Don’t Live for Another Day

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard or read that we should live in the present moment, and being a planner, a goal-oriented person, it can be easy to scoff at such a notion. I’m always preparing for the next thing, which is good, for instance, when I’m crunched for time and I already packed my lunch the night before. But it can also make it easy to ignore what’s going on around me when I’m always focused on the future.

My morning commute is 30 to 40 minutes, time that I use to think about whatever’s next in my personal inbox – doctor’s appointments, writing projects, the household budget, all the activities that I have planned for the day or week. Couple that with the fact that I’m usually very tired, and I make for a poor conversationalist. This, naturally, is when my seven-year-old gets chatty. I’m liable to snap at him (he always pipes up right when I’m trying to listen to the traffic report or extended forecast), only to chastise myself moments later. The very last thing I want is to stifle my child and make him feel like he can’t tell me what’s on his mind – or his heart. One time recently, I nearly bit his head off, and as soon as he heard that the weather report was over, he asked in a quiet voice, “Can I talk now, Mommy?”

It’s during these moments that he opens up to me about his theological quandaries or epiphanies, some of which are very deep, or he’ll tell me about something he’s excited about at school. These are precious conversations, ones that I don’t want to miss. There’s nothing earth-shattering about them. These aren’t Kodak moments that I can post on Facebook, so all my friends can go “ooh” and “ahh” over them. But they’re special, the small moments that mean nothing to anyone except us, and they’re what build our relationship as a family.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other, special times. We all enjoyed our recent trip to Disney World. We looked forward to that trip for weeks, and we’ll always remember it as a great family vacation. Life is made up of these memorable occasions, balanced with hard times – sudden losses and deep sadness. But we can’t forget the moments in between that hold them all together, the conversations in the car, the nights reading books together on the couch, the activities that are so routine that we don’t give them much thought.

It is these in-between moments that make up our lives, even if they don’t stand out. They are the background that can be easily ignored. Unfortunately, many people allow the foreground to get so crowded with mountaintops and valleys that they leave no room for anything else.

I notice this in people who trudge through their weeks, hardly able to stomach the normal routine, living completely for the distant promise of a two-week break from it all, only to become depressed at the end of the vacation with the knowledge that an unsatisfactory “real life” awaits upon their return.

I met a woman some years ago, who shared the story of the hopes and dreams she and her husband had for after his retirement. His retirement came, along with a diagnosis of terminal cancer. They spent his last weeks laughing at the dark joke of it all – he struggled and worked hard for 30 years, only to die before he was able to enjoy the fruits of decades of labor.

I’m not advocating that we throw responsibility to the wind and do whatever makes us happy right now. Nor am I saying that we should give up on long-term plans. Rather, we need to find a balance between the two, but more importantly, we need to learn to be grateful and satisfied with what we have, even as we strive for better.

To put this in perspective, a dear friend of mine recently decided that she’s done battling cancer, and she’s now under Hospice care. This friend has been on disability and unable to hold a job for a number of years, but that hasn’t kept her from making her life a blessing to others. While her means aren’t great, her heart is. She embodies the ideal of a Christian servant, yet shies from receiving service for herself. Even in great pain and with ever-waning strength, she has never ceased being faithful, thoughtful, and an inspiration, even from her hospital bed. She could easily choose to let her situation weigh her down and fill her with despair, but she refuses.

How does she do it? How must it feel to know that there may be some good days, some bad, but there will never be a recovery? Her life is in that hospital room… yet her influence still extends beyond it and into the lives of her friends and loved ones. I have a lot to learn from my friend, not the least of which is that my complaints are pretty trivial.

I will never give up creating goals for myself or trying to improve my skills or situation. I want the world for my kids, and I look forward to our vacations and special times together, like any normal person. I understand there will be disappointments and stretches of days when I’m too tired to eek much joy from the moment, but that’s not going to stop me from trying. Who was it that said it’s the not the destination but the journey? (The answer is that lots of people have said it, and it’s only because it continues to be true.) So even though the destination may be wonderful when I get there, I’m going to be more conscious of the road I take to get there and the people traveling with me.

