Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Be Small and Love Big {Part One}

My first clue came from the lips of an animated cucumber.

It was October, and my feelings of restlessness had been building for months.  In May, I completed one year of blogging–an experiment in writing for someone other than my college professors.  The feedback was encouraging, and the sense of doom attached to the blue “Publish” button diminished. Perhaps most critically, I was enjoying the process–the sorting through of thoughts and experiences, the release of stories into cyberspace, and the conversations that followed.

It was going well, but with the initial experiment complete, I began to question.  What was next?  Did I need to experiment with another kind of writing, another format?  Did my blog need more focus as a parenting blog or a life-in-the-city blog or…?  Was I ready to take this to the next level and be a more disciplined writer?   What would that even look like with a preschooler and a part-time job?  Why in the world was I even writing at all?  What did it all mean?

(Inner turmoil is one of my special gifts.)

And then one day, the animated cucumber spoke.  I was putting in a Veggietales video for my kids, and using the remote to skip though the previews (as parents must do every single time we put in a DVD, and always with different buttons–why can’t this be a standard ‘menu’ function?).  Anyway.  I only gave the cucumber about 2 seconds to speak before I passed by his vegetable version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but it was long enough to hear him say this:

“I want to live a Big Life.”

I want to live a Big Life.  My finger kept clicking, the video began, but the phrase ran though me.  I walked into the kitchen.  I want to live a Big Life.  I started sorting the dishes.  A Big Life.  

There it was.  With this phrase something fell into place.  This is what had been bothering me.  I want to live a Big Life.

And my actual life is so very small.

***

My actual life, perhaps like yours, is full of life-altering decisions like whether or not to buy string cheese.  Or new snow boots.  Or the inane beeping princess toy that makes me want to hide in the bathroom.

But Mama, it’s the only toy I ever wanted in my whole life.

My days are dictated by emergencies like stomach viruses, head lice, and missing the school bus.  Should I make a doctor’s appointment this time?  Is it ethical to give children tylenol just so they’ll go back to sleep?  Do I really need to take another day off work?  Why can’t you just get your darn coat on the first time I ask you?

On and on and on.

Do you ever go to bed at night, utterly spent and exhausted, and wonder what in the world you did that day?  Life can seem so full, and yet, so very very small.

After all, you and I are two of 7 billion people on this planet.  That makes us objectively (no inner turmoil required on this one) minuscule.  Tiny.  We feel small because we are small.  And though we are among the most privileged people in the world (Are you reading these words?  Congratulations, you’re literate and have access to a computer), this doesn’t necessarily translate into significance.  Sometimes it’s even worse to have a bit of privilege, because we feel that we ought to have made something big out of our lives.

Did I really get a Master’s degree to do laundry all day?

But what about the people who are living the Big Lives: celebrities, athletes, politicians, published authors, CEOs and various professionals at the top of their fields?  I suspect that this sense of smallness doesn’t go away with a list of accomplishments or a position of power.  There is always more; there is always the next thing.  Ambition is never satiated.

And even if, for the sake of argument, these super-people feel as Big as they seem, how many are we talking about?   Ten million people?  Perhaps a hundred million?  Should we count their proud parents and grandparents?  Even with all this, we’re only talking about a tenth of the world’s population.

This makes living a small life the norm.

And this makes me wonder if we’ve got the whole thing upside-down.

What if it is the small things, the small acts, and the small lives that really matter?

****

In my favorite C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce (which has nothing to do with marriage), a man is taking a ‘tour’ of heaven when he sees an unbearably beautiful woman accompanied by procession of people, animals and angels.  Amazed, he wonders aloud,

‘Is it?… is it?’ I whispered to my guide.

‘Not at all,’ said he. ‘Its someone ye’ll never have heard of.  Her name on Earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golders Green,”

‘She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?’

‘Aye.  She is one of the great ones.  Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.’

The guide goes on to explain the woman’s greatness.  She cared for the people and animals she encountered.  She loved them so well that, in turn, each was able to love the people and animals they encountered better after meeting her.   ‘Yes,’ he said.  ‘It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further.  Who knows where it will end?  Redeemed humanity is still young, it has hardly come to its full strength.  But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life.’

And I wonder.

What does it really mean to live a Big Life?

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November, where I live

Crows call and announce

November’s arrival.

The wind blows in,

full of black wings, returning

-wind and wing alike-

as if they own the place.

*

We sniffle,

snuffle,

sneeze! as they stream overhead,

weary and embattled inside

and out

by waves of germ invaders,

armies released with every uncovered cough,

cough, cough, cough, cough…

*

So

huddle up bakers

and candlestick makers.

Firewood choppers

and hot chocolate chefs.

Christmas lights, ready,

blankets in hand,

now push back the cold

and the night.


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How Having Children Ruined my Life {Now a Series}

Once upon a time (okay, it was 10 months ago) I wrote a post called How Having Children Ruined my Life.  What I didn’t know then is that a lot of people were thinking this very thing.

The blog-hosting site I use has a ‘stats’ page that shows how many visitors land in my particular corner of the internet and what they read while they are here.  I mostly avoid this information like the plague, as it brings out every junior high insecurity that I thought I shed (ahem) two decades ago.

But there are two stats that I check regularly.  The first is a map of the world showing the number of readers per country.  It is (you may hear my junior high voice here if you like) just so freakin cool to have readers from Australia, Tanzania and Qatar.  The reach of the internet astounds me sometimes.

Number two helpful stat has to do with search engine terms.  Simply put, I can see how people got to my blog, and if they came via a search engine, I can see what it was they googled.  It’s fascinating, though, in the case of my blog, a little depressing.  The vast majority of the search terms say something like “having kids ruined my life”, “my baby ruined my body”, or “my children ruined my marriage.”

