Learning to Be Present in the Present

Sitting on the edge of my bed, I lace up my running shoes.  I check the time.  I plug my earbuds into my phone and pick a playlist.  I stretch.  I call the dog and head out the door.  I reach the road when I hear, “Can I come with you?” from a little, excited voice behind me.  My eight-year-old brother.  I groan internally.  I’ve been building my pace over this past week, he will only slow me down and throw off my progress.  I heave a sigh.  Oh, what the heck?  It’s going to be a short jog anyway, judging by the storm clouds in the distance.  I say, “Sure, kid.”  And we set out.

We are jogging at my normal pace.  He stays right at my side with a huge smile on his face.  How is he keeping up with me?  My calves are on fire!  “Good job, buddy!” I say as we reach the walking portion of the jog.  Sweat trickles down my face, arms, and back.  He’s a little winded, but less so than I am.

We continue on.  He talks about the storm clouds and a blue patch of sky.  I have one earbud in and one out.  I just nod.  I can’t speak while working out.  My asthma and the Southern summer humidity makes breathing difficult enough without adding conversation to the mix.

We come up to the next walking portion and he is still smiling.  My heart is pounding in my ears, but he is jumping around playing with the dog.  I watch him with wonder and amazement.

“You ready?” I ask as we turn to head back, picking up the jogging pace once more.  “I’ll race ya!” he says with pure joy.  “Uh, sure, kid. But we gotta keep a jogging pace, ok?  No running.”  Off we went.  To spice things up a bit, he jogs backward for a time, keeping up with me at first and now he passes me.  What the HECK?!  But he is so cute, so I just laugh and ask him to be careful.  He rolls his eyes at my big sisterly admonition and turns back around and jogs in the proper direction.

We make it back home and he is still bounding around while I’m ready to lie down and never move again.  How do these kids do this?  I feel like a Pooh amongst Tiggers.

My chest is tight and my muscles ache, but my heart is light and happy.  I’m glad he came with me.  He caused me to pay more attention, wonder, and have fun.

In all honesty, I’ve not been present with him—or really, any of my younger siblings—in a long time.  I’m usually caught up in my writing or reading or in my own thoughts and I don’t want to be bothered.  I’ll half listen to stories, I’ll nod as if I’m totally there, but I couldn’t tell you afterward what I’ve been told.  Maybe some fragments, but not much more than that.

A few nights ago the eight-year-old was on the floor leaning against our fourteen-year-old sister crying.  He was upset because he and I used to be inseparable when he was a little guy and now I hardly spend time with him at all.  It hit me hard.  I didn’t think it was that big a deal, I’m nearly fourteen years older and I have become out of practice when it comes to dealing with children since been away at college; why would any kid want to hang around me?  It’s because of this moment that I relented and let him come jog with me.

Something I have to keep reminding myself is, children don’t understand “I’m busy,” they don’t understand, “Later.”  These strange beings live in the right now, they live in the world of today, and they have trouble comprehending anyone who doesn’t share this mindset.  What is this later and tomorrow we speak of?  And in some ways, we need to follow their example.  Work still needs to get done, goals need to be met, but that is not what life is all about.  Life is in the relationships, in the bonds we build and maintain, in the love and little moments shared.  Life is lived in the present and in the presence of those we hold dearest.   The work wouldn’t be worth it without that.

A few days pass, and now I have five kiddos trailing behind me as I jog.  I’m sure we look hilarious.  I didn’t want them to come, if I’m being honest.  My jogs are my peaceful time, unfettered by worries or looking after anyone but myself.  Or they were, until now.  But these Present Dwellers are teaching me to be here, now, rolling with the change of everyday life and accepting the unplanned for joys that can spring up.  It’s also humbling, as they only want to jog because I made it seem cool and they want to spend time with me.

