Celebrating the Messy Middle

Half the trouble in life comes from pretending there isn’t any.” – Edith Wharton

On Monday, I was practicing a short mindfulness break in the middle of the day to create more awareness of the middle of my life as I wrote in this post. What I noticed was that my day was kinda awful.

On the carpool to school, our neighbor and my daughter’s best friend broke the news that in three months they are moving 1200 miles away.

I’d just set aside all the gratitude and grief that arose as I thought of this big change in my daughter’s first real friendship so that I could work. Then the phone rang and it was my son’s daycare and they’d had an outbreak of Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease and needed me to come pick him up right away and get a note from the doctor before he could return.

I canceled all the rest of my work appointments for the day while I was driving to school to retrieve him, scheduled a doctors appointment for him in the afternoon. Then I asked the neighbors if my daughter could stay with them after school until I returned from the doctor which brought another wistful realization of how much I’ll miss them when they move in three months.

In short, the day was reactive, unsettling and bumpy. As I mindfully checked in with this, I had to chuckle because it reminded me of something I learned from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. That meditation and mindfulness are not ways to always be feeling good – in fact, it often brings more irritation because we are aware.

Aware and irritated by it fit how I felt during that check-in perfectly. However, the awareness brought the ability to move through it instead of just locking it up in a box. And that is always a gift I appreciate because I learn that I can handle it. I’ve come to think of meditation as my way of irrigating the irritations so I can flow past.

Sitting with this, I could touch the powerfully poignant moment when my daughter’s first friendship changed. More than that, I was able to notice it before my optimism overwrote it with dreams of new neighbors, a new carpool and the next friend. And I suppose that’s exactly the point of focusing the spotlight of awareness.

It seems perfectly fitting to write about this in the middle of the week. 🙂

(featured photo from Pexels)

In The Middle

The longer I live, the more beautiful life becomes.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

A little while ago my 6-year-old daughter went to a friend’s house to watch a movie. When she came home that night and for the couple weeks afterwards, she was so much more solicitous of me. “Mom, do you want a glass of water?” or “I’m sorry you banged your hand.” So I dug deeper into the storyline of the Netflix family movie Over the Moon. Not surprisingly, it’s about a little girl whose mom died from cancer.

I don’t want my kids operating from a space of worry about me. But I was fascinated about the noticeable change of behavior. It suggested how much our awareness is influenced by our focus.

So I was listening carefully when I heard author Susan Cain describe the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen on Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast. Dr. Carstensen is a professor of psychology at Stanford specializing in the psychology of older people. Here’s Susan Cain’s description of the research:

“[The] elderly tend to be happier and more full of gratitude, more invested in depth relationships, more prone to states of well-being. She has linked all of that with the fact… not as we might think that we get older and have acquired all this wisdom from the years we’ve lived. It has nothing to do with that, it only has to do with the fact that when you are older you have a sense of life’s fragility. You know it’s coming to an end.

“Younger people who for other reasons are in fragile situations [also exhibit this]. She studied students in Hong Kong who were worried about Chinese rule at the end of the 20th century. They have the exact same psychological profile as older people did. Because the constant was the fragility.”

Susan Cain describing the research of Dr. Laura Carstensen

Since at 52-years-old I’m closer to the middle of my life (hopefully) rather than the end, it begs the question of how to cultivate an appreciation for relationships, health and the good times. Especially to enjoy them without the sense of fragility that I understand but don’t quite viscerally get yet.

This made me ponder the nature of the middle and I realize I couldn’t name a middle of something that I really savored – the middle of the day, the middle of a meal, the middle of a relationship, the middle of a project, the middle of my body. (That is, other than being in the middle of my children, as shown in the featured photo.) Especially when it comes to projects (and maybe even days), I’m always in a rush to get to the end so that I can celebrate and then start a new one.

Someone wisely pointed out that we can’t remember things we don’t pay attention to. So I’ve started taking a brief pause in the middle of the day to just notice how things are going. It’s a small practice that I hope will help me appreciate the middle of my life more.

I was thinking about what to say to my daughter about the movie and death when one night she said, “I’d be kinda sad to die but also a little interested. I have to see the way the rest of my life works out and I’d miss you. But it’ll probably be your turn first.” And then all the solicitousness was gone. Which is fine. I want my kids’ memories and mine to be defined by not what we worry about but what we pay attention to.

What about you? Do you rush right past the middle or do you have a way to mark the middle of a journey?

Lantern Awareness

Above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” – Roald Dahl

This weekend I did something that I had never done before with my kids. Seattle has been pretty late to the game of mass transit for a big city. But in the last 5 years, we’ve built a pretty good light rail system that goes north-south in the city. From my neighborhood I can go to downtown Seattle and the airport. Which are places I rarely go these days so I’ve never ridden it.

My kids and I had a free Saturday morning so we got on the light rail system and rode it without any destination. We ended up getting off by the baseball stadium but without any game going on, there wasn’t much open around there so we hopped back on and rode one stop north to the international district. Then we wandered until we found a cute little independent coffee shop in which to have a donut and go to the bathroom.

Walking back to the light rail, we came across a motorcycle policeman who was putting out traffic signs for the soccer game later in the day. He offered to let my kids sit on his motorcycle which Miss O was delighted to do, and she got to turn on the flashing lights and honk the horn (it’s really loud).

It was like we were tourists in our own town. It was so fun and it illustrated something that Dr. Alison Gopnik, a cognitive psychologist from UC Berkley talks about. Spotlight awareness vs lantern awareness. If you imagine spotlight awareness, it’s a focused beam on whatever we are aiming to do. It’s the type of attention grown-ups use most of the time.

And lantern awareness is like a light held high in the dark that illuminates everything in a radius. It’s the child’s way of looking at the world and what makes them so darn hard to get out of the door in the morning – because they are looking at everything that might be interesting and not just their shoes and socks.

Mr. D is at a perfect stage for lantern awareness. He constantly asks, “What’s that?” because he’s heard a noise that he can’t identify. And I can’t hear it at all because there are so many noises around that I’ve filtered out because they aren’t important to what I’m doing.

But spending the morning wandering with no agenda, I was able to experience a couple of hours of lantern awareness. And it struck me that this is why traveling can be so good for us. When we get dropped into a new environment and pay attention to everything around, it refreshes all our senses. Or walking in the woods, floating in a sensory tank, or just following around a two-year-old.

For me, doing something I hadn’t ever done before with two kids in tow felt like an adventure. I didn’t know how the ticketing system work and though I had a general knowledge of where the light rail system went, I didn’t know exactly. It’s amazing how refreshing some uncertainty felt.

My two-year-old was totally delighted to have us join him in his element. As soon as we got back to where we started he said, “Do it again?”