Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

The Day the Vacuum Rose Up to Smite Me

Sometimes it just takes a smack on top of the head.

Curing depression, I mean. Or perhaps I mean, restoring the spirit.

I’ve suffered greatly from depression throughout much of my life. I began seeing a therapist when I was only 18, fearful that I was succumbing to suicidal tendencies.  Therapy and antidepressant drugs would eventually consume many hours of my life over the succeeding decades, as I struggled to escape the depression that imbued my every waking moment, robbing the world of color, leaving me deadened and numbed and drained.

Eventually I concluded that using the antidepressant drugs long-term did me more harm than good, and that the benefit I derived from talk therapy was directly proportional to the wisdom (not the training) of the therapist. Slowly I discovered that journaling, meditation, and exercise, combined with careful diet and nutrition, did me considerably more good than any drug, and sometimes even more than the guidance provided me by a counselor.  I learned that loneliness was infinitely less terrifying than being in a bad relationship.  I discovered that by sheer force of will I could step out of my self-defined limitations and be more than my childhood trauma had made me.  And finally I discovered that  investigating the wealth of information hidden in my own dreams was endlessly more valuable to curing my mental state than any medicine could ever be.

But it took me years to learn these lessons and to finally (as one of my own dreams so clearly displayed) claw my way, hand over hand, out of that deep, black well into a night sky – a sky perhaps just as black, but lit here and there with the sparkle of stars and moonlight.

Life, I have finally learned, is not always about feeling the sun on one’s face. Some depression and certainly a lot of sadness is normal.  Pain, in the guise of loss and death, quarrels and deception and betrayal and cruelty, is always just around the most sunlit of corners.  Life itself is often a struggle down an unknown path in the darkness, illuminated only by hope and trust.  It is, as I once wrote in a poem, to “….believe the cry of morning’s bird who knows the sun will rise”.

And all of this knowledge became the most clear to me on the day the Universe smacked me atop the head.

I was, perhaps, not at my lowest ebb, but in pretty bad condition – so bad that the smallest and silliest of things were magnified a thousand fold. And so I found myself running the vacuum one Saturday afternoon, all the while sobbing because I realized that my teenage daughter had specifically asked me to make chili for dinner that night, and I had forgotten.  I hadn’t even bought the ingredients.  She was due home any minute, and I hadn’t begun cooking.  I was, I said to myself in self-pitying despair, a completely rotten mother.  My daughter hardly ever asked me for anything, and I’d totally forgotten her simple request.

It was ridiculous, of course, but depressive despair does not recognize ridiculous. My thought processes seemed, at that moment, quite logical.

And it was at this point in my defeatist maunderings that the belt on the vacuum came loose and it lost power. I unplugged it and plunked myself down on the floor to fix the machine just as my daughter came in from work.

She saw that I was crying and knelt down beside me to ask what was wrong. So as I replaced the vacuum belt I tried to describe my miserable mental state, telling her that I could not see why I, the most useless person on the face of the planet, was still alive, when overseas so many brave young men and women were dying in yet another horrific war.  As I pushed the sweeper back into its upright position, I put my hands over my face and wept.

And the arm of the upright vacuum, never steady, fell down and thunked me on the head.

Sheer slapstick.

I would pay good money, now, to have a video of my daughter’s face at that moment. Eyes rounding, lips pursed in an effort not to laugh out loud, she grabbed the sweeper arm, and said, “Oh, that’s…terrible!” — but her voice betrayed her intense effort not to burst into roaring laughter.  And I started to weep harder, only to break down into chuckles myself.

And somehow, at that moment, my final healing from lifelong depression began. Not, of course, that I experienced some miraculous transformation; rather, I came to a recognition of the fact that my feelings were not logical, not coherent, and that the real problem was my habitual thought processes.  That, I realized, was something I could work on.

All it took to bring me to that recognition was a good, hard smack on the head.

As a therapeutic principle, I do not recommend it.

But for me, it worked.