Sometimes it’s the things that seem inconvenient that end up teaching us the most necessary lessons.  Right now, one of the main lessons I’m being taught is presence.  So, I’m trying to be more present, not only in the lives of my siblings but also in my own life–in life in general.  I want to live in the world of today.

I hope we all can find ways to be more present in the present and really live it with all the vigor of an eight-year-old.

Illness, Sleep Anxiety, and the Writing Life

Late into May, I developed a cough.  It progressed enough to become concerning, so, at the insistence of my mother, I went to the doctor and found out I had a bad case of allergies (I have spent so much time sitting outside reading, writing letters, and thinking this break, it’s no wonder) and mild asthma.  Cool, no problem!  Just take these steroid pills (because you’re a big sissy and won’t take the shot because NEEDLES) and use this inhaler.  Well, being the forgetful person I am, I somehow lost my steroid pills and thought, “Eh, it’ll be fine,” and never said anything to my mother about it.  Cut to me waking up unable to breathe several nights in a row, not being able to breathe at various times in the day, and my mother hauling my butt to the emergency room: I got a shot anyway.  And some allergy meds, hallelujah!

It has taken it a while to work itself out.  I had a few more episodes of not being able to draw air back into my lungs after a coughing fit, but it looks like I’m in the clear now.  However, this has caused me to develop something I’m calling Sleep Anxiety—since I was waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe, thrashing around the dark room trying to not only catch a breath but also locate my inhaler, as you might imagine, I had some problems with the idea of closing my eyes and entering a state of slumber.

After a while the anxiety caused a new sleeping cycle to emerge, and it was and is ugly.   Yes, I’m still dealing with it.  I’ve had many days of falling asleep around 7am and sleeping until late afternoon.  I hate it.  I’ve tried to fix it and it has only made it worse.  Every day I think, I’m going to beat this today.  I’ve had enough.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

However, while sleep anxiety is a pain that I wouldn’t wish on any of you, I have found an upside to it: during those hours when the rest of the house is sleeping and I cannot, I can write, I can read, I can think, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

One of the books I read over this break and as this whole being sick and unable to breathe and then unable to sleep situation unfolded, was a collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett.  In this collection, there is an essay titled “The Getaway Car” in which Patchett shares her history as a writer, how she came to it and the early struggles and eventual successes, as well as passing on nuggets of wisdom on the craft which she believes could benefit the reader.

Patchett doesn’t believe in Writer’s Block, but she wholeheartedly believes in fear, distraction, and procrastination.  She challenges the reader thusly:

“If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day.  Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare.  Do you really want to write?  Sit for two hours a day.  During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no internet, no books.  Sit still quietly.  Do this for a week, for two weeks.  Do not nap or check your e-mail.  Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing.  Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting.  Either way, you’ll have your answer.”

When I first read this my internal voice shouted something like, “YIKES, ANN.”  Patchett called me out, asked me to back my big talk about wanting to be a writer with action.  She threw down the gauntlet.  Would I have the courage to pick it up, set my resolve, and write?

That same week, still trembling at Patchett’s challenge, I remembered that I had packed my copy of Letters to a Young Poet in a small pocket in my backpack before leaving college for the summer.  I took it out, stroked the cover lovingly and flipped through the pages, communing with my dear friend.  This book has been life-changing for me, as it has for many before me, and I smiled as I came upon passages I had underlined the first time I read it.  That’s when I found it again—a portion of the first letter, this string of words that had knocked me on my butt during that first reading:

“Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?  Dig into yourself for a deep answer.  And if this answer rings out in ascent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

And there I was, once again, on my butt on my bedroom floor staring at a wall.  Must I write?

Another writer whose work I’ve been reading this year, and specifically this summer, is Annie Dillard.  I came to her words the same way I came to Ann Patchett’s, through the recommendation of my dear friend Shelby.

