Let Us Connect 

As I anticipate the hectic over-commercialized holiday season, I start to think about how to nurture thankful hearts in my household. After every snuggle pet magic pen gadget commercial I hear this plea, “I really want that, Mommy! Really bad! Can I have it? Pleeeeease?” It’s not that it’s bad to want things, but it makes me nervous to see my kids salivate at every product that flashes before their impressionable eyes. I don’t like the idea of placing so much emphasis on having more and more and more stuff. I don’t want them to grow up thinking that their things are most important in their lives. That stuff equals happiness. Because quite simply, it doesn’t. Of course, we are still thankful for our things. Our homes, our clothing, our iPhones, our cars, our fancy T.V.’s, our crockpots, our warm beds. But these things are just material goods. I want my kids to know that our thankful hearts can dig far below the surface to uncover some of life’s greatest treasures.  

I’ve never been much of a gardener, but Jamie is. Each year as winter is ending, he pulls out all his seeds and makes a plan for what he will grow the coming year. He puts rich soil into pots and places a tiny seed therein. With sunlight and water, roots take hold in the soil and a seedling sprouts. With more care, the seedling grows taller, stronger, until finally, it can be planted into the waiting spring earth. With more careful attention, the plant will produce beautiful tomatoes that will make chili, salsa and bruschetta in the coming months. The harvest is well worth his time and effort. I think that growing thankful hearts in our children is much the same. It takes time, effort, and energy. And all along the way, we are hopeful that one day, we’ll see a bountiful harvest. That they will experience the inherent glow of gratitude. Except with kids, there is no prescribed method to accomplish this task. It’s not a very precise or predictable venture. So we just do the very best we can and we hope for the best.

Last year, we started a little tradition. It is not an idea born in my mind, but one I borrowed from a friend. And now it has taken root in our household too. The boys helped me create a large tree from construction paper. We taped it up on the playroom wall and each day of November, we take some time to talk about our thankful hearts. I cut a few yellow, red, and orange leaves out each day, and record what our family is thankful for onto several leaves. Then we tape the leaves onto the tree and at the end of the month, have a radiant fall tree, filled with leaves of thanks.  

This simple daily ritual got me thinking about what I am most thankful for. Our blessings are a great many. My mind wandered through the people in my life, the places my eyes have looked upon, my understanding of God, savory foods I eat, the endless beauty of the earth, the contents of my heart, life itself. I thought about how connected I feel to all these complex entities and I realized that the answer is more simple than not. What makes my heart full?

It is connection.

Over the course of our lifetimes, we connect with each other, with ourselves, with God, with Mother Earth, with the food that nourishes our bodies, with places, and with things. We all long for connection. We each require various levels of connectedness and so we seek it out in different capacities and through different mediums, but we all seek it. I think it serves as the very foundation of humanity. These connections make the heavy loads we bare, lighter. They help us find meaning in the beauty and in the chaos of life. They unite us and foster love and kindness. Connection is the well that we all drink from.  

This means that life and connection are wound together, infinitely.   

As we gather together at tables near and far this Thanksgiving, let us connect. Let us carry our hearts in our hands and come together to know each other better. Let us be bridge builders. Let us put aside all of our differences in opinion, in preference, in politics, in religion, in the causes we support, and in the teams we cheer for. Let us recognize that there are a great many truths circulating this magnificent world. We each have our own experiences and perspective, which have shaped the truth we know. Other people do too, and so, their truths may be different. Let us look for the good in each other. Let us embrace. Let us come together and connect. Then, let us wake up and do it all again the very next day. And the day after that. And the day after that.

I recently stumbled upon a children’s book based off of a poem by Rumi called “Elephant in the Dark”. In it, a merchant brings a creature home one night and the village people are curious about the beast. They want to see it and so they each take turns going into the dark barn to find out what kind of animal it is. One feels the nose, and decides it is like a snake. One feels a leg and decides it is like a tree trunk. One feels a tusk and decides it is sharp like a plow. They each walk away with a different truth based on their experience. By putting each truth together they can see the big picture – the animal is an elephant. But alone, they only know a part of the truth and they accomplish little in their arguments about who is correct. I’m in love with this story. Wouldn’t it be amazing to weave our truths together to see the bigger picture? What if we could recognize that we each hold a valuable piece of the puzzle, a part of truth, and open our hearts toward connection instead of separtion?  

