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Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Just Breathe

Last Friday was one of those days that, by the end, seemed to be one long object lesson.

While driving from Ellie’s preschool to Darlene’s house for Writing Group, one of the songs I happened to hear on the radio was Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2AM)”. This one of those songs I love to sing along with, so I cranked the volume and attempted to keep up. I say “attempted,” because while I think it’s great, I don’t really know the words. Rather, I managed to mostly mumble off-key until I got to the one part I can actually remember, the refrain,

…breathe, just breathe
…oh, breath, just breathe

I vowed to work on learning the rest little by little.

Friday morning Writing Group is usually one of the highlights of my week. There are only three in this “exclusive” club – Kathryn, Darlene and myself. The three of us have been meeting for over a year, sharing our fledgling attempts at writing, patting each other on the back, and commiserating over how deluded we must be to take our writing seriously.

We are all in similar places in life – homemakers with young, school-age children, and professional husbands. All three of us have entertained a life-long desire to write, but thus far none of us has been published (with the exception of Darlene who will have her first magazine article printed next month.)

I was looking forward to Writing Group this particular morning because for the first time since the previous spring I had no kids in tow – the older three were in school, and one-year-old Evan was at home being babysat by his visiting grandma. Darlene was hostess that day, which meant I had strong coffee and goodies, like scones or muffins, to look forward to.

However, Anna Nalick’s heart-tugging melody and lyrics put just the slightest edge of shadow on my mood. I remember thinking how true her words are:

'Cause you can't jump the track,we're like cars on a cable
and life's like an hourglass, glued to the table
No one can find the rewind button girl,
So cradle your head in you hands
And breathe, just breathe,
Oh breathe, just breathe

I’m 35-years-old, and, statistically speaking, my life is half-over. I’ve reached the top of the bell-curve, and the downward descent has begun. Not much I can do about it either. Time stops for no one no matter how “timeless” he/she seems. Paul Newman is an old man (though, admittedly, he’s still “got it”), Harrison Ford is getting there (though he “lost it” when he split from his wife), Britney Spears just had a baby (lord help us all), and Peter Jennings just died.

Though I know better, I too succumb to that undercurrent of belief that somehow the odds can be overcome and I might escape death; that somehow, with enough face cream and influence, beauty and charisma, or simply enough self-determination, I can keep myself young and eternal.

But the immovable hourglass really is glued to the table. Sometimes, I have moments of being completely overwhelmed, feeling like I wish I could just stop everything for just a minute – the ringing phone, the screaming kids, the constant regeneration of dirty laundry and dishes, and especially, the overwhelming pain that is in this world: the brokenness, the dysfunction, the addiction, the blindness. Can’t we stop all of it for five minutes!?

According to Anna Nalick, in the middle of desperation and despair, I need to rest and breathe.

When my kids get hysterical, I tell them to take a deep breath. When I’m stressed out and my heart is hammering, I breathe slowly and deliberately to calm myself. Laboring women are told to breathe through painful birthing contractions. A key component to exercise is proper breathing. Going underwater or ascending high above the earth can only be accomplished when proper breathing mechanisms are in place.

Sometimes, it is all we can do to just keep breathing.

When I arrived at Darlene’s house she was indeed baking. She was sloppily spooning cake batter into muffin tins, the phone wedged between her ear and shoulder, talking animatedly, jumping from one call to another, with barely a moment to breathe. As it turned out, the cupcakes were not for Writing Group after all. Rather, as she later explained between harried phone calls, they were expected for her daughter’s 8th birthday celebration at the elementary school. She also explained the multitudinous phone calls being made to address an unexpected, but dire need – to help a mutual church acquaintance pack for an imminent move.

Clearly, the occurrence of Writing Group at her home was going to be more of a hindrance than an help that morning.

One aggravating element of the sudden moving situation was that the person being moved had a history of not planning ahead and then expecting other people to drop everything in order to fix her lapses in judgment. Darlene was frustrated, but committed to the responsibility of helping out anyway, even when it completely threw her entire day off-kilter.

I regretted that Darlene was being put in the position of raising an army of helpers, but I was full of tendrils of resistance growing out from my core and twining tenaciously to every available surface. Darlene might be willing to be pushed into the crisis, but I wasn’t going anywhere.

