The effort to be present in my life has been the single most important thing I've undertaken in the past couple of years. Maybe ever. It has transformed how I think about the world and myself, and the relationship between the two. When I say "being present" I mean, literally, being engaged in and awake to my life. This sounds so simple, right? Well, for me, it's not. No way. Perhaps I had further to go than most people: I am certainly one of the most preoccupied and distractable people I know, and I take multi-tasking to an Olympic sport (and then past it, where I start doing so many things I'm doing them all poorly). I have extremely rarely been engaged in just one thing, or one person.
It was my children who changed this. Paradoxically, they demonstrated both the unavoidable drumbeat march of time and the critical importance of being still in the moment. They inhabited the now with an impossible-to-ignore stubbornness, yet they also marked time's passage in a visceral way. Unaware of this contradiction, they tugged me to the place I'd always shied away from. They taught me that being present is both the most uncomfortable thing I've ever done and the only way to truly live my life.
It's hard to articulate just how pervasive my "not-presence" was. And doing so makes me feel ashamed. I would often check my voicemail, remember that there were five messages, and be unable to recall the content (or caller) of a single one. I'd turn the wrong way down familiar streets because I was not paying attention. I used to play Scrabble with my family (under duress, since I am not an avid game-player) and play solitaire on the side because it was too slow otherwise. I play tetris on conference calls and read Google reader during movies.
It was worse than just being distracted, though: in truth, I was wishing my life away. Every night, I'd hurry my kids through bathtime so I could get back in front of the computer or my book. I'd will them to JUST GO TO SLEEP ALREADY so I could have my night alone. And now? I'd give almost anything to have some of those nights back. I'd go to soccer practice and spend the 90 minutes worrying about all of the rest of the things I had to do that day. I'd leave events early in preemptive worry about being tired the next morning.
I was never really there. There are great swaths of Grace and Whit's babyhoods that I simply don't remember. I took a ton of pictures, so I can look back at those, but I truly don't have memories beyond the photographs. I often wonder if I was taking pictures to compensate for how utterly not-there I was.
I suspect this behavior was a defense mechanism, because opening up to the actual moments of my life meant exposing myself to the reality of their impermanence. I knew instinctively how painful this would be. At some point in my early thirties, however, the balance shifted and I wanted to be there more than I wanted to avoid that hurt. I didn't want to miss anymore of Grace and Whit's lives. If it meant I had to take on some pain, some acceptance of how ephemeral this life of ours was, so be it.
It sounds trite, in some ways, but it is also essentially true: This moment is all I have. This moment is my life. Somehow, gradually but irrevocably, this realization seeped into my consciousness over the past few years. I realized how much I had already wasted, and I didn't want to do that anymore. I am already in the middle of my life. I had already spent too many days waiting for my real life to begin. I have always said that if I ever got a tattoo, it would be simply three words: Be Here Now.
I am not saying that we must spend every moment playing trains with our kids on the floor. I am not saying that we should evade our responsibilities to engage constantly in a always-happy celebration of childhood. These things are both impossible, not to mention unrealistic. I am not saying that there aren't heaps of laundry and piles of dishes and lunches to endlessly pack and unpack in my life. Of course there are. I just mean that I want to be there while I do those things.
I am also not saying that I enjoy every moment of my life. Of course I don't. To pay attention to my life is to receive both the good and the bad, and believe me, there is plenty of bad that makes me sad and regretful. Yes, sometimes it feels like pressure, this effort to really be here. I get snappish and annoyed and I find myself wishing things would just be over... daily. But I know now what it is like to be engaged in my life, to really pay attention, and the fullness of the moments where I am able to do that makes up for all the times I fail. It is the memory of that momentary richness that brings me back to begin again. And again.
Often, I feel like I repeat myself. Over and over again, I'm telling the same story, it seems. What I am tracing, on my blog and in my other writing, in my reading and in my talking, in my thinking and in my dreams, over and over again, is my journey home. Of my journey to right here. To right now. The questions are as insistent as they are difficult (just thinking about them usually makes me cry, because they clearly touch an ocean of inchoate emotion deep inside me): What would it take to really inhabit the hours of our days? And what do we lose, if we don't start trying?
When I talk about being present, I mean it in the most literal sense possible. I mean being in my life. I want my mind to stay inside my head for a little bit. I want my heart to dwell here, in the rooms of my days.