My Own Gratitude Blog

I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of the clothes.

                                                  – Henry David Thoreau, Walden

 

Earlier this week, I read an interesting post on Facebook, entitled “Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt.” It’s from Glennon Doyle Melton’s blog Momastery. I even borrowed the above epigraph from this post because it really struck a chord with me.

Although I recommend you read Melton’s original post, I can boil it down to this: one of her posts included a picture of herself in her kitchen. While Melton thought little of this, her readers began messaging her with tips and advice on updating her kitchen. Melton’s response? An outpouring of gratitude for her shamelessly outdated kitchen and all the wonders it provides for her family.

Melton’s “Gratitude” blog was a great reminder. I don’t think often enough about how grateful I should be for what I have. Sometimes it’s all too easy to get caught up in wanting to “have” because someone else already does. It’s easy to fall into the entitlement mentality.

Just last week, for instance, I wrote about how happy I was that we finally have a lawn guy. Wow, how fortunate are we? We can afford to pay someone else to make our lawn look nice. What kind of a luxury is that? And I grumble about the house’s interior, too, and get onto my kids when their toys are all over the place, but I have to remember a time, not too long ago, when we didn’t have a house to mess up or a big lawn to mow.

Years ago, my husband and I got caught up in the idea that home ownership was the end-all-be-all. We simply wouldn’t be anyone if we remained renters. Well, maybe I shouldn’t drag Thomas into this, but I know that I certainly felt that way. When we were first married, we lived in a tiny apartment. It was literally smaller than my bedroom where I grew up (although, admittedly, that bedroom was huge). We tried to entertain family for a surprise birthday party for my mom and then for Christmas, and to say that it was tight would be a gross understatement. Sure, we were happy and have some great memories of our first place together, but our time there was tainted with the idea that we wanted more.

Why? Why couldn’t we just enjoy what we had and stay? But no. We wanted that fabled “starter” home. Too bad we bought in 2006. On the budget of a couple 23-year-olds, we could either afford a shabby house on a not-so-great side of town, or we could afford a condo in a developing neighborhood at pre-construction prices. We were sold on the idea that lots of shops were coming in. Thomas and I loved to walk everywhere, and we envisioned ourselves walking to the Starbucks next door whenever the mood struck.

Except that the housing market crash happened, and no Starbucks was ever built. The condo that we thought we would sell for a great profit after three years – max – became our home for almost seven years. We had two babies there, and they shared the same bedroom. If you’d told us that in 2006, we would have turned and run. We would have let them keep our $4000 deposit. But we didn’t know, and so we made the best we could out of it.

You know what? Despite complaining about the condo (our running joke was that every time Thomas met someone he hadn’t seen in a while, he’d say, “Want to buy a condo?”), I reminded myself from time to time that we did have a roof over our heads. We did have a huge closet. We never had to worry about taking care of the lawn or the roof or the paint job. We were on the ground floor and surrounded by trees, so our electricity bill was super low.

But we also had some of our bedroom furniture in the dining room because it wouldn’t fit in our room. Our exercise bike was right there in the living room. If you weren’t careful when you came in at night, you’d run right over my sons’ Little Tikes workbench. The carpet had spots in it when we moved in – and we were the first people to live there. That only became more pronounced with a cat and two kids.

About a year-and-a-half ago, we finally left the condo years behind us. One thing we knew for sure: we didn’t want to get stuck again, so we found a rental house, knowing that if it was horrible, we could get out at any time.

So we now have a huge lawn, where the kids can play. We have a garage, where we can store things like the exercise bike and all the stuff we kept in storage – and even a car. We have a bedroom for each kid. Our furniture is all where it belongs.

We also have a tile floor that’s awful in different ways than our old, spotty carpet. We only have one tree, and it doesn’t provide any shade for the house, so the A/C runs constantly in the summer. Plus no ceiling fan in our room. The kids have fans – why can’t we? The house is older, so our kitchen (like Melton’s) is outdated. Our fridge is smaller and doesn’t have an ice maker. I mean, I have to fill ice trays and put them in the freezer myself – we’re talking prehistoric, here.