However, standing right in front of her, I was an easy target. She asked if I was available at any point during the day to help with packing. As I was not feeling particularly merciful, I sighed, clearly showing my hesitation. Nevertheless, I admitted that I did have some time, but only at that moment, during our regularly scheduled Writing Group girly-time of reflection and camaraderie. Not something I was cheerfully willing to surrender.

Though neither of us wanted to help this person in crisis, when Kathryn breezed in and said she could only stay a half hour, Darlene and I looked at each other knowingly and resignedly. That morning, Writing Group would be ending prematurely anyway. Clearly, we were “meant” to help this person in need, so very begrudgingly, we committed the remainder of our morning to the cause. Though it was not my first choice of time allocation, I had known all along it was the right thing to do.

Even so, before parting ways, we indulged in some enlivening chit-chat and coffee.

None of us had any new writing to share, so instead Kathryn pulled out “The World According to Mr. Rogers” a collection of quotes from the late host of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Fred Rogers. She read us a quote discussing the idea that though it can be very hard to do so, it is possible for a person to change. I thought about the person who was moving; the person about whom I was having a bad attitude. Change is possible, despite many layers of woundedness and habit, but through the persistent kindness of others, the habits of the past can start to be reversed.

But true change is immensely difficult, not just for the person changing, but for those who are pledged to help. If I am unwilling to be inconvenienced and am too impatient to stand alongside those who struggle, what kind of message am I sending about a person’s current personal value and my belief in their future potential? How can I expect them to have the forbearance and courage to climb the mountain alone?

After “The World According to Mr. Rogers”, Darlene read an article discussing E.B. White’s classic, “Charlotte’s Web,” the final line of which I will paraphrase: “It is not often you find a friend who is both kind and a good writer. Charlotte was both.” We discussed wanting to be good writers and good friends, using simple and gentle, but direct words. To capture the gentleness of Fred Rogers and the beautiful prose of E. B. White is our collective dream.

Our foreshortened Writing Group was a lovely time of being reminded that we are to be humble servants and hard workers; there are times for self-care and times of caring for others. During coffee, we were caring for ourselves, in order to go out into the world and become others-focused.

After coffee, Darlene and I caravanned over to the house which was being vacated. No sooner had stepped across the threshold than we were asked to leave again to go buy boxes. When asked “how many”, we were told, “Oh, I don’t know. Do you think 20 will be enough? Just make sure they’re small, because I’ll need to be able to lift them myself.”

I resisted the urge to look at Darlene. No boxes? Expecting us to go out and buy a bunch? This was poor planning taken to a new level. Irritation found another excuse to rear its ugly head. We were there to help! Not be ordered around! Darlene, on the other hand, ever efficient and frugal, graciously volunteered for the task and departed while I started packing the few remaining boxes.

Darlene returned shortly with a van-full of smallish boxes. She said she arrived at the recycling center at exactly the right moment, when a man was just about to chuck them. She was giddy with her miraculous acquisition, suddenly acutely aware of God’s hand in this place, and the excitement of being His tool.

We filled the boxes quickly. Though we made a substantial dent during our brief hour and a half, perhaps even the worst of the packing, the job was not yet done when boxes were gone and it was time for us to leave.

Upon returning to my car, there was no medal waiting on the seat memorializing my two hours of selflessness. I heard no angels singing, nor was there the usual warm-fuzzy feeling of a do-gooder.

Rather, I struggled with emotions of sadness that often accompany exposure to lives convoluted with brokenness, poverty, and struggle. I thought about all the people in the world who are trapped in abnormal levels of dysfunction, compulsion, and destitution, and wondered how they manage to get through every single day. They have more courage than I. I also realized again, as I often do, that only a hair’s breadth of luck and good-sense separate me from a similar state.

However, I didn’t entertain those thoughts for long. After brief consideration, I pushed them away, and instead concentrated on safely driving to pick Ellie up from preschool.

Once again I found myself flipping through the radio stations trying to find just the right song for my drive, stopping when I stumbled across the Rolling Stones. Though not a favorite band of mine, the song felt particularly fitting.

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need.


At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Linda, you're so cool! Just thought I'd tell you that :-)


At 6:07 PM, Blogger Gateway School and Learning Center said...

Finally! A chance to catch up with what's going on with you. Thanks for the update.

At 9:20 AM, Blogger fatmammajamma said...

Breathe....yes, good and realistic, but I'd still prefer the pause button.


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