Updated: Jan 7, 2022
The new normal is starting to feel, well, normal.
Despite being a naturally sociable human, I can easily talk myself out of going pretty much anywhere. I keep a spare milk in the freezer and enough boxes of cereal on hand that we could build a small shelter if push came to shove, just to delay trips to the grocery store.
I find being out in the world exhausting these days. When this pandemic wraps up, it may take time for me to bounce back to public comfort. I can only imagine the strength it will take people with social anxiety to pry their fingers from their doorframes and return to the world.
Still, this new normal has its surreal strangeness.
Nearly every plan we make changes or is cancelled before it happens due to someone, somewhere quarantining. (Raise of hands, who wonders if we might miss this get-out-of-jail-free card a teeny bit when this is over? Oh, sorry, can’t make it. You know, quarantine.)
My friend texted me the other day: I took way too much joy from organizing my snack basket earlier and thought I NEED TO SEE MY FRIENDS.
I think my dog has blurred the line between animal and human. To be fair, perhaps we have too. She looks truly abashed when we leave her alone for even an hour, offended when we eat waffles off plates, and she eats the same kibble as yesterday and the days and weeks before. The nerve.
Yesterday, she gave me a look I swear was imploring me for an iPhone. And Snapchat, too, while we were at it.
I was in a store and saw St. Patrick’s Day paraphernalia and remembered last year’s cancellation of St. Paddy’s Day. It’s been nearly a year. It feels like an anniversary you don’t want, like that perfume from your grandmother that smells slightly rancid.
New normals I hope we keep: tele-health appointments that save you a two-hour drive to consult a specialist, curb-side pick-up, online streaming of all sorts of events to be enjoyed around the world, reinventing the way we work, parents appreciating the heroes teachers truly are, society applauding the sacrifices of health-care workers.
My own personal silver lining in this new normal: the amount of space in my external world has opened a new space in my internal world.
For years, I’ve worked to cultivate a level of presence in my life, a peeling back of the layers in search of the fruit contained inside. Something I can best call contentment.
See contentment is more than it seems at first glance. Contentment, at its core, is finding a peaceful pocket within any moment. Not just the moments we prefer or the ones we work to orchestrate to our liking.
Contentment begins with acceptance, with looking life square in the face, saying, “I see you as you are,” and then finding fulfillment anyway. It’s not asking or needing life to be a certain way. It’s beyond joy, beyond happiness.
Contentment is powerfully unconditional, a gentle reverence for what is, rather than a fight for what isn’t. And for me, it’s often been elusive.
I’ve been a multitasking pro, a boss of a family scheduler, a champion doer. I’ve also been guilty of “waiting” to enjoy my life in some future moment. Once the kids are in bed, when I’m done working, when it’s the weekend, when my list is checked off, once vacation comes, when the house is clean.
But here’s the problem with that system- the future never comes. It’s always in the future.
Having our schedules wiped clean has brought me face to face with this plate-spinning procrastination of my own life. Robbed of my excuses for why I couldn’t bring my whole self to a moment, I’ve come to understand that I didn’t know how to fully show up.
Presence, it turns out, is both a skill and a practice. It’s not about being physically in a space but being mentally, emotionally and spiritually there as well.
Presence does not mean listening to my wife with eye contact and murmurs while mentally writing the grocery list. Presence does not mean going for a walk and barely noticing the sights around me while my mind holds me hostage with plans, worries and yet more to-do lists.
Presence does not mean scarfing down dinner in such a distracted state that I don’t feel satisfied, so I prowl around for more food.
Arguably, presence is a tall order in the moments of life we don’t particularly enjoy - laundry, dishes, making dinner, root canals, taxes, sickness, strife, bad news, cancelled plans, pandemics, bills.
But what happens when we get too practiced at glossing over the undesirable parts of our lives? When we chronically ache for the workweek to give way to the weekend, or any moment to yield to another, better moment?
We postpone living. We train ourselves to be slightly ahead of where we are.
