Finding Presence in the Present Part 2

My last post was on the culture of busy we find ourselves caught up in, and the fact that we like to throw around words like balance and emotional health, but we either aren’t willing or don’t know how to make a change. Realizing the problem is half the battle I guess, but identifying successful ways to manage it is another thing entirely! No one wants to feel exhausted the moment they open their eyes in the morning, or daunted by an endless “to-do” list before the day even starts. I’m not the only one thinking about this. In fact, I’m encouraged by the whole mindfulness movement I see taking place around me. Different methods work for different people, so I’ve been spending some time thinking about what works for me, where I might make changes, and where I can bring presence into my present. Maybe my “mindful musings” will resonate with some of you?

I’ll attend to the priorities first. There are things to do. Every day. And like most of my friends, my tasks don’t just include managing myself, but managing some of the other people who live with me. So, I have to live by my calendar and lists, and I feel much more organized when I do. I admit that my list making borders on obsessive – doesn’t everyone have a monthly overview list, a weekly task list, and a daily schedule??? But I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I believe creating lists actually allows me to let some things go, temporarily at least. If something is written down, and I can’t attend to it in the moment, I know it isn’t lost or forgotten, it just needs rescheduling. Similarly, working with a calendar assures me I’m not going to miss something important, like a kid’s doctor appointment or my mother-in-law’s birthday! I can relax. My calendar will remind me.

What I am trying to reimagine is my daily time management. Rather than create an endless to-do list, I’m trying to realistically attend to my priorities first. And when I schedule my day I’m attempting to allot an amount of time to each task, and block out chunks of time for the most important things. I’ll let you know how it goes!

I’ll plan the down time and unplug. Down time has to be a priority, and I have to honor it. A few weeks ago my daughter needed to make a dish for “fiesta day” at school. Now, when my boys had to bring treats or snacks to school, I would generally hear about this at bedtime the night before, or sometimes in the morning as we were rushing to the car. But my daughter, she’s a planner. I got the recipe a week before, a gentle reminder a few days ahead, and a “mom you got the ingredients, right?” the day before. And not only is she a planner, she’s actually helpful. We work really well together in the kitchen. The day before “fiesta day” I picked up the ingredients, and, using rule #1, I actually planned the cooking time into my schedule. Because I did this, I was able to shut everything down and really be with my daughter while we cooked together, laughed, told stories, and enjoyed each other’s company. I’ve been trying to think of cooking time now as down time. It has to be done anyway, and with a glass of wine and good company, why can’t it be a time to reconnect and pay attention to one another? I even bought a new cookbook…

I will sleep on it before making a commitment to something. This one’s been really helpful. Generally, I’m the kind of person who likes to say yes to everything. Especially now, trying to get a new career off the ground, it’s really hard to refuse any work that comes my way. But not all the projects are the right ones for me, and if I let an idea percolate for a while, the right choice becomes clear. The right projects are the ones I can’t stop thinking about. They energize me, and my creativity flows around them. The others never sit quite right. I’ve learned to listen to my gut, but it requires my first answer to always be, “let me sleep on that and I’ll get back to you.”

I will laugh more. Research suggests that laughter is good for your health! Laughter not only feels good, it changes my perspective. And, while it’s really wonderful to laugh with other people, in a pinch, I’m happy to laugh all by myself. I fall out of my chair when I read those autocorrect snafus that are posted online. And I’ve recently discovered a Star Wars bloopers reel that I find absolutely hysterical. When I need to take a break, rather than fill my head with the negativity that is so pervasive in the media and online, I look for laughter and levity.

I won’t wish it away. Don’t get me wrong - I have perspective on this one. I had the stomach bug the other day and I definitely wished that shit away immediately! But I’m talking garden-variety challenges - the stress that comes from being part of a family, having a career, raising children - the day-to-day stuff that can sometimes just wear us down. For example, we have a small (ahem) construction project happening right now. It’s over budget, my yard’s torn up, my house is dirty from the work, and I’m hosting a huge party back there for two of my kids in another month - because those two kids are graduating. And then they are moving to the other side of the country.

The project will be done in a few weeks, and a few weeks after that, my household will look completely different. It’s as it should be. My older boys are following their dreams and I couldn’t be more excited for them. But I don’t want to miss out on these last few weeks with my whole family living under one roof together for the last time. If I focus on hurrying along the discomfort, I might miss the joy in the moment. And really, life’s just too short for that!

