Sometimes it can be hard for me to remember that life is not actually an all-inclusive resort vacation in Bali, complete with a varying itinerary which includes a whirlwind of exhilarating adventures and stimulating experiences with a money-back guarantee if it isn’t fulfilling and meaningful everyday. Whether through movies or just a general, all-media infusion, there are many moments in which I find it difficult to come to grips with the fact that my life isn’t as big or extraordinary as I believe it sometimes should be. That it is, in fact, an ordinary life.
Anyone who knows me, knows I walk. Nomad-like. Mostly, I walk in a big 5 mile circle which starts at my house and ends at my house on the paved 2 lane roads around town with little nature to take in except one overgrown field and one wooded area that mercifully have not been developed into more 1/2 acres lots of oversized houses containing granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
I walk almost everyday. Rain, extreme cold, ice, snow, wind, heat, humidity bother me plenty. But I still walk. Most people would say walking is a pretty boring exercise choice. You basically put one foot in front of the other over and over again. No real skill required here. I’ve seen toddlers do it. I’ve seen Seniors do it too. In the mall. In groups. Weights swinging dangerously from arthritic-gripped hands ready to take someone out. No one said it was sexy either.
Sometimes I walk on a really pretty dirt path next to the Delaware River Canal near my house or on the beach in the summer. On these occasions, I’m tempted to say I hiked because I know saying you’ve hiked sounds more exciting, sexier and status update friendly than just walking but, can I just say something here? Isn’t hiking just walking in nature? With some dirt? Maybe some rocks? I think from now on, I am saying I hike. The roadkill along the way has got to count as nature. I’ll strap on a backpack for effect.
Besides walking in a big giant circle on a daily basis, I also shop at the same 2 or 3 grocery stores, eat at the same restaurants a lot usually ordering the same thing, go to the same movie theater when Ralph Fiennes is in a quirky movie, and buy gas at the same gas station usually pumped by the same Polish man, Oskar, who always tells me, “have good day” when he hands me back my credit card. The list goes on and on. And I’d bet real green money that it is the same for you too. When you run out of milk, are you going to the nearest store or are you going to spice it up and head on over to the supermarket on the other side of town just for kicks or the adventure of it all? When you walk into the yoga room, I bet you head for your spot, right? And damn if someone new gets there first and takes it. Damn. And then, namaste of course.
I suspect you go about your life more or less as I do; as if clamped firmly on an invisible length of monorail that moves more or less in a circle stopping at the same stations regularly. And science can prove it. (Yes, this is just the sort of know it all stance that gives science a bad name. Well, that and how they keep telling us exactly what will be our ultimate demise. Which is pretty much everything.)
In 2010, Science magazine published the results of a study that analyzed cell phone data and declared that “it may be possible to predict human movement patterns and location up to 93 percent of the time” because most of the people studied “seemed to stick to the same small area, a radius of six miles or less.” Isn’t that interesting? I thought so since chances are, if you need to find me, I would most likely be at one of the stations along my invisible monorail or in that 5 mile circle I walk daily which is eerily close to “six miles or less.”
So when it comes to living a far and wide life with a varying itinerary on a daily basis, my cell phone pretty much says I’m not traveling nearly far or wide enough to obtain that fantasy. That I am pretty much living in a tight circle, living a fairly routine and ordinary life.
That’s a hard wall of truth to hit because I, like so many, am hungry for meaning, of the feeling of purpose in my life. And purpose and meaning can be hard to find or remember in the everyday, the routine, and the ordinary. The daily grind can grind it right out of you, leaving you feeling like the used up coffee grounds at the bottom of your french press.
It seems quite a set up really. We arrive here with this giant-sized hole that we search a lifetime on how to fill. And because most of us are slow learners, we usually start trying to fill it with all the wrong things. We search for meaning and purpose and fullness with more of what we don’t need – stuff, distractions, addictions and with the fantasy that some other life – maybe one that is bigger, more exciting, more extraordinary than the one we are living would be better, more meaningful.
Maybe if we had a new partner, a new job, a new home, a new car, a new body, a new toaster… we could fill that hole. We start living a life of if only I was this or if only I had that then maybe life would make sense and we would feel complete, at peace and whole.
Oh, how I hate when those if only’s make a visit. Like dogs from hell that come out of nowhere, they surface at your weakest moments to tempt you to believe that you aren’t living the life you were meant to. That you have some higher calling, some bigger purpose, something more extraordinary than the life you have now. Making you chase the tail of MORE that is just always out of reach. Round and round they bark, GET STARTED! BEGIN TODAY! YOUR LIFE AWAITS! AUDITION FOR AMERICAN IDOL!
They usually attack me in winter. Right about now. I literally can not trust my perspective or make any big decisions in the winter. Like getting bangs, for example. This winter in the Northeast has been especially brutal. Endless snow and bitter cold days that won’t quit make you believe that nothing is going to be ok, ever. There will be no more picnics, no more pony rides, no more rainbows. This type of winter, this cold, seeps into your soul and highjacks your well-being. It is all so confining, physically and mentally what with all the boots, hats, layers and such. It is so exhausting.
