A day spent walking the Monument Loop in Washington DC with my sister and her family yielded a great dinner conversation. It had been long enough since we’d toured this part of the city, that some of the memorials were new to us. The enormous obelisk of the Washington Monument was our starting point. From there we saw memorials honoring past presidents (Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt), one dedicated to a great leader of change in our nation (Martin Luther King), and several commemorating sacrifices made by the people of our country in World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
As I walked the mall experiencing and reflecting, I developed some pretty strong opinions about which monuments were effective and which were confusing, which were brilliant and which were not, which stirred my emotions and which didn’t really touch me. Thanks to modern technology, we picked up some great tidbits via Google about what we were looking at. We discovered how many lost lives each star represented on the WW2 memorial. We learned why the artist chose to include 19 service men at the Korean War Memorial. We read ongoing debates over the color of marble chosen for the MLK memorial.
At dinner, our kids and their cousins were eager to share their thoughts on the day. As a proud parent and aunt, I found myself much more interested in listening to what they had to say than in sharing my own opinions. As they spoke, my own viewpoint expanded and shifted. My niece spoke of the quiet stillness at the Vietnam Memorial compared to the noise at Lincoln. I had been so absorbed in the names on the wall and in reading the speeches in the Lincoln memorial that the difference in the atmosphere at each had almost entirely escaped me.
My daughter had spent some time on a bench in the shade at the Korean War Memorial. While sitting there, she noticed that the shady oasis was created by two hedges spiraled together. While she rested, she wondered if the separation in the hedges didn’t symbolize the continued division on Korea. I was so captivated by the statues of the soldiers reflected in the marble wall to look like an entire army that I hadn’t noticed the hedges at all, let alone the subtle gap between the two.
My son was moved by the quotations shared on the long walls of the MLK Memorial. As he walked along reading Martin Luther King’s brilliant words about the Civil Rights Movement, he was awed at how timely they continue to be in a world still torn by persecution and ethnic struggle. As I listened to him, I realized that I’d been so consumed by the sheer size of the monument and the enormity of MLK’s likeness that I’d sort of skimmed the powerful quotes rather than let them sink into me.
Perhaps most dramatically, my nephew, the youngest at the table, had noticed the use of different leaves in the garlands on the WW2 memorial. This monument had been the most confusing and least appealing for me. It felt big and rambling. As I walked through it, I couldn’t really focus or even figure out what some of the elements symbolized. He’d noticed an olive wreath and had asked his dad, a Latin teacher and Classicist, if that wreath meant peace. (It did.) He’d then seen different leaves and had learned that laurel stood for victory and oak for strength. As he talked about what he had discovered, I began to see the monument in an entirely new light.
Had I been focused on sharing my own opinions and thoughts that night as I so often am (maybe you have this problem too?), I would have missed the gift of hearing the thoughts of others. And what a gift it was to listen at that dinner. I learned. Better yet, I learned from people it would have been easy to assume that I should instead be teaching. My opinions shifted. My perspective changed. While the WW2 memorial will probably never be my favorite, I’d actually like to go see it again to check out the details my nephew picked up on. I left that table with a much more complete and complex understanding of the powerful works of art that we’d seen together than I’d had before I sat down.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said,
[mk_blockquote style=”quote-style” font_family=”none” text_size=”18″ align=”left”]There is a difference between truly listening and waiting for your turn to talk.”[/mk_blockquote]
I’d say, without a doubt, that he’s right. Listening is much more transformative than talking. I pray for the wherewithal to listen more often the way I chose to listen that night over dinner. In fact, I pray we all do.
For the last two weeks, much of the world has been transfixed by the athletic brilliance on display in Rio de Janeiro. How can you not be, really? Speed. Strength. Skill. Flexibility. Teamwork. Nerves of steel. Sheer grit and determination. Mothers winning races while their youngsters watch. Athletes medaling in their fourth or fifth Olympic Games. Competitors not yet old enough to drive a car dominating the world in their chosen sport.
As you watch the Olympics, impossible feats are made to look effortless:
So my daughter and her friend tried at the pool yesterday. (Relax! The butterfly, not the dive.) Neither of these two super-fit, high school athletes could do even two strokes. It was actually hilarious. And telling.
