What? 2014, where did you go? Suddenly here we are and it’s 2015. There is so much about the past year that I want to record that I haven’t. There is even so much about the past week that I want to record.
More than once this past week of vacation, I’ve felt like I should just follow my children around and write down every cute or funny or inspirational thing they say in a notebook that I can reread when they are grown. I wanted to write down the time a couple days ago when Johnny was leaning in to turn up the volume on The Nightmare Before Christmas. Teeny, currently obsessed with Jack Skellington, was afraid he was turning it off. “No!” she cried. “Don’t turn it off!” I was amazed. I didn’t even know she could say that. In a flash I remembered how a year ago I had created a list of all the words she could say and put it in a Google doc. I gave her teachers and therapists access so we could all update it whenever we heard new words. At the time, her words were so few and her pronunciation so poor that most people had great difficulty understanding her. That list, on a spreadsheet that included a column in which I tried to recreate the way she pronounced particular words and phrases (like “AH-waht” for “I want”) served to help everyone understand what she meant when she tried to express herself and I wasn’t there to translate.
Now she speaks in complete sentences almost routinely. They are slow and deliberate but they are pretty accurate and, to most, pretty clear. What’s funny is that I don’t always like what she has to say! “Did you finish peeing? Wipe yourself please,” I will say, a thousand times a day, handing her a wad of toilet paper. “No. YOU wipe me,” she will retort, pointing a finger in my face. These days she so is full of “No. YOU do it” that I have just started doing things for her that I know full well she can do herself. But this is dangerous territory for a three-year-old, neurotypical or otherwise, because as soon as I do that, she will of course shriek, “No! Teeny do! Teeny do!” and collapse into hysteria if I dare to do so much as flush the toilet for her when she’s finished because she decided a nanosecond too late that she wanted to do it herself.
She’s becoming very stubborn. Half ultra-independent (“Teeny do it self!” and “No, I want own muffin!”), half-clinging to Mama (“I want to sit lap, Mama” and “No, YOU do it, Mama.”) Always pointing. Usually polite. And for me, never resistible. As frustrating as it was to be outside with Bee when she, at eleven months, was taking her first steps, needing a half hour to cover one city block, it is a thousand times more frustrating to be outside with a three-year-old who wants like hell to walk but simply cannot. “I want WALK!” she will shout as we are loading her up into her wheelchair or her stroller or carseat. But then as we are putting on her shoes she will declare, “No braces!” When she doesn’t wear her braces, her ankles collapse easily and even standing becomes more challenging. So we try to reason with her about that, which gets us nowhere. Sometimes she wins and sometimes she doesn’t. When she wins, we walk. But it doesn’t stop there. “Just one hand,” she will instruct me as she pulls herself to a stand, leaning on me. To step without her walker, she needs to support herself with both arms, but this is too restrictive for her liking. I automatically take both her hands in mine to help her, but she invariably yanks one hand away from me, repeating “just one hand!” When I can, I let her try this even though we both know that she can’t take a single step without us holding both of her hands. I redirect that other hand to whatever’s closest – a chair back, a table edge, a windowsill, another person’s hand. This clearly makes her feel more independent. But it would probably take us a year to walk down one block. We take one very slow step after another, correcting the way her right foot crosses her left when she isn’t paying attention and the way both feet do it when she gets physically tired. But she presses on until she can’t go any further. “Take a break,” she will announce and sit down right in the middle of wherever she is, whatever she is doing. Two minutes later she’s usually ready to try again. This kid’s spirit is almost indefatigable. (Almost. She does have moments of extreme frustration when her body can't do what her mind tries to command it to.) For me it’s an exercise in patience and self-restraint that I do mostly happily because I know this new level of determination is a sign of incredible progress. Plus there’s something about it that’s awfully endearing, even when she’s at her bossiest.