Finding Presence in the Present Part 1

I’m busy. I mean really busy. There are more things on my plate now than when I was working full-time and the kids were little. It’s a different kind of busy, but no less real. I love what I’m doing, and I feel blessed to be doing it, so I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’m not. But I am tired. Sometimes it feels like life is speeding by faster than light, and I worry… Am I paying attention? Am I present for my family and friends? At the end of the day, have I attended to the most important things?

Our culture reveres busy. We wear the title with martyr-like resignation, a twisted badge of honor. A friend of mine just wrote a blog post about her guilt over the hours she spends reading. Now, we both have to read for work – we write reviews and interview authors as part of our job. But still, she felt that curled on her couch reading, she was somehow not being productive enough. And even if she were reading for pleasure, why should this be something to hide?

We - and when I say we, I’m including myself - throw around words like balance and emotional health, but do we really mean them? When we see someone taking time for themselves, creating boundaries around their work and personal lives, or saying no to a new project, do we secretly judge them?

My husband and I are both type A personalities. We thrive when we feel productive, and we generally have a lot of energy. We’ve tried to instill a healthy work ethic in our kids, and model the sense of accomplishment that comes from a job well done. And now that they’re older, we’re able to see they’ve internalized these values as their own. But they may have a thing or two to teach us as well.

In high school, my second son took a full load of challenging courses and performed pretty well overall - but in our opinion, not always up to his academic potential. We had many conversations with him over the years about limiting his future choices, doing his very best, etc. etc. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something like this, “I know school is important, and I’ve worked really hard at it. But there are only so many hours in the day, and I am not willing to give up my creative writing and my music, or completely sacrifice my social life to turn a B into an A in trigonometry. I do plenty of community service and I’m engaged in all my classes. That will have to be enough.”

This summer he is booked to perform nearly every weekend at comedy clubs, his guitar playing skills are outstanding, and his writing portfolio impressed the college admissions boards enough to admit him - early action - to his first choice school. I guess it was enough.

Maybe my kids are on to something. I’m still a believer in hard work, perseverance, overcoming challenges, and participating fully in life. When I commit to something, I endeavor to do my best. But, if I really value balance and good health, I have to give myself permission to do things that support attaining them. And maybe this means saying “no thank you” to my constant state of busyness.

Please teach manners. Thank you.

Someone once said to me I was lucky to have such nice children. I politely thanked her, because my own manners are pretty well ingrained, and then went on to rail at a friend that this was not luck! It took years of nagging, badgering, and issuing friendly and not so friendly reminders to produce these barely civilized beings! We hand-write thank you notes. Come on, that takes commitment!

Lest you think my children are perfect, let me dispel the myth. Footballs are thrown indoors, bedroom walls have been decorated with permanent marker, and yes, we are familiar with the inside of traffic court. Why dirty socks should be found on the dining room table, I have no idea. How someone can leave a bathroom with no toilet paper baffles me. There’s more – we’re a boisterous, messy bunch, facing all the normal challenges of a big family. But one thing we value, above all else, is respect. And good manners demonstrate respect.

My children will shake your hand when they meet you, look you in the eye when they speak to you, and nearly always say “please” and “thank you.” These deceptively simple social graces required years of practice, but they matter.

Those of you who know me know my parenting style is pretty relaxed. Four kids have taught me that most of the small stuff is just not important. But when one of my kids made a snarky remark to me at dinner one evening, the other three turned and yelled at him in unison, “Run!” They know.

I like to believe we are all wonderfully unique, special individuals, here on planet earth to follow our own path and hopefully do some good. Obviously, manners won’t solve the world’s problems, but they go along way in facilitating healthy communication and establishing some ground rules for living in a community.

My husband likes to say to the kids, “Be someone other people want to be around.” And other people appreciate simple kindnesses. Good manners say, “I recognize you as a fellow human being and I will treat you with respect.” This is really important. When we teach our children to make eye contact when speaking, we are teaching them to listen. When we teach them to shake someone’s hand, we are teaching them to authentically meet a fellow human. When we teach them to say please and thank you, we are teaching them grace and humility.

The world could certainly use more of that. So please, teach manners. Thank you!