In a week’s worth of my slumberless nights, I read The Writing Life; in it, I found nuggets of Annie Dillard’s well-earned writing wisdom, some laughs, and plenty of thoughts to mull over.  While I sat there frustrated with my situation, thinking that once everything aligned like I wanted it to I would write like I wanted to and that maybe one day I would be able to write something worthy of the paper and ink, I was reminded that I must “give it, give it all, give it now” and hoard nothing back for later.  “[S]pend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all right away, every time.”  Later writing will take care of itself, she is insisting; it is the present that must be dealt with immediately.

Shelby has a word tattooed on her left wrist, a simple, black lettered, broadax.  As a freshman in college, it had fascinated me.  One night I heard her tell the meaning behind it to a mutual friend, she said it came from Holy the Firm, a book by Annie Dillard.  I went back to my room that night and I googled it and found an electronic copy of that portion which contained the quote.  It was incredible.

“How many of you, I asked the people in my class, which of you want to give your lives and be writers? …All hands rose to the question.  (You, Nick?  Will you?  Margaret?  Randy?  Why do I want them to mean it?)  And then I tried to tell them what the choice must mean: you can’t be anything else.  You must go at your life with a broadax….”

This comes to mind anytime Annie Dillard or Shelby comes to mind.  Not only is it a meaningful and favorite quote of Shelby’s, but as a writer, as a friend, as a woman, she lives this quote.  She took Annie seriously, she hoisted her broadax, and has been going at life.  And that kind of life is not one you can look at without being inspired.

So, while I haven’t been able to sleep, I’ve been rediscovering my hunger for words, and I’ve been admonished and challenged by the writers I’ve been reading.  Patchett’s essay was the spark, the nudge I needed to pick myself up and get back into writing—into being intentional about my writing.  Rilke reminded me to ask myself anew, must I write? and listen for the reply.  Annie’s The Writing Life and that ever-present “broadax” quote, and my friend who embodies it, have reminded me to take that intentionality and stay with it, giving it all that I am.

Hopefully soon I can get back into a cycle of sleep that resembles a human’s more than it does a vampire’s; although, however messy and frustrating, I am grateful for this time.  I have a feeling I will look back on it years from now and remember it as a great refresher, a jump start, the beginning of a new chapter of a story I’ve longed to write.

Ann Patchett closes “The Getaway Car” with this:

“Writing is a miserable, awful business.  Stay with it.  It is better than anything in the world.”

Okay.  I’m going to do it.

This summer, this year, for many years to come, I’m going to write.  As long as I, like the moth Annie wrote about which gives its body to be a wick in a burning candle—as long as I am burning and showing up and giving all that I am—with this sacrifice and devotion, strongly and simply, I must write.  So, here I am.  I’ve decided to pick up the gauntlet, to fly into the flame, to pick up my broadax and swing; to pick up my pen and live.

Suite 311/313

Freshman year I lived off-campus with family.  Near the end of the Spring semester, I was really wanting to live on-campus for sophomore year and had mentioned to a few friends as much.

One day, a friend came up to me bounding and said, “You still thinking about living in a dorm??” I confirmed this and added, “But I don’t know what to do, I don’t know anyone looking for a roommate.”  I was painfully anxiety-ridden over it all.  Then my friend grinned and said, “I think I might have found you a roommate.”

Cut to a day or two later in chapel when I turned around to see my friend with another person walking up to me afterward.  “Anna-Marie, this is Alex; she’s looking for a roommate.”  This Alex she had with her was wearing a shirt with Van Gogh’s A Starry Night printed on it and her laptop decal was from Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and I just knew that this person was going to be my friend.

It came together pretty fast; after I met Alex, we ate together a few times, I met our suitemates (Hannah and Rachel), I paid the fees, and then suddenly we were signed up to room together for the 2016/2017 school year.  It feels like years have passed since that day, not just one.

We’re all scattered now for the summer, but I cannot let this year of living with these incredible souls go unspoken of.  Each one has taught me so much.