Bee is now six weeks away from her fifth birthday. She is both sassy and sweet. This week she helped us with the border of our 1,000 piece puzzle, scouring the piles for corners and edges and seeing where they fit together. She happily sorted hundreds of pieces with me by color and pattern. “Oooh, Mama!” she announced, waving a tiny piece at me. “I think I found another piece of that lady’s green dress! Look!” Later, border complete, we were chomping at the bit to get started on the rest so we set the girls up with a movie. “Are you almost done with the puzzle?” she called to us, about a half hour later. “No,” I answered. “It’s a big one. We’ll be working on it all week!” I could hear the smile in her voice when she responded, “All week? Oooh! That means more screen time for us!”
Cute, right? But I don’t need to follow them around with a pad and paper. Kids are cute at every stage and in thirty years I will look back and some of it I will remember and some of it I won’t and that’s okay. I don’t need to post every little thing they say and do to Facebook or other social media since my friends all have adorable children or cats or dogs or hobbies or homes too. They get it. I don’t need to do anything except enjoy it. And for me, sometimes that’s really, really hard.
That’s what I sat down to write about tonight. It’s January 1, a day of resolutions and new beginnings. In the past I would resolve to get skinny. To work out every day. To make that person fall in love with me. To stop saying stupid things. You know what I mean. At some point, though, I realized that those kinds of resolutions don’t work, that despite my determination, a half hour into my starvation diet I was ready to eat the house, that I hated the gym, that I had no control over other people and that maybe it’s not that I said stupid things but that I just didn’t have the confidence to believe in myself and to own what came out of my mouth. So I stopped making resolutions and started to think about ways I could be the person I want to be. I didn’t have to wait for January 1st to do any of that. I could do that today, like right now.
This year I want to do a little of both. At the tail end of a vacation in which I was essentially forced to unplug, I realize now how much I liked it. Work was, for all intents and purposes, closed for the time I was away and I had next to no responsibilities or reasons to even check in. Cell phone service was intermittent at best, so my phone was quiet except in fits and starts, and wifi in the house we rented was weak so powering up my laptop was pretty useless. I sent texts and social media updates in a flurry of strong reception, usually when we were in town for some reason, and then had little to no way of responding to the replies back at the house. Making calls in one spot not moving at all lest the conversation dwindle into “what?? You’re breaking up. What?!?” got tiresome and after a day or so I gave up on emails altogether. But you know, a girl could get used to that. I found myself spending the week with my family. I mean, with. I wasn’t multitasking. I wasn’t in a million different places while sitting on the couch with my kids. I wasn’t constantly thinking about what I had going on at work that wasn’t getting done or that I had to email so-and-so before falling asleep or what I was going to make for brunch when company comes next week or the bills that needed to get paid or that the cats didn’t get fed yet or that what Teeny just said would make a cute Facebook update. I was there. I was here:
One morning Bee woke me up early. Teeny and Johnny were both still asleep so we pulled on our coats and hats and boots and went for a walk in the woods. We talked about metta – the Buddhist concept of lovingkindness – and, stretching our arms out, we practiced throwing some love out into the universe. It was a pretty sweet moment for me, seeing who came to mind for her as we named many people and animals we loved and for whom we wished happiness, health and peace. When we came back to the house, I took out the box of items I have for when I meditate and I explained to her what they were. I showed her my little meditating Buddha statue, the lotus candle holder, the mala beads. She loved my Tibetan singing bowl and she sounded it several times before setting the timer. She settled in next to me and tried to just breathe. She was fidgety, so we tried putting our fingers on the mala beads. That worked for a little while. But after three minutes I could see her mind beginning to wander, so I let her sound the bowl again and we put everything away. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what she really learned, if anything. After all, she is only four. But she talked about that experience quite a bit and a day or two later she asked if we could light the flower candle again and sit with the Buddha and the beads. I was pretty surprised, and happy. And today on a walk in town, we stopped in one of those hippy-dippy tourist-trappy stores for rich white ladies trying to get in touch with themselves, full of overpriced jewelry and self-help books where everything is breakable, nothing is kid-friendly and where they play Enya and burn incense all day long. “Look!” she shrieked, and tore into the store, the door's chimes tinkling as she went in. A hundred disapproving eyes were instantly on us. Disregarding them, I looked. And following her gaze, I smiled. “What are those, Bee?” “They’re Buddhas, mama,” she answered proudly, pointing. They were!
