In Reverence to Change

It’s an over-used adage: ‘Change is a good thing‘. It’s heard and read so often, sometimes, that you breeze by it without even registering it. The same thing can happen when you’ve been working towards a change for a long time; the results can fail to register as well. But occasionally something will happen so big and bold, it reminds you just how good change can be. And when you also realize that it’s your own blood and sweat and sacrifice that’s caused it, the reward is that much bigger…

A common change that we all try to make is to be ‘better parents than our own’, right? Well, the same is true for me, but in specific and measurable ways. I have, for the better part of twelve years now, been actively working on changing my own DNA when it comes to parenting. Reason being, I was raised by an impatient yeller (excessively so). Don’t get me wrong; this impatient yeller loved me (and still does) more than anyone else on the planet, and I have never doubted that for a second of my life. But yelling also came with the territory. We’re Irish: it’s in the blood – my Dad got angry and yelled; his Dad got angry and yelled; most of my Dad’s family gets angry and yells. We all do it. It doesn’t make it okay, but it’s how I learned to parent. And when I became a step-parent twelve years ago, it’s what I did, too; until I made the decision I was going to learn how NOT to.

Fast forward to now: my step-sons are grown and out of the house, and I have added an 8-year-old daughter to the mix. My ‘impatient yelling’ self is much more reigned in. She still pops out occasionally, but I am significantly more aware and in control of her; and most of the time, I can actively make a better choice regarding her reactions. Today, however, I was hit smack in the face with the distinction of choosing to make an effort to improve a behavior, and choosing to be present in the moment that you do it. It may seem like an odd insight; but I don’t think I have ever truly experienced the difference between the two – and I mean really FELT it – until today.

My daughter is amazing; healthy, brilliant, thriving. But she is also, at times, emotionally challenging, and has some things in that area we have to work on with her. This morning happened to be one of those times. I was clued-in when my husband, on his way out the door, popped into the bathroom with a desperate look on his face and said (after checking on our daughter’s ‘getting out of bed’ progress), “I’m sorry, she’s on the floor with her hands on her face saying she wants Momma…”. I took a few moments before I responded to her (I knew I would need them; I knew how this would go). And in those moments I was reminded of some advice I’ve been reading from an amazing blogger (Hands Free Mama) about being present – really living in the moment – and I made a choice. I decided then and there that, today, we would be late – late for school, late for work, late for everything – and that it would be okay. There was nothing monumental we would miss; nothing tragic would happen because of our lateness. And I decided to be okay with that, and let all the stress of rushing to get out the door go along with it. I stopped what I was doing to be there for my daughter because she needed me, and the moment needed me and, quite frankly, we weren’t getting out of that house if I didn’t. Once I was fully committed to my decision I took a couple of deep breaths, prepared myself for the long-haul, and headed upstairs.

As I entered her room I could hear her crying; she was already hiding in the closet. I walked over and knelt down in front of her and softly said, “You know what I noticed just now?” She shook her head. “I noticed that with all my rushing to get out of the house this morning, I haven’t taken the time to ask you if you need anything from me today, so I thought I would. So, is there anything you need, or that I can help you with this morning? I’m all yours.” At that she turned her big teary blue eyes to me and started lamenting about not being able to decide what to wear. From there, we moved into fears about going to school, then anxiety about cleaning her closet. None of it was really logical, but emotions rarely are. She then fixated on cleaning the closet floor, and I knew better than to try and avert her from it until she was done (she sometimes gets into modes like these when extremely overly-emotional or anxious). So I just settled in, calmly talked to her, and let her whirl until I found the opening to re-direct. I eventually got her focused on breakfast and getting dressed and moving a little farther forward, but not by pushing; more by letting her flow the way she needed to. We eventually wound back up in the bathroom (finally clothed and fed) with me finishing up my routine, and her brushing her teeth. She was keeping a close proximity to me even though she was done, and was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. I found myself, in that moment, making another choice. I turned to her and said, “Well, we’re almost ready to go, but you know there’s one other thing I have to do today first. I don’t know about you, but I could really use a big hug.” I then knelt down in front of her again (being on her level really helps out), which made her grin because at 8-years-old, she’s actually taller than I am when I’m kneeling. She just kind of gazed at me for a few minutes, gently playing with my hair, then she giggled, saying, “You have funny gray hairs on the top of your head, Momma”, with a big grin on her face. Then she leaned in for a big hug; long enough that I could still feel her with me even after she bounded out of the bathroom to go find her shoes.

