We have become experts at documenting the lives of our children. From the instant my sons made their first appearances in the delivery room, they have been the stars of our home movies and our favorite photographic subjects. But the most precious moments of my family's life are not the ones illuminated by birthday candles, Christmas lights, or amusement park rides, and they cannot be captured on film or tape.
The moments I hold most dear are those that arise unbidden in the course of any daysmall, evanescent, scarcely worth noticing except for the fact that I am being offered, just for a second, a glimpse into another's soul. If my experience as a mother has taught me anything, it is to be awake for such moments, to keep life simple enough to allow them to occur, and to appreciate their fleeting beauty: a lip-smacking good-night "guppy kiss"; a spoonful of maple syrup on snow, served to me in bed with great fanfare on a stormy winter morning; a conversation with a tiny speckled salamander discovered, blinking calmly, under a rock. . . . These are the moments that, woven together, constitute the unique fabric of our family life. Herein lies the deep color, the lights and shadows, of our days together.
I am fortunate to have had a mentor in the art of living in the moment. In fact, I received my most precious lesson from her after her death. My older son, Henry, was a year and a half old, and I had left him for the first time, to spend four days in Atlanta, going through the papers of my friend Olive Ann Burns. When Olive Ann and I had first met, eight years earlier, I wasan ambitious twenty-five-year-old, eager to make my way in the world of New York publishing. She was a sixty-year-old housewife about to publish her first novel after a ten-year battle with cancer. In retrospect, I suppose I was of some small help to Olive Ann, suggesting ways to cut pages from her enormous manuscript or sharpen a character, but I now know that she had much more to offer me, namely an unforgettable example of how life ought to be lived, even in the face of tremendous pain.
Cold Sassy Tree surprised everyone by becoming a best-seller, and Olive Ann Burns became a national celebrity. Having been confined to the house during all those years of illness, she thoroughly enjoyed her moment in the spotlight. But it was not to last. Soon after she embarked on a sequel to Cold Sassy Tree, her cancer returned. Although she continued to write, and later to dictate, from her bed, the book was unfinished when she died on July 4, 1990.
By the time of Olive Ann's death, I had left publishing to edit an annual short-story anthology from home. Much as I had loved my career, I knew that I could not sustain that kind of commitment to my work and to children, too. But my relationship with Olive Ann had long since transcended that between editor and writer. She was my friend and my teacher as well, for she embodied the kind of courage and spirit that I aspired to. On the other side, she had come to trust my editorial judgment, and she knew that I would be honest with her about the new book.
Olive Ann had completed twelve chapters when she died and had made notes for others. She had also left explicit wishes for the manuscript: She wanted it to be published somehow, so that the hundreds of people who had written her asking for a sequel would not feel let down. Olive Ann had told me this story many times; we had sat side by side on her couch as she showed me the family photo album, introducing me to the real-life characters who had inspired her work. So, with her family's encouragement, I agreed to supplement Olive Ann's chapters with a reminiscence of their author, telling how Cold Sassy Tree came to be written and fleshing out the story of the sequel. This was the task that brought me to Atlanta.
Every mother remembers the first night she spends away from her first child. Settling into the familiar little inn a few blocks from Olive Ann's house, where I had always stayed when visiting her, I felt that I had been yanked out of my current life, as a wife and mother, and hurled back into my former one. I was rereading Cold Sassy Tree as preparation for the work ahead, andwonder of wondersI was alone. For the first time since my son was born, I had time to reflect, to become reacquainted with myself, apart from my husband and my baby. I tried to appreciate the solitude, for I had always loved it, but now I felt unmoored, free-floating in a hotel room while my real life went on without me, someplace else. I realized how grateful I was for all the connections that usually held me in place, and I couldn't wait to get home.
It was in this mood that I sat down in the middle of a room filled with Olive Ann. There were all the drafts of Cold Sassy Tree, every typed page densely scribbled with her revisions; there were boxes of fan mail; manuscript pages of the new book, ideas she had jotted on the backs of envelopes and shopping lists, love letters from her late husband, and, perhaps most poignant of all, notes Olive Ann had written to herself to bolster her own courage during the hard times.