We are still working at growing thankful hearts at our house. We still put leaves on our tree each day. The leaves on our tree are speaking. They say our hearts are thankful for laughter, my friends at school, Legos, our chickens, my Jackie, my family, outside, yoga, coffee, friendship, and all my Hot Wheel cars. I hope that we are sowing the seeds that grow thankful hearts. I hope as days pass, my boys learn the beauty of connection. I hope they understand that we all hold a piece of the truth. I hope they learn that time is the ultimate currency. To spend it well. That the people in their lives deserve the greatest attention. That while we are thankful for physical stuff, the stuff in our hearts is so much more important. All the intangible stuff – laughter, hope, love, courage, feelings, ideas, memories, beliefs, the mind’s ability to think. All of this allows us to connect with all that is living, and all that is not.  

It’s not too early, or too late, to start thinking about the seeds you’ll sow. Or the seeds you’ll help your children start to grow. What will you cultivate in your thankful heart this year?

  

Unfolding Brotherhood

“Here it comes!” Jackson shouted. We heard a roar as leaves rattled and rained down from tree tops high above. The wind folded around us blowing brittle leaves. The boys raced down the street in the direction of the leaves and felt the air swirling around them. Their hair sailed up and away from cheeks tinged pink. Leaves danced across the street in a perfect funnel cloud. They squealed and screamed in unison. Soon, a calm spell arrived and we all stood and waited. And waited. And waited. Then slowly, we heard the wind rising, the trees stirring. The boys stood alert and watchful, ready to race into the next wave of leaves. “Here it comes again!” Jackson shouted. And the same joyous scene of laughter, leaves, and chasing would unfold before my eyes. 

Eventually, they were worn out from the excitement and took a quick break on our neighbor’s steps. I said, “Sit close for a picture.” They scooted toward each other and this is what happened.

  
True love.  

Of course this isn’t always how they look together. Not by a long shot. When Parker was first starting to walk, he’d waddle all around the house exploring new territory. His space was expanding and converging with Jackson’s territory. I’d watch as Parker’s wobbly legs would teeter toward an unattended Hot Wheel car. Jackson would be eyeing his movement from clear across the room. As soon as Parker’s fingers touched the car, Jackson would scream, “NOOOO! That mine car!” 

Parker would startle and drop the car in his hand. It would crash loudly onto the floor below. His lips would curl downward and tears would slide along his baby cheeks. The first time I watched this scene unfold, it left me aching. I realized in that moment that I was in control of a lot less than I thought I was. I’d been marching through the world of motherhood thinking I could keep everything in order, everyone happy, everyone acting civilized. I was the director of a play that was equal parts comedy and tragedy. Now, suddenly, some of the actors were forgetting their lines. Instead of, “Would you like a turn?” I heard, “It’s mine! All mine!” All day long. I fretted. I worried. I wanted them to love each other, not spend the day establishing and reinforcing a pecking order.  

I thought and thought about how I could foster love. How I could teach Jackson to respond differently. I quickly learned that though he’s physically a carbon copy of his father, he’s like me when it comes to his stubbornness. As soon as anyone tells him how to do something, he’s going to find another way to do it. And to complicate the matter, he happened to be a two-year-old. It set the stage for a great many battles. But as I slowly reconciled with the idea that I could not control everything, it made things a bit easier. It relieved me of the pressure to get life in general, just right. I would not, in fact, raise perfect children in a perfect family because as it turns out, we are blessed with a great many flaws. While brothers can love each other fiercely, they can also hurt each other fiercely. And I couldn’t always stop it or fix it or change it. So I quit my job as director and now spend most of my time watching, teaching, and loving these extraordinary wild things. These brothers.  

The truth of brotherhood is that there will be beauty. And there will be heartache. All layered together over seconds and minutes and hours and days and weeks and years. 

Right now, the beauty is simple in scale, enormous in heart. I see it when they grab hands to walk along the sidewalk. I hear it when I lay Parker in his crib and he calls out across the room, “Love you, Jack.” It’s there when I watch Jackson pass his favorite bear into the hands of a sick little brother, hoping it will help him feel better. It’s brothers sitting side by side as they read their favorite pumpkin book. The way they grin just before they strip down naked and race through the house with their dirty feet pounding the floor. The endless wrestling on the sofa. The peals of laughter after someone says, “pooty butt!” It’s when I’m making dinner, expecting to hear chaos, only to peek down the hallway to see brothers, side by side, driving race cars across the sofa. It’s Parker watching and copying his big brother’s every move. It’s in the way Jackson says ‘Parker bean’ as though its exactly one word and one syllable. Brotherhood is full of love.