DSC_0460Hannah C.
This priceless gem of a friend.  What can I say?  I should tell you first that she is the best at breaking me.  A look, a phrase, and suddenly I’m in peels of laughter with a red face or just stumbling over my words with a red face.  No matter what, my face is red.  Hannah knows she has this power and uses it on me IN PUBLIC.  As horrifying as that was at first, this helped teach me to let loose more and not take myself so seriously all the time.

Hannah is a real friend, through and through.  She’s been an encourager throughout this past school year and has always been there with hugs, chocolate, and more hugs and chocolate.  One day I was stressing over an assignment and she walked into the room and gave me a hug.  I was pleasantly surprised and she just said, “You looked like you needed a hug.”

I’m really good at self-deprecating humor, and sometimes it’s funny, but there are times when my low self-esteem comes in and my humor becomes very cruel toward myself.  Hannah has been one of the people to bring this to my attention this year.  I would joke about something and she would look at me pained and say, “Oh, honey…” I would just stand there in a stunned state as I realized that my attempt at being funny had instead been hurtful.  She has made me stop to think more than I have before about where my jokes are stemming from and to be more kind and gentle with myself.

Also, we found out during the last week of school that we both had an obsession with Stargate SG1 and could have been cracking nerdy jokes and making references this whole time, but no one ever knows what Stargate is so neither of us bring it up.  Lesson has been learned on my end: just be a nerd, it’s fine; the other nerds sometimes end up living with you and you don’t want to miss out.

Hannah has the biggest heart.  I’m so, so grateful for this incredible woman and for this year of getting to know her.  My words cannot do her justice.

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Rachel W.
And this Talented Fairy Child, where do I start?  Rachel is one of the most gifted humans I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.  Every time I turned around she was teaching herself a new song, writing a new song, teaching herself to knit, painting something, sketching, or dancing.  She was our constant provider of tunes, as she would play her guitar in the evenings as we were all winding down from our days.

Rachel has taught me to live with more gusto.  It’s a continual lesson for me, but Rachel has given me a better look at it than anyone else.  Rachel takes life in both hands, she goes for things, she jumps in; she doesn’t let the possibility of failing keep her from the possibility of learning, from the possibility of living the most full life.  She has helped push me through my insecurities and self-doubt—she’s the reason my first blog post was posted.  She sat on my floor and read it and then looked at me and said, “Anna-Marie, you post this right now or I will do it for you.”

She also liked to scare me senseless at every opportunity.  I’m very jumpy as it is, and this made her victories even more glorious as she would scare me at times without even intending to.  Our days were filled with her scaring me and me trying to get her back for it (which I finally did a few times—so good, it felt so good).

Rachel was also my person I would run to at the end of the day to talk about Women’s Lit and my feminist angst, which was so incredibly necessary.

But most importantly, Rachel helped me start going to church again.  She reminded me that I wasn’t alone, shared in my questions and frustrations, and reminded me that there is a God bigger than all that.

And like Hannah, she has always been there with a hug when I needed it.  Rachel gives wonderful, soul-healing hugs.

I’m so glad to now have this fantastic woman in my life.

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THE BONUS SUITEMATE: Taylor P.
Taylor was my roommate’s former roommate.  She came to visit a handful of times during my first semester living with the girls and I honestly had no idea what to make of her.  She’s bouncy, she’s probably the most extraverted person I’ve ever met (she said “hi” and I felt my introverted power banks go down to about 3%), however, as time went by I was able to see that she has the most golden heart.

Taylor has become a wonderful friend.  She has brought me chocolate and left me notes when I was stressing myself out, hugs when I was sad (or literally any time she saw me around campus), and texts that brightened my day.

The biggest thing Taylor has taught me this year is that I need to get to the heart of a person before I make any decisions on whether or not we could be friends.  Because I was adamant that we never would be when I first met her.  Oh, what I would have missed out on had I held on to that!

What a delightful human, full of talent and life, and a love for Coca-Cola that she should probably seek help for.  What a blessing to my life she has been.

