Present Tense with Elizabeth from Clarity in the Chaos

Elizabeth. How to introduce Elizabeth? Even her blog title, Boy Crazy: Finding Clarity in the Chaos, could be the subtitle of my life (sans the three sons of course, though my one gives me a run for my money). Or, hell, the TITLE. Elizabeth writes lyrically about her day to day life with her three boys, about juggling a return to work, about the turning seasons she sees out of her window and about her effort, so familiar to me, to really engage with her life and the people in it. She is candid about her struggles and the ways that overwhelm-edness threatens, about the hilarious and frantic situations that pepper her days (the blueberries on the hands, still one of my favorites), and about the incandescent moments of feeling that can sweep through our hearts and minds, surprising and filling us.

Elizabeth writes about making an explicit choice to live her life more mindfully. To “let time pass at its true pace.” This, of course, speaks directly to the heart of everything that is sacred to me right now. She expresses beautifully how her commitment to mindful living has changed the way she sees and interacts with the world. Elizabeth writes – and lives – in a way that I aspire to. She truly seems to focus on what is right in front of her, and the evocative way she speaks of what she sees convinces me even more that this is the road to the true riches of this life. In this way, she is a teacher and a guide and an inspiration, and her blog is one of my absolute favorites out there in the wilds of the internets.

It has been a true joy getting to know Elizabeth, first through her writing on her blog, then through her collaborative art project, snippets (what a cool and community-building idea), and finally through our email exchanges. I am proud to call her my friend. And delighted with her thoughtful and wise answers to my questions. Oh, and it’s her one year blogging anniversary today! I feel privileged to be publishing these words today. Happy one year, Elizabeth. May there be many, many more. Without further ado…

1. When have you felt most present? Are there specific memories that stand out for you?

The times I have felt most present for extended periods of time (like, an hour or more) have been during the labors of all three of my sons, in yoga – specifically savasana, when making art, or listening to live music. I also have a lot of random instances I could mention. There are times I intentionally remain where I am, taking in the moments with all my senses rather than letting my mind wander. Lying in bed with my 6 year old talking about his day, hanging out with my 3 year old just the other day, or on the bus on the way to work. I’ll keep my iPod tucked in my bag and my book closed, and I’ll take it all in. The road, the people out the window, the other passengers on the bus. I watch what people are doing, I listen to the snips of conversation around me, I smell the mix of perfume and coffee and cigarette smoke lingering on someone’s jacket, I feel the hard seat and the bumps of the drive. Sure, there are days when I travel that whole route without paying one bit of attention to where I actually am, letting my music or my book or my mental anxiety or to-do list transport me. But most days, I like to be where I am, fully.

When I was writing my thesis in grad school, I had a 2 year old and was pregnant with my second kid. I would often find myself reading him a book while I was analyzing statistics in my head. I really struggled with being present on those days at home because my research felt all-consuming. But when I really worked at it and tried to just be mentally where I was physically, I felt so much better.

2. Do you have rituals or patterns that you use to remind you to Be Here Now?

The first and easiest tool I have is to turn off the music or shut the computer. Those distractions are half the battle.

My personal mantra is to let each minute last sixty seconds. I don’t like to let time fly, or drag. I really embraced this idea right before my third baby was born and I was thinking about how time goes by so much more quickly when we’re busy. I intentionally slowed down and began living each moment, no matter if it was a pleasant, easy moment or a hard one. I just wanted to be there, to feel it, to live it all so that I didn’t wake up a year later and say “where did that year go?”.

Breathing always helps, as does visualization (which I describe in a response below). It also helps me to remember being in labor with my three kids. When I experience emotions and thoughts that hurt or scare me or stress me out, I try to breathe and to lean into those feelings. To give up on resisting them or stuffing them away or distracting myself from them, and instead I let them wash over me (like a contraction). Because it’s not going to kill me to feel something that isn’t easy to deal with. In fact, by acknowledging my thoughts and feelings and letting them wash over or through me, I come out the other end having made some progress, not unlike in labor. Now when I catch myself ‘somewhere else’ and it’s because my mind is wandering to everything else rather than where I am, I try to let go of whatever I’m thinking about and notice where I am with all my senses. I listen, I look, I touch, I smell. (And with food – I taste. How easy is it to shovel an entire meal down my throat without tasting it because I was thinking about something else or checking my email or editing a report?)