Eventually we got out of the house (really late), got her to school (even later), and I got to work (later still). And I was right; nothing monumentally bad happened. In fact, probably the opposite. Because I took the time to get her in a better state of mind, she actually had the chance at a half-way decent day, vs. me forcing her out of the house in a panic-stricken state which would have ensured her day was a bust (and mine, as well). Lateness isn’t fatal. Stress and (seeming) failure and tears and grief are far greater foes. We would do well to remember that more often. As I drove to work I felt comfort in the knowledge that I had made good choices for the morning, lateness or not.

However, it wasn’t until the drive home that evening that the impact of my decisions really hit me. As I was on my way to pick my daughter up, I was wondering (for the millionth time) how her day had actually gone; what kind of mood she would be in when I got to her. I was replaying the morning’s happenings in my head. And it was then that I had a revelation; my memories of the events weren’t what I expected. Normally I would focus on my stress, her anxiety, the upset tears, my efforts to stay calm, etc. They would all be jumbled together in one big frustrating mess. But this time, the memories were clear and crisp, not to mention surprising. I remembered the feel of the carpet on my legs as I knelt down in front of her closet; the color of her blue eyes and messy blond hair as she looked up at me; the warmth of her hand as she took mine to go down the stairs; the sound of her voice giggling and feel of her hands on my ‘funny gray hair’ as I sat below her in the bathroom; the weight of her as she leaned into me for that huge, long hug. That’s what I remember about this morning. All those little moments, like snapshots in my head and heart. They are clear and sparkling in my mind because I was there; I was truly present for each of those moments today. And that’s when it hit me. I didn’t just choose not to be angry today; I CHOSE to be PRESENT.

I did this. I made this happen. No one but me. By consciously making a choice to be present, to give myself to the situation, to be different for my daughter and for myself, I created these moments today. I made this change. It’s several hours past when it first hit me and I’m still floored by the vastness of it. I’ve been working so hard at controlling the anger/yelling piece for so long, it astounds me that today I surpassed that in a way I didn’t even realize I was striving for. Just by choosing to BE IN THE MOMENT changed the whole game. Changed my whole memory of the event. It’s staggering, really, the impact of this specific change.

And it’s such, such a good thing.

Coffee Shop Compassion

One random morning a stranger asked me for a matchbook.  That, in itself, is not significant.  The events that took place before and after, however, certainly were.

You see, our family is like many in America; middle-class, fairly fortunate, insulated from poverty and hardship.  We have a nice house, food in our pantry, a car to drive, and jobs to support us.  We are aware, however, that there are lots of people in this country that do not have what we do.  I try to educate my daughter about helping others that have less than us, and we make efforts to give when we can.

On this occasion, my daughter and I were on an early morning trip to Starbucks in Portland, OR.  We’d flown out from Ohio, so we were still on East Coast time and I was trying to get my rambunctious 6-year-old out of the house for a bit so she wouldn’t wake the rest of the family at 5:30 am.

As we were sitting at our table enjoying our goodies, I noticed a man crossing the street towards the shop.  He was wearing only a black t-shirt and sweatpants (despite it being fairly cool and rainy), he was slightly balding and bent over walking, and he was missing his right arm from the elbow down.  After watching briefly I turned back to my daughter and our conversation which she abruptly stopped, because she had a serious question.

“Mom, why did that man pick a used cigarette off of the ground?”  I turned to look as the man I had noticed before now entered the shop.  I told her I would explain a little later since we were now, with him, the only patrons in the shop and I didn’t want to embarrass him in case he overheard us discussing it.  I heard him ask the baristas for a book of matches, to which they answered they had none.  He then turned and looked at me, rather sheepishly, and asked the same.

Without really thinking about it I stood up and told him I had no matches, but would he like a cup of coffee instead?  He stared at me for a moment, as if he was confused by the shift in topic, and then answered, “Yes, that would be nice.”  I led him over to the counter and said that they had breakfast sandwiches, and would he also like something to eat?  He pointed at the example in the case and said the sausage one looked good.  We got him squared away and he came and sat next to us.  He introduced himself then, “Charlie Chester”, and shook my hand.  I did the same, introducing myself and my daughter.  We made small talk while we ate; I told him where we were from, he told me where he got his shirt with the ten bats.  He seemed a bit disconnected, but happy to have some company.  It occurred to me that perhaps it was not often that anyone took the time to speak with him.  He had kind eyes.  I noticed he was a bit shy but tried to connect with me and my daughter, though she was oddly irritated and wouldn’t respond to him.  I tried to keep myself the focus of the conversation until we were done, then wished him a good day as we packed up to go.  He thanked me wholeheartedly, and told my daughter “You sure have a nice Momma.” to which she scowled and said a snipped “Thank you.”

