Several weeks ago, J and I were lying in bed on a weekday morning drinking coffee. This - having coffee in bed before the reality of the daily circus set in - is a thing we used to do on occassion. Then we started doing it slightly more on occassion. And now, we do it every single day. It is the ritual, not the exception.
I’ve talked myself out of thinking that early morning runs (which I hate) or immediate preparation for the day is beneficial in any way. For me, for us, coffee in bed is a gentler, and surprisingly more productive way to greet each morning. It’s when we usually have our most in depth talks about our lives and work and the kids. Sometimes we go over financial decisions or logistics. Sometimes I’ll write a to-do list for the day, or compose a few emails. A lot of the time we just quietly read, although if I’ve received any political news alerts overnight I demand immediate consumption of cable news.
Also, on a more mundane note, my coffee used to get cold when I’d try to drink it while running around making lunches and reminding certain young individuals in a first loving but then not-as-loving tone to please get dressed, “we do it every morning EVERY SINGLE MORNING FOR THE LOVE OF CHRIST.” Now I drink it hot. I start in with that nonsense once I’m done.
So, we were lying in bed having our coffee, and because I sometimes wake up with a freefall of concerns dancing around in my head, concerns I like to immediately pass on to my beloved, whether his eyes or fully open or not, a trait he just adores in me, I began spouting off about how I needed to be a calmer person.
I mean, nothing earthshattering about that, right? Lots of us would like to be calmer in this digital, breakneck, all-consuming world of everything.
But one of the things that’s different now that I’m a little older is the way I know myself. I may have wanted to be calmer in my 20s, too, and in my 30s. But I was in no way looking for a workable way to approach that. I was so put off by the thought of any type of “self help” or “self care” that I’d instead chastise myself about being the way I wanted to be. “You want to be calmer? Than BE CALMER,” I’d demand as part of my continual internal dialogue.
Now that I’m 41, I can definitively declare that, for myself at least, this approach does not work. If I want to be calmer - if I want to be more organized, if I want to get more sleep, if I want to carve out more time for writing - I have to work on it.
I’m getting better at recognizing the pitfalls in my planning on issues both emotional and practical, and more quickly moving beyond bemoaning them to just try and do a better job next time.
Although not really when it comes the type of fretting about things that leads to a low-level anxiety. That’s what I meant when I said to J I wanted to be calmer. And - also different than the way I thought when I was younger - I’m able to recognize the reasons I want to work on this. Worrying is a drain on an otherwise amazing life experience. It leads me to question when I could be confident and to bouts of grouchiness when I could be joyful. It is disruptive. And annoying.
Just to clarify, I know most people don’t view me as a constant ball of nerves. I’m not. I’m capable of exisiting in the moment and having lots of fun. I’m low key about plans and, I think, pretty low maitenance. I’m actually very calm in the face of of big feelings or everyday “emergencies.”
But when I’m alone, which I am pretty regularly, driving around or working at home, I tend to fester, thinking about things that should be dealt with the sort of deft “handling” made famous by Olivia Pope on “Scandal,” except that my problems don’t involve politically motivated murder or anything. I don’t “handle” them deftly though because I like to wade into the large pool of “what-ifs” that accompany these thoughts.
I know a lot of people, and definitely a lot of parents, who tend to do this, too. It’s not the end of the world and it’s certainly not one of 2019’s most pressing issues; we’re all surviving just fine. But I’d like to, if possible, diminish these bouts of nagging anxiety. I’d like to recapture a little of the joie de vivre that springs when you’re free to accept it.
Here’s some examples of these “issues” (heavy on the quotes, guys). Maybe some of you will identify.
I worry about being a good enough dog owner and about how it’s not worth worrying about that, and about remembering to sign up my kids for after-school activities, or if I’m signing them up for too many after-school activties. I worry about travel plans I need to make and then I start wondering, once I’m deep in the muck of airfare and thinking about packing, if we should even go at all. I worry about if I’m doing enough with my life, then in the same fleeting moment I worry about how we were going to have to miss a social event and what if that particular party was key to our lifetime’s happiness?
Cara, get over yourself, right?
In all seriousness, though, I do want to get over myself. And this is what I was trying to explain to J over coffee those weeks ago, when he, like a handsome sage expressly placed on this earth for my well-being, handed me the book “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” by professor and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Now, I’ve been resistant to the idea of mindfulness and particularly meditation for quite some time, because I think it’s ridiculous and very much not in the “dealing with it” category of getting things done or taken care of that I’d observed in so many people I admired, including my parents. And, again, Olivia Pope.
But revisiting the topic of my newfound wisdom as I approach middle age (let’s just be “approaching” middle age for a couple of years, my 41-year-old friends, sound good?) I realized that the prejudices of a consistently crazed mom of three regarding an ancient practice for achieving peace in the world would just not stand. I was at the right place and right time, finally ready to take that book from my husband, who loved it, and say, “You know what? I do want to read this.”
So I dug right in. The very first paragraph, as simple as it was, brought me down to earth from my plane of mindless concerns - solid - like it was exactly what I’d been waiting for someone to say:
Guess what? When it comes right down to it, wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that’s what you’ve wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that’s what’s on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened. The important question is, how are you going to handle it. In other words, “Now what?”
Yeah, I know. It’s like, obviously. And yet, it’s also like: OBVIOUSLY.
Because the truth is that what I - and a lot of us - seem to suffer from, is a perpetual inability to be ok with the way we are or what is happening, even if it’s just small things, and of course when it’s big things. I’ll admit that I spend a decent amount of time wishing I felt a different way about an experience, or worrying about having enough time.
But reading just the first few pages of this book, I felt better. You feel this way. It’s ok. Maybe you’ll feel better later. You don’t have time to do these multiple things. Which means, only: you don’t have enough time.
I know how overly simplistic this sounds, but I don’t know, maybe that’s the magic. At this point, having read about three-quarters of the book, I am (and I cannot believe I’m saying this) ready to try meditation. And I’m regularly doing this thing recommended in one of the very first sections of the book, which is to remind yourself from time to time, “This is it.” This practice, for me, is a forcefully calming mantra.
When I’m running late to preschool drop-off or not getting responses to story pitches or grabbing Gabe for a hug in the hallway, which he resists with his full physical force. This is it. It washes away the stress. It enforces the gorgeous fleetingness.
On that note, and in closing, I should say that the author says that it’s best not to talk about your adventures in mindfulness or try to convince others to join you, and I promise, Mr. Kabat-Zinn, I’ll try, but talking and writing about my experiences seems to be the one thing I know how to do with something like authority at this point in my life (this is it!) so I hope you’ll excuse this one instance…and possibly a few forthcoming, because I have a hard time keeping quiet when I’m thinking about something. Ask my husband tomorrow around 6:15 am. He’ll tell you