Striving for the Present

Someone once advised me to live in the present. I thought, “What, am I supposed to eschew all planning, banish all worrying (a lifelong habit), abandon my goals, and fly by the seat of my pants on absolutely everything?” Answer: No. That wasn’t actually what the phrase suggested. Nor do I think I could possibly achieve any of those things.

It took some time, and the perspective of an infant, to bring home the meaning of that advice.

My son loves being outside, something my husband and I had hoped for and, admittedly, tried to instill in him. So, on a particularly lovely October day last year, we headed to a nearby state park. Now, autumn has always been my favorite season. I believe that affinity may be hardwired into every fall-born child. Growing up on a farm, I had free rein to observe the crimsons, oranges and golds as they appeared. Crashing through fallen leaves down the bank of a cold stream was immensely satisfying. Autumn houses Thanksgiving, that most delightful of holidays, and who can resist a cheerful thought at the sight of a bright, plump pumpkin? But I digress. In short, I thought I was a grand appreciator and soaker-upper of all things autumnal. That is, until my then eight-month-old son made me see I had room for improvement.

His favorite Mickey CD played merrily as I pulled into the gravel parking lot by the lakeshore that day. The area was dotted with trees and picnic tables. A beautiful maple tree stood right before of us, golden leaves shining in the sun. The perfect spot to spread a blanket. I laid him down while I retrieved snacks and toys from the overpacked baby bag beside him. Of course, I also made ready my camera (i.e. cell phone) for the adorable “picnic and playtime under the leaves” photos I anticipated.

What I saw when I turned to look at him was never captured in a photo, but I think I remember it more vividly than if it had been.

My son was lying on his back, directly beneath that golden maple, gazing up at it with a grin of awestruck delight that lit up his entire face. He waved his arms in the air. He kicked his little feet. “Isn’t it so pretty?!” I exclaimed, a grin taking over my own face. I laid down beside him. “Pretty” all of a sudden seemed shamefully inadequate. I’d never seen a more stunning display of color. The dark branches stretched out in such contrast to the dandelion-yellow leaves – leaves that practically shimmered as they moved in the light breeze. The sun peeked through the roving gaps, making shadows play below.

I took a picture of that view of the tree; the view through my son’s eyes. I’d admired changing leaves for as long as I could remember. I’d been grateful for them ever since I had enough sense to be. But never, to my memory, was my breath taken away quite like it was in that moment.  I was grateful to my tiny boy for creating that moment, and for sharing it with me. I felt like I had done that maple a grave injustice by seeing it as “another beautiful yellow tree.”

How very different that moment would have been if I had simply begun trying to fit my baby’s smile and the pretty yellow leaves above him into the same frame on my smartphone. The difference between that moment, and the moment it had almost been, solidified for me the meaning (and benefit) of living in the present. I wondered if I had experienced life as my son does at some point; if I had let myself wander into a moment, rather than anticipate it and plan my reaction to it. I thought, “of course I must have,” which led me to question whether I had lost that ability or simply lost the method as I got older. I hoped it was the method.

Adult life demands a lot. With schedules to keep and responsibilities on our shoulders, we plan and do and worry seemingly just to keep pace. We can’t always slow down. We can’t always banish the thoughts running through our heads at will. We can’t lay on our backs and gaze up at every tree. But we can change our perspective by becoming more conscious of how we approach an experience. Instead of anticipating what I am going to behold when I turn around, and what my reaction will be, I can let a bit of surprise in and let a bit of planned response fall away. It lends positivity to more than beholding trees.

Keeping myself in the present is one of the greatest gifts I can give my son as his caretaker, and one of the best I can receive as his mother. I can almost see the gears turning as he works to master a new task. I feel an inexpressible joy when he lifts his head from the book or toy between us, and our eyes meet with a smile I can see reflected there. I better understand his frustrations, even if quelling them escapes me.

Making an effort to keep myself in the present brings richness to relationships.  It’s made me more perceptive in my interactions with new people, or with familiar people in uncharted conversational or situational territory. Emotions and meanings become clearer, and connections become stronger.

It doesn’t sound like something that should be difficult to do. After all, we technically do live in the present. But somewhere between eight months and thirty years, we learn to keep the present at a distance so we can assure ourselves that we are prepared for what is coming up ahead. Having plans and goals is something I believe in. But in working to live at least some of my moments in the present, I’ve come to find that plans and goals don’t need to come at the cost of recognizing what or where you are right now.