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The Roomie: Alex P.
This one has become another sister to me.  I’ve lost track of how many nights we stayed up until 4am/5am talking about life, our fears, and our darkest secrets.   We laughed hard one of our last nights staying up late talking: “We had no idea this would happen.  Who would have thought, huh?” “Yeah, who would have thought?”

I will never be able to thank this woman for all she’s done for me.  She went around to talk with my professors when I was struggling with a horrible bout of depression during our first semester together—it made it easier for me when I finally could work up the courage and motivation to talk to them myself (I didn’t find out that she had done this until our second semester).  She sat with me as I cried my heart out because I felt broken and she encouraged me as I began my journey taking medication.  She felt my frustration when I had allergic reactions to my meds.  She talked me out of dropping out of college when I felt too stupid to carry on (this happened at least twice).  She accepted me and loved me through a lot of trying life changes.  And because of her attentiveness and willingness to talk to me late one terrible night, I’m alive today.  At times the fall semester felt like something out of Dante’s Inferno for me.

In the spring she cheered me on as I took a leadership position in the poetry club I’ve been a part of since the first semester of freshman year.  She encouraged me as I fought with bad head days, laughed at my ridiculous jokes, danced away stressful days with me, and encouraged me as I went through the process of changing my major—and not long after that, she changed hers, too.

We’ve been through a lot together.  We’ve wanted to hit each other over the head with frying pans a few times, we’ve been annoyed and irritated with each other, but that’s life when you live it with another person.  It sometimes may feel like they are driving you up a wall, but they are growing you, they are sharpening you, and you become grateful for everything that makes up who they are.

We’ve taught each other so much.  We’ve grown so much.  She has become one of my best and dearest friends.

Alex is one of the best people I’ve ever known and I am so, so glad she gave me a shot as her roommate and stuck with me.  I’ve found a phenomenal friend in her.

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I love this suite.  I love how close we all are.  I love the deep discussions we’ve had, I love the laughter-fests that occurred during late nights as we all tried to get projects completed that we should have started earlier.  I love our spontaneous dances, our spontaneous sing-alongs, our silly phrases and those excellent quotes no one else gets to know.

I wish I could tell you all our stories, all the fun adventures, all the goodness that was living together, all the craziness, but that would take a book-length work and no blog post should ever be so long.

So, I’ve given you a glimpse at these beautiful souls I’ve come to know over this past school year and how much they’ve come to mean to me.  They have made me more outgoing, more willing to try new things, and more like me.

Next year will be different.  For the fall semester, Rachel will be studying abroad and it will be Alex, Hannah, and I rooming together.  That will switch in the spring semester when Hannah will be married and Rachel will take her spot as roomie.  Taylor will be in another dorm.  Things won’t be the same.

But that’s not necessarily bad.  I look forward to the year of new memories we will create and the adventures we are all going to have—separately and together.

I’m so very blessed and grateful that this rooming situation worked out like it did.  I grew so much in the last school year, and a lot of that growing was due to these incredible women and their willingness to be a part of my life by listening, by speaking life, by giving their time and their love.

If I get nothing out of college other than these friendships and what they’ve taught me, it will have been worth it.

Moving From Safety Into Living

There’s a book character that has been on my mind recently as she has become a point of reference for some character flaws of mine, the character of Aunt Elinor from Cornelia Funke’s novel Inkheart.  When the readers first meet Elinor she is locked away in her fenced-in estate with her precious collection of books which fills her rather large house.  Elinor loves adventure, she loves suspense, she loves thrills, she loves reckless daring—when it’s written in ink, bound in paper, cloth, or leather, that is.  She rarely ever leaves her home and is content to spend her hours, her days, her years, in this solitude with only her books for company.  The woman you are probably picturing if you are not familiar with the story is a dainty, gentle, older woman—but “older woman” would be the only correct assumption.  She is brass, she is fiery, and she doesn’t care who knows it.  Her fenced-in estate is her fortress and her persona her armor against all that she fears out in the big scary world that cannot be controlled by simply turning a page or by closing the book when it all becomes too much.  The real world demands facing, it demands presence, it demands a willingness to put oneself out there and stay, standing your ground when all sense is screaming, “Run!”  Life does not give us bookmarks to hold the story’s action until we feel able and qualified to continue on.  And Elinor wants none of that.