Late in the afternoon of my last day in Atlanta, I came across a sheet of yellow-lined paper on which Olive Ann had written these words:
I have learned to quit speeding through life, always trying to do too many things too quickly, without taking the time to enjoy each day's doings. I think I always thought of real living as being high. I don't mean on drugsI mean real living was falling in love, or when I got my first job, or when I was able to help somebody, or watch my baby get born, or have a good morning of really good writing. In between the highs I was impatientyou know how it islife seemed so Daily. Now I love the dailiness. I enjoy washing dishes. I enjoy cooking, I see my father's roses out the kitchen window, I like picking beans. I notice everythingbirdsongs, the clouds, the sound of wind, the glory of sunshine after two weeks of rain. These things I took for granted before.
It seemed that Olive Ann was speaking directly to me. I copied the lines down and then taped them above my desk when I got home, where they remain to this day. For many weeks I found myself blinking back tears every time I read them, for my own life with an infant was about nothing if not "dailiness," but mine was just beginning, while hers had ended. The fact that she was gone was a powerful reminder to me to pay attention while I had the chance, and to respect the fact that our time here is short.
In a way, those words launched me on the journey into what I have come to feel is my authentic adult life. The idea of living in the moment is not new, of course, but the piece of paper that I carried home from Atlanta and hung above my desk was the inspiration I needed to begin to turn an idea into a way of life. Those simple words seemed to hold out to me a practice, a way of being, that was worth striving for. I didn't want to learn this lesson as a result of ten years of cancer and a few brushes with mortality, as Olive Ann had doneI wanted to learn it now, to be aware of life's beauty even before fate threatened to take it away.
Ours is a society that places high value on achievement and acquisition. The subtle rewards of contemplation, quiet, and deep connection with another human being are held in low esteem, if they are recognized at all. As a result, mothers are constantly pulled in two directions: Can we negotiate the demands of our careers and the world at large, and meet our own emotional and physical needsnot to mention those of our childrenat the same time? Can we keep our sights on what is important in any given moment? Do we know how to shut the door, stop the noise, and tune in to our own inner lives?
We all have fallen victim at one time or another to the relentless cycle of our children's playdates and after-school lessons, to the push for their academic and athletic accomplishments, and to their endless desires for the latest toy, video game, or designer sneakers. The adage of our age seems to be "Get more out of life!" And we do our best to obey. Grab a snack, round up the kids, and we're out the doorto do, or buy, or learn something more.
But in our efforts to make each moment "count," we seem to have lost the knack of appreciating the ordinary. We provide our children with so much that the extraordinary isn't special anymore, and the subtle rhythms of daily life elude us altogether. We do too much and savor too little. We mistake activity for happiness, and so we stuff our children's days with activities, and their heads with information, when we ought to be feeding their souls instead. I know a mother who came upon her two-year-old sitting alone, lost in a daydream, and worried that he was "wasting time."
Over the years, I have learned to quit speeding through life, but it is a lesson I must take up and learn again every day, for the world conspires to keep us all moving fast. I have found that it is much easier for me to stay busy than to make a commitment to empty timenot surprising, perhaps, in a culture that seems to equate being busy with being alive. Yet if we don't attend to life's small rituals, if we can't find time to savor "dailiness," then we really are impoverished. Our agendas starve our souls.
Like all mothers, I harbor dreams for my children, and sometimes I fall under the spell of my own aspirations for them. We want our children to do well! But when I stop and think about what I truly want for them, I know that it is not material wealth or academic brilliance or athletic prowess. My deeper hope is that each of my sons will be able to see the sacred in the ordinary; that they, too, will grow up knowing how to "love the dailiness." So, for their sakes as well as my own, I remind myself to slow down and enjoy the day's doings. The daily rhythms of life, the humble household rituals, the nourishment I providethese are my offerings to my children, given with love and gratefully received.
When I stop speeding through life,
I find the joy in
each day's doings, in the life that cannot be bought, but
only discovered, created, savored, and lived.