I just lost someone dear to me. It was lung cancer that had spread its pervasive toxin throughout his body to the point where every motion, every breath, was a challenge. It was raw, and fast, and devastating. At a time in my life where each breath is a path to remaining centered and whole, here was a clear reminder of the gift that a simple breath represents. Mindful existence.
It was difficult to see how something so simple represented such a significant struggle between life and death. Good air in. Bad air out. Each moment was an effort to focus on the daily act of living. I soon realized how much of a privilege it was to be able to remain mindful and focused during a time that became so overwhelming for us all. Love could not fix this. Hindsight could not take me to a place where I could right the wrong and make things whole again. In the days that followed, that focus became blurred as we all served as witness to his passing.
Where is it written that the gift of life and breath is only for a few? How can it be that some continually live in fear of never fully exploring their breath and the gift of life we all share? Living in the privilege of a breath without fear connects us all with love. It is the fear that creeps into our ability to remain equal. To love equally. To live equally. Breathing is nothing, yet everything. Are we all equally breathing, equally mindful? Never fearing that each moment is a gift that should not stolen from another. During my time of grief, my attention to my loss was directed to another who also had his breath stolen from him. His loss is also my loss. His fear and what it represents becomes my fear as well.
The musician Sting once sang, “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you”. My family, my friends, my world: I am watching you. Every breath you take. Every move you make during a time when we all must equally breathe. Together, we must breathe as one or we do not truly breathe at all. While we cannot fix the past with love, we can look forward and measure the moments in our life with how equally we regard each other. These acts that take our breath away for just a moment should remind us of how precious we all are.
Now that your attention is focused, where will your next breath take you?
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.
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.
Who are we kidding? Love means having to say you’re sorry all the time. Often being misunderstood as a mother seems a second way of life these days. From the first mutterings of how Mommy was mean to the teenaged tantrums of how “I’ll just go talk to Dad. He’ll say yes”. The journey from mother to meaningful empty nester required a mind shift from one of peacemaker to that of adventuresome independent. I wanted to no longer care about being the mean mom but needed to be proud of reclaiming my individualism. I needed to release the instinct to apologize for being misunderstood and strengthen my resolve as a woman who could move forward in my life without the immediate concern for what others were thinking.
During the early years, I often received advice that allowed me to navigate motherhood by being more of a follower and less of a leader. It was a struggle as I attempted to lead a mindful and harmonious life as a joiner. While I didn’t share in the ideal family life, I had many reminders of how I could be more loving, more patient. I had encouragement to avoid the toxic and seek the healthy. We all have our own parental journey that often isn’t perfect. Each step of the way paved with good intentions but often misunderstandings as well. Figuring out how to be a good parent and spouse with no real support system was challenging.
However, as I became an empty nester, I was able to more easily tap into my memories of LBC – life before children – to regain a sense of my authentic self. I didn’t want to be filled with regret for all the paths I did not take. I wanted to be who I was before I was a misunderstood mom.
Now, my journey to mindfulness in midlife is filled with guilt-free moments. I stay out late on a work night. I am no longer a fixture at my children’s school. I have reclaimed my “nerd-dom” from long ago and made it acceptable in a world where there is a society for everything. I can go to the store in sweats with no make-up and not be the family pariah because my children were too mortified their friends would see me. Little by little, I am learning again that I do not need to be sorry for the life I lived that didn’t meet expectations. I am learning not to apologize for being the caring, hard-working mother who made choices and loved her family in spite of unexpected life detours.
These days, I find myself thinking of my mother as I respond to my daughters in the ways she responded to me – and how my daughters sometimes respond to me like I did to my mother. My apologies are few and far between and are about me learning to let go of the need to be there for all things. My sorrow is for understanding that they will not always need me. My tears are for the things I can no longer fix.
Once I dry my tears, I understand that my children are learning to see me more as a person. They are living their lives as they can, making plenty of mistakes and receiving lots of feedback from their mother. Perhaps much of it unwanted. I am living my life as a leader, choosing a life of love without regret. Like ducklings on a pond, my children have been paddling their way in the direction of their mother. But at some point as they grow up, they will paddle on to shore without me. It may not be where I can see them, but I know they will land where they need to be. And hopefully, I will be nearby.