When we watch the Olympics, we are watching the end result of years of practice. Actually, describing the practice that goes into setting the all these records and winning all these medals in years doesn’t do it justice. We are watching the end result of hours and hours of practice, six or seven days a week, twelve months a year for years. We are watching the end result of an undiluted lifetime of practice. In the language of the opening quote, we are watching Chapter 10 of these athletes’ stories.
Now, my daughter and her friend didn’t waste a single moment comparing their “Intro” (I’m not even going to call their attempt at the butterfly Chapter 1) to Michael Phelps’ Chapter 10. They were just goofing off on a super hot day. But you can bet that the kid who was first runner up for a spot on the USA Men’s Olympic Swimming Team did. I hope, after the heat of disappointment cooled, that he was able to see that he may just be on Chapter 7 or 8. I hope he can sense the growth and potential still budding within him.
This type of comparison doesn’t just happen watching world-class competitions such as the Olympics or Wimbledon or the Super Bowl. It can happen in a yoga class or Spanish class or at a high school crew regatta. It can happen to writers when reading a masterpiece. It can happen to musicians when listening to the organist at church. Think of what you love or what you think you might love. I suspect you’ve had a moment or two when you’ve been awed by someone else’s skill doing exactly that.
A quick yoga example. Years ago, a friend and I practiced next to a woman who was serenely flowing through Ashtanga’s third series. At the time, I was still hard at work on the first series and had never seen someone so flexible and so strong. She looked like she was floating on her mat. To borrow my friend’s very apt description as we drove home, she looked like a human rubber band. When we sat up after Savasna at the end of the practice, the woman looked at me and groaned, “Oh boy. I was sooooooo stiff today.” I could barely contain my giggle as I said, truthfully, “I know just what you mean.”
And, though I didn’t know how what I’d witnessed could possibly be categorized as “stiff,” I did know exactly what she meant. There are days when, while I can do everything I always do on my mat, everything hurts. When I fight for every fraction of an inch of depth. When I have to take ten breaths rather than my typical five in each posture. When what I do as I sit up at the end of my practice is groan.
As I realized my shared connection with the “human rubber band” next to me, I could see the possible fruits of my practice and I was inspired. Even today, years later when I’m still nowhere near ready to begin work on the series of postures she was doing that day, she continues to inspire me. In revealing a glimpse of her frailty and “human-ness” as well as her obvious greatness, she taught me to see past Chapter 10 to all the chapters of work that preceded it.
It was that day that I first considered that whether we’re on Chapter 10 like Michael Phelps or the super-bendy woman in yoga class, or Chapter 1 like my daughters or me, we’re doing the same thing. We’re seeking joy in our chosen endeavor. We’re looking to those who are further along than we are for guidance and inspiration. We’re focusing with all our might. We’re pouring ourselves into what we’ve chosen to do – body, mind and spirit. We’re working for the simple pleasure of doing the work. We’re hoping for growth and change. At the same time, we’re pleased just to be able to do what we do.
And that’s as good as a gold medal (almost) in my book.
The other day I realized that our guest room is sort of a museum to things I used to love to do. There is a cupboard filled with left-over fabric from quilts, curtains, pillows and Halloween costumes that I made. There is a drawer of paper, ink pads, stamps, embossing supplies, special pens and a hot glue gun from the years that I made my own invitations, Christmas cards and thank you notes. Another drawer is filled with paints, palettes, small canvases and brushes. The piano that I practiced on for hours and on which I spent even more hours teaching my three children to play also sits in this room.
All of these activities happily filled spaces in my days. Pauses in my hectic pace while working for a start-up software company. Quiet moments in the early days of my marriage when my husband would sleep for hours after I’d awaken. Windows of time when my children were napping. Mornings when they were in pre-school.
If you asked my mom why I don’t sew or make cards or paint or play the piano anymore, she’d tell you I was too busy. But I rebel against that word. Busy is a dirty word for me. When I feel busy, I feel reactive, out control, and like I’m three steps behind all day long. I feel like a victim.
So, if you asked me why I don’t sew, make cards, paint or play the piano these days, I’d tell you my life was full right now. There are simply fewer spaces in my days that I choose to fill with solitary activities. When my children are at school, I choose to work – to share my passion for yoga with students and future teachers. After their school day and sports practices are over, I choose to spend my time with my children. I take them to lessons. We run errands. I cook for them and we eat together. I help with homework (except for math). I listen while they talk and I stay nearby when they don’t. We watch TV together.