But the heartache of brotherhood is torment. A train that gets ripped from the clutches of someone’s fingers. It’s a full cup of water dumped over big brother’s head in the bath tub. The fights over what belongs to whom and whose turn is it to go first. It’s mine. NO! IT’S MINE! The way they always want the other’s [insert any item]. It’s the screaming. The kicking. The fighting. The teasing. The way they can go from playing side by side to screaming insults faster than I can take a sip of cold beer. It’s the bossy big brother, who notices all the ways his brother falls short. You’re coloring outside the lines! That’s not how you do it. It’s the little brother’s face in those dejected moments. When he feels not good enough. Brotherhood is full of heartbreak.  

As I settle into my front row seat of this unfolding brotherhood, they remind me that sometimes you’ve got to break your own rules. When the wind sings and the leaves fly, go out and play in the street. Run and feel and scream up and down the pavement, even if you’re not supposed to. They remind me that you have to embrace all the craziness that is knitted into your being. If you feel a calling to march through the house naked, waving the American flag while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, then by golly, go for it (unless you’re my husband). Do what speaks to your heart. They remind me of the sisterhood I grew up in. The excitement I felt at piling blankets on the floor of my big sister’s bedroom floor so that I could sleep near her. The Saturday mornings spent playing library and realtor or hours passed bouncing each other high on a trampoline. The laughter as we wielded a flashlight in a dark oceanside tent making shadows above as we sang a horrible rendition of “Little Bunny Fufu” to a quiet campground. Mostly they remind me of the joy it is to grow up together, through all the beauty and despite all the torment.

I’m thankful for that day the boys wandered up onto our neighbor’s steps to rest for a minute. For the moment they leaned in close together and wrapped their arms around each other just as the wind blew through their hair. They smiled together and all the world was still for just an instant. In those moments, my heart takes an extra beat and I know I’m a lucky, lucky fool to catch a glimpse of such true love. That fleeting glimpse into beauty, into brotherhood.

Oh So Blissfully Inefficient 

My phone rang with a call from an unfamiliar number. When I answered, the voice on the other end explained that I’d left my debit card at Wells Fargo and they could hold it for me for only 24 hours. Oops! I thought back through my day. I’d deposited several checks earlier and then, like the crazy person I am, drove off before the teller had a chance to send my debit card back through that mysterious transport tunnel.  

This kind of stuff happens to me all the time. At least once a month, I’m standing in line getting ready to pay for groceries. I’ve got a cart full of produce, snacks, cheese, and all the ingredients for dinners. After the last item is scanned, I reach into my purse and pull out my wallet, only to discover that my debit card is not tucked into that tiny sleeve. The first time this happened, I was embarrassed. I told the cashier, “I’m losing my mind. I’ve left my debit card at the house. Can I run home and pick it up then come back to pay?” He explained they could place a hold on the purchase and leave the cart of groceries at the front of the store. I could just come back to the service desk to pay when I returned. It sounded easy, except I’d also be lugging two kids back to the house, then back in Kroger, then back to the house again. Grocery shopping had turned into a marathon workout with all kinds of physical and mental obstacles to overcome.

When this situation happens now, it doesn’t even bother me. I know the drill. The cashier is always really sympathetic. They say niceties like, “People do this all the time. It’s no big deal.” But I always wonder if they are merely remembering back to the last time I forgot my card. Once after admitting I had no money to pay for the copious amounts of groceries in my cart, a nearby bagger tried to make me feel better by sharing stories about other customers who were equally incapacitated. She explained, “A while back a lady forgot her wallet, but when I looked into one of the reusable bags she’d brought from home, I noticed her checkbook was tucked right inside the bag. I held it up for her. She was so happy that she wouldn’t have to run back home!” 

I replied, “Yeah. That was actually me a few weeks ago. You found my checkbook that day. Thanks again!” Clearly I have a problem. 

So, the debit card was misplaced again and I was slightly annoyed with myself. How can someone lose that thing so often? Usually, I’d grumble at the inconvenience of it. I’d now have to drive back down to the bank and pick it up, one more thing to do in the day.

But on that day, Jamie had gotten home early from work. The boys were napping quietly upstairs. It was uncharacteristically warm for November. Bright sun. Blue sky. I thought about driving down to pick up the card, but then reconsidered. We live less than a mile from the bank. Maybe I would take a stroll downtown to pick it up.  

A stroll, by definition, is to walk in a leisurely way. I decided that this was what my body needed. Slow walking. Some leisure. So I set out down Virginia Avenue. The sun played peek-a-boo behind towering oaks. With each step, I felt the light cross into my eyes, only to have it hidden again behind a cluster of leaves or a branch. A light breeze flowed. Red leaves rained down into my hair. I walked on. As I turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue, the sun came out in full bloom. I felt the radiant heat on my skin. The warmth. It was savory. I walked on. As I approached the downtown shops, I stopped and peeked through the windows. I saw customers reading magazines while the color of their hair was slowly changing beneath a cap of foil. Kids sat on benches waiting for their shaggy hair to be trimmed. I saw jewelry and scarfs beckon me to come inside shop doors. I noticed the grey and brown stone facade of a corner church. The way a lovely bell hung downward, just waiting to ring out. I walked on.