"Sweet" Surrender - by Maria Amendolia

When I read someone's work and connect to it, I want to share. Meet Maria. She is a college friend who suffered a pretty nasty concussion a little over a year ago. During her recovery she began blogging about the experience. Her writing is full of wisdom, humor, and sass. She's veered into other topics now and I find her voice to be fresh and authentic. You can visit her blog "Take Shape Detour - Learning to Embrace the Wild Ride of Life" at and follow her posts if you like what you find. Thanks Maria!

The title of the post was originally Surrender. But by the end of writing it, I added the sweet. Trying it on for size. You can decide.  

The last few days have been frustrating for me. I should be better by now. Do I sound like a broken record yet? I mean c'mon...I took all that time off. I rested. I did nothing. But still my head is not right. I am easily fatigued, both physically and mentally. I want to will my brain to heal - to rush the process. But alas, I am reminded yet again that all I can do is surrender to this healing process. I can choose to respect the brain that has served me so well for the last 43 years and give it the time it needs to regrow the neurons. It will not be on my predetermined schedule, despite the fact that I have adjusted said schedule a few times already. It will be what it will be. 

When I was first injured, I was in denial about the pain and the severity of the injury. I pushed past what my body was trying to tell me. I worked when my head hurt and when I was exhausted. After all, I’m tough. When I finally admitted I needed to rest in order to heal, I decided it should take two weeks (or a little less than two weeks after I attended to the last few client appointments I didn't want to cancel). Then I would be better. Not so fast, Maria. Still not myself. But when? Why not yet? 

After my chiropractor stopped just shy of an outright eye-roll, he suggested I stop "yelling" at my brain to heal (which was likely doing exactly the opposite of what I wanted). To fully surrender means to give up control, to allow what needs to happen. Surrender is scary, but perhaps, in a way, freeing.

There is a striking parallel here to something that has been suggested to me about my life as a whole. Surrender. Surrender the plan. Surrender my tight hold on controlling the outcome. I do not know what the future will bring. I cannot control what happens. But then I think, why would I want to? At what point did I decide that my life would be better if I controlled everything?

No control, no plan.  The wild and crazy ride strikes again.

How, then, shall we live?

When I sat down to write this blog, I had a very different theme in mind. It was light and funny and had to do with writing science fiction. But recent events are weighing heavily on me - earthquakes in Nepal, riots in Baltimore, executions in Indonesia, to name a few. It’s been a difficult few weeks for planet earth and for humanity. Really, if we fast-forward a year, the places and events will be changed, but the essential human experience will be similar, complete with natural disasters, chaos, violence, and hatred. Sometimes it feels like our collective psyche is overwhelmed and nothing we do will make a difference. Our good intentions, words, and deeds are merely a drop of rain in a vast ocean of tears.

When the sorrow of others takes center stage, I am reminded of a question posed to my class (junior or senior year of college) as part of a yearlong reflective process. How, then, shall we live? It is a question for all ages, as relevant now as it was twenty, fifty, a hundred years ago. How, then, shall we live in the face of angry mobs and unforgiving regimes? How, then, shall we live when the earth moves and swallows thousands of people? How, then, shall we live with our own illnesses, heartaches, and personal tragedies? How do we create meaningful lives, filled with hope, when the world around us is as bleak as it ever was?

As the sun finally peeks out and the earth begins to warm up (I live in New England), my optimistic faith in humanity begs to resurface. I find myself meditating on this question once again, and the overarching thought that comes to mind is this: How we live is always a choice. Or, maybe more accurately: No matter the circumstances of our lives, we have a choice in how we respond. So I’ve modified the question a little, and now ask myself, “How, then, shall I choose to live?” And when I’m listening carefully, sometimes an answer appears.

I will choose kindness. An act of kindness, no matter how small, can be transformative. My third son is a baseball player. After his first Little League game last year, he was “called up” from AA to AAA. During one game, a little boy from his old team who had just finished playing on the adjacent field noticed RJ. He excitedly relayed to his dad, “RJ is a big guy and he got the call.” This little boy was chubby and short, wearing glasses as big as his face, and seemingly uncomfortable in his own skin. He’s the kind of kid you know will grow into himself one day, but is most likely having a tough time of it right now. He’s the kind of kid a mom wants to wrap in a hug and protect from the sometimes-cruel world. His sweet dad ruffled his hair and said, “You’re gonna be a big guy someday too. Want to watch RJ for a little while?” They did. And at the end of the inning my son caught sight of this little boy and jogged right to the fence to greet him. “Nice play RJ,” the boy said. And RJ answered, “It means a lot that you came to watch me play. Thanks so much, buddy.” The little boy beamed and I cried behind my sunglasses.

