfamiliar. I’m in the heart of it. In the thick of the struggle. While I’m Downtown, holding on to $20 bills and relishing in compliments on my “new” nose ring feels like a teeny-tiny taste of Familiar, like nostalgic trinkets reminding my homesick heart of life outside of Unfamiliar.
But the oh-so-brutal reality is that life can never be lived in Familiar again, at least not the Familiar I long for.
One day though, I’ll move to the suburbs, not totally back to Familiar but out of the immediate congestion of Unfamiliar. I’ll still deal with a little Unfamiliar traffic but it will be a distant comparison from the constant gridlock of Downtown.
The reality is we’ll never permanently be in Familiar or Unfamiliar. As heartaches arise –– and we know they will — and we find ourselves in Unfamiliar, we have a few options.
One option is to recall the last time struggle and discomfort ruled our lives. We can remember that we’ve been to Unfamiliar before. As we come back to visit — hopefully, infrequently — there may be a few new people or a new coffee shop by your favorite book store. But we have been here before and know Unfamilar can be mastered if we stay long enough to get to know it. Unfamiliar is a little rough around the edges but let’s explore it anyway.
Another option is to lean on people who have been to Unfamiliar before. They’re like the friends we seek recommendations from as we travel to new places. These friends remind us to bypass the flashy new pizza place, tell us about secret parking lots and even introduce us to other friends of theirs in the area. They teach us to make the best of it while we stay for a little while. Folks that have been in Unfamilar remember the resistance we feel when we first arrive but they also know how to stay despite it.
I think the trick to Unfamiliar is to stay long enough. Unfamiliar isn’t a one-horse town we can rush through. Unfamililar requires patience and seems to take a while to acquire any appreciation for it. Even in Unfamiliar, there are relationships to build, experiences to relish and knowledge to be found.
Even Unfamiliar might deserve a bit of our time. I think I’ll stick around long enough to find out.
Whistling: I’m looking at Unfamiliar in a brighter light than before, which is a good thing considering I’ll be here for a while.
Might as well make the best of it: Brown for Mayor!