As we got into the car, I asked her why she was so irritated and rude to the man.  I was sure it had something to do with the fact that he was a stranger, or dressed shabbily (and, to be honest, probably could have used a shower), etc.  I was surprised by her answer: “You didn’t even know him, and you gave him our money, Mom.”  I did not expect that she was possessive of our giving to him in that way.  Especially since the week before she had voluntarily chosen to give her own gumball quarters to the Children’s Hospital fundraiser at her school, and we often pack up her extra unused stuffed animals and take them to the fire station for children in need.  It then occurred to me that she didn’t see what I so clearly did, that this man was so very much in need.  I suppose she just thought he was some random man and I had just handed over something I could have given her instead.

I then proceeded to try and explain, in my best 6-year-old-speak, about Charlie Chester and his world.  I shared that his funny bat shirt and shabby tennis shoes were probably the only clothes he owned.  The coffee and sandwich that Momma bought him with “our” money this morning would probably be the only thing he ate today, maybe even tomorrow, unless he found something else in a garbage can to scrounge (“People DO that, Momma??” “Yes, they do honey, when they have nothing they do lots of things you’ve never thought of…”).  Charlie Chester probably has no place to sleep at night, except wherever he can find outside to stay out of the rain and wind, if he’s lucky; no bed, no pillow, no blanket, no roof.  And certainly no “friends” (what she calls her stuffed animals) to keep him company.  Wherever he goes he has to rely on his two feet, because he also has no car or bicycle or scooter.

At this point, her eyes were fairly wide, and I had her full attention.  I reminded her how she made the choice the week before to give her quarters to the Children’s Hospital (“Yeah, so I can help the little babies who need it!”), and to give her old “friends” to the fire station (“For kids who don’t have ANY friends at all, Momma.”).  I told her just like her acts of kindness, I was choosing to help Charlie Chester with my money, at which point I think it finally connected for her.

It was really an interesting morning of learning, for both of us.  I was surprised that I had just assumed that my daughter would automatically have known poverty and sadness when it walked in front of her.  I felt that I already talked a lot to her about helping people, but clearly I’ve not done a good job about showing her who those people are, or what the need for help really looks like.  I was reminded that though compassion is innate, generosity is sometimes learned by example.  We’re getting there…

Weight

We all carry weight. Every day, in different ways. Some of us manage it better than others, but we all carry it. The bill you know needs to be paid next Thursday. The project deadline you have coming up in a month. The argument you had with your loved one last evening that is still unresolved. The lab results you’re waiting on from the doctor’s office that you’re hoping, desperately, don’t carry with them bad news. The guilt over yelling at your child exactly like your father used to yell at you, even though you promised yourself you wouldn’t this time. Weight. It’s always there.

Not only is it consistent, but it is constantly changing its size; forcing us to make choices about what additional things we’re going to take on…what else we decide to carry. Some of the burdens we bear are necessary, almost mandatory (bills, family, health, etc.); we must shoulder and manage them the best we know how. But others are a choice. We have the option of adding to our loads, or avoiding the heavier burdens that may be trying to creep up our shoulders, just by making a different decision. You would think that deciding to lighten the load would be easy. But often times I think it’s actually more difficult simply because we don’t realize that it truly is just that – a choice.

Maybe we avoid choosing because it sometimes requires us to sacrifice things we want or need, or even sacrifice other people in order to lessen our own burden. We so often sacrifice our own well-being for everyone else’s; it’s human nature, after all. But what we fail to see is that by doing so, time and time again, taking on all of this weight so that others don’t have to, we create a load so burdensome that eventually we can’t continue to carry it. But how will we be available to all those we’re trying to aid if we’ve effectively lost ourselves, crushed under our own solitary burden?

If only we would allow ourselves to let some of it go – unload the weight that is not ours to bear. Many of these burdens are just that…not ours, but we bear them just the same. We think of it as selfish to be self-protecting. But so much suffers as a result; our health, our families, our jobs. Everything is subject to the fallout when we break from carrying too much. Unfortunately, we often only realize this too late, long after the pieces are already scattered.

I was reminded today that we all carry weight. And I was also reminded that it is okay to give yourself permission to lay some of it down. By doing so you are not a failure, you are not giving up, you are not sacrificing others, and you are not admitting defeat. You are simply acknowledging the limits of your being. For this brief moment, allow yourself the gift of being UN-burdened. The weight can wait.