Life is Like a Lego Set

One of the deeper insights I've ever had is this: Life is like a Lego set. You get a big pile of pieces and think to yourself, There’s no way I’m going to make anything worthwhile with this. But then piece by piece, bit by bit, you create something amazing, astounding, with moving parts and everything, and you are like, I AM AWESOME.
And then a child destroys it.

That, in a nutshell, has been my motherhood experience, both with regard to my mental health and several actual Lego sets.  On the former front, by the time I had my first child, I had been through some things, gone to therapy, gotten myself together, launched a promising career. Our daughter was born, then our son, and it turned out I had more things to go through, needed more therapy and also some medication, had more pieces of myself to gather up, and had launched a career that was less a rocket than a balloon with a a tiny, child-shaped hole in it.  While I still work at an interesting, stable job that I'm happy to have, I got my last promotion over a decade ago.  And that's fine, no regrets.


I have, however, built some really, really impressive Lego sets since I had kids. I didn't grow up with Legos, so I never played with them until my kids reached an appropriate age, at which point we acquired multiple sets, none of which they have actually built.  They prefer that I build them.  They might help for a few minutes, but then they lose interest.

Which is fine, because as it turns out, I LOVE LEGOS. I find them almost meditative, going through the little book, page by page, bag by bag. Everything is so clear, so nicely laid out, so satisfying.  I am not a multi-tasker, and in fact, having too much coming at me triggers significant anxiety. With a Lego set, there is none of that.  You don't have to organize anything, you don't have to do multiple things at once, you don't have to plan ahead.  It's all broken down for you. You just focus on the page at hand, then the next, then the next.  I go into an almost trance-like state when I do a set, and it's hard to even take a break.  Then when it's done, you feel like you have made a major contribution to the progress of humanity.


For my kids, the fun part of Legos is apparently waiting for me to build it, then completely and utterly pulverizing it.  It happens slowly, this piece comes off, that joint breaks apart, this mini-figure is cruelly decapitated.  At first, I try to repair everything, but then it becomes overwhelming, a flood of destruction and devastation, like the aging process after you get to 43 or so.  And, as anyone who does Legos knows, repair can be far more difficult than building from scratch.  So the Lego sets sit around looking like a war zone or the ruins of an ancient civilization, bombed out and decrepit.

Ancient ruins or Lego set remnants? Hard to say. 
I at least try to gather the broken bits together and keep them in their own bin for some later date, far in the future, when I will put everything back together again, Jesus returns, and there is a new heaven and a new earth, full of resurrected Lego sets. But then the children find that bin and dump it into a larger bin with a million pieces from multiple sets or maybe they scatter them around the house just to see if this is the thing that finally pushes their mother over the edge of functional insanity into something darker, and it becomes obvious to me that I have completely lost control of my life.  I barely know who I am anymore.

The first time this happened on a grand scale was with the initial large set I did, the Star Wars Ewok Village.  It was adorable, because hello, Ewoks.  And also it had trees with funky branches and trap doors and a spider web and a cool booby trap thing and a rope ladder and so many things.

See, adorable. All 1990 pieces. 

Ostensibly, Santa got it for the kids.  Sure, Jan, and there really is a Santa Claus and this cream will get rid of all your cellulite.  Santa then spent the rest of winter break gleefully opening bag after bag, gushing over the Ewok mini figures and diligently building them a home out of bits of Danish plastic while the children checked in on occasion.  Then, it was finished, and it was glorious. The Ewoks were ecstatic. The children were ecstatic. They couldn't wait to get their hands on the village.  And then, like a sadistic Jedi-gone-bad, they laid waste to the Ewok village and razed it to the ground and dismembered all the ewoks and scattered the ashes to the wind.  I kept one Ewok for myself, and together we mourned the loss of our civilization and plotted our return in a later trilogy.

I figured that day would have to wait until the children were grown and I was retired.  On bad days, I imagined myself, years from now, old and gray, sorting through bin after bin of loose Legos and meticulously rebuilding the Ewok village and many other sets in peace and quiet, with nothing but time on my side.  While other retirees sat around in recliners and ingested 24-hour news channels of dubious integrity like movie popcorn, I would have real purpose in my life. I would live in a constant state of meditation and maybe achieve enlightenment and start a Lego-making cult.  It would be beautiful, and if I could just hold on and, for now, stare down the chaos, knowing there was nothing I could do about it in my present life, I would get there one day.

But then my children started growing up.  They started getting to an age where they could understand that a completed Lego set was something sacred to behold.  They started to respect the Legos. They started to understand what the Legos meant to me.  They started to see that it was not in their interest for their mother go completely insane.  And then, this year, they gave me, using my own money, the ultimate lego set.  They gave me the Death Star. It has over 10,000 pieces and costs the GDP of Suriname.  I wept when I opened it, not only from joy in the moment, but from the anguish of imagining its ultimate destruction.  Just like in the movies, the Death Star was doomed.


I considered building it with glue, to thwart the scrappy rebel attacks.  But a Lego aficionado friend convinced me that this would be blasphemous, I would basically be admitting I was evil, like the dad in the Lego movies.  I did not want to be that guy.  I did not want to defile the Legos.  So I had an honest conversation with my children.
"Look guys, I'm going to build this Death Star. It's gonna be amazing and beautiful, and I DON'T WANT IT DESTROYED.  You can play with it, very carefully. Maybe. Maybe not.  Maybe you can just look at it, in a glass case. Or maybe you can make suggestions about how you want the characters to move through the set, and then I will consider your requests and move them myself, if I deem it safe. The point is, I don't want this thing wrecked like the Ewok village. I am not over that yet."
"Yeah, we know. We feel bad about the Ewok village. We won't destroy the Death Star. We're old enough to appreciate it from afar. We promise."
They seemed to mean it, too. So I started in, without glue or ropes or a safety net of any kind, my heart on a string.  I built the Death Star, and it is indeed glorious.  More importantly, months later, IT IS STILL COMPLETELY IN TACT.

