My grandmother had the most adorable way of swearing. She’d be in the kitchen, making her trademark chop suey, and drop a spoon or spill the salt and she’d say “dammit it all to hell.” I remember it clearly. I can still hear her voice, still smell her powder, still remember the way she looked at me with those crystal blue watery eyes. She was a small woman and I remember her with soft, white curly hair. I her gnarled, crooked hands, still deftly making afghans well into her eighties.
And I remember when things changed. I was maybe 15, 14, somewhere around there. She’d be talking and, without notice or provocation, her words would change to gibberish. The doctor called them TIs, tiny strokes in her brain that would eventually lead to her losing the ability to use her left hand, being almost completely non-communicative and, eventually, her death. It was a long, drawn out thing, full of tiny moments of clarity and loss. For a while, she did her best to live the way she always had. She cooked, she smiled, she knitted. And she swore. She cursed. She damned it all to hell.
A few times, when the occasion called for it, she’d swear, but it sounded like gibberish to me. I’d report it to my mom, who told me that, sometimes, it was her brain misfiring, but other times it was actually Swedish. My grandmother spoke Swedish. She grew up in Chicago knowing how to speak Swedish from her immigrant parents. I took a weird pride in that. While my dad’s side of the family is as German as can be, I began to identify more and more with my Swedish roots. I became fascinated by Swedish things – not just my grandmother’s meatballs, Abba, IKEA and Volvo (though I did crank up “Take a Chance” in my Volvo S60 this morning on my way to work) – but culture, language, lore.
So, when I was reading a Mental_Floss article on foreign language words without direct English translations, my attention was drawn to two words in particular: kummerspeck (German), which translates to ‘grief bacon’ and is used to describe the weight gained through emotional eating and the Swedish word ‘lagom.’
Lagom, of all the words I’ve come across, seems to describe Sweden and Swedes perfectly. Roughly, it translates to adequate, but that’s not quite what it means. It means that things are fine – neither great nor awful, neither wonderful nor heart-wrenching. It is the anti-superlative. But, unlike adequate or okay, lagom implies a certain degree of satisfaction in being those things. If you go to a restaurant and the meal is good and satisfying without being something you need to tweet about, you would describe it as lagom. A sixty-three degree day is lagom. An evening at home on the couch with your spouse catching up on The Blacklist is lagom.
As Americans, we tend to live in a world (linguistically anyway) of supremes and extremes. We describe things as being ‘the greatest thing ever’ or ‘the absolute worst.’ Someone is either our bestie or a relative stranger. We either win or lose. We are binary. Lagom is that gray space in between. I know many people whose careers are lagom – they are satisfied by the work, but wouldn’t describe it as living the dream.
But, maybe, we should strive to be a bit more lagom. I was reminded of this on Saturday after I posted a blog asking for topic requests from anyone interested in having me write about something. A friend, Leah, asked me to write about ‘being okay with okay.’ I think she meant allow yourself to grin and bear the less than ideal or, as a parent, finding peace in something less than perfection.
But what I took it to mean was loving lagom.
Our culture rewards achievement. We praise those who over-index toward the good. We create high expectations – for our work, for our relationships, our children, our houses, our cars, our retirement accounts. We build up the American dream and entrepreneurial ideal to point where it can only be touched by the few. We compare ourselves to others and find ourselves wanting. We create Olympus, then bemoan the fact that we can never climb its heights. We look at the grass on the other side of the street and wonder why ours is not as green. It leads to doubt. It leads to misery. It leads to a specific kind of self-loathing, a subtle, simmering kind that erodes at our psyches. And it’s not fair, to us or anyone else.
There have been enough people who have written about impossible-to-reach beauty standards, about perfect couples, about perfect homes. So I won’t bother with that. Instead, I’m writing about the sense of self-satisfaction that can only come with having the confidence to appreciate lagom. You are, usually, never as bad as you think you are, nor are you as amazing as you want others to believe. You are not wasting your life if every meal is not transcendent. You are not a bad spouse if you’d rather sit quietly and read a book than have a long, deep conversation every once in a while. You are not a bad parent if your child skins their knee, gets a B or doesn’t make the team.
You are human. You are lagom.
Lagom is not about lowering expectations. It’s not, the way I interpret it, about giving up or giving in, it is not about wanting less. It’s about appreciating a moment for its quiet, about finding comfort and satisfaction in a lack of extremes. Lagom is about taking a moment to be okay with okay. It’s should not become an excuse to not exercise and eat nothing but frozen pizzas. But it should be the thing you cling to when you compare your Instagram and Facebook feed to others’. It should be the thing that helps you stop comparing yourself to an impossible ideal.
My grandmother’s chop suey was lagom, so were her meatballs. The music of ABBA is lagom. My Volvo is lagom. So are the nights when we sit on the couch watching The Blacklist, the times when my kids play a good game, get a descent grade and watch their friends take home the MVP. Not everything has to be ‘the best ever.’ Not everything needs to be ‘the worst.’ By definition, very few things can be. The point of lagom is to give definition to the value of the in-between, to give it a word and to ease some of the pressures off the extremes; to realize that there are spaces in between that can be satisfactory without being ‘fine,’ ‘okay’ or ‘meh.’
I never would have learned that word, had it not been for my grandmother swearing. I never would have learned it if the wiring in her brain hadn’t come lose. I would never had a way of being okay with the okay without being disappointed. I don’t use the word enough – I feel somewhat pretentious using other languages – but I should.
I, and we, should do a better job of it; of learning to love lagom. We’d probably all be a bit happier, a bit less stressed… a bit more Swedish if we did.