I walked past shiny firetrucks and then passed Brooks-Byrd Pharmacy. I remembered buying orange limeades there years and years ago. I’d go sometimes after high school and place my order at the front counter. I’d watch as the worker sliced real oranges and limes in half and then squeezed them on a hand cranked juicer. The juice would pour down into my styrofoam cup and then they’d add sugar water and crushed ice. I’d pay them with a few crumpled dollar bills from my pocket and sip on my drink the whole drive home.  

I was nearly to the bank by now. I walked inside and admitted to being the crazy lady who drove off earlier leaving her debit card behind. They laughed and after they confirmed I was indeed, Sarah P. Garst, they passed my card over the counter. I put it back in my wallet, tucked tightly into the empty sleeve, and headed out the door and back into the beautiful world.  

As I walked back home, I thought about all the rush around us. The way we push our bodies to go faster than they are meant to move. Our brilliance in innovation and our commitment to efficiency have left us moving at speeds unimaginable over a century ago. Speeds unnatural. Speeds that we are now chained to, as we run endless errands, drop kids off here and there, and simultaneously try keep up with the day to day order of life. How much can we cram into one day? The answer is, more! It leaves us exhausted and running on empty. This change of pace was a welcome relief. It lifted my spirits to feel the pavement under my feet as I strolled along. To use my body’s natural ability to reach my destination. And this slow meandering had an unexpected gain. I actually noticed the world I live in along the way. I saw things unseen from the vantage point of passing cars. I noticed all the life that is nestled and folded deeply within the act of living.

We have to remind ourselves that sometimes, the least efficient way is better. The slower way can be good for our souls. If I’d driven down to the bank, I could have completed the task in a mere five minutes and checked another task off my list. My stroll took a lot longer than that, but what it lacked in speed, it gained in perspective. And the quality of my experience, the recharging of the mind and body, can’t be measured.  

The next time I had a yoga class, I considered driving over to it. It takes exactly one minute by car. If I drove there, I’d have an extra 15 minutes to clean up my kitchen. I could rinse the dishes left in the sink, load the dishwasher, wipe off counters and still make it to yoga on time. But I chose the least efficient route. I used that 15 minutes to move my legs and open my eyes to the world. I strolled along the stone pathway and soaked in the mountains in the distance, a squirrel scampering up an aging tree trunk. My legs pulled my body along. I breathed in fresh fall air. And I decided, it’s a beautiful thing to be absolutely, unequivocally, oh so blissfully, inefficient.   

Invisible Threads

If I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of my classmates as I stand in front of them. Blank stares filling the room. Eyes growing wider. Their bodies shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Friends looking downward and away, not wanting to witness the unraveling that stood before them. It was my ninth grade English class. Our teacher, Ms. Bayes, had assigned each student a poem to recite in front of the entire class. If I remember correctly, mine was a Robert Frost poem. I’d read over it dozens of times in the days before I was to read it aloud. I practiced the rhythm of the words. The flow. The pauses. I was as ready as I could be. When my turn arrived, I walked quietly to the podium at the front of the room. I looked out in front of me at twenty peers and my teacher, who stood at the back of the room. I felt a racing in my chest. It sounded loud, thundering. I recognized it as a growing panic tinged with fear. Slowly, I began to read.

“The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.”  I took a deep breath and continued, 

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;”

I paused, noticing that Ms. Bayes’s room was suddenly sweltering. I felt like I was wearing layers of thermal underwear stacked beneath sweatshirts and winter coats on a mid August afternoon. Sweat was starting to pool and bead inside my shirt. I thought to myself, “I’m in trouble.”

I stammered, 

“Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;”

The words sounded wrong as I spoke them aloud. Disjointed. Something was wrong with my voice. It sounded tight and it shook like branches in a fierce wind as the words tumbled out. Each word was spoken with great labor and I was nearly out of breath. Had I been running? No, I was reciting a poem. Why couldn’t I breathe? I was never going to get through this. As I finished the second stanza, I noted that my fingers matched my voice, trembling as they clutched the papers in hand. 

