For years, I struggled with living in the present moment. I spent most of my teens and 20s angling toward The Next Thing — the admission letter, the internship, the serious boyfriend, the promotion, the engagement, the better apartment, the new job, the wedding, the first house, babies! It was hard not to: a lot happens in your 20s, and there are delicate timetables (leases! graduations! windows for promotion eligibility! bonuses! fertility!) and complicated career decisions and the daunting logistics of coordinating your aspirations and preferences with those of your loved ones. And I think ambition is a good thing, especially when you have the energy and general lack of responsibility I enjoyed in my 20s. That is to say: I can’t blame myself for flirting with the future as I moved through that decade.
Things have settled down in the last few years, as I slope towards 40. I feel as though I am where I am meant to be. I often talk about separating the “years that ask” from “the years that answer,” and though the past year has been one of incredible difficulty, isolation, and uncertainty (my experience paling in intensity company to that of countless many other Americans), I have to say that my mid-30s have in general felt like a big answer. Or, if not an answer articulate, the kind of reassurance you feel when a professor glances your way after you’ve been holding your hand in the air for five or six minutes and nods at you, acknowledging that you’ve been seen, you will be heard, and you are not far from response. You then sit, perhaps rehearsing your inquiry, but less fearful that your concerns will float out into the ether, unseen and illegible.
I think because I have enjoyed a greater sense of stability in the past few years, I have had the emotional space to intentionally focus on ways to feel more present and less harried. A few techniques that have provided acute relief:
+Understanding chores and exercise as a part of the architecture of my day — not “things that get in the way of living life,” but part and parcel of life itself. My sister and I have a shared shorthand for our former fluster as we’d positively barrel through errands and domestic drudgeries: we called it “slamming drawers and cabinets.” (“What were you up to today?” “Ugh, just slamming drawers and cabinets.”) Now I understand that things like ironing, baking a birthday cake, sorting the children’s clothing for donation, picking up prescriptions, scheduling appointments, etc., are actual tasks! That must be calendared! And treated like the time-consuming activities that they are! This reconceptualization has helped me move through my day with more control and — can I say it? — leisure. I now aim to make these admin tasks as pleasant as I can, whether folding laundry while watching a TV show, ironing while listening to an audiobook, or doing the dishes while enjoying a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
+Related to the above, casting my domestic responsibilities as equal entrants on my daily to-do lists. That is to say, nestled right alongside a call with a non-profit I have been working with, answering the comments on my blog, and editing that think piece I’ve been working on, I will also include ticks for: order groceries, check to make sure Tilly’s vaccines are up to date, follow up with other class mom on Valentine’s Day activity, and drop return at UPS. In aggregate, these trivial tasks take up a lot of time and consume a considerable amount of space in my daily mental load. It has been helpful to organize these items on my to do list not only because it makes me feel more productive and ensures that nothing will fall through the cracks — but because it is a visual reminder that I am owning a lot of things, and that those tiny things matter. Accounting for them helps me be more realistic about what I can do in a given day, which in turn affords me a sense of control and accomplishment.
+Banning my phone from bed. This was a difficult habit to break, but the benefits were immediate: I started falling asleep so much faster and sleeping so much more soundly. I think this is partly because I am no longer over-stimulating myself just before bed but the habit has afforded the added benefit of setting an invisible boundary: “The day is over; now it is time to sleep.” The only thing to do once I climb into bed is sleep. It makes my bedtime rituals feel much quieter, more intentional, stripped of distraction. Cannot recommend this enough.
+Creating a fifteen-minute buffer period between the end of work and the start of my evening home and parenting duties.
