I know I brag that I wrote a novel in a month last year with two babies under one-year-old, but let me tell you, that is nothing to how I’m going to brag when I drag my sorry pen across the finish line this year. Taking care of an infant (or two) is like living in a Zen Monastery compared to caring for two in the 1.5 range. This year, they talk, they walk, they assert themselves into every moment. Don’t get me wrong; I love it and them and wouldn’t go back (though if I were ten years younger and a lot richer, I’d probably do it again and again). I am, as you might have guessed, rather word-oriented, and to have a long relationship with people who aren’t talking to me is challenging, so I’ve appreciated the bump up in verbal communication. It does not, however, leave me with a lot of time to think. Or any, really.
Last year, I would be nursing, changing diapers, bathing, and at the same time, I would be reading, day-dreaming, plotting my novel’s next turn of events. This year I am charging around the park, agreeing that yes, that is an airplane overhead (Charlie has superears and notices everything that flies by no matter how distant), and yes, that is a kitty cat, and no it won’t hurt you and yes it says meow (or emwo, as Charlie said until recently), and no, you can’t bring your stick into the car but look, look, here’s another toy and plus we are going to sing every possible verse in Old MacDonald Had a Farm and BINGO and LEO (which follows the same pattern but is shorter) and CHARLIE (which is a tongue twister) and on and on.
This is fun, but it is not contemplative. That has meant that this month I arrive at 8 p.m. with everyone asleep and the kitchen interacted with enough to hold the health inspector at bay, and I sit down and look at my novel and it’s as if we have never met before. And not in a fun way. Not in a “I am well-rested and just curious to get to know you” way. More in a “what are you doing in my house and how can I get on with it and go to bed?” way.
As I told my fabulous friend Judith, who whizzed through town this week and was kind enough to drag herself and her Zach to the Y to hang out with my family, I am so domestic, I am feral. What I mean is, I am so locked inside the time-pressured, time-packed world of my life, that I am not really interacting with the world. Friends? Phone calls? What are those?
This is not, however, to be a litany of complaint. Well, not only. First of all, I want to inspire all of you who perhaps have not (or not yet) taken up the particular joys and challenges of having children. If I could have bottled what I’ve learned about the value of time and taken it before I had kids, I really do not know what could have stopped me. The pressure of forward momentum that has built up in me in immense, and yet when I had very little blocking that forward momentum, I have to say I was not more productive. Probably less so.
The other night, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about my father’s dieting. He would gain weight and then he would diet. When he was younger, he took up running for a while and ran the Bay-to-Breakers. He would get thin and then he would focus more on eating and less on running and he would gain weight, and then eventually he would diet again. He used to joke, “I’m trying to get back to my original 7 pounds, 8 ounces.” There was a fantasy that accompanied each diet, that he would transform into the person he was trying to become, that he would stay thin, fit and healthy in his eating habits (I’m not conflating all three, but I’m sure he did). Each diet was viewed as a journey to a destiny. The destiny was viewed as permanent, held out as a prize, a goal, but most importantly, something that he would become for good.
Now that he’s been dead for over four years, it suddenly occurred to me that the experience he had in his life was all those little diets, not one of becoming a certain body-type. That John Lennon expression, “Life is what is happening while you are busy making other plans” hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.
If you diet, you are not becoming a thin person, you are dieting.
If you plan, you are not becoming an organized person, you are planning.
If you clean, you are not finally going to have a clean house, you are cleaning.
If you work, you are not becoming a rich person, you are working.
If you write, you are not becoming a writer, you are writing. (But if you don’t write, you are also not becoming a writer, and you are not writing!)
Right now, I am embroiled in budgeting and money woes (I alone, I know), and in the middle of the night, I realized that whether or not I solved those problems, I was spending my life worrying about them. Arrival is just a moment like any other. Life doesn’t truck in identities; it trucks in actions and experiences.
Does this mean, don’t do anything in hopes of achieving something? Of course not. But it does mean that looking at what and how you are doing on the way to something else is worthwhile, because that is what you are actually doing with your life. I probably cannot convey how starkly this appeared to me in the middle of the night.
And that also means that this month, I am writing. It’s doesn’t look like I want it to look. I want to be sitting in the early morning in a wooden beamed room with a large window overlooking the ocean, while the smell of waffles and berries wafts up to me, and the distant murmur of my family’s laughter blesses my ears, until I can descend, having written a pleasurable and brilliant chapter, to go play with them on the meadow that stretches toward the sea . . .
Even if one day, I have that life, it’s not today. And for all the pleasure and power of visualizing and visioning the future, there’s something to be said for visualizing and visioning the present. For me, right now, that means seeing myself in a place called “The People’s Cafe” in Berkeley, people of all stripes clustered around me at shiny wooden tables, a crazy woman making commentary about the West County Times, my steamed milk cup empty now, my blog drawing to a close, my kids at the Y with the babysitter, the book I am studying about organization sitting enticingly beside me, promising a future that could look altogether different from the present . . . but which by its very definition does not exist.
This is an exercise in visualizing the present. What does your life look like right now?