Monday, December 18, 2006

Pondering Patterns

Photo: Walking the labyrinth at Sinsinawa Mound, Women's Retreat

I've always needed help discovering my own rhythms, patterns, and needs. Countless times my mother has wisely interpreted my situation, pointing out the simplest things before they registered on my own radar. Usually, it's when I get sick or "hit a wall," as I call it. I will wonder why I've suddenly crashed and Mom will gently point out how busy I've been, how many things I've been juggling, how it's no wonder my body said "no more." And then when I think on it, I see she's right. Funny how someone else can see the inevitable crash coming, and I haven't yet learned to always sense it myself.

That's probably because I've got a lot of my father in me. I can go and go and go... and then things get all a'jumble. I start forgetting things, I get weepy or easily angered, and bam - I crash. But Dad rarely crashed. I don't think he ever crashed in the early days. He just kept on. That man had more energy than the rest of us put together, and it made for some unreasonable expectations. I once told him, after he'd complained about the lack of work ethic in someone else, that his comparison was unfair since his work ethic was not only off the charts, but so far off into the ozone as to never be seen with the naked eye. That man could work.

Not just physical work, though that was his forte (my Dad is probably one of few who'd regularly utter things like, "Why use a bulldozer to take down that silo when I can do it with my bare hands?" - and damn if he didn't actually do it), but cognitive 'work' as well. My father was a "man with a plan." No, not 'a' plan, several plans. He was always planning, and if the physical labor under his heavy hand didn't wear us out, his "I've been thinking...." did. If he wasn't making plans for the upkeep of the family farm, or my brother Matt's future, or the extra acreage I've let grown wild, or for the school district funding, or his insurance business, or Rob's career in insurance - and so on - he wasn't awake. He couldn't stop himself, we know now. It was a compulsion for him, as thrill-seeking is for others.

But he slowed down in the later years. Finally. It'd been a long time coming, and perhaps, too late. He drove himself too hard. For too long. He looked tired. He was tired.

And now without his intense energy and constant oversight, we struggle to get our bearings. We create new patterns, though for most of us, at a much less frenetic pace without Dad hovering over us. Not so with sister Jackie. She has taken over Dad's role as farm manager, and as if that wasn't enough to learn by immersion, she also took a part-time job with the Natural Land Institute. This, from my introverted, content-with-the-simple-things-in-life, mother-of-three sister. And I, the one who thrives on busy-ness like my father (though still out of his league), have grown more and more quiet, seeking solitude in the quiet spaces that I didn't notice before in my mad rush of living.

And Mom, well, now I'm the one to notice her patterns as they unfold. One particularly striking one is that at the moment when we notice, "Wow, she's doing really well today," we now follow it with, "Too well," as we've learned it's the high before the plummeting low. And we struggle on with our own unreasonable expectations and compulsions. Jackie, to fill the spaces with farm work, farm business, and her new job, and Mom, to "be fine" when she's really not.

My new patterns have brought some good from the bad, though, and I can't deny it. In my quietness, I've learned that in all my seeking and searching "out there," I have what I need right in front of me. It's made me not only appreciate but finally understand that I can easily miss what's right here when I'm so focused on other things and other places. It's brought a sense of calm I've never known. When I'm not pulled in a million different directions, I can more easily attend to the tasks at hand, put more of myself into them, give more than just a fleeting, scheduled, allotted-amount-of-time sort of attention, but rather the full me.

Everything takes on a new depth and meaning with this sort of acuity. Cooking has become less harried and more nurturing - both the ingredients chosen with greater care, and the actual meditative and therapeutic act of preparing itself - as I engage with more mindfulness. Tending to daily tasks can remind me to be appreciative that I actually have the time and I'm not doing them in a mad rush or with rising resentment, as was often the case. And answering a child's request for attention with actual undivided attention is a gift of presence, and serves to give on many levels.

At my last women's retreat, a friend led us in meditation. Many of us were rather new to it, and wondered if we could actually accomplish the 20-minute goal set for us. I was more able to settle than I expected. Before, and not so long ago, I'd have fought to contain my fidgeting, struggled to focus on something other than those around me, and spent most of the time trying to get relaxed so I could begin. But this new awareness, this new mindfulness, allows me to have a sort of tunnel vision that is freshly satisfying. It's not even something I asked for - it's something I needed and didn't know it.

Is this the sort of silver lining that comes from tragedy and great pain? I don't know. I know now that I can't control all the changes that come from such a life-altering event, and I see now that the lessons that come from pain are very different from the lessons that emerge from joy. When we experience a transition that is joyous, such as marriage, or the birth of a child, or having a new friend, the lessons come of willingness and eagerness and seeking. When our transition comes from pain, the lessons come of survival.

On an unschooling e-zine I read last night, a reader asked unschooling mother and author Rue Cream, "What’s something you keep in mind to help you be the kind of mother you want to be?" and she replied, "Memories."

She shares her fond memories of childhood with her children, but she also suggests that we know not which moments become the fondest memories of our own children, and so therefore ought to make each moment meaningful. Or put a different way, to be mindful so every moment and its choices are based in love, freedom, and respect. Put that way, how we answer our child's request for yet another drink of water provides an opportunity to deepen a pattern of mindfulness or a pattern of angst. Which shall we choose?

Finding this solitude within myself is a true gift, and it soothes that restlessness that I once saw as a 'given' part of my make-up that I must accept and obey. If the loss of my father has given me the gift of awareness, then his giving to me doesn't stop with his absence. It continues on. As we will continue on, taking up some of his patterns, like storytelling, and discarding others, like taking down silos with a sledge hammer, and ever mindful that through his example and in these days of retreat and healing, we continue to grow and become better.