The path to joy: a summer of dwelling

The wind is rustling the leaves in my yard. The sun is shining and the trees are a brilliant shade of green even without my polarized sunglasses on. All I can hear are the noises of the world around me; it’s the sort of city stillness that makes me want to lose myself in a novel in the sun and just be.

Being is hard. I like doing. I really like crossing off things on my to-do list. I enjoy feeling productive, accomplished. The dishes done, the clothes put away, the dinner prepared: though onerous tasks at times, they have a certain joy to them because of their finitude and completion. Of course, though, they rear their heads at me several times a day or week and demand attention. They are never done. So I have a choice: to view the endless cycle of daily tasks as mundane and tedious as Atlas pushing his boulder up a mountain or to view them as daily gifts. Gifts which ground me in the stuff of earth, that remind me that I am not a mind on a toothpick but that indeed, I need to eat and plunge my hands into sudsy waters to do the dishes.

But this summer, I’m aiming at slowing down and focusing on being rather than doing. Of course the tasks will need to be completed but they shall not clamor for my attention over the heads of my little ones that need my attention too. My intention is to practice the art of dwelling this summer. That means breathing in and out and noticing my breath. It means feeling my feelings instead of turning to things or people to take care of them for me. It means embracing the watermelon stains and that nap time is off by 10 minutes because we were carefully considering the merits of the wildflower.

I find myself saddened sometimes that my house is so full — that I cannot offer each child the attention that he or she deserves because we must stay home when Harriet is napping, or make sure that Camden gets a proper sleep and so cannot take advantage of long, slow, summer nights. But when I look beyond this self-imposed mommy guilt, it also offers us the opportunity to stay, to sit and to dwell. For the pleasures in our yard (while the littles are napping) provide enough specimens to examine and explore. It doesn’t need to be a trip to the mountains to explore the woods (though that is well and good), but just sitting together, talking and laughing and dreaming opens up our hearts to wonder and to one another.

So here are some of the practical attitudes I’m pledging to take this summer (with four kids home with me):
1. Breathe and stay in the now. For such a future-oriented, goal-oriented woman, this is tough. But I’m finding as I stay here, in the moment, that I can address its concerns without inviting waves of anxiety about all that needs doing or hasn’t been done yet. (Putting things down on paper so I know what I need to do and when I can come back to them helps, too.)
2. Plan less. We need plans; we need to have somewhere to go each day (even if just down the road to the park) so that we don’t get all crazy on each other. But we don’t need to hit up Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s all in one day.
3. Let it go. (Sorry now you all have that song in your heads). If you thrive on accomplishment, like me, it’s tempting to see our progress as markers of our worth. So if our house is clean = productive mama; or if I’ve cleared out my Inbox or baked snacks from scratch or used zinc sunscreen or cloth diapered, then I’m reaching my goals for what I consider a good wife/mama to be. But you know what? I just can’t handle doing that right now because the state of my spirit also matters. And right now cloth diapering and baking homemade Lara Bars seems like too much. So my kids will eat some processed snacks and right now we’re adding diapers to the landfill. I’m sorry world. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it anymore. So if taking time for myself means that I’m not grinding my own almond flour, I can live with that.
4. Read more, play more, laugh more. Some people are just naturally great at playing with their kids. One of my best friends I met because I was so intrigued at the fun she was having with her kids at the park (back when I was overwhelmed with just two children…). But it’s also a practice, a habit of being. That says, I am not so important that what I am doing now means that my children must kowtow to my every whim. Of course I need to make space for my interests and it’s important for my children to know I have boundaries, but it’s also important that I put down my book or phone and listen, interact, laugh and play. And like many spiritual disciplines, it takes work and practice until it becomes a habit. Because I may not be naturally fascinated by every Thomas the Tank Engine figure does not mean that I cannot enjoy it, or even pretend to like it. Often as we pretend — or rather, as our actions become daily liturgies — we find our affections change.

But there is also grace when I get angry, when I lose it with my kids because I’ve crept back into productive mode where all that matters right now is the dishes that everyone wants to keep distracting me from. That productivity brings contentment is another form of saying that what I do matters more than who you are. And I desperately want to be the person and mom who prioritizes people. Even when it hurts; even when it inconveniences me. And I shall take moments where all I can hear are the city sounds around me (without interjecting little voices) as gifts to my soul to savor when the chaos looms.

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