Maybe she will retain nothing from those three minutes, but they were among the most important minutes for me of this whole week. I felt truly present. I was there. With my kid. It didn’t matter to me what she took from it. It didn’t matter whether she was really meditating or just trying to sit still because I asked her to or if she understood that by sending love out into the world the way we did, we really did make the world a better place. It was a moment we had together and it was fun for both of us. We were talking and we were listening to each other. It was only a few minutes, but they were uninterrupted minutes for a mama and her girl and they meant a lot to me. For a moment I was, as a friend of mine likes to say, where my feet were. That’s presence.
I was fully present in other ways this week. With the phones taking a backseat, I noticed that we talked more. Johnny and I completed our 1,000 piece puzzle working together over three awesome, engrossing evenings. We had friends join us for two days and we all sat around the table and talked and took turns playing with the kids.
We walked in the woods behind the house, jumping on logs and inspecting the stream and the ice forming at its edges. “Look at that ice! It’s freezing over! I think Elsa has been here, don’t you, Mama?” Bee pontificated more than once.
I let Johnny sleep in one morning and he let me, too. I had a little time to myself when I needed it and so did he. I brought a new cookbook with me and together he and I picked out new recipes to try. I dutifully made a shopping list two pages long with all the ingredients I would need to make those several very complex dishes. Our afternoon shopping trip outing -- one I was really looking forward to -- would involve a couple of different stops: at the supermarket, a gourmet grocer and the food co-op. We were thirty miles from the house when I realized I had forgotten it. I was devastated and the afternoon I was so excited about crumpled before me. But I realized I had a choice about how to behave. I decided to enlist my family's help to find everything I needed, and in the end we had great fun doing our food shopping together. And because I had been so involved in what I was doing, because I was so committed to creating these new dishes and because I had been so fully present when I made the list, somehow, I remembered every single item except one, and that one was easily substituted by something we already had. I couldn’t believe it.
Today I noticed that after five minutes walking in the woods with me, Bee’s conversation shifted from Elsa and toys and stuff in general to exercise, air, trees and love. This evening before dinner we walked the half mile to the end of our road and back, and we discussed the week we’d had and what we liked best. We talked about who and what was waiting for us at home, what we had coming up in the next few days. As we walked, she took my hand and said “I really like our house, Mama.” Which one? I asked her. This house? Or our apartment at home? “Both!” she said, smiling. “They’re cozy. Can we skip now?” So we skipped the rest of the way down the hill holding hands to keep our fingers warm.
This year I want more moments like that. So my resolution is to be more present. That’s vague and it’s meant to be. Maybe it means unplugging a little more, so that I unlearn the this-is-a-Facebook-moment-wait-where's-my-phone thought that I think at least a dozen times a day. Maybe it means doing one thing at a time and letting go of the notion that I am a good multitasker. Maybe it means putting myself first more. Maybe it's about worrying less and asking for help more. Spending more time listening. Meditating. Writing. Reading. Exercising regularly in ways I really like because I love my body and I love to be outside. Doing the things I love with the people I love and for the people I love. Maybe it's a little of everything.
And yet as I type those words, my brain is already working against me. “You should have your resolution be clearer so you can hold yourself accountable,” it says. "That's what it takes to get things done." Maybe that's true for short term goals, but I want to change myself in this way for good. But my brain wants my New Year’s resolutions to sounds like this: You should read 50 books this year. You should work out six times a week. You should sleep at least eight hours a night. You should see friends once a month, balance your checkbook twice a week, eat only this number of calories every day. You should meditate once a day for at least 20 minutes a day. Do a blog post once a week. Read a book on active listening. Take up ceramics. Go back to school. Put the phone on airplane mode for two hours a day. My brain is yelling at me. “Those are all loving things! Accountability is key! Do them all and do them all right!”