All of it – I soak it all in, let the experience add another layer of texture to me, let it become part of me as I move on, take the next step, inahle – exhale. It’s so easy to run through life on Auto-Pilot, getting from Point A to Point B without noticing where we are or what we’re actually doing. I could hop on the bus and end up at work without noticing one thing about the weather or what’s going on out the window or in the seat next to me because I’m so distracted by my own brain. But when I mentally put down the juggling act in my head and just focus on being where I am, I feel my pulse slow down and a (relative) calm set in despite whatever is on my plate for that day (or month, or year).

And I don’t want to paint being Present as all smooth and easy times. Sometimes I waltz in from work to sheer pandemonium. I have to see the kids and make dinner and deal with the witching hour(s) after I’ve been at work all day, before my husband comes home. My house is a mess and the boys need me and I have deadlines for projects that haven’t been started and phone calls I haven’t returned in a month and an inbox full of business and pleasure and friends that want to go out that night and a husband I’d like to spend some time with and we’re down to one roll of toilet paper and the dog hasn’t been walked and it’s really freaking easy to let these things bombard me and overwhelm me, but it is SO MUCH BETTER for me to let go of everything that isn’t happening at that exact moment. To focus on one moment at a time, because then it’s manageable. I pay attention to the fact that I’m chopping veggies (or stirring mac’n’cheese) and I listen to my son’s stories (or to them playing/fighting in the other room) and I take in each moment as it comes. It is too overwhelming for me to see it all. I like to think of it as intentional myopia. Sometimes the big picture is more than I can carry. So I hold a fleeting piece in my hand. I feel each raindrop as it falls and I don’t resist as it slips through my fingers. But I can’t hold the entire storm in the palm of my hand. It would knock me over and render me useless (and crabby).

Geez, the last thing I want to suggest is that this is easy or that I handle it the way I’d like to all the time. But through practicing yoga and meditation, it has come much more naturally than it used to.

3. Do you have specific places or people that you associate with being particularly present? Who? Where? Any idea why?

Yoga, contemplative writing practice, the shore of Lake Michigan, the early days with a new baby (I rarely read or watched TV while nursing. I liked to just watch my baby. To be there mentally. It’s amazing how easy it is to be in the middle of next week or next year when really you’re sitting on the couch in your living room with a baby on your breast). On the flip side, where have I been least present? In church, growing up. I would spend the entire service following a train of thought, and then randomly stopping and asking how I got there, then following the train of thought backwards until I got back to where I started, which I had always forgotten until I got back there. It was my favorite game. And also – driving. I am rarely really where I am when I’m driving. My mind is back in high school or it’s 20 years into the future or it’s solving the sorrows of the world or it’s on Mars or wherever, but certainly not on that stretch of road that I’m driving at that moment.

4. Have you ever meditated? How did that go?

Yes. I am part of a contemplative writing practice (ala Natalie Goldberg) that meets weekly. We start the practice (after a brief check-in and hello) with a sitting meditation (then we listen to a writing prompt and follow with 20 minutes of free writing). I love it. I also meditate during Savasana in yoga practice, and during Restorative Yoga sessions. I keep my attention on my breath, when I notice thoughts and obligations and next week’s worries or my grocery list popping up or lingering, I acknowledge the thoughts and then release them. They are bound to pop up, at least for a novice like me. A visualization that helps me is that of raindrops falling in a river. Whatever these thoughts or worries or to-do’s are, I see them falling, they’re very much there. But when they land in the river, they dissipate and flow downstream. And I stay where I am, letting the river flow past and through me, letting thoughts flow on past while I just stand there, just being, in the river and the rain. It has been an incredibly helpful visualization for me.

5. Has having children changed how you think about the effort to be present?

Truthfully, I never gave any thought to being present before I had kids. Looking back, I see that I fluctuated between extremes. In college I was always multitasking, finding distractions to help me escape the present when I needed it. But then also being able to fully just be wherever I was and to soak in my surroundings through all of my senses without any thought to tomorrow’s schedule or obligations. Right before we got pregnant with our first son, my husband and I took a several-month-long road trip with no itinerary or schedule. We traveled down Highway 1 from Seattle to San Diego and then into the southwestern states and eventually back to Wyoming (from where we started). I was incredibly present on that trip. We drove until we felt like stopping, and we stayed where we were as long as we felt like it. Sometimes staying four weeks in one place, other times just an afternoon. It was incredibly freeing and we grew so close on that trip. And now, with kids, I can’t even imagine taking a trip like that. I’m sure it’s do-able, but I think it would be a lot harder for me.

