At the top of Notre Dame, Paris, March 18th. My memories of this moment include the sight of Paris spread below us, as well as the awe-inspiring, echoing sound of the bells and the uneven, centuries-worn stones under my feet. I was there.
Tomorrow marks the last day of Aidan‘s Here Year, in which I was honored and delighted to participate alongside her. I’ve been thinking about what the big lessons or takeaways from the year were, either for me or in general, and the truth is I’m not sure I have any. I think the lessons of spending a year thinking about presence, in a bunch of different specific spheres (marriage, friendship, time) are quieter, somehow both more urgent and less headline-y than they might be.
More than anything, The Here Year reinforced something I’ve known for a while, and around which I’ve been circling, in both my writing and in my living.
Being present is the central task of my life.
Several years ago I began to orient in the direction of being engaged with, and aware of, my own days. It has changed everything. This shift is documented on this blog, whose early days included a series called Present Tense about all the challenges and rewards of presence. Over the years I’ve run into difficulty when people interpret my discussion of “presence” as a way of asserting that everything is perfect. Let me be really clear: I am not saying that being present transforms everything into wonder and smooths out all the rough edges. Far from it. As I’ve said before, being aware of my own life opens me up to more joy and more sorrow simultaneously. I assure you that there’s plenty of frustration and yelling and disappointment and irritation in my life.
I am far from a zen person. I’m still often impatient, distracted, and snappy. Sometimes I’m on my phone when I shouldn’t be. Now and then I check my voicemail, listen to a series of messages, and realize when I hang up I can’t remember who half of them were from, because I wasn’t really paying attention. But the thing is, I’ve improved a lot. A lot. When I started blogging, and writing about presence and awareness, I was pointing myself in the direction I wanted to go. I can see that now. Writing here helped me identify, and then pursue, something I desperately needed.
I suspect that anyone who knows me in real life would say I’m someone who speaks and moves fast and who doesn’t always pay as close attention as she should. Hopefully anyone who has known me for a while would also say that they’ve seen a change on this dimension in me (any of you who fit this qualification and are still reading, I’d welcome your observations).
Blogging is a practice. A daily and weekly effort, one that I keep at because over time it has made such enormous changes in my life. I think of the Tolkien quote I saw yesterday, “Little by little, one travels far” (thanks, Dina Relles). It seems so small, a gradual effort to pay attention, to put down my phone, to listen carefully, to look at the sky, and to record what I observed. And yet, as over years the silt in a river carves an oxbow into the land, so the very contours of my own life have changed.
The Here Year helped me to see the fruit of these years of effort, and reminded me of the fundamental importance of the work required for me to be present. To be here now. These choices – to sit with a child and read a book, to look a friend in the eye, to listen to the birds in the bushes, to stand still and watch a sunset – small in the moment, maybe, but there’s nothing more important.
Paying attention allows me to fully inhabit my own life. It doesn’t, however, slow time down. It was a bitter realization for me that no amount of being present changes the fact that time flies by me, that moments sift through my fingers even as I grasp at them. I routinely mourn experiences even while I am still living them. I hate feeling so keenly aware of how fast it’s all going by, and of so fiercely missing things that are over. But I also know it’s simply the only way I want to exist in this world. I loved thinking about and talking about and writing about what it means to be here this last year with you, Aidan, and I don’t plan to stop any time soon.