But then something happened that I will never forget. I heard Ms. Bayes’s voice from inside my panic strickened mind. She was asking me to pause just a minute. She had a few questions to ask the class. My eyes looked up into hers and connected for the briefest of seconds, but in that time I knew. She was saving me. She was tossing out the proverbial life preserver. “Hold on tight, I’ve got you,” she whispered. She was giving me a moment to collect myself. A moment to breathe. A moment to summon my inner warrior.  

She walked across the back of the room asking, “What do we know so far from this poem? Talk to me about what is happening, the images described.” A few hands went up. Responses were shared. Meanwhile, I was working diligently at regaining my composure. I wondered if reading a poem aloud had ever caused anyone on the face of the earth to die. Or spontaneously combust. Or to burst into tears and then be forced into exile. My heart was still pounding. But I was catching my breath with each passing second.  After a few minutes, Ms. Bayes looked at me again and said, “Whenever you are ready, Sarah.”  

I marched forward. I was halfway through the poem. Only two stanzas left to muddle my way through. It wasn’t pretty but I spit the words out. And after I read the last two lines,

“I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

I felt exhausted. I felt triumphant. I felt grateful.

I sometimes wonder if Ms. Bayes still remembers the courtesy she extended to me on that day almost 20 years ago. She didn’t have to jump in. To give me a moment to collect myself. She could have sat back and watched silently. But her reaction salvaged my experience with poetry, with public speaking, with my ability to press forward in the midst of struggle. Instead of feeling complete humiliation, I felt only partial humiliation coupled with gratitude as I looked at how gracefully, how discreetly she had helped me along that day. That moment always reminds me that it’s often the littlest of graces that we extend to others that resonate. The little actions can be significant.  

I’ve always felt a small connection to Ms. Bayes as a result of the events from that day, like we were linked by way of an invisible thread. In truth, I think these invisible threads link us all together, they mark all of our interactions with people. Millions of threads are flowing all around and between us as we talk to neighbors and friends, cashiers and teachers, our kids and coworkers. And sometimes, an exchange with someone wraps and twists and knots and binds the thread between us, changing us and the course we travel ever so slightly. This happens over and over within our lifetime as we weave and wind together. As we laugh and dance, cry and sing. We all change. Our course changes. We change each other. We learn from others. We learn from ourselves.  

Nearly fifteen years after I butchered that poem, I was sitting in my local library waiting for my book club to begin. It was a small group of women, all of us different, but bound by the books we shared each month. While we were mostly strangers at the start, we slowly got to know bits and pieces of each other’s lives. For weeks we had started our meetings with each person reading aloud a poem they had selected to share with the group. I reached into my purse that night and pulled out a poem written in green ink on notebook paper. My heart began to beat quickly. My mind flashed back to that day in Ms. Bayes’s class. I thought about all the roads I’d traveled since I’d stumbled through Frost’s poem that long ago day. The girl who was now sitting in the library was not better or worse. Just different. A very different girl than the one of that old English class. And so, when my turn came, I read aloud to the group. I read strong. I read proud. I read these words aloud:

“Sometimes I dream all in pink

Of princess crowns and make believe gowns

Ruffles that shimmer and shine

Dandelions bundled in bouquets of love

Lady bug clips

A smile, a hug

Sometimes I dream all in blue

Of whales that spout and frogs no doubt

Mud pies for one and all

Soft little giggles when a belly is tickled

Superman in air

A grin, a dare

Soon I will snuggle and hold

This baby foretold,

But what will I dream of tonight?”

The women in the room were all looking at me, their faces warm and smiling. After a brief moment, someone asked, “Did you write that? Wait a minute! Are you telling us you’re having a baby?”  

“Yes and yes!” I replied. We laughed and cried and shared hugs all around. It was the finest of moments. One that is etched deeply into the fibers of my being. One that I believe, would never have been possible, would never have unfolded with such beauty, if not for the long ago, small graceful gesture of one teacher, Ms. Bayes. I still feel the invisible thread that connected us on the day I butchered Frost. I sense that her thread and a million others have changed me along the way. Sometimes I wonder if we thought about the millions of threads that we carry with us through life, the connections we hold with others and the power we wield each day with our words and actions, would it change the way we face a new day? How we treat our neighbors or kids, our brothers or sisters? The way we speak when we are angry? Would it change the small graces we extend to others? To ourselves? Our threads are flowing, weaving and winding. They are shaping us today and they are shaping our future. It is my hope that as our threads bend and fold, they’ll draw close and unite and that together, we will learn to knit beautifully. 

