“Drink from the well of your self and begin again.”
That nasty ol’ polar vortex finally sauntered out of town last week, but Old Man Winter is still hanging around, teasing us with just enough sunshine to beckon us out of doors–and then slamming us with just enough bone-chilling wind to send us scurrying back inside.
Have I mentioned before how much I despise January? (I’m sure I have.) The dreadful weather alone is enough to send me burrowing beneath the covers, but a stack of holiday shopping bills is suggesting that, once again, I went a little overboard on my gift-giving, platters of consumed Christmas goodies are proving just how quickly and easily they can transform into belly blubber, and a rapidly approaching date on the calendar is reminding me that no matter how desperately I want to believe otherwise, I’m just not that young anymore. (Yeah, it’s okay to chuckle at that revelation.)
And because I have been so cold (and old and blubbery and broke), I’ve been staying home and logging miles on my indoor bike trainer, pedaling strenuously and sweating profusely while staring in glazed-over boredom at my bedroom surroundings. Oh, how I have wanted to be outside, rolling down the highway with lake views over my shoulder, sunbeams warming my face, and greenness all around. And, if I were as tough as I pretend to be, I suppose I could have braved the below-freezing temperatures and ridden outdoors–but I chose not to.
And therein lies an important lesson–one that I’ve had ample opportunities to learn but still haven’t quite mastered.
A couple days ago I pulled back the bedroom curtains before I hopped on my bike, thinking that even though it was too cold to be outside, I could at least find some comfort from the sunshine streaming through the glass. With the television droning in the background, I began my pedaling frenzy, trying to focus on slowing my breathing and increasing my leg speed while reminding myself how much better I would feel when I could once again shimmy into my skinny jeans. But within minutes my focus had strayed . . . to the pain in my shoulders and the burning in my muscles, to the hodgepodge of clutter on my dresser (and night stand and desk and closet and floors), to the baskets of dirty clothes awaiting my attention, and to the billions of dust particles dancing on the sunbeams–mocking me.
I was not having fun.
But I kept pedaling.
And then a flash of red caught my eye . . . and when I turned my startled gaze to the window, I saw a male cardinal had perched on a swaying tree branch on the other side of the glass, and as he cocked his head to and fro, he seemed to be watching me as I watched him. Soon he was joined by another cardinal–and then another–and I pedaled and gazed for several more minutes until they all flew into the breeze.
And I know it seems silly, but when I turned my gaze back to my indoor surroundings, I was happy. I had suddenly realized that whatever I was feeling, whatever I was seeing, was of my own choosing. I could choose to focus on the pain of knotted muscles and the cruelty of January winters, or I could choose to ignore all that negativity and just breathe. The pain would eventually go away, and January would eventually be over. And while there were still loads of laundry to be done and dust motes to be eradicated, the clutter I had seen before now looked like cherished photographs of family and friends and colleagues and memorabilia from trips and adventures and childhoods. I now saw rows of candles waiting to sweeten the air around me and stacks of books that had filled my mind with beauty and joy–or were waiting their turn to do so. This was not clutter but evidence of a rich, full life.
On the wall above my bedroom mirror hangs a large, metal daisy inscribed with the question, “What sets your heart free?” I’ve been staring at that daisy a lot lately as I ride my bike, contemplating those things that soothe my spirit and make my soul dance, that ease my burdens and allow me to simply get lost in time–and get lost in myself. If I had taken the time to ask myself that question 15-20 years ago, back then I would have thought for a long time before answering with a good book and, of course, my children–and while those answers would have been just and right, honest and expected, I’m not so sure they would have been the best possible answers.
When my children were younger, I spent every rare, “free” moment reading. It was a form of mental escape from all the daily stresses I faced, and yet it came with its own guilty anxiety, for every stolen moment lost in a book was a moment when something else was being left undone. My children were my most important gift to the world, and their needs were my responsibility, my focus–and even if I could go back now and change that focus, I would not. But I also can’t help wondering if I had devoted just a little more time to feeding my own soul and setting my own heart free (a minute here, an hour–an entire hour!–there), would they have reaped even more benefits from having a happier, kinder, calmer mother?
And I would imagine many of you have asked the same questions (or will someday when your own children are grown and gone).
Most of us (and parents, especially, I think) have been indoctrinated not to grasp self-satisfying opportunities when they present themselves–and certainly not to go looking for them. We don’t “set our hearts free” because we’re too busy, we’re too tired, we don’t have time to exert that much effort, and–the big one–someone else needs our attention more. We’ve been led to believe that whatever we’re needing, dreaming, feeling is not nearly as important as what everyone else is needing, dreaming, feeling–and so we shut the door on our own needs, we build prison walls around our own desires, and we refuse to listen to that little voice that keeps begging for our attention, reverberating within our very souls. Or, at least, that’s what we do until that someday time when everyone else has finally been taken care of.
But what if that someday never comes?
I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. My “someday” is here. Shortly after my youngest son headed off to college, I was able to retire–and my days suddenly became my own, to do with as I pleased. If I wanted to take a long, luxurious bath in the middle of the day, I could do so with no little fists pounding on the bathroom door, no little voices screeching “Mom!” If I wanted to eat carrot cake for breakfast or Cheetos for lunch, I didn’t have to worry about the example I was setting–no one even needed to know. And if I wanted to spend the entire day in my pajamas curled up with Pat Conroy’s latest masterpiece, then I could do that, too.
But, you know, it’s funny . . . I don’t take baths that often, I usually choose oatmeal over cake for breakfast, and even though I thought when I retired I would spend every available moment immersed in a book, I really don’t read that much now. I don’t need to escape anymore, and I’m no longer content living vicariously through the characters in a book, traveling to wherever their adventures take them. I want my own adventures, thank you very much.
So what sets my heart free now? A few of the BIG ones are
- Riding my bicycle, whether on the highways of home or on the roads of distant shores (but especially when the sun is on my face and the wind is on my back).
- Hiking through the woods, seeking out waterfalls and wildflowers and all the other tiny wonders of nature.
- Traveling to new places and experiencing new things (I just got my passport!).
- Exploring the world from behind the lens of my camera, editing my treasures and then sharing them with others.
- Writing about my thoughts, my feelings–and then discovering so many others share the same sentiments.
On the desk in my bedroom is another motivational memento, this one with the command to “Find your happy.” I have found my happy–and I have found that it can be wherever and whenever and whatever I choose–taking moonlit, early-morning walks around the lake or boat rides into the sunset, spending hours editing pictures or even pedaling on my trainer on frigid January days. I have opened the door, I am listening to the little voice, and I am ever-so-slowly chipping away at the prison walls.
But enough about me.
What about you? What sets your heart free–and what are you doing to find your happy?
I know it’s not easy, especially if you have others at home who need your time and attention, but I hope that somehow you can devote a few moments of every day doing something that feeds your soul, something that satisfies you instead of everyone around you. It’s okay to be selfish once in a while–in fact, it’s vitally important. Dare to listen to your little voice, take the time to discover where your true passions lie and take those first steps–no matter how small, no matter how timid–toward tearing down a few walls of your own.
And now I’m headed back to a bike trainer–a few billion fat cells need to be set free, too.
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”
Macro photography (making larger-than-life photos of tiny objects) fascinates me, and I can spend hours lost in raindrops, flower petals and insect wings. This raindrop photo is one of my favorites because of its upside-down reflection.
I took this photo of the full moon setting over the lake a few mornings ago. It was a bitterly cold morning, but walking along the lake’s shore and gazing at the moonlight was a perfect, peaceful way to start a January day.
And here’s a little bee, feasting on a dandelion . . .