I will embrace my community and tend to my friendships. We humans are social creatures. We need each other. We need each other in times of celebration, but also in times of hardship or tragedy. I belong to two book clubs, a hiking group, and a dinner club. I belong because I love reading, hiking, and eating of course, but I belong because these people are part of my community. In book club, much of the time we discuss books, but we also care for each other during illnesses, support each other during crises, and celebrate each others’ successes. It’s the same with the hiking and dinner group. When I had my fourth child, a wonderful, exhausting, rather hazy time in my life, it was this community of family and friends who cooked my meals, drove my other children to their activities, and cleaned my house. When I have the opportunity to reciprocate for one of them, I do it with great joy.

Almost three years ago, an alumna from our school was killed in an accident. It was a gut wrenching, heart breaking tragedy that devastated our community. Her younger brother was still our student, and the family wanted to have her memorial at the school. The community came together to create a beautiful remembrance for this beautiful girl, and then continued to care for her family over the years. No amount of support can erase this kind of pain, but as a community we can and must help bear each other’s burdens.

I will leave room for redemption. I think perhaps the reason the executions in Indonesia sickened me so much is that it appeared the accused men had truly transformed their lives. They had committed a horrible crime, yes, but had also found a meaningful way to live beyond that crime. Mercy would have allowed good to come from something terrible. It would have allowed for healing instead of immeasurable and irrevocable loss. To give and receive forgiveness is a powerful and uniquely human experience. In our messy, complicated lives, we all require forgiveness. To forgive doesn’t mean to condone, but it does mean we’ve created an opening for redemption.

I will bear witness when I’m called. This is a hard one. When faced with a tragedy, we want to help. Our essential nature calls on us to fix, do, or say something meaningful. But sometimes, in the moment, we are powerless. Or maybe we aren’t. A few years ago I was the first person at the scene of a car accident. In the past I have worked as an EMT and in the Emergency Department of a city hospital, so I always stop even though it’s not my calling anymore. This particular accident was as awful as any I’ve ever encountered. There was nothing to do for the dying victim. No amount of training or miracle of modern medicine was going to save him. When another person arrived on the scene, I made a decision to climb into the backseat of the car and just sit with my hand on the young man’s shoulder as he passed.

Later a friend convinced me I should reach out to the family - that it would be important for them to know what happened in this young man’s final moments. So I sent a sympathy card, and a few days later his wife called. I assured her that her husband was not alone when he passed and he hadn’t suffered. I commented on the softness of his sweater and the color of his hair, so she would know I was really present for him. I told her that all of us on the scene treated him with the care we would want for our own family members. And she said to me, “Thank you. I will tell our baby girl you witnessed his passing when she is old enough to ask.”

I will choose to see goodness in the world. It’s there. This week we adopted a dog from an animal rescue. When it was finally time to pick her up, we waited with a dozen other families in a parking lot for the “Rescue Road Trip” truck to arrive. This amazing team transports rescued pets from all over the country to their adoptive homes. When the animals arrived, nervous and shaking, but with tails wagging, we cheered for each other as we met our new furry family members. A young couple gently carried off a scruffy, scarred older dog, and a mom and daughter team scooped up a tiny pup that’d been abandoned for days at a service station.

Love showed up in that parking lot. And it shows up in far worse circumstances. Teams of aid workers left for Nepal, knowing their own lives could be at risk, and millions of people donated funds in support. When a young girl in our small state was tragically killed in a bus accident, anonymous strangers paid her funeral expenses within hours. In the cold of winter, there is no shortage of volunteers at our neighborhood food pantry and shelters.

It is easy to fall into despair over the state of our world. And in truth, many things are beyond our control. But if we choose to focus only on the darkness, we may miss the profound beauty, truth, compassion, and light that are just as much a part of the human condition as the sorrow.  

How, then, shall we choose to live?