in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between her work and her play,
her labor and her leisure, her mind and her body, her education and her recreation.
She hardly knows which is which. She simply pursues her vision of excellence
through whatever she is doing and leaves others to determine whether she is
working or playing. To herself she always seems to be doing both."
Can you say that you are a "master in the art of living?" Probably not, but whoever wrote the above quotation seemed to know how it is done. The quote is anonymous though, which is sad somehow. Who was this woman and how did she get so wise? Knowing her name isn't really important; but the rhythm and balance of her sentences reflect the content of what sounds like a balanced and contented life.
Too many of us can apply Henry David Thoreau's words from WALDEN to our lives: "....The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation...." We work at our jobs, we take care of the people in our lives; we take care of our houses; but when it comes time to take care of ourselves we find that we've run out of hours. The work starts all over again each day, until "quiet desperation" becomes an apt description of the pattern of our living.
"Beth" moves through her days desperately trying to keep up with things. Her heart lurches with panic as soon as the alarm rings each morning, and she stumbles into the kitchen to face a sink full of dirty dishes that she had to sacrifice to get a little sleep the night before. She won't have time to do them this morning either, so she washes a few cereal bowls and spoons and wakes the kids. The kids pick up on her mood, and they are grouchy and uncooperative through most of the morning. She takes them to school and is late to her job again, dreading making up another excuse for her supervisor.
"Lillian" moves through life on a schedule largely orchestrated by her organized husband. Her children, trained by that husband, get themselves up, get their clothes and their own cereal bowls, while she takes her shower and gets ready for work. She works in her husband's office, so they spend the day together, and drive home together. Her husband loves to cook, so he cooks dinner while she goes on her daily bicycle ride. When she gets home, the kids are setting the table and she sits down to dinner. She cleans up the kitchen while her husband puts a load of laundry in and takes care of paperwork, such as household bills, etc. She and her husband work together as a team, but also pursue their own interests. She always calls him if she'll be late getting home, and vice versa.
Does "Lillian" sound like a fairy tale, and "Beth" more like reality? Actually...Lillian is based on a real person--my sister. "Beth" is completely fictional, except that some of her feelings and experiences are mine, and a combination of several single mothers I know. Yes, my sister's husband really does exist, and her kids really do help out and help themselves. Sometimes I feel like they must have all come from some alien planet, but nevertheless, their lives are far more peaceful and productive than Beth's...or mine.
One major component that separates Lillian and Beth is income. Beth never has enough money, and Lillian and her husband have plenty. So is money the answer? After all, many marriage experts will tell you that couples with low incomes will often fight about money. Worry about bills plus the added pressure of needy and growing children can result in a volatile situation. Arguments lead to more arguments, and to possible emotional and physical abuse as needs grow larger and income spreads thinner and thinner in a vain attempt to stretch...until it snaps like a broken rubber band. Would Lillian and her husband be just as miserable as Beth if they had to worry constantly about money?
But I would like to think that money is not the only answer to that life of "quiet desperation" and/or single motherhood. Remember our quotation. Could Beth "simply pursue her vision of excellence through whatever she is doing...." Is it possible to be poor and overworked, single--which means there isn't a whole lot of hope anyone can ease your overwork--and still be happy?
Doesn't seem too likely, does it?
But as a stubborn optimist, I think we can find a way for Beth to do something about her life before she crashes and burns her way into a major depression. What makes me an optimist? Certainly not my pleasant life circumstances. Beth and I could be twins. Actually, Lillian and I are twins--honestly--but that's another story. My husband and I are in the process of ending our marriage. In the space of three weeks, he has moved into a nicer house than ours, (with a 46 inch television set,) picked up a female roommate, and three days after he told me he wanted to keep things as friendly as possible for the kids' sake, informed me that I better get a second job, because he would no longer keep giving me a "free ride." So solving Beth's problems could solve many of my problems and maybe many of yours.
In GOD ON A HARLEY, by Joan Brady, "Christine" meets "Joe," who is actually God, on a Harley Motorcycle no less, in the persona of a long-haired hunky biker guy. He gives her a set of commandments that were selected personally for her. An important commandment is to "Live in the moment, for each one is precious and not to be squandered." He tells her to forget about what she perceives as her failures and her shortcomings and to "try to love what she sees." Loving what she sees includes not only the people and things around her, but herself. "...if you know exactly who and what you are, complete with shortcomings as well as talents...you never have to waste your time and energy being anything else...embrace your shortcomings, wallow in your talents and...love everything that is you." It works for Christine. Could it work for Beth?
Let's see. Beth wakes in a panic every morning. She panics because she knows the morning seldom goes well and that she's frequently late, and the dirty dishes are depressing, and her teenage daughter will probably complain that the clothes she stayed up to wash last night were the absolute wrong ones, and her young son will have to be convinced--again--that he really does have to go to school. How do you find moments like these "precious?" Well...she could take a good long look at her children before she wakes them; a child's face can be extremely precious with eyes closed, and an added plus is that teenagers seldom talk back to you when they're sleeping. Beth might smile a bit as she gazes at the sleeping faces of her angels, and then kiss them awake instead of shake them. It may have absolutely no effect on the moods of her children in the morning, but it is sure to give Beth a moment of peace and love.