And then we get so good at it, we don’t even notice. Then the happy things we want to experience hold less vibrancy when we arrive. The vacation we couldn’t wait for is overlaid with the mental chatter we can no longer turn off. We forget how to show up even when we desperately want to.
We lose agency over our own experience of living.
This was me. I was waiting. I was never letting the moment I was in be enough and so it never was. I got really good at waiting to fully live.
That is not something I want to be good at.
I was living two steps away from my body all the time. My head was in moments that had not yet happened or in ones that already had. I was living in the shadow of my own life, rather than my actual life.
It is like living with a constant barrier, a viscous filter where I can no longer choose what gets through. It’s living cut off from the essence of it all. It is a dulled experience, an existence untouched by wonder.
It is like living inside a condom.
The costs of repeatedly dwelling in such a location, just off the bubble, are both subtle and staggering. Life moves from sharp focus to blurred, a hand swiped across a charcoal drawing, the details smudged. There is a constant restlessness, a longing for more, always more. But of what?
More plans, more food, more excitement, more self-improvement, more things, more experiences, more time, more space. Always more. But when more would come, it fell like sand through my fingers. I had no way to hold any of it.
Presence is the container. Without it to hold my life, I remained chronically undernourished and unfulfilled. Without presence, there is no possibility for contentment.
Practicing presence is a bit like learning to meditate. At first, it just feels impossible. The mind is a powerful machine. It refuses to stop. The single most impactful tool to interrupt its madness is simply to observe it. To notice that I am thinking, to separate myself from my thoughts.
This weakens the mind’s hold. It provides the smallest sliver of space where presence can grow. Sometimes only for 5 seconds. With training, with simple non-judgmental awareness – “Oh, there it goes again-” we build strength. We get better at it and it gets easier.
COVID season, as my wife now calls it, has been the perfect training camp for me. My life naturally has less commotion and so I have less excuses.
I walk my dog in the woods each day, moving in and out of moments of presence, catching my mind pulling me away. Occasionally I stop and look around, say to myself, “I am here.” I look, really look, at the stretch of the trees skyward, at the animal prints in the snow, the muted shades of green and brown all around. I am here. There is nowhere else for me to be but right here.
Yes, I still speed through dishes and groan a bit about making supper (we need to eat again?), but as much as possible, I bring myself back to wherever I am.
Because this is my life. I only get this one. I want to show up for it. (Depending on your beliefs, perhaps we get more than one, but don’t we ever only get ONE of this exact life?)
But to be honest, showing up can feel scary, unsettling, antsy. This intrigues me. Why wouldn’t it be natural to fully experience the life we so desperately want, the one we would fight for if it were threatened?
I believe the root is fear. Fear that we are not actually the people we think we are. Fear of opening to a life that often feels out of control. Fear of experiencing life without the protection of a buffer. Fear of pain. Fear of the rawness of being fully alive.
When we dwell in the past or the present, we cut ourselves off from ourselves. The present can feel intimidating because it is the place where we actually are.
And if we are brave enough to meet ourselves in this present moment, magic happens. The stories and lies and misconceptions and imposed identities can fall away. We can watch them fall like the support arm of a spacecraft at launch. In those moments, we can learn who we really are.
It is moving from living on accident to living on purpose. It is moving from the mind into the heart. It is moving from powerless to powerful. It is moving from disappointed to contented.
And here’s the secret: who we are is infinitely better than who we fear we aren’t.
Moment by moment, our experience of living can be utterly transformed.
It is only in the present we can be nourished by our life, where we can reach for the hand of someone we love, smile at a stranger, listen to a symphony, gaze at the night sky. It is only in the present we can watch a spider weave her web, kiss our children goodnight, dive into a cool lake or hear the best news of our life. It is only in the present where we breath, where our heart beats, where we can hear the laugh of someone we love or taste a perfect summer strawberry.
We are not alive in the past. We are not alive in the future. We are only alive in this present moment.
Presence is the road that leads us home to ourselves. One steady, open breath at a time. Welcome. Welcome home.