+Dedicating time to Mr. Magpie after the children are down. It starts in the kitchen, just after I’ve cleared the melee of dishes, toys, flung clothing, and stray noodles from our apartment and dipped outside into the brisk winter air to take Tilly on a walk. I then hurry down the long butler’s pantry extension of our L-shaped kitchen and stand propped against the counter, watching Mr. Magpie cook, drinking a glass of wine, unwinding, chatting or not chatting about the day, tutting as Mr. Magpie criticizes a recipe or extols the virtues of bronze-cut pasta, fetching plates or clearing the counter as his forever sous-chef. We almost always listen to music — The Toots and the Maytals providing considerable release one recent evening — and then we sit down to eat, going over our STPs (Shoop Talking Points — all of the items we must discuss on a given day, from upcoming doctor’s appointments to what gift to send for a nephew’s birthday to our meal plan for the week and even bigger ticket items pertaining to our professions or family members or parenting technique) and then, usually, watching a show. We are disciplined about keeping our phones out of reach during this portion of the night, and it feels like a one or two-hour vacation.
Looking back on this list, I realize how many of these are simply formalizations, or ritualizations, of common sense instincts, all of them together orchestrated to help me lead a more measured, less frenetic quotidian life in which every segment of the day can be — if not enjoyed, then at least well-managed. Somehow building the logistical shell around, for example, “the 15 minute end-of-work buffer” by extending our caregiver’s hours, and organizing high priority concerns into a digital list of “talking points,” and categorically banning my phone from bed have helped me achieve a better pace, a better “mouthfeel,” as I move through my day. And it is all, I now realize, about boundary-setting and line drawing.
One area I need to work on is being present and putting my phone out of reach when with the children. I often find success in this area when I have planned activities for them that I can lead and participate in. I find it far more difficult during hour 23098 of the weekend, when we are all tired and I don’t know that I have it in me to persist through the next hour of free play, or just after I’ve completed the morning shift. Mr. Magpie and I trade off the morning shift; when I’m on deck, this entails emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the kitchen, scrubbing the cooktop, replenishing the ice, making breakfast, changing morning diaper, administering bottle, feeding children, cleaning up after breakfast, taking temperatures and filling out health check for school, packing lunch, brushing children’s teeth and hair, and dressing the children. By the time I’ve completed all of those tasks (in about a 1.5 hour window), I just want to sit, quietly, with my phone for a spell, but this is often when my children are at their most energetic! If it’s a school day, Hill wants to run around the apartment, or have me read him books, or pull out and empty every puzzle on the shelf, one by one. And I am always keenly aware that this little window — after Emory leaves and before our caregiver arrives — presents a special sliver of one-on-one time with my boy. But it is hard to resist the desire to just sit and glaze over, checking my phone, or immediately lunge into the process of getting myself ready for the day, or pitter-patter around the apartment taking care of other things. The same goes for weekend afternoons, when I am usually feeling depleted from my exertions in activities and crafts and excursions outdoors. I feel a voice inside tell me: “Come on, Jen, get down on that floor and play with those Maileg mice! Read that stack of books with Emory! Pull out the crayons! Or, at least, just sit in quiet, watching and observing. You do not need to check your phone. Be present!” It is a challenge.
Any advice in this category, friends?
What helps you stay in the present moment?
+Another memory from my 20s: a serious case of imposter syndrome.
+Adorable Pam Munson bag on sale for almost 40% off. I loved when she used this pastel madras liner for her bags!
+One of my favorite posts I wrote last year, on legacy and lineage.
+Such pretty melamine plates for your outdoor dining setup this spring!
+This bold La Double J one-piece (on serious sale)!
+Love this striped, longline cardigan (under $100).
+Just restocked our art supply cabinet with fresh watercolors, watercolor paper, and gel crayons (as of the time of writing this, these are 50% off the set of 24 — we LOVE this brand and these crayons in particular, which I find are particularly good for little ones as they positively glide over paper).
+Everything in Mi Golondrina’s Valentine’s Day Collection is beyond. I’m dying over this dress but thinking it would be too long on me and it’s always tricky tailoring a dress with a tier like that along the bottom. But this gingham top…! Ahhh!
+Still some time to score Valentine’s Day finds for your loved ones here.
+Meanwhile, if you can believe it, most sizes of this St. Patrick’s Day clover pajama set are already sold out!
+Gosh I love this dress!