My son is studying Colonial America in history right now and I can tell you with absolute certainty that I if I was a pilgrim fresh off the Mayflower, I would not have made it past the first winter. I’d give myself 10 days into that first December. Tops. I long to be somewhere else. To live a different life during these days – a life where I can winter in Bali, let’s say. I don’t want what is hard and cold and uncomfortable. I want what is soft and warm and comfortable. A plush robe ensconced around me as I travel from my hot stone massages to lunch by the lagoon to my meditation temple.
In short, winter is NOT my season.
But you see, I have these 2 other human beings in my charge and they have something called school so taking off during the winter months to my Indonesian escape is not an option for me. These are the same two other human beings who, when I’m really in overload with angst and ennui and the itch for something more than check out lines and car pool lanes, can make me go from cherishing their angelic heads for all my good fortune and blessings to misdirected blame for my lack of freedom and excitement as quickly as the speed of light. Which happens to be the speed in which the dogs from hell can travel.
In those moments, they are the only things that stand in the way of hiking up a volcano in Kintamani or making a holy pilgrimage to find my zen à la Eat, Love Pray instead of wiping the counter for the 25th time today or hitting the grocery store for the 3rd time this week when it is only Thursday. Well, them and my aversion to plane rides over 5 hours. And layovers.
Someone said “heaven is putting on a new pair of glasses” and this is a truth. Because most of us who have a deep desire for lives of meaning and purpose are just the kind of people who already have lives of meaning and purpose. We have just forgotten to stop and change our spectacles recently. Our “perspectacles” if you will.
The other morning when I woke up to more fresh no one even cares how many inches anymore snow on the ground and what was to be more shoveling and school closures, I wanted to scream. When, oh when, will this winter end? I was full of dread and claustraphobia of the day ahead stuck inside again when Harry came bouncing downstairs all Christmas morning-like wearing his pajamas inside out eagerly asking if school was closed. I managed to choke out, yes and his face lit up. He was beaming and just a little bit proud because the night before he had partook in the superstition of turning his pajamas inside out, placing spoons under all our pillows and flushing 3 ice cubes down the toilet in order to conjure up a snow day. I refrained from pointing out the greediness of the situation to him since this was probably their 6th snow day this year and let him beam.
Harry is the kind of kid whose cheerfulness is as contagious as the measles. I’m pretty sure God knew that this was just the sort of kid I would need down here when he was sent to me because seeing his joy in that moment lifted me up like water seeking its own level. We stood by the bay window looking out in the same direction, side by side, for a moment.
It was silent outside. The kind of silence you can hear. The snow plows hadn’t arrived so there were no cars, no morning traffic. The light just starting to reflect on the icy, white blanket softly diffusing over the smooth mounds of shrubs and curbs and old snow piles lining the sidewalks and driveways, releasing little diamonds all over the surface . It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ observation, “We do not truly see light, we only see slower things lit by it.”
It was so beautiful that it stopped my mind and for a moment, all I could be was grateful for the sight of it. Suddenly the cold was a beautiful thing if it could form those countless water drops into crystallized flakes. Suddenly I had on a new pair of glasses.
I saw the heaviness of the snow on the branches, on the rooftops, the way everything was bearing its weight, serene and perfect and I realized, not for the first time, how we can hold heaviness in our hearts and minds and still be touched by the beauty and magic of the world. How we can bear more heaviness than we thought our skinny little branches ever could.
I do not understand the mystery of grace. How it can wedge open your heart when you have firmly slammed the door shut but that morning, I got a double dose. Feeling more optimistic, I asked, “How about pancakes for breakfast? After, of course, I have my coffee.”
Now maybe he was still to the moon and back about the snow day but this is what he answered, “Mom, you are the best mommy in the whole world. I wish one day I could grow up and be a mommy because it is the best job ever.”
I swear that kid is a tiny Buddha in disguise because I knew that what he said was true. You remember the truth when you hear it. Being a mommy is the best job ever. I just forgot for a minute. Or a thousand. And just like that, I received a stronger prescription of perspectacles.
I have a life with meaning and purpose. A big life. A full life. I don’t have to go searching for it halfway around the world at the top of a volcano or in a Indonesian Temple. My temple is right here, right where I am standing and so is yours. It can be found in an ordinary moment, an ordinary day, an ordinary life. On an invisible length of monorail within a 6 mile radius.
If you have someone to love, someone to love you, some good work to do that helps others in some way, some people who count on you, something beautiful to look at, life need get no bigger than that.
We already have what we need. We are already full. Maybe all we need to do is stop for a moment and change our glasses.
To keep on filling, is not as good as stopping.
Overfilled, the cupped hands drip, better to stop pouring.
Sharpen a blade too much and its edge will soon be lost.
Fill your house with jade and gold and it brings insecurity.
Puff yourself with honor and pride and no one can save you from a fall.
Retire when the work is done; this is the way of heaven.
– 9th verse, Tao Te Ching