It was a normal, busy day last year: I rushed through work, packed in a hurry, ran a few errands, and then hit the road with an iced coffee and loads of podcasts to get me through the boring, straight and narrow drive that is any part of Iowa. I had just exited the interstate, following my sister to her house in order to pick her up before heading to my parents' home. We went through one intersection, and then I sped up, assuming both of us would glide through the next green light, too.
Instead, she slammed on her brakes for a yellow light the moment I glanced down. When I looked up, I knew I would hit her—so I stretched my arms forward, pushed my foot to the ground and braced myself for the impact.
Within seconds our cars had smashed together and both of my air bags deployed. Shaken, with the smell of smoke in the air, I paused and unbuckled my seatbelt, noticing that my windshield had somehow not shattered completely but liquid seeped out from under the vehicle. I darted out of my seat, grabbed my purse and bag, and threw them to the corner of the street, afraid that an explosion was on the heels of the accident.
Luckily, neither of us experienced minor injuries. Both cars were totaled, but hey, that's what insurance is for, right? Everything was okay, but it also wasn't. That accident scared me; it startled me out of an autopilot mode I hadn't realized I turned on.
You know this mode—I know you do. It happens all the time. Not so much at the start of a new year, but later, when the resolutions and habits begin to drift and we slowly make our way back to usual patterns. Mostly, it's when you start multitasking and doing a bunch of shit that doesn't really matter.
In my life, it's when I'm driving from one location to the next destination with the radio turned way up, glancing down at my cell phone to scroll through Instagram every time I pause at a stoplight. It's when I get home, say a quick hello to the person I love, a "how was your day?" without really listening and then turn on a television show in the background. It's when I'm making dinner or eating lunch, reading blogs and answering work emails, talking on the phone to my mother or sister and saying a lot of "Uh huh . . ." and "That sounds good" and "Oh yeah?" It's when I go through a whole yoga class and realize I spent most of the time thinking about bills needing paid, tasks needing done, things I want to buy, books I want to read, other people's status updates. It's when I say a lot of yes—out of obligation, out of habit, out of wanting to be liked, out of a desire to feel important.
It's when all of a sudden a new month rolls around, and I feel sad. I know all the days happened, and I was there for them. But was I, really? Because it feels like I missed something. We say every year that the past year went by so fast, and it does. Am I going to be saying that over and over again for the rest of my life, and doing nothing about it?
When I hit my sister's car, I wasn't paying attention. Lord knows what I glanced down in that millisecond to do; I probably adjusted the radio, moved my phone, changed the temperature. I got really lucky, as it could have been much worse. But it reminded me how often I slide into cruise control, how easy it is to drive fast without noticing the scenery, how much I take for granted.
I recently started reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and like many other articles, blogs and books nowadays, it touts the benefits of doing more with less, of finding balance, of pulling oneself out of the "busy trap." I talk this talk, but I don't walk the walk. I always have these moments where I think I'm paring things down. I clean out my closets and get rid of clothes I don't wear. I try to use all the food in my overflowing refrigerator and make meals from my freezer. I aim to use my words carefully. I don't feel a need to read all the books or watch every television show or buy stuff I don't need. I've got a list of priorities, and connection with other people is at the very top. Not things.
I forget, though, that distraction is a thing that creeps in always. I tell my yoga students to "hold space for themselves," to "clear their minds," to "let go of what doesn't matter." All of those platitudes sound really nice, like they belong on Etsy magnets. A pared down life looks good on Instagram but it's rarely my reality.
I never realize how distracted I've become from my own life until something causes me to open my eyes and stop, halt, pause. Most of the time, I float along, assuming it'll all be okay and go my way. This is sometimes true, sometimes not; I've had seasons of great loss and pain, and seasons of pure joy and hope. But what I've noticed is that when I'm in the latter phase, when things are going pretty well, I pay less attention. To be sure, this is a problem of privilege and in some ways stems from my guilt related to that. I think, if I do as much as I can with less, if I make the most out of every item owned, every piece of food purchased, every dollar made . . . then maybe I deserve this blessed life. I have to remind myself that having the time to mull and stress over minimalism in the first place is a gift in itself; many women and families simply live under the most limited conditions because that is their only option.
Being pregnant and having a baby slowed my life way down. All of a sudden, my to-do list evaporated. The dishes still filled up the sink, the laundry still piled up in the hallway, the clutter still covered the counters . . . but it became less important. I cut out social events, text messages, traveling, and more—and slowly, I'm trying to figure out what stays and what goes as I enter a new phase. Less stuff in my home, more tangible space. Less screen time, more walks outside. Less spending, more saving. More of the good stuff: eye contact and honesty and hugging and listening.
My job, lately, is simple: be a mom. Feed my son, play with him, help him nap, change his diaper, etc. That's not my only job or role, but it's been a big reminder that my life is happening right now. Not on my phone. Not on the computer. Not yesterday or tomorrow or this summer. Right now. Today. In front of me. And I really want to pay attention to how lovely it is.