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Saturday, October 3, 2015

Leaky Boots, Seppuku, & the Tao of Retrospect

Photo by Savannah Van der Niet
One long and painful stretch of my life—which had too much in common with the long and painful weekend I took a long and painful bus ride to the Nagano Winter Olympics then stepped out into the wet snow to discover that both my boots leaked—was the miserable year that my oldest went to elementary school, my middle attended half-day preschool, and the baby was on two naps a day.
Why so terrible, one might ask? Because:
4:45    Baby wakes up. Here we go.
6:30    Get everybody else up, fed, and dressed. Nurse the baby. Again.
7:15    Take son to the bus. If husband is on travel, as he way-too-frequently is, take all the children. If it’s cold, get them into winter gear. Undress the one that has to go potty. Ignore the baby as her sweaty self screams because she’s strapped into the stroller, yet rolling nowhere. Watch helplessly as the other child wanders off in boredom. Re-dress the potty kid. Find the missing one. Sprint to the bus stop pushing the stroller with your stomach and dragging the older two by their elbows.
8:30    Feed middle child second breakfast, so she can engage at preschool till lunch. Nurse baby again.
9:00    Drive to preschool. Swerve the car, pump the brakes, and blare The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round! to keep the baby awake in the car so she doesn’t catch three winks and thereby blow her entire morning nap. Because right there is Mommy Hell.
9:45    Arrive home. Do whatever it takes to get the baby to sleep.
12:00  Wake the baby, even if she just dozed off ten minutes ago. Nurse her, change her diaper, strap her back into the car seat.
1:00    Drag from the preschool classroom the exhausted, tantrum-ing second child who is furious that she is being dragged from the preschool classroom.
1:30    Steel nerves against the preschooler’s continuing tantrum. Nurse the baby. Change the baby. Clean up the preschooler’s tantrum-induced vomit.
3:00    Get the two younger children geared-out to pick up the oldest child from the bus. Bounce, careen, and shake the stroller to keep the baby awake so she doesn’t blow her afternoon nap and throw her mother back into Mommy Hell.
3:15    Arrive home. Do anything to get the baby to nap. Anything, please, Baby, please just go to sleep before Mommy actually DIES! Feed questionably-dated yogurt scrounged out of the back of the fridge to the two older children, who fight over which of them got more and who gets the TV remote after snack.
4:30    Start dinner just in time for the baby to wake up screaming to be nursed and changed…
Every. Stinkin’. Day.
Once, when I was pregnant with my youngest, I took the four-year-old and toddler on a trip to visit their grandparents, by myself, four states away. You can imagine the utter paucity of any peace or order or leisure involved with meals, potty-breaks, and diaper changes.
As we exited one travel plaza an older couple held the door for us. They crooned nostalgically, “Oh, I remember when our kids were that age. It was so much fun!”
Fun? Are you seriously serious?
I called back to them as I dragged my howling children toward the car by their forearms, their bodies writhing like a pair of murder-minded boa constrictors. “You look too young to have Alzheimer’s already.”
But everyone tells you the same thing, don’t they? “Enjoy it, because it goes so fast.”
Okay, yeah. It’s true. It goes fast. But how—HOW? How can you enjoy it when you’re on your third shower-less day in a row because your croup-y baby will only stop screaming when you’re holding her? When your second-grader gets sent home for biting the principal?  When your previously honor-rolled middle-schooler brings home three D’s and an E?
Oh, isn’t that sweet? They changed the grading scale low-end label from F to E. ‘Cause F is just too soul-crushing. F means Failed. Freakin’ Failed. Fully Freakin’ Failed. Yeah, an E makes it more palatable. Like, he gave it an Effort, but didn’t Excel. He Endeavored Earnestly, but did not succeed in becoming Educated.
Whatever color lipstick you want to put on that pig, it’s still a big, fat washout.
But these are fairly benign problems. What about the truly tough, chronic problems? Long-term illness. Family brokenness. The kind of pain that never seems to take a lunch break?
I’m not qualified to even touch that stuff.
But I have given a lot of thought recently about how to better experience the present. It seems to have quite a lot to do with the way we look at the past. When we remember “the good old days” why do we so often wear rose-colored glasses? And how can I get a pair to wear today?
I think it’s because we isolate the good things (like the way a newborn smells) and un-couple them from all the unpleasant stuff that was going on at the same time (like the way a newborn smells when she delivers a package of explosive diarrhea).
So, how do we focus on the moment we’re in with the same favorableness we’re likely to give it when we look back later?
Be Mindful.
This is today’s pop-psychology term for Pay Attention, Will You? According to Wikipedia, mindfulness is “the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment”. When you pause while eating butterscotch pudding to feel its smooth texture on your tongue, and to experience how the combination of brown sugar and cream tastes and smells, and to appreciate the feeling of sustenance it creates as you swallow it, you’re being mindful.
Think, “It Could Be Worse”.
My college roomie and I used to play this game when the misery that was our lives made us consider seppuku. We took a road trip to New Orleans one time, and got stuck in hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic in the middle of a sunny, scorching August afternoon. We took turns coming up with ways it could be worse:
