Being Present

Growth is messy.

I uploaded this photo of our ravine without taking a really good look at it. I was fixated on the late afternoon sun peeking over the hill and treetops, and thinking “light! life!” *cue angelic chorus* But seeing the whole image, I’m reminded that there’s much more going on here. Buttressing the trees is an enormous amount of undergrowth. It’s a 40-foot-deep ravine, full of rock shelves and dirt. The bushes and plants lining it are either completely dead or struggling for life and light. Among them live snakes and rabbits and probably coyotes. Turtles, toads, and spiders. Ferns and flowers. And a lot of prickly plants that keep me from getting anywhere close to the heart of the ravine. It’s a living, breathing metaphor.

But metaphors are by definition profound, yes? They carry weight. And seriousness.

I did actually come here to be serious today. It’s the end of 2013, and a girl’s thoughts turn to the oncoming year. Oncoming. Like a freight train with a big, brilliant light bearing down on me like an out-of-control fireball. (Do I sound anxious? Maybe a little. I’ve tried to make anxiety my friend, but it hasn’t worked so well. I’m working on just accepting it as a badly-gagged, handcuffed-to-me companion.)

I have so much to look forward to this year. My daughter has graduated from college and is, she hopes, headed for grad school. My son will move on to high school. The farther they move ahead, the less I will need to fret about the details of their lives. (They hope so, anyway!)  BLISS HOUSE, my next novel, will be published in June. My Sweet Husband has hinted at exciting new projects. With some luck, the perennials will bloom again in the garden. Every day that I wake up alive will be–like a sacrament–an outward sign of God’s grace.

This year, as I thought about how I want to frame my thoughts about the coming year–a resolution, if you will–I read Laura Lippman’s compelling essay about her one-word resolution for 2014. (Link below.) In the past I’ve distilled my resolutions into a sentence or two. As fond as I am of lists, I have a short attention span and can’t deal with too many boxes to check off. Coming up with just one word has been a challenge, but I like the simplicity of the idea.

Perhaps it’s an age thing, but I really do see the future coming at me at a furious pace. I think about it all the time. I find myself counting years and the things I might stuff into them. How many books can I write before I die? If I have grandchildren at all, will I be too old to enjoy them? What if Venice sinks before I can get there? Will I really never travel in a first class cabin on a trans-Atlantic liner? Will I really never become a voice actor or an architect? What if I die and my office is still a disaster and how will anyone find anything? All my life I’ve imagined that there is a right way to do things and a wrong way–What if I’ve been wrong all this time? Will I have a chance to get it all right?

Anyone who has ever sat alone in a room with a therapist knows that this kind of projection is a direct route to disaster. It’s fine to have a bucket list–but it has to be a list. Not a guilt-heavy scuttle full of anticipatory regret. Anticipation is the thing, isn’t it? The dangerous thing that comes in both positive and negative flavors. But anticipation of any sort overlooks one really important detail: the present.

It’s a lesson I have to learn over and over again. Take care of the present and the future will take care of itself. It’s an old axiom, but so relevant. The passage of time is unrelenting. Age is unrelenting. But the present is always, always with us.

How many times have I betrayed the present? Worried about my next book contract or story instead of focusing on the page in front of me? Looked surreptitiously at my phone while my son was telling me a joke or one of his famous random factoids? Missed a transcendent moment in a film because I prefer to multitask with a puzzle or my needlepoint? Do my hands always have to be busy? What does that accomplish? I’m wont to shy away from intensity. I can’t sit still for it. As I child I was called sensitive, and cried so readily at books and films that I was accused often of having crocodile tears. (Don’t get me started on dog movies.) I’m suspicious of things that bring me too much joy or too much pain. It feels unbearable sometimes. But if I continue this way, what will be the end result of living without intensity? What will I miss?

The child will grow and leave. The garden will die away, and I may not see it again. Can we live and grow without the fullness of experience? Yes, of course we can. But is it as good as letting ourselves be immersed in our own lives, or reaching for the limits of our experiences, testing the boundaries of joy, or even pain? I don’t think it is.

A couple of years ago, one of my resolutions was to do only one thing at a time. This year is not so different. Still, there’s an urgency that wasn’t there before. It’s not just a question of reining in my attention disorder, but of filling my life with, well, life. Not stuff, not travels, not particular experiences–those things may come, of course. But I want to be ready for whatever it is that shows up right in front of me. I want to live it one taste, one touch, one scent, one tear or giggle at a time. I choose to be present.

New Year: Same life, better-lived.


(Link to Laura Lippman’s excellent essay on her one-word resolution, which I found terribly inspiring.)

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