If We’d Gotten Off That Plane

We were walking down left aisle of the largest plane I’d ever set foot on in search of row 40, seats A, B, C, and D. It can take almost 15 minutes to reach the back of a plane when you’ve got a two-year-old in front of you, a three-year-old behind you, a giant backpack over your shoulders and a large car seat in your arms. We waddled down the aisle bumping into seated passengers every few feet. Once we arrived we shuffled kids around and tucked bags under seats and in overhead bins. I discovered that installing a car seat on a plane is a lot like putting on your skinny jeans. There is a lot of grunting and tugging and endless pulling involved, except on a plane, there is no room to stretch out as you accomplish the task. We eventually got settled into our cozy quarters. Flight attendants walked the long aisles helping passengers and gathering supplies. They passed out blankets and pillows for the nine and a half hour flight that stood before us. We were heading to Frankfurt, Germany on our first international trip to visit my cousin and her family. My nerves were tense. The plane ride was something I had worried about since the day the tickets had been booked. And now, we were on the brink of finding out exactly how it would go. I said a little prayer.  

Dear God, 

Let my family not act like complete fruit loops for the duration of this flight. Please let my children behave well for the sake of everyone around us and for my own sanity. Also, please bless us with an abundance of beer on board. Amen. 

I felt better already. If even a couple of my requests happened to come true, I’d be one lucky lady.  

I held Parker in my lap until the plane slowly started to back up and head to its position for taxiing down the runway. As we inched along, I put Parker in his car seat and buckled him up. It only took him a few minutes to figure out that in such tight quarters, his feet could kick away at the seat in front of him causing endless torment to some unfortunate soul. I held his foot firmly and told him, “No, sir. No kicking.” He laughed and insisted on playing his new game called Kick The Seat Every Three Seconds. The lady in front of him was not amused as her seat jostled back and forth. I held his feet again. That’s when the screaming began. The plane rolled slowly along. Parker’s face was red and fierce. He wailed. He cried. He would not go down without a fight.

At this point, the captain came on over the intercom. I imagined he was getting ready to say, “Can someone make that obnoxious kid in row 40 quiet down? I’ve got a pretty important job to do as I deliver 375 people across the Atlantic Ocean and I can’t focus with all that screaming.” But his message was actually just a tiny bit worse. We weren’t cleared to take off because a warning light showed a problem with an aircraft part. He explained that usually it corrected itself within 15 minutes and if that was the case, we would be ready to take off very soon. Sit tight.

I immediately pulled Parker out of his seat and onto my lap. I dug through our travel bag for some toys that would do the trick at distracting him for a bit. He calmed down. We played with stickers and read books. We ate crackers. The captain soon came back on the intercom. The problem had not fixed itself, so we’d have to wait for a mechanic to take a look. It would probably be AT LEAST an hour, maybe longer. Sighs were heard throughout the entire plane.

Upon hearing these words, a thought entered my mind. I wondered, not for the first time, if we were making a huge mistake setting out on this adventure. And for just an instant, I thought about getting off the plane for good. I thought that it might be one of those terrible forewarnings that one should listen to so that death is avoided. Or insanity. I felt fear rising in my throat. My mind raced with all that could still go wrong. Fiery crashes into the Atlantic, kids that refused to sleep, kids that cried excessively, mothers that cried excessively, passengers who rudely expressed their discontent with our brood, divorce proceedings from the stress of it all. It felt like Karma was not on our side.  

The tension, the anxiety, the fear were all pressing hard into my chest. It was the kind of moment that begs us to summon all of our courage, our bravery, our wisdom, our strength. Someone else’s brave may have been getting off the plane and going back home. Walking away saying, I messed up. I was crazy to think I could drag my family on this adventure and so I will go no further. I’m done. But on that day, in that moment, my brave was holding on for dear life. Standing strong and steadfast. The course was set, and now all that was left to do was to sail, or in this case, fly. And so I sat with a fidgeting, fussy two year old on my lap pulling every distraction technique I could think of out of my mommy hat while we waited to take off. 

An hour and a half dragged by. We got Parker to watch a few ten minute clips of Frozen before the headphones bothered him. He drove cars on the tray table. We made pipe cleaner bracelets. We colored. We ate more crackers. Then we pulled out our ace in the hole, a phone and tablet. We survived.  

After nearly 2 hours, the trumpets sounded and the angels sang. The plane was cleared to take off. By now, it was nearly 8 p.m. and a fussiness rooted in exhaustion was upon us. We broke all the rules during take off and Jamie held Parker in his arms as the plane raced down the long runway. And then we were airborne. The cabin lights were shut off. Exactly four minutes into the flight, Parker’s eyes closed. He was sound asleep. Jamie carefully laid him into his car seat and he slept like that for the entire flight. All nine and half hours. Not one peep out of him. Jackson fell asleep shortly thereafter. It was beautiful. It was amazing. It was cause for celebration.

Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if we’d changed our course. If things had been different. What if we’d gotten off that plane during the delay? 

If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never seen my cousin, Kelly, waiting at the airport with her beautiful smile. I would never have hugged her tightly and followed her like a baby duckling through the airport chaos toward her car that was parked a few feet from the door of an international airport (she has a secret parking spot!). I’d have never known the depth of our similarity. How we both catch and release spiders found in the house, often skip lunch, and have been known to pour water into empty beer bottles at a party to rehydrate discreetly. I’d have never known the gracious host my cousin is, her warmth, her humor, the joy it is to be near her.

If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never delivered a stash of Cosmic Brownies to Kelly’s son. I’d have never watched him play soccer at the village park with his friends. I’d have never drank fantastic German beer with Danny, Kelly’s husband, and laughed about how each evening he’d open a beer for Jamie and then give us all an Irish goodbye. I’d have never sat outside with amazing company, laughing into the wee hours of the morning as we played Cards Against Humanity.

If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never tried curry wurst or schnitzel. I’d have never roamed castle ruins and rode a train to a village Kerwe. I’d have never climbed aboard a tilt-a-whirl and soared through the German sky with Jackson close on my hip. I’d have never walked to the grocery store, pushing a stroller, while drinking a beer.  

If we’d gotten off that plane, I would have never carried Jackson through the streets of Venice screaming and thrashing like only a crazed three-year-old can do. I’d have missed the tourists on gondolas pointing and snapping photos of our insanity as we walked along canals and over bridges. I imagine a great many children will never be born thanks to the scene we made on that fine day. I’d have missed smiles smeared with gelato as the boys devoured overflowing cones and their delight in chasing pigeons through the crowded squares. I’d have missed the woman sitting in her window waving to Parker as he played on steps that led to a nearby canal. I’d have missed the two old Italian ladies who gave Jackson his very first piece of gum as we rode along on a vaporetto. That’s right, we’d have never taken and eaten candy from strangers without that plane ride. 

If we’d gotten off that plane, I’d have missed the German Alps. Zugspitze. The grand views. The 1936 winter Olympic stadium. Confusion at how to actually flush a toilet at a rest stop. I’d have missed Biergartens, a jolly man in lederhosen riding his bike through town and crying, exhausted kids. I’d have missed a blaring car alarm set off as we arrived at a quaint restaurant that proclaimed to locals, “The Americans are here!” and all the awkward laughter that follows a silenced car alarm. I’d have missed the carriage ride up to Neuschwanstein, complete with a front row view of a horse poop grand finale.  

You see, the nagging fear within me slowly withered and gave way to joy, to beauty, to discovery, to life. I’d have missed it all, if I’d gotten off that plane.  

Back home, our house sits under a flight path for planes landing in Roanoke. Each day, dozens fly right over us. And each time we happen to be outside, the boys stop their play and point. They say, “Look, Mommy! A plane! A plane! We did that, Mommy! We did that!” Each time, I smile and nod and say, “Yes, we did boys. Yes, we did.” We soar along with the folks above us, we smile, we remember all those wondrous moments that are full of meaning, full of life, all because we didn’t get off that plane. 

Art of Stillness

Most days, the morning dawns and I wake up tired, I fuel up on coffee and oatmeal, and race into my day. There are diapers to be changed and underwear to be found. Clean clothes to put onto wiggly bodies. Turns out, kids have to eat every single day. Exactly three times a day plus a snack at some point. That, my friend, is exhausting. After they’ve eaten breakfast, yet AGAIN, I deliver Jackson to preschool and run by the library. Parker roams the aisles and picks out a few books to be read to him. He dumps out bins of pretend food onto the floor and does a little cooking. I search for books they’d enjoy at home. We check out our goods at the front desk and head to the grocery store, because we have to eat (it’s a common theme). I roam more aisles, and leave with a hefty bill and bags in tow. Parker and I pick up Jackson, and head back home. I carry bags of groceries into the house and put them away. We eat a quick lunch and by now I am thinking about how soon nap time will arrive. And still the clothes need to be washed, the kitchen needs to be cleaned up from last night’s dinner, and the bathroom, let’s not even talk about the bathroom. At this point, it’s just after noon, and I’m already run into the ground. But I keep doing it. Day after day after day. Somehow I’ve convinced myself to accept that the more I do, the more productive I am, the more activities on my calendar, the better.  

I’ve decided that this way of living is just not working for me anymore. My heart, my mind, and my body are all asking for calm. For quiet. For peace. For less go time.