6. And just cause I’m curious, what books and songs do you love?

Oh, with music I am remarkable fickle. Lately, I find myself coming back to Mike Doughty – both the Rockity Roll album (especially Down on the River by the Sugar Plant and Ossining) and Haughty Melodic. Also anything by Ben Folds, and randomly — very old school Smashing Pumpkins. I also could listen to the Garden State soundtrack on repeat for the rest of my life. Another song that pops to mind with nostalgic value: Pictures of You by The Cure. Have you heard the PS22 Choir from NYC sing this? My lord. Search my blog for a clip. Tears, every time. Oh, I love Ingrid Michaelson, although I haven’t listened to her in months. This really isn’t even a slice of the songs that move me.

And books? I haven’t had time for fiction in years. I read mostly collections of essays, anthologies, or nonfiction with short chapters. I, like every woman who writes, adore Anne Lamott and consider her my personal therapist and life coach. I recently was enamored with If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland, which is really a book about art, inspiration and life. She was so ahead of her time in so many ways. And right now I’m finishing up The Wisdom of No Escape by Pema Chodron. Although I am not Buddhist myself, many of the teachings compliment my Christian faith and resonate with me.
Well, there is so much here that I relate to that I have to be careful not to just quote everything Elizabeth says. Never gave much thought to being present and aware until I had kids? Um, yes. Never even occured to me. It was not until I had these living, breathing yardsticks of time’s passage in front of me that I realized how much I was missing. It’s amazing, how true that cliche is about children being our teachers, isn’t it?

The contemplative writing group sounds extraordinary, and I think I need one (any takers in the Boston area?). Fickle with music (and yet needing to turn it off to have a prayer of being focused?)? Moi aussi. Labors being among of the most vivid and present moments of your life? Yes. The powerful lessons of Buddhism, that for now feel complimentary to a Christian upbringing? Yes.

Elizabeth, I am impressed and inspired by you, by your commitment, by the strength of your spirit. You are an example, a shining and honest and human one, of what it looks like to really let your minutes be 60 seconds long (to paraphrase you). Thank you for sharing your kindness, your wisdom, your brilliance, and your humanity with us today. Thank you for you.

11 thoughts on “Present Tense with Elizabeth from Clarity in the Chaos”

  1. Great timing, Lindsey – I just discovered Elizabeth’s blog last week. Thanks so much for introducing all of us to such great people!

  2. My day has started in a haze, as days do, of grouchy boys and an empty refrigerator. I sit perched at my kitchen table reading this in tiny bits and pieces over the course of an hour. But I needed to see it through because I, too, enjoy Elizabeth and her blog and feel that she offers a keen view on motherhood and awareness and breathing it all in.

    And then there’s this: “Sometimes the big picture is more than I can carry.” Yes. Yes it is. And I have to let it fade to black. See myself standing in silhouette, doing that one single thing, and feeling free and clear.

    I think this is my favorite post of the series thus far. Many thanks to you and Elizabeth.

  3. Contemplative writing group = yes.

    Had to laugh at the part about sitting in church and realizing I was thinking about the most random things and then trace back how I got there. I still do it, in fact, and sometimes it make me feel like a total freak!

    Loved this interview.

  4. Thanks for the reminder to be present…and to “let time pass at its true pace”.
    (and couldn’t agree more with music choices, old skool Smashing and Garden State are constant vibes in my rotation!)
    Lindsey, thanks for stopping by our table!
    ~kristin and chris ann

  5. Wow, Lindsey. I am so honored by and grateful for your kind, kind words. Although I must admit I feel pretty undeserving of them. I hope I made it clear that so much of this is how I *aspire* to live, and that by no means have I mastered this.

    Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to think about these questions and to – for the first time – really get it down, how I feel about it all.

    xo elizabeth

  6. Present Tense. Ahhhh. Present. Now. I adore this series (just writing a blog post about how JenLee’s words spoke to me) and now I get the pleasure of meeting Elizabeth. Thank you.

    (And, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, is one of my favorite books. I’m considering driving to Boston for a contemplative writing group with you, Lindsey.)

    (AND, Elizabeth, the shores of Lake Michigan are among one of my very favorite places to be. Can’t wait to go check out your blog.)

  7. Lindsey, I’d be so there with you for the contemplative writing group. I keep searching google, but haven’t come up with anything – maybe we should just start our own!

    Elizabeth is one of my favorites out there. Both you (Lindsey, as I’ve said before) and Elizabeth have been incredible inspirations and support for me. Being present is such a huge part of healing in life, any healing.

    But Elizabeth – I clung to every word of your answers as I read, because it all resonates (especially after what I wrote yesterday) Oh my word it’s familiar and new and different all at the same time. There is so much to learn from each other, this group of women that believes in and challenges each other.

    Well done 🙂

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