Emboldened by the survival of the Death Star, I began to imagine a nirvana much closer in time and space than I presumed, within reach from my present life.  What if I didn't have to wait to reconstruct the Ewok village? What if I could do it now? Dare I dream to dream, dare the Ewoks hold a vision in their hearts of a life outside a bin of sad, jumbled Lego components?  The only obstacle was time. This would be a huge project, one that would require hours of uninterrupted focus.  Where would I find that kind of mental space?

ENTER A GLOBAL PANDEMIC. I am mostly furloughed from my job. My calendar is clear. I am not a good mother and therefore my kids need little of my attention.  I have nothing but time. And multiple bins of Legos.  I decide it's time. THE EWOK VILLAGE WILL RISE AGAIN.

If you are wondering how to reconstruct a Lego set that has long ago been demolished, don't worry. Like a real Danish person, I'm going to take you through, step by step.  You can do this.  I can't tell you why you will do this, or why I did this, but I can tell you how.

1) Go through your house and collect all the loose Legos hiding in drawers, non-lego bins, under beds,  between couch cushions,  taped to walls, flushed down toilets.  Look in every nook and cranny and in the nooks and crannies of the nooks and crannies.  Leave no stone unturned, because the undiscovered Lego under the unturned stone may be that odd piece that the Lego people made specifically for this set and without it, the whole thing collapses, like a pandemic response without an effective testing regime.

2) Once you have gathered up all the Legos in designated Lego bins, get out the book for the set (you had BETTER have kept the book in a locked safe.  If you did not, I can't help you.  You are lost, and you will die, alone, amidst the ruins.  Or you can just reorder the book on the website).  Go through the master list of pieces at the back of the last book for the set.  Familiarize yourself with the pieces as much as you can--dominant colors, shapes, etc. There is no way on earth you are going to remember all the pieces unless you are Rain Man or something, but try to get an general impression that may ring some bells when you proceed to the next step.

3) OK, this is where stuff gets real.  This is the equivalent of assembling the combined allied forces in England before D-Day.  You have to go through all the Legos you own. There is no way around it my friends, and it's not particularly fun.  Put on some music or maybe an audio book and just solider on.  Handful by handful. Pick out any and all pieces that you think might go into the set. If the set has a lot of brown, pick out every single brown piece.  Add a healthy dose of those tiny joint-making pieces, every set has those. Also any one-of-a-kind, weird looking pieces. You might not need them but if you do, you'll never see them again if you don't grab it now.

This isn't even all of them.

4) Once you have a bin of legos that are hopefully, maybe relevant to your task, you set out on your journey.  Now, this part is fun, but it is also tedious, as you are still having to look through a massive bin of legos.  You will lose some of your eyesight.  But it will be worth it.  It also helps to sort things a bit, making piles of similar pieces.

5) Unfortunately, even if you've done a stellar job of sorting and picking and choosing and curating, you're still gonna find that you are missing pieces, because no one is perfect.  I had picked out about 80% of what i needed.  That left 20% that I had to go dumpster diving for again.  If I could skip the piece and look later, I did that. Sadly, sometimes you can't move on with your construction without that crucial piece.  Sometimes you have to stop work altogether and go back to Home Depot to get another screw or tool or something. That's life.

6) As you get towards the end, you'll have some tough choices to make, and you'll have to accept some imperfection.  Do you really need to make the speeder and the catapult that go with Ewok village? Can you use a similar piece of a slightly different shape or a very different color?  Your set won't be pristine, and that's OK. It's been through some things. It's lived some real life. It's had children.  It has some stretch marks. The last Ewok hut of the village ended up like that one house on your block whose owner never mows the grass and paints the outside purple.  But you know what, it's fine.  As you can see, for all intents and purposes, I did reconstruct the Ewok village.

And that my friends is an absurd, extended metaphor, which are my favorite kind, of not only motherhood, to return to our original theme, but where we are collectively in this moment. Sometimes you are doing well, living your best life, have things figured out, and then some children or a global pandemic comes along and disrupts things and challenges you like nothing else.  Perhaps you have a weakened immune system or extreme extroversion or a natural aversion to motherhood.  You aren't cut out for this.  And you end up in a million little pieces, scattered around your home or piled in some bins, in chaos and confusion, and you don't know how you will put yourself together into something recognizable again.

But I'm here to tell you, it will happen. Kids grow up, germs die and/or you adjust to a new normal and find out who you are in a new context.  Piece by piece, bit by bit, you rebuild.  You won't be the same, you'll have some missing parts or some oddly colored ones. But, if you are creative, you might even end up even better.  You might figure out a way to build an actual flushing toilet for the Ewoks or something really cool and tricked out like that (to be clear, I did not do this).

Just as C3P0 has been returned to the throne the Ewoks put him on because they mistakenly thought he was a deity, you, too, will find your way through whatever it is you are faced with. And we as a nation and society will, too, I promise.  

And that is the secret deep meaning the Legos have to share with you, if you are willing to listen.  


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