You get the theme.  Something very precious to me (life, marriage, body) is now ruined, and I think it began about the time that baby showed up.

Oh, how I get this.

****

For me, the lowest point came early.  She was only five months old, and it was Mother’s Day.  We were staying with friends on the other side of the state.  She was sick, and all she wanted to do was nurse, nurse, nurse.  I was also sick, and wanted sleep more than anything I have ever wanted in my life.  But no.  In five months, she had never slept for more than three hours at a time.

She wasn’t about to start now.

And I felt trapped.  Cornered.  The feeling had been building for months.  Raw memories of her traumatic birth, my failure at birthing,  still gnawed on me.  I couldn’t walk across a room without searing pain.  Every night came with dread and panic.  I was drowning, and the waves went on forever.

Sometimes I fantasized about being so sick that I would be sent to the hospital, just so I could sleep for one night.  But no.  Here I was, sick as a dog, and she was still demanding.  Still screaming.  There was no way out.  It would never end.

The dam burst.

“I HATE being a Mother,” I sobbed, “I hate it, hate it, hate it.  I just want out.  I just want this all to be over.  I’m done, I’m ruined.  Everything is ruined.”

And oh, how I meant it.

****

Ruin: to spoil or destroy something.  

Ruins: the remains of a building, city, etc., that has been destroyed or that is in disrepair or a state of decay; a fallen, wrecked, or decayed condition: The building fell to ruin.

And this image grows in my mind–a row of dilapidated houses, broken windows, crumbling walls.  Lives destroyed.  Marriages in a state of decay.  Long city streets full of vacant houses, waiting to be demolished.

Ruined is a very strong word.  Ruined implies that any good is now past tense.  After all, once the floorboards have rotted and the roof shows sky, can it provide shelter again?  Once a house has been neglected and deserted, can it ever house a family again?

Once a life has been ruined, can it live again?

And the answer, my friends, is a definite maybe.

****

Renovate:  

1.  to restore to good condition; make new or as if new again; repair.

2.  to reinvigorate; refresh; revive.

I live in the midst of both ruin and renovation.  Pittsburgh is a rust belt city, which basically means that the end of our industrial ‘glory days’ left a lot of vacant houses and factories in its wake.  Most of these buildings were built more than a century ago.  Some neighborhoods have recovered more quickly that others; but, as a city, we still have a long way to go.

Each house is a painstaking process.  A century of wear plus decades of neglect cannot be easily overcome.  It would be much easier to just tear them all down and begin again.  Demolition. Sometimes it is the only reasonable way forward.

But sometimes there is another way.  Renovation.  Sometimes if you scrape and paint, and pull up the cracked linoleum, an old house will begin to reveal its treasures.  Sometimes if you strip away the layers, something begins to emerge that we call character, as in ‘Those houses in the city have so much character.’  There is something rich here, something deep, that cannot be recreated without a century of wear and many long weekends of work.

There is something to this concept of renovation that makes ‘ruined’, in hindsight, an important chapter in a meaningful story.  But renovation is not automatic.  The path of least resistance is always decay; renovation is a purposeful, continual choice.

Eight years ago I married both my husband and his century-old house.  Since then, I have learned more than I knew there was to learn about sill boards, leaking chimneys, and copper plumbing.  Then we had two babies in two years, and the wear and tear on our house (literally and figuratively) increased a hundredfold.

Sometimes I think that it may just fall down.

But there are tools of renovation, and when I use them (or submit to them), there is hope for this weary mother who no longer hates her life.  I will list three tools I know well.  They shape me even as I sit here and type.

One)  Find people who are for you.  As in, not against you, but for you.  On your team.  Cheering you along.  Helping you back up when you fall down.  And here’s the real trick…  some of them must be physically present in your everyday life.  Not on facebook, not across town.  If you can get them to move in up the street, do that.  Because the isolated nuclear family model is absolutely toxic.  You cannot do this on your own.  You need a cheering squad, a pit crew, and someone who owns a pickup truck.  As a minimum.  Call them now and set up coffee.  I’ll wait here.

Two)  Make time and space to do the things you love to do.  Grow in the things that give you life.  You.  Not your kids, not your spouse, not your mother.  You.  The person who is not just a parent but is also an artist, a musician, an athlete, a _________________ .

You’ll have to fight for this one, and perhaps you will find that the biggest battle comes from the inside.  As a good friend of mine used to say, “We love the misery we know more than the mystery we don’t know.”  It’s scary and constant, but do it anyway.  If you don’t find a way to be poured into, you will be a dry well, fulfilling your obligations and enduring each day.  Please don’t do this to yourself and the people around you.  You have things, unique to you, that give you life.  Pursue them, and overflow.

Three)  Pray, and if you don’t know how, ask someone to do it for you.  I am aware that I may lose some of you at this point, but as I reflected on what I had to share, I just couldn’t ignore this.  Praying, real praying, is not pious or polite or carefully constructed.  It’s more like finally getting it out, getting it all out with snot and stuttering to that friend who is listening as you cry.  It’s like screaming at your ceiling, “Are you even listening to me?!?  I can’t take this much longer!” or grinning at the sky, “You really think you’re funny, don’t you?”  It’s like whispering “thank you” or “help, please, help” when you can’t think of anything else to say.

When I was in the middle of that horrible first year, I had a hard time praying.  Simply put, I was mad at God and didn’t want to talk to him or her.   So I fell apart at church, and someone prayed for me.  I told people that I was struggling, and they put their hands on my back.  Healing, peace, love, joy… they just kept asking, for me, when I couldn’t get the words out.  And slowly, softly, things began to change inside and outside of me.

Slowly, softly, I was being renovated, and it goes on today.