The right to be grateful

For several years, my renewed path to mindfulness included my focus on gratitude. As I became a parent, it became even clearer that the comfortable life in which I was raised was what I wanted for my children. I wanted them to not be spoiled, but free from worry about being in a safe neighborhood, free from concern about whether we would be able to pay the utility bill, or have enough money for the basic meals AND snacks. While today’s teens assume a cell phone and computer is a basic right, I wanted my family to be able to go to the doctor whenever there was a need. Being fully insured, fully fed, and fully entertained was our goal. Being fully educated was the underlying theme at every family discussion. At least it was for me. Having all these things meant my family was on their way to success, and I was grateful to be able to provide this for them as it was provided for me. So there was little doubt that when I became an empty nester, my attention should be directed in showing gratitude and being thankful for the grace I’d received.

Many of my enlightened friends were also at this point in their lives. We considered it a test of our faith or moral character. Acknowledging the ability to live free from most worries allowed us to be humble. To celebrate our personal freedom of no longer being the maniacal mother of teenage tyrants, but now living the life of respectful humility. We’d made it. If our children were still around to tell the tale and visit us on an occasional weekend, it was all good. However, my meditation on the benefits of being grateful took me down a thoughtful turn I had not expected. Was being grateful enough?

The basis of gratitude implies that you exist within a world that provides. That you are seen. That your voice is heard. And that you have succeeded. However, after much thought, I have concluded that the richness of one’s comfort is not earned by hard work. It seems, in part, that the privilege of being grateful is due to being born into circumstances that grant you the right to have. For all of my life, I have looked to my parents as they worked and struggled and then as my spouse and I worked and struggled to provide for our family. Little had I realized that my privilege did not just come from my hard work, but that my ancestors were able to own their home. That my parents shopped freely without fear and provided me things many others did not have. When my children had scrapes with the law, I could rescue them without further recourse as I was not second guessed as a bad mother or worse, judged as less than human. Gratitude had become my evidence of privilege.

I cannot begin to share with you how this troubles me. Being grateful, recognizing that I could have lived without but did not, was part of my midlife commitment to peace. Learning that this peace came at a price that I did not pay is overwhelming to me. How do I reconcile the future I want to provide my children, with addressing these inequities so that all mothers can be grateful and provide for theirs?

I do not have the answers to this, but like a pebble in my shoe, each step I take on this journey is a painful lesson that peace often comes at a cost. How expensive it is will be determined by how we share our ability to be grateful with others.

The fabric of friendship

When I was a child, making friends was as simple as telling the other your favorite color, food, and favorite television show. If you had things in common, you became friends. There was no complexity to the genuine nature of being a child. You were guaranteed a friend to play with a recess and someone who would come to your birthday party. No drama or politics to consider. You would share the latest events that took place over the weekend with your family. For me, it was stories like the one from a second grade friend about obtaining strawberry flavored lipstick, and the subsequent heartache when another friend tried to eat it. I have often wondered how life could be if adult friendships could be just as simple. We could have pre-printed business cards with our favorite food, favorite color, and a picture of us in our favorite outfit on a good hair day. No fuss, no frills and a friendship could be made.

Of course, life goes on and friendships become more complicated. Making time for important people is more difficult as work demands our time and children demand our attention. As adults, we engage in screening the people in our lives to ensure they match our values and our schedules. It is not surprising that quality friendships became difficult to develop and keep. At times when my nerves were frayed and my life unraveling, I often didn’t have the network of supportive friends I had also hoped to have a young professional and mother. As an introvert, it was lonely. Weaving the intricacies of a fulfilling and authentic life seemed to be more difficult without connection of kinship.

Considering this point caused me to step back and really think about what this blog was going to be about. It was difficult to focus on the point in writing this piece. Close and lasting friendships were difficult in my younger life and the lessons from that chapter in my life gave me lots to consider. What was it that I was trying to say? What did I really need to learn from this process? Nowadays with social media, many define friendships by connections – perhaps an electronic version of what we knew as children. I had plenty of those, connections I had made over the years. But how many of them would reach out regularly? Who would be there if you needed them? I have family and friends who are really looking at their networks, only to discover that it is still possible to be lonely in the midst of hundreds of “friends”.

It was only in my later life that I was able to appreciate how my life had become stronger with friendships that have lasted me for years. Not the casual acquaintances that are good for a chat at a local bar every once in a while, but true and deep friendships. Friends who wanted to add me to their lives and play a part in mine. Some friends developed into and remained friends, other wonderful people came and went. Some I had to let go of because I was hanging onto them for the wrong reasons. Good people come and go in every life, but a good friendship requires more that can’t be forced. Aspects like genuine interest, respect, timing of one’s life journey. My friends’ lives didn’t always match mine. Some were married and some were not. Some had children and some did not. Even now, I understand that that weaving these friendships in to my life was a difficult but worthwhile effort. The color they brought into an ordinary life made me an even better person that I could have been alone. As my midlife unfolds and I continue my focus on the moment, I can only look forward to weaving more threads into my fabric of friendship.

Eat, pray and love me by taking a second helping

It was after an eventful vacation to the Mediterranean last month that I started thinking about our next trip. My husband and I had decided to take this trip of a lifetime, which represented our quest for adventure as free spirits from our work-a-day obligations. Our 12 days away from home and into the restaurants of Italy, Greece, Croatia and our cruise ship introduced us to flavors we were uncertain of – some blessed us with Buddha smiles and full bellies, while others made us wonder how the recipes we thought we knew could be so different than to what we were accustomed. In the end, each meal was an adventure spent with friends.

