On frequent mornings and early evenings, I walk through my neighborhood to clear my mind and exercise my body. For 45 minutes I promise to set aside my worries and focus on the world around me - the clear, blue sky, the sound of my footsteps falling softly on the pavement, the faint whisper of a squirrel cackling in the trees above, and the sweet melody of a songbird.
My intentions are good. But invariably, just as I notice the soft curtain of wind blowing against my skin, I pull back from the present. I dismiss the beauty around me and do the opposite of what I've promised myself. I let the clutter back. My mind starts nattering on about my overdue library book, my daughter's spelling test, and my son's preschool tuition check.
Before I know it, I am back at my doorstep, turning the key in the lock and feeling surprised and angry at myself for spending my coveted time alone obsessing over the countless chores awaiting me. For the life of me, I can't remember what I saw in the streets and sidewalks of my community. Instead, I have been wrapped up in the past or the future, oblivious to all around me.
For years I didn't think it mattered. I went about my day on two or three planes at once, thinking my mental juggling was normal, efficient - in fact, exemplary.
While carrying on a phone conversation I would empty the dishwasher, jot notes on my grocery list, and interrupt my caller to field questions from my children. At the end of each day I patted myself on the back for being so accomplished in this fast-paced world, never considering that my partial availability affected the quality of my interaction with others.
I may have gone on this way forever, had I not gone through a period of profound personal loss a year ago. I gradually came to see that the tragedy of my loss was not the future I would no longer have with the person, but the past that we hadn't fully lived together.
Too often we had spent our time together rehashing yesterday or making plans for tomorrow. We had missed the fullness of our time in the present.
After reluctantly admitting this to myself, I vowed to live my life more consciously: to be thankful for each day, and to authentically participate in it with myself and others.
I am the first to admit that most days I fail. I'm rushing, obsessing, and daydreaming instead of focusing on the person or occupation at hand.
But when I do practice my new vows, the payoff is extraordinary. I discovered this several months ago when I took my five-year-old son to visit an historic home and garden. We went on a magnificent spring afternoon - one of those days when it seems that the earth has renewed itself overnight. The ground was bursting with a profusion of blossoming Japanese cherry trees, forsythia, and bulbs, all competing for our attention.
I had been to this garden often, but this time I chose to discover it anew through my son's eyes. Instead of insisting that we follow the trails, as I had done so many times before, I let my son choose the way.
As I held his hand, he led me down the winding paths and along the terraces. When he wanted to look for pine cones on the ground, we did. A few bends in the path later, when we came across a stone nymph spilling water into a pool, we paused to skip pennies across the clear film of water.
And so it went. We wandered for more than an hour, up and down the paths and hillsides, pausing to throw pennies in yet another fountain or to recite the name of a flower or tree. By the end of our stay, I felt replete in ways I hadn't in previous visits to the garden.
When I reflect on our time together and relate that to how I want to live each day, I realize that it wasn't the magnificence of the surroundings that captured me, but what I gave of myself.
By fully participating with my son and the world around me, I discovered a richness of life that is there only when I make the conscious effort to be with it.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society