Finding the Present Moment

When I was eleven, my teacher moved my desk into the hallway. I was too fidgety and too loud to remain in the classroom. I was an active child. Every day after school, I ran to the diamond to play softball. Then changed in the car to go to swim practice. Then changed again before Jazz dance. Everything I did, I did quickly. I walked fast, ate fast, talked fast.

“Today, we’re going to watch a movie about a scientist,” my teacher announced. I was ecstatic: I was invited back into the classroom to see a MOVIE! I sat on the floor next to the metal cart with the giant film reel and noisy projector. On the big screen was a woman. Her blonde hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail. She was balancing a small notebook on her knee. And she was sitting high in a tree whose leaves were the size of t-shirts. Below her and above her were what looked to me to be monkeys: swinging, grooming, wrestling, screaming monkeys. Sunlight streamed in through the leaves and lit up the face of the woman amidst the chaos; she looked calm, relaxed, different from the exotic animals around her, yet completely at home. “This is Jane Goodall,” my teacher narrated. “She is a scientist who studies chimpanzees in Tanzania, Africa.”

I wanted to be able to sit among such wildness and be that calm. I wanted to belong to a changing landscape without fear. Once, when a chimpanzee leapt right at her face, she tossed her head back and laughed. Then she made a face; she sucked in her cheeks and pushed out her lips to let out deep funny-sounding grunts—and to my eleven-year old self that was so easily embarrassed by any movements that set me apart from others—her act of deliberately behaving like a chimpanzee seemed unimaginably brave. The chimp responded by jumping into her arms and squealing with delight. The two looked like they were celebrating. But what? Life?

“I want to do that,” I whispered to my friend.

“You could never sit still that long,” she answered.

My teacher overheard me and set me up with a challenge. She handed me a chair, a clipboard, and a pencil and told me to park myself near the 2nd floor water fountain.

“Take notes. How many girls come to the water fountain? How many boys? When?”

It was the hardest thing I had ever done. Sitting there, I mean. For hours, no one even drank from the water fountain. I doodled stick fingers leaping and dancing in the margins of my notepaper. My backside went numb in the chair. I was torn by competing feelings; I desperately wanted to go unnoticed like a “real” scientist and at the same time, I wanted someone, anyone, to notice me. It was the same fantasy I’d always had of being discovered, with slightly different dialogue. This time, a man in a safari hat drinks from the 2nd floor water fountain. He slowly turns around and says, “I see the way you are sitting so still, taking such good notes. We need you to lead a research project. How quickly can you get on a plane to Africa?”

After three days of not being discovered, sitting next to the water fountain thinking, I can’t sit still, I can’t afford a ticket to Africa, I can’t miss more class time, I turned in my clipboard to my teacher. “I’ll never be Jane,” I said to my teacher. I don’t remember how she reacted. It doesn’t matter. Because I was sure that I didn’t have what it takes.

Here’s where I want to make the connection between my eleven-year old self and my forty-year old self, trying to be fully present as a mother. When it comes to living mindfully, some part of me deep down believes that I don’t have what it takes. Some sticky part thinks that sweet serenity belongs to someone else who teaches kindergarten or yoga, but not me. But today I feel like challenging that idea. I want to say to my eleven-year old self, “You thought you were a failure because your mind drifted sometimes? Girl, you lasted three days watching a water fountain. Give me a high-five!”

I want to high-five mothers everywhere who make it five minutes today without their minds drifting. When I am with my kids, I want to be present. But it’s hard. My list of things to do is long and endless: the washing machine is flooding the basement, a client wants a contract by noon, texts are flying about car pool, and I still have to make lunches with the heel of a loaf of bread and one mushy green pepper. Then when I am ready to be present, my son goes into excruciating detail about Star Wars’ battles. Or my daughter wants me to watch her amazing, dazzling feat of a cartwheel for the 460th time. And well, my mind drifts. I am not present. I don’t even want to be present. I want to be away. Far away.

Like Africa away. So now, I let my mind drift. I let it drift all the way to that jungle in Tanzania with t-shirt-sized leaves. When I want to be calm and present, but feel the encroaching pressure of my to-do list, I picture myself as Jane Goodall up in that tree. Then I imagine that all the things on my list are chimps swinging around me. I look at each item on my list as a chimp; I see it with curiosity and a kind of detached amusement. When one tries to attack, I just toss my head back and laugh. “Oh you silly thing!” And sometimes, I even make a face; I suck in my cheeks and push out my lips to let out deep funny-sounding grunts. Really. I do. For whatever reason, this works. The feeling I get is one of complete calm, confidence, wakefulness. I gain enough space to breathe and do the next little test.

My wonderful sister-in-law, Rachel, taught me this test in which you ask a simple question: Am I going to see my kids in a few minutes? If yes, then let it be ok to not watch the 460th cartwheel until after you have checked something off the list or done something for yourself. But if the answer is: No. The kids are gone for the whole day, then get on the floor and watch cartwheels or build Star Wars legos for five minutes, because everything else can wait.

Who knows? Sunlight might just stream in through the window and light up your face: a woman amidst chaos who looks calm, relaxed, different from the wild animals around her, yet completely at home.

Storykeeper: Susie Caldwell Rinehart

Susie Caldwell Rinehart did go on to get her Masters in Science, but never studied chimps… She is currently at work on a book of essays about mothering.


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