We returned from our trip, anxious to embark on a new trip to parts unknown. We loved the possibility of what we could learn, but better yet – we loved the meal times we spent with those close to us. During dinner on the ship, we were regularly sat next to a family of what could only have been a family of adults and their children. Each evening, they spent an evening in food, wine and conversation. Reminiscing about my international experience, my weekend self spent an afternoon watching the movie, “Eat, Pray, Love”. I soon came to the realization that I too loved the opportunity to eat and share with friends. More particularly, I enjoy the adventure of eating something tasty and filling and the conversation that resulted.

It seemed that not that long ago I was worrying about whether we had enough food to accommodate the friends my children had invited over just minutes before. Meals were stressful, often served on the fly, and often not quite meeting the four basic food groups. But as a recent empty nester, my children were no longer home requiring that I be there every mealtime. Casual entertaining with food and friends and people who were a pleasure to be around provided a satisfaction like nothing else.

I’ve spent much time considering what is making me happy in my midlife. Clearing out our drawers and shelves that have been stuffed with the “I might need that someday” items has cleared the way for what might follow a life of raising children. The smiles on the faces of my friends and family, the adventure of going places I’ve not gone before, and the warm feeling of company sharing their time. What I have learned is that the breaking of bread, the sharing of the meal, can be a catalyst for all of this. A moment of one of my favorite movies, “Under the Tuscan Sun”, taught me that life is rarely how you expect it to be. However, if you keep your heart open, it will be fulfilled in ways that may even exceed your expectations. These days, my heart remains open and in addition – my dining table is ready and can always be set for one more.

Do or do not, there is no try…

We’ve heard it before. The wise old tiny one from Star Wars -the Jedi Master of all Masters. Don’t say it. Do it. Don’t try, get it done. These words of wisdom inspire me daily on my journey. As a woman, the older I get, the wiser I become as I understand that this world, despite my belief that love is what carries us through this universe, is about those who get the job done – not who just give it the old college try. As a mother, this lesson truly hits home for me as I continually judged my abilities as a parent by the outcome of labor: My children.

Many who read my blog will tell you that I’ve spent a bit of blog space talking about guilt, apologies, and living up to my own expectations. It’s difficult to say if this comes from my mother and her mother, who repeatedly drilled into my psyche that how we present ourselves is just as important as what we accomplish. Fake it until you make it. However, I have also heard the longstanding litany of “don’t worry, just try your best and you’ll be fine”. Fear of rejection, fear of comparing ourselves to others…it’s hard to escape.

I read an article recently that put forth the idea that women are more pressured to be perfectionists for a variety of reasons, and that this can be witnessed in the professional arena as we judge ourselves and others, and as we allow ourselves to be judged. On a personal note, I continue to struggle with the emotional anchor of “you’re only as good a parent as how your children turned out to be”. In my mind, this is crazy talk. I knew better. But in my heart, if my children struggled it was because I failed in some way. How could I live in the moments of mindfulness when my anchors kept holding me to my maternal guilt?

It’s taken a while for me to understand this nugget of worldly wisdom, but acceptance of the outcome means you have control of all the moving parts. I do not have control of my children, my projects, my people, my world. I survive or perish by how I respond to those things I decide are important enough to devote myself to. Midlife has finally allowed me the insight into Yoda’s key wisdom: Do or do not decide what is worthy of YOU. There is no trying to please everyone. Do remain mindful and do not accept the outcome of things not in your control. When it comes to motherhood, I finally understand there is no try. There is just do.

Is the nest really empty?

When my children were close to adulthood and fantasizing about life on their own, without Mom, I continually wrestled with my own thoughts about what I would do with all that time and freedom from worry. Just like parents of toddlers wonder what they’ll do with all the money they expect to save when their kids are out of diapers. Just like parents of young children drool over the money they’ll have when they no longer pay for daycare. Little did I know that my little nest and my big imagination would lead me to discover that just because my birds were taking flight didn’t mean my self-worth and peace of mind had to go with them.

It’s amazing how much time you spend thinking of other things and other people when you are a partner, or a parent. Not much time for yourself, and a teenager certainly commands a large part of the family budget, even when they head off to college or other endeavors. It took work, lots of tough love, and letting go of the intertwined involvement in my children’s lives, but I finally got to a point where I began to think more about me – not just a resource for my children but as a person who was free to rediscover herself. Parts of my life I’d suppressed in my mom life, I was able to regain with the understanding I was focusing on the here and now.

So, as my spouse and I live our empty nester lives, pursuing our professional and personal interests with renewed vigor – I have moments at home when I wonder why it’s so quiet. No more bustle, no more kids in and out. Then I realize this is a gift – my time to breathe. This is my time to pay attention to every moment and the minutes in between them. I find myself lost in the act of rinsing dishes, sewing a button on my clothing, and rearranging the flowers on the table. The house is not empty, but is now becoming filled with the focused moment of doing little bits of nothing.

I no longer feel the need for the background noise to keep me company. Sure, I still work and play and love my family as I always have. I just don’t need the bustle of kids and pets that stressed me years ago when it was difficult to separate myself from them. I enjoy the quiet moments of dishes and brushing my dog’s fur. I enjoy the coffee on the deck and watching the cat stretching itself in the sun. I have finally learned that my nest is not empty but filled with a lifetime of potential peace, measured one breath at a time.