Maybe “be more present” means nothing more than that I stop telling myself all the things I should do and that I am a failure if I don’t do it perfectly. My brain wants to quantify everything as though it’s a measure of accomplishment – or more like a measure of my failure since there is no way I can hold myself accountable to that much. My brain challenges me: if you can do all of that, why can't you do more? But if you know you can't do it all, then why even try? Because clearly you’re awful at everything and you can’t get anything right.
I don't want to hear that talk anymore. If I'm so busy crossing stuff off my list, am I really enjoying any of it? I do a lot of those things a lot of the time already. Isn’t that cause for celebration? And wouldn’t it be something if I could let myself off the hook for not being perfect and savor the truth of the many the things I do mostly right most of the time?
I am so controlled by the clock, by the Outlook calendar, by timers, alarms, reminders and confirmation calls. I look at a clock to know when to eat, how long to run, where to be, how to get there, what to wear, whom to contact. Some of it is unavoidable, but the truth is that I can’t remember the last time I tried listening to my body, looking out the window at nature, or looking at the expressions on my children’s faces to make the decisions I have been allowing a beep or a ding to make for me. I am tired of being so overscheduled that I can’t use the present moment to help me determine whether tonight is a good night to read one extra chapter at bedtime because I am instead too busy thinking of all the things that might go wrong if they are up ten minutes later and all the things I still have to do and oh yeah we still have to water the plants and when will we be able to afford bunk beds for the girls and is that my phone ringing and goddamn it I forgot to put the wash in the dryer and I still have that thing to do for work so these kids have to get to sleep now so I can make some tea and fire up the laptop, and then I’m so lost in thought that I haven’t heard a word the girls have said and I completely missed bedtime anyway even though I was sitting right there.
I am not naive enough to say that this all stops today, New Year’s Day. But I can chip away at it. Over the past week I have felt a new love for my spouse and a genuine appreciation for the things we have in common – shared interests like music, certain kinds of food, doing puzzles, walking in the woods, stopping for coffee -- and a real respect for our differences too. We listened a little better to each other this week and we helped each other more. Our voices stayed a little lower and we laughed more than usual. And my patience with the girls lasted longer than usual too, and that was thanks to being present. So what if Teeny was always insisting on being in my lap or on my hip? Why should that be annoying? So what if she’s getting heavy and I can’t check my email while I'm holding her? It was an opportunity to smell her hair, sneak a kiss on her cheek, give her a squeeze. So what if Johnny was sitting reading his book instead of helping me in the kitchen? Preparing a meal is meditative for me, so how much help did I really need? And besides, isn’t he on vacation too? I loved seeing him engrossed in a book and when I really needed his help, I got to practice asking for it. So what if Bee wanted to play hide and seek, choosing the same hiding spot over and over and clearly not understanding the point of the game as I knew it. “I’m hiding in the closet, Mama!” she said every single time, giggling and hopping up and down like mad whenever she heard me come near. This gave me a chance to get creative. “I’m looking in the cabinet, and she’s not in there! Hmmmm… no Bee in the dresser drawers! Where could she be this time?” And this had a real snowball effect: I snuggled with Johnny and the girls a little bit more than usual, I offered to read to them a little more, I hung out in the bathroom longer than I usually do while Teeny splashed in the bath busily pouring water in and out of an empty bottle of shower gel and I spent a lot longer preparing new, interesting, loving and healthful meals for our family. These are things that I do already, but this week I did them a little bit more and with a lot more love, because I was really there for it all, soaking it up and feeling the effects resonate in my body, my mind and my heart.
So here’s to another imperfect year. But maybe a just little bit less imperfect, with me being a little more present.