I relate to Elinor in that I love a good adventure—as long as it is trapped between the pages of a book or on a television screen.  Sure, seeing and reading about all those heroes  and adventurers doing important things in the world is inspiring, truly, but the longer I think about actually putting myself out there like they do—suddenly sirens go off in my brain and I feel like I need to breathe into a paper bag and find a dark corner to lie down in until I find a sense of calm again.  However, I can feel myself changing, becoming bolder and braver, becoming more willing to discuss and voice my questions and fears. And I know I have so much more work to do.  I have felt the fear rise in me as I prepare to go home for the summer: I look at my piles of questions and the small stack of answers beside them (which are looking more like questions in disguise as the days fly by)  and I’m not ready to face anyone with them.

The hardest thing about this life, especially as a young person, is we are constantly asked questions and we are expected to give satisfactory answers.  But what do you do when you have no satisfactory answers to give?  Well, according to German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, you live the questions.  You live them in the hopes of living into the answers.  And when you think of questions and equate them to a journey, a sense of freedom comes with this way of thinking.  It’s something I’ve only been aware of for a year, this way of thinking/living, and I’m trying to implement it.  But it’s hard and I find myself, like Elinor, hiding in my fortress, in my books, in my solitude, in the safety of not getting involved.  It is so much easier to live on the sidelines, so much easier to be neutral, so much easier to have thoughts and ideas and never have to defend them.  But if a life never dares to share its true thoughts and opinions with other minds and hearts, are those ideas really worth having?  What are ideas and opinions if you are not willing to let them be tested—if you do not allow them to be heard against the ideas and opinions of others?  However, as I said, it is the uncertainties that are the hardest to communicate.  Uncertainties are often met with well-meaning pats on the head and/or equally well-meaning advice, but not so much encouragement to keep seeking unless it is to encourage you to seek in their way, or worse yet, plain ugliness to the question or uncertainty shared.  These reactions are not always the case, but they happen enough to scare me into silence more often than not.  And there are few things heavier than questions unasked and stifled.  How can you live them if you keep them hidden?  And if you cannot live them, how will you ever find your way into the answers?

Elinor experiences great character growth in the novel.  She is reluctant, she complains, but she goes on the adventure with her strange nephew-in-law and her great-niece, mostly to escape the fiends who were after them, but along the way, in the midst of the adventure she had once condemned to the page, she finds her courage and she starts to discover herself—she starts to get a taste of real life.  She runs away at one point, tries to walk out of the story, but she comes back, and her coming back makes a difference for those she has allowed herself to begin to love.  I think I love her so much because she is so perfectly imperfect—swearing as she bungles along, cynical and critical to a fault, and puts too much value on the wrong things—she represents the messiest parts of me that only my closest friends get to see.  And even in all her messy fears, flaws, and brute honesty, she had within her the ability to live all along—it just took leaving her safety to truly do so; it took being open to uncertainty, it took a whole lot of courage in the midst of uncomfortable fear, and it took action.

I hope as each day passes I come a little bit closer to truly living.  That one day I will care more about what my inner-knowing says and less about what everyone else in the world says.  That I will be less fearful and more willing to take leaps of faith, even if the fear remains.  That one day perfection will stop being my pursuit and instead love, grace, honesty, and growth will become my ultimate goals to strive for.  It will take moving out of my safety, out of what makes me comfortable, it will take courage, and it will take action, but in the end, no matter how messy and ridiculous and scary it feels, I know it will be better than never having lived at all.