My lovely fridge.

My lovely fridge.

But you know what? I kind of like our fridge. It has pictures of our family all over it. It displays my six-year-old’s latest artwork. It’s covered in magnetic letters that my two-year-old identifies every time he gets a Gogurt.

Our grass is thick and green, even in winter, and we’ve had two beautiful hawks visit our backyard, plus dozens of smaller birds, squirrels, and even a little snake that keeps us rodent-free. Wildlife is not something my kids got to enjoy at the condo. And the lizards – oh my gosh, you’d think that my cat was in heaven. She sits by the sliding glass door and tracks them all day long.

Although there were times that I thought I would somehow be fulfilled if we got a bigger place – and I do appreciate that aspect of where we live now – it took moving out to appreciate the positive attributes of each of our previous homes. Just because we lived in a little condo through most of our 20s doesn’t mean our 20s were somehow lesser because of it.

As I look around my house, much as Melton looked around her kitchen, I see that we not only have enough, but we have more than enough to live and to thrive. Sure, I still dream about another house. Nothing specific, just bigger than what we have now – but do you know why? Not because I want to have one of those HGTV dream kitchens or an in-house theatre or any of that. I would love a bigger kitchen, where we can cook and bake without tripping over each other. And an extra bedroom or two would be nice, so we can host our out-of-town family. And bookshelves, of course. I would love to have a place for our books, where someone can see all the titles and say, “This is a great book!” or “Can I borrow this one?”

Biltmore Estate

We do NOT live here 🙂 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But you know what? Say that dream home never happens. Say that we are “stuck” here for seven, ten, twenty years…

Although not ideal, if this is the last place I live, I don’t think I’m going to go to my grave feeling cheated. Because it’s not a new fridge or a bonus room that will make me happy at the end of the day. I hope that I’ll be able to look back on my life and remember the relationships and the silliness and the joy rather than the headaches and stress that come with always trying to upgrade, to keep up, to become whatever it is that the commercials and TV shows would have you believe gives true happiness.

If I’m not happy as I am now, it’s the me that needs to change, not the accessories that come with the me.

As for Robin Williams – if I’m ever going to mention him, it might as well be this week – after getting over the initial shock, my next thought was, But he had it all. Of course, only he knew what it was like to be in his head, to feel what he felt. Depression is nothing to mess around with, and I’m speaking from experience – the terrible, postpartum kind that steals joy from moments that should be precious and forever cherished.

Of course, depression is a different thing entirely, although it certainly can come along with the feeling of never having enough, never being enough, never being fulfilled. But the point is that if a famous man, a wealthy man, a man with supposedly “everything” a person could want still didn’t have “it” (that lasting joy, that sense of being fulfilled in life), then who can? Will any of the things or ideals that we as people chase ever be more than a disappointment?

Now, before you get your panties in a wad, I’m not putting down celebrities or people who want to remodel their houses. But many of the “haves” are notoriously unhappy – along with many of the “have nots” who concentrate all their energies on attaining the lifestyle of the “haves,” thinking that’s where life can finally start. If you’re chasing something that you think you must have – be it a new car, a trendier wardrobe, a $1000 handbag, an Ivy League education, a set of initials behind your name – remember that these things do not a fulfilled person make. They are fancy dressings, so much fluff that often masks a great vacuum beneath.

If today were my last day to live, I wouldn’t die thinking, Well, I didn’t get my dream home. I never had my fifteen minutes of fame. I just wasted my life. Nor would having those things make my death easier to cope with for my husband and children. I would hate to die with the regret that I spent so much time going after things or ideals that I missed out on watching my kids be their goofy selves and cooking with my husband in our outdated kitchen.

If I wake up tomorrow, I’ll play with my kids some more, and we’ll spend some more time in the kitchen. My life is pretty simple but full, and for that I am forever grateful. The cake – the substance – has already been measured and mixed and baked to perfection.

The rest is icing – unnecessary but sweet if savored in small doses.

English: A layered pound cake, with alternatin...

Photo credit: Wikipedia