“The A/C could be out.”
“We could have to pee really, really bad.”
“There could be an ax-murderer (or worse, a screaming baby) in the car.”
One important caveat, however: You may play this game only about your own situation. You may not play it aloud with someone else’s problems, unless you like being beaten to a quivery pulp.
Imagine the Reality of the Opposite.
Once when my kids were really little I visited a single friend’s apartment. She gave me a tour, and when I passed her bedroom intense jealously gripped me about the throat. Her bed was made. With hospital corners. No toys littered it. As far as I could tell no leaky diaper aroma lingered anywhere on or in it. She had to share her sleeping quarters with no one.
As enviable as the single life sounded at that moment, I thought back to when I was single and expected, for a number of reasonable reasons, that I would never have a husband or children. Having now lived in both circumstances, I could recognize that both possess their own benefits and drawbacks.
The key, I believe, is to take every thought captive and focus on the good you’re in as well as the bad you’re NOT in, rather than the other way around.
Someday Hubby and I will be empty-nesters like the couple at the travel plaza. We’ll get to sleep as late as we want and go out to dinner without dropping thirty bucks on a sitter. But there will be no more crayon-colored I LOVE MOMMY AND DADDY pictures on the fridge. We may also never have all our children at home at the same time for a holiday again. One of us may die early and leave the other more alone than s/he ever wanted to be.
Mark the Milestone. Over and over.
My youngest is seven years old at the time I write this. We haven’t had diapers in our house for four years. But every single time I pass the diaper aisle at Target, I laugh with insanely derisive glee.
I love not buying diapers.
What are you done with that you’re thrilled to be done with? Did you hate middle school? Stick your tongue out at one as you drive by it. Was your first miserable job delivering newspapers on your bike at oh-dark-thirty every morning? Toast the newspaper you pick up in your driveway (or the version you get on your iPad) with your coffee cup as you sit down at your table with it. Did your lousy boss get transferred? Or better yet, fired? Thank your new boss for the great job she’s doing. Frequently.
Count Your Days Aright.
This one doesn’t need too much explanation. You could be dead tomorrow. Some of us will be. Illness, accident, natural disaster; the graveyard is peopled with people who didn’t expect to be there yet. What about today would seem a lot less significant (or a lot more significant) if you knew you wouldn’t be here tomorrow?
I’d quit doing sit-ups in this ongoing, failed attempt to obliterate my baby-belly fat and pull a chair up in front of the chocolate fountain at my favorite restaurant’s dessert buffet.
Get a Wider Perspective.
Atheists, skip this one. There’s nothing for you here.
Everyone else, consider your spot in the bigger picture of the created universe. We are small, small, small, yet if you believe in the omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence of a God who knows you, you must recognize that you have eternal significance. The eighth load of vomit-laundry, the broken china, the tantrum in the middle of the grocery store (the kid’s or yours, whatever) are momentary blips on a life-path that has God’s fingerprints all over it. We learn, we grow, we change, not for nothing, not out of a random collection of meaningless and happenstance events, but for something that is bigger than the short spans of our individual lives.
Sweeten your coffee with that and drink it.
Nobody Promised You a Rose Garden.
Lastly, there’s a lot to be said for just accepting that no one ever guaranteed any of us an easy go of it. In the spirit of the line of memes that’s been circulating around social media, “‘This parenting thing is a lot easier than I expected.’ Said no one, ever.” (Insert whatever episode of misery seems to be on a loop in the streaming-video of your life.)
A friend who went through anger counseling told me that when you’re mad you should ask yourself, “What do I want that I’m not getting?” Wow, is that ever an eye-opener.
I want the cat not to have thrown up. (I’ll keep working on that time machine.)
I want my husband to stop leaving magazine subscription cards everywhere. (Maybe I’ll put them aside to be used as scoopers the next time the cat barfs.)
I want my children to stop fighting. (Yeah, and I’d like world peace, one of my novels to be made into a blockbuster movie, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to grow out of the Aloe Vera plant on my kitchen windowsill. Get real, Maria.)
Sometimes life just stinks. Your days contain little or nothing of what you’d hoped they would, what you might’ve chosen for yourself, what you expected when you mapped out your life plan as an optimistic eighteen-year-old with a freshly turned mortarboard tassel caressing your cheek.
And you know what sticks in my memory most about that miserable weekend of leaky boots at the Nagano Winter Olympics? Immersing my frozen self into the hot tub at a public bath we happened across on Sunday afternoon.
Oh, yeah.
So eke out what wisdom or strength or virtue the situation offers while you buckle down and knuckle under till you’re through it. Then find your hot tub, have yourself a nice soak, and remember, in the immortal words of the medieval Persian Sufi poet, “This Too Shall Pass.”

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