To try to squeeze sewing, making cards, painting or the piano into my days right now would make me feel busy. Instead of giving me joy, these activities would distract me from what does give me joy – my family and my work. Instead of making my life feel rich and full, these activities, each of which I thoroughly enjoy, would make me feel stretched thin.
I know this because, at one point or another, I was trying desperately to maintain them. I did this for way longer than I ought to have because “my momma and daddy didn’t raise no quitter.” I know this because, at one point of another, I chose to set each of these loves aside. When I did, I didn’t miss them. Instead, I felt relief and spaciousness and freedom. In short, my life went from feeling busy to feeling full. And choosing to live a full life, for me, is the best way I’ve found to express gratitude and thankfulness for the gift that is my life.
There will come a time (in a blink of an eye, I suspect), when my children will no longer live with me. My days will have more spaces in them because I will again be sharing them with fewer people. I can’t predict what supplies from my guestroom (if any) I will pull out to fill the new spaces and pauses in my day. I can guess that whatever I choose to do will be creative, as throughout my life that has been the case. I have faith that I will choose carefully. I trust that these years of practice selecting fullness over busy-ness have served me well. I am confident that I will continue to make choices that allow me to go to bed at night feeling happy and filled up by a day well-lived.
I wish the same for each of you.
I have a friend who just went through a very hard time. One of those hard times that we’ve all had at some point or another. The kind that feels endless and byzantine and wholly unwarranted. We were talking the other day and she said something profound. “Looking back, I can see that it all makes sense. It all led me here. And, while I’m not sure I can say I’m grateful for it, I’m also not sure I can say I would trade my path if given the chance.”
There is a cherished verse of Scripture in the Qur’an that makes me think of my friend’s epiphany.
This doesn’t just apply to the big hard times in life. It is just as meaningful a lens through which to see little setbacks and disappointments.
A rainy day at the beach.
A setback on your yoga mat.
A summer day too hot and humid to be outside.
Suddenly finding yourself home alone on a Saturday night.
At first glance any of these may feel more like burdens than blessings. After all, you want to be out on the beach as much as possible during your time there. You want to practice your yoga without pain or limitation. You want to enjoy summer’s long, lazy days at the pool or the zoo or in the woods. And Saturday nights are meant for fun with friends at a restaurant, a party or a movie. Right?
And these little occurrences will feel like burdens when met with the resistance and disappointment that – quite frankly – would be perfectly natural.
But we have another option. Surrender and acceptance. While these responses are somewhat less natural, they are the secret to turning perceived burdens into blessings.
When I surrendered to a rainy day at the beach last week, I spent a few, precious hours curled up on the sofa reading my book. When the day stayed gloomy and wet, my daughters and their friends, who I hadn’t seen much of on our vacation, joined me. It was lovely.
Over the years, I’ve had aches and pains that have prevented me doing from certain yoga postures. Every single time (Truly. Every. Single. Time.) backing off has allowed me to re-learn the posture with more finesse or better alignment. In the end, when I’ve healed and done the hard work to make my way back to the posture, my pose has been better – safer, sturdier and stronger.
When we had one of those classic August-in-Philadelphia days complete with sticky, sweltering heat that makes it nearly impossible to be outside, we had to change our plans. Instead of heading to the pool and out for a hike, my daughters and I seized the moment to attack their closets. We gave mounds of outgrown clothing to charity and they are thrilled with their newly neatened wardrobes.
I had planned a girls’ night with my oldest for this Saturday night when we’ll be home alone. However, one of her favorite babysitting clients called and she took the job. Initially, I was disappointed. That didn’t last long, though. We’ve planned a day out on the town, and I’m supremely content to snuggle with my puppies while being in charge of the remote all night – a rare and wonderful treat at my house.
While I probably wouldn’t have chosen any of these blessings, in hindsight, like my friend after her long time of struggle, I would deny none of them either.
I’m not delusional. I know for sure that it will not be super easy to receive my next disappointment as a blessing. It may take me a breath or two or a week or two. In fact, it’s not impossible to imagine a challenge that would take me even longer to see as a gift. But I also know for sure that this practice of seeking the blessing in every burden will change the course of my struggle … providing me with hope and faith that life is full of blessings in disguise.
“Which of life’s blessings would you deny?”