The effort to be present in my life has been the single most important thing I’ve undertaken in the past couple of years. Maybe ever. It has transformed how I think about the world and myself, and the relationship between the two. When I say “being present” I mean, literally, being engaged in and awake to my life. This sounds so simple, right? Well, for me, it’s not. No way. Perhaps I had further to go than most people: I am certainly one of the most preoccupied and distractable people I know, and I take multi-tasking to an Olympic sport (and then past it, where I start doing so many things I’m doing them all poorly). I’m extremely rarely engaged in just one thing, or one person.
It’s hard to articulate just how pervasive this not-presence was. And doing so makes me feel ashamed. I would often check my voicemail, remember that there were five messages, and be unable to recall the content (or caller) of a single one. I’d turn the wrong way down familiar streets because I was not paying attention. I used to play Scrabble with my family (under duress, since I am not an avid game-player) and play solitaire on the side because it was too slow otherwise. I play tetris on conference calls and read google reader during movies.
Beyond just distracted, though, I was also, even more toxically, wishing my life away. Every night, I’d hurry my kids through bathtime so I could get back in front of the computer or my book. I’d will them to JUST GO TO SLEEP ALREADY so I could have my night alone. And now? I’d give a lot of things to have some of those nights back. I’d go to soccer practice and spend the 90 minutes worrying about all of the rest of the things I had to do that day. I’d leave events early in preemptive worry about being tired the next morning.
I was never really there. And sometime in the past couple of years, I realized I was missing my life. There are great swaths of Grace and Whit’s babyhoods that I simply don’t remember. I took a ton of pictures, so I can look back at those, but I truly don’t have memories beyond the photographs (and I wonder if I was taking pictures, somehow, to compensate for how utterly not-there I was).
I suspect this behavior was a defense mechanism, because opening up to the actual moments of my life meant exposing myself to the reality of their impermanence. I knew instinctively how painful this would be. At some point in my early thirties, however, the balance shifted and I wanted to be there more than I wanted to avoid that hurt. I didn’t want to miss anymore of Grace and Whit’s lives. If it meant I had to take on some pain, some acceptance of how ephemeral this life of ours was, I was willing to do that. It is certainly my childrens’ arrival that precipitated this shift in outlook for me: the stakes were higher once they were here, and it wasn’t just my days I was squandering anymore.
It sounds trite, in some ways, but it is also essentially true: this moment is all I have. This moment is my life. Somehow, gradually but irrevocably, this realization seeped into my consciousness over the past few years. I realized how much I had already wasted, and I didn’t want to do that anymore. I am already heading into the middle of my life, and I don’t want to miss anymore of it. All those days that I felt I was waiting for my real life to begin, what a loss they all were. Colin Hay’s voice sings in my head, along with Ram Dass’s iconic book (I treasure my copy), Be Here Now.
So I’m not saying that I believe we should every single moment be playing trains with our kids on the floor. That we should evade our responsibilities to engage constantly in a always-happy celebration of childhood. Impossible, both of those things. And unrealistic. I’m not saying that there aren’t heaps of laundry and piles of dishes and lunches to endlessly pack and unpack in my life. Of course there are. I just mean that I want to be there while I do those things.
I am also not saying that I enjoy every moment of my life. Of course I don’t! To pay attention to my life is to receive both the good and the bad, and believe me, there is plenty of bad that makes me sad and regretful. Yes, sometimes it feels like pressure, and I realize I am just starting out on what will be a long, difficult journey. I get snappish and annoyed and wishing things would just be over … daily. But I know now what it is like to be engaged in my life, to really pay attention, and the fullness of the moments where I am able to do that makes up for all the times I fail. It is the memory of that momentary richness that brings me back to begin again. And again.
It is not a surprise to me that I’ve been drawn to books that meditate on this theme: Dani Shapiro, Katrina Kenison, and Karen Maezen Miller have all become important teachers of mine, despite their not knowing or having asked for that title. Each of them tells, in her own lyrical and compelling way, of her journey home. Of her journey to right here. To right now. I have been deeply, deeply moved by each of their stories. And the questions are as insistent as they are difficult (just thinking about these sometimes makes me feel like crying): What would it take to really inhabit the hours of our days? And what do we lose, if we don’t start trying?
When I talk about being present, I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I mean being in my life. I want my mind to stay inside my head for a little bit. I want my heart to dwell here, in the rooms of my days.