Another thing that could help Beth in the mornings is music. I've rediscovered the music of my youth lately, much to my children's amusement. If I could find Gordon Lightfoot on compact disc then I'm sure Beth could find The Eagles, or The Rolling Stones, or whatever group once made her spirits soar. I'm going to look for Joan Baez next, no matter how much it embarrasses my children. The music we listened to as teenagers is often the music that makes our spirits soar, our hearts lift, and our minds go back to when life seemed deliciously full of possibilities. Even a few minutes of listening to well-loved lyrics and familiar beats can make the morning less of a "desperation" and more of a joy.
Now about those dirty dishes...no, Beth does not have time to do them before she leaves for work. But maybe she needs to change her attitude about them when she comes home in the afternoon. I'd have to agree that a sink full of dirty dishes, especially if they've been there for 2 days, is enough to make any woman scream and run the other way. Sometimes you just have to sneak up on a task. Put on some music, set the timer on the microwave and decide to wash as many dishes as possible in the time allotted. Or fill up the dishwasher quickly, telling yourself you will absolutely not touch the ones that don't fit in the dishwasher. The dishes may not be done quickly, but you'll get a good start, and starting is the only way to ever get close to finishing.
One more important thing about those dishes...Beth has to remember that chores promote responsibility in children and make sure the children have a few. Once she gets caught up in the kitchen, even her youngest could put his dirty dishes in the dishwasher, or even a wash a few by hand. And if they dare to rebel, she can sentence them to a half an hour of listening to Gordon Lightfoot.
Going back to that woman who "...draws no sharp distinction between her work and her play, her labor and her leisure...," maybe we could even help Beth find work she really loves. Maybe she once had a secret yearning to be a journalist, but she feels like she just doesn't have the time to pursue the necessary education. She should never give up her dream, but she should face the cold reality that dreams will not come true by dreams alone. Dreaming must become doing at some point if you expect to make any progress. If Beth yearns to be a journalist, then chances are a teacher, or a prize winning essay, or some other such evidence in her youth convinced her she has some writing talent. Someone should tell Beth that she doesn't have to wait for a degree to be published. A large daily newspaper might not hire her, but the little weekly just might; and if she loves to write articles, she could also write for magazines. As her experience grows, and she continues to write, her talent will grow and she could end up being published and paid for her writing. It can happen to Beth, because it happened to me, her almost twin. If I had waited for that college degree, I'd still be unpublished and dreaming. Instead, I've been paid for my writing, and sometimes paid well.
If Beth thinks she has no spare time to work on her goals and dreams, she needs to remember that starting is still the most important step. Even if she carves out just fifteen minutes to a half an hour a day to pursue a goal, she is that much closer to the finish line.
The fifteen minute principle can even be applied to her physical goals. When you're overworked and underpaid and starting to get up there in years...okay, I have no idea how old Beth is; and I've already put myself in that "older" category by mentioning Gordon Lightfoot, who I'm sure many of you have never even heard of...so I guess I'm the one getting up there in years. Anyway, recent evidence has proven that a couple of 10 minute sessions of exercise can be almost as effective as 20 to 30 minutes of continuous exercise. The point is to get moving in some way, and not to settle into a sedentary lifestyle. Exercise not only improves health, but also floods your brain with all of those delightful endorphins that are Nature's version of antidepressants.
It is very important for Beth to remember that happiness will not just fall into her lap. I guarantee she will still wake up to days that really suck, to borrow a phrase from my teenagers. But those days will be fewer if she makes an effort to forgive her past mistakes, and carve some time out for herself every day.
Last but not least, we could even give Beth advice on how to tackle her biggest fear, that she'll never find someone to share her life with. After all, she's been hurt by her ex-husband, and she doesn't have much time to date, and what she hears of today's dating world has made her wary of meeting new men. Christine in GOD ON A HARLEY, has similar fears, and wonders how she is going to attract the kind of man who will become her soul mate. "Joe" has an answer for that concern also:
..."You use an honest heart...You simply be yourself. Your real self. You start doing the things you really enjoy, doing them every day, several times a day if you like. You wear the clothes that make you feel the most comfortable and most like yourself. You listen to the kind of music that truly moves you. You trust your body to tell you what to eat instead of trying to adhere to some crazy diet. Eventually, an enlightened man will catch all the vibrations that emanate from your contented soul and BAM-he shows up on your doorstep. It's as easy as that..."
Change is not easy, and too often it seems much easier to fall into bed and wallow in our own despair, choosing to forget that we possess the talent and ability not just to exist in this world, but to *shine.* Isn't it time you pursued your own "vision of excellence..?"
Dream your dreams, but translate those dreams into action by taking those small steps that will start you on your way. Just do it; and don't worry about the fact that Nike isn't using that slogan anymore. Make it your own, and rediscover your "vision of excellence" which inevitably leads to a life of balance, rhythm and passion.
Brady, Joan, GOD ON A HARLEY, Pocket Books, New York, N.Y., 1995, ISBN 0-671-53621-4.
Burnham, Sophy, FOR WRITERS ONLY, Ballantine Books, New York, 1994, ISBN 0-345-37317-0.
Pamela Willis is Editorial Manager of MOONDANCE and the author of numerous short stories and articles, plus a book in the Nancy Drew Mystery Series. She is currently collaborating with her twin sister on a mystery novel and will soon be teaching the art of fiction in online classes.
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