And so having no idea where or how to start the process of slowing down, I looked into practicing yoga. An ancient art that unites the body, mind and soul through focused breathing, poses and meditation. In my first class, I floundered through the first 50 minutes. I watched the instructor closely and followed along as best as I could. We did downward dogs, up dogs, and planks. Cats and cows, pigeons and monkeys. We did warrior poses and triangles. My legs shook. I tipped and fell out of balance. The stretches uncovered tight, sleeping muscles in need of a good awakening. I stood tall in tree pose. I wobbled excessively. But then, in the last ten minutes, something happened. The peace I was looking for found me.

The instructor asked us all to lay in corpse pose, completely relaxed on our backs with our palms facing upward. She talked for a bit, her voice soothing. She talked about letting go. Of tension. Of thoughts. Of worries. Letting go of it all. I breathed in and out. Thoughts came to mind (Are some of my books overdue at the library again? I spend a fortune there.) and I quietly let them go. More thoughts came (What should I make for dinner? Oh I forgot to pick up noodles at the store. No spaghetti, then. Hmm. Maybe enchiladas. We haven’t had those in a while. And the kids might eat them. Well, probably not.) and I realized how difficult it is to ask your mind to be still. For years upon years my body and mind had been racing full speed. It knew no other way of being. And now suddenly, I was changing the rules with my request for quiet within.   

My chest rose up and fell in even rhythms, my eyes closed, I focused on my breathing. Slowly. Innnnn. Ouuuuut. Innnnn. Ouuuut. Let. Go. My body was still, my mind was working toward stillness, and my heart, thankfully, was not still. A sense of peace filled the quiet room and slowly a still mind unfolded within me. This much needed peace and quiet hit me hard. Big tears welled up under my closed eyes. They ran down my cheeks slowly. I thought about wiping them away, even though I was not supposed to be thinking of anything at all. I realized this was the first time I had taken good care of myself in a long time. I needed this quiet, calm, peaceful time. I felt like the girl who was laying on the floor was a shell of my old self. My core seemed lost in all the hustle and chaos of the day to day demands of young children. I’d convinced myself that productivity was the way toward fulfillment, toward living well. But, now, I was rethinking all of that. This was the beginning of me learning to listen to my soul, my being. I was starting to take care of myself.

I wonder if one of the reasons it’s so hard for us to be still is that we feel a little worried about what we will uncover about ourselves if we really sat and listened attentively to our hearts. And so we go go go, because we can’t hear anything above the racket we make when our bodies and minds are absorbed in endless tasks, endless chatter, endless activity. The nonstop din helps us tune out the heckler who whispers things like, “Put down Thomas the train and stop fooling around! If you’re really productive today, you can get your fridge cleaned out and the playroom vacuumed. Don’t you want all those dried play-doh pieces sucked up out of the carpet. They are driving you and me both nuts! Now, get started!” Other days she whispers, “Sign your kids up for something for each day of the week or they’ll get behind. They’ll miss out. And it will be all your fault!” Sometimes she says, “You really should be able to do more in the day than you actually accomplish. Did you see how clean Melissa’s house was the other day? She’s got it all together. Why don’t you?”  

Here’s what I’m learning to do with the helping hand of yoga and slowing down and mindful stillness. I’m learning to give the heckler the middle finger. I’m learning to say, “I love dried play-doh pieces stuck in the carpet. I love not being overscheduled. And I love that my house actually looks like people live in it. Because guess, what? We do!” And I’m learning to listen closely to another voice in my heart. The one that is perfectly okay with good enough. The one that sings. The one that notices the simple joys. It’s the voice that speaks my truths. It’s the voice in search of a life well lived.

Stillness is still difficult for me. But I’m working at it. I’m making yoga a priority because the quiet, simple, focused time breathes new life into me. And when I can breathe in life, I can breathe out love. It renews my spirit. It gives me patience. It allows me to be okay with saying no and doing less and living more. I’m challenging myself to slow down. To be still. To breathe. To listen. To love. And in the stillness, I’m hearing beautiful things. I hear brothers laughing. I hear leaves rustling. I hear floorboards creak. I hear air moving softly in through my nose and then the hum as it leaves me peacefully. In the stillness, I am seeing beautiful things. The wet wrinkles that mark the fingers and toes of boys who plead to bathe just a little longer each night. The midday crescent moon stuck high in the middle of sky blue skies. The way Parker’s hair falls into a side sweep of gold and yellow and brown tones all layered together. In the stillness, I am feeling beautiful things. Renewed. Refreshed. Alive. My heart sings and my truths cheer, as I am ever so slowly learning to practice the fine art of stillness.