Taking time to enjoy moments – even little ones, as they happen and for what they are – can be easier said than done. I have good intentions. I’m sure you do, too. But life charges ahead ruthlessly. The theoretical treadmill keeps going faster. Some little gremlin pushes the up arrow repeatedly while laughing maniacally. Before I know it, a day is gone. A week is gone. A season passed. I could have, should have, would have…taken the time to listen to a girlfriend needing an opinion about a new business idea…paused to inhale the sweet soapy smell of my freshly bathed boys…stopped to enjoy the familiar tune streaming from the saxophone of the musician on the street corner. But the phone rings. The ding-ding of a text message steals my attention. My swollen inbox silently, steadily expands, beckoning me to check, check and check again. These distractions take me away from now.
Unpleasant events have a way of snapping us to attention. We look up from the phone, reader or whatever is stealing us away from the present, and stand still. We are beckoned to take notice. Like so many who came close yet were spared an unthinkable fate, I had such a moment just this week. I think we all did.
It was starting to feel like a party here. School had been cancelled. Places of work were closed. We had nowhere to go, nothing to do but stay inside and enjoy each other. We blew off warnings to stock up on batteries and candles, instead piling full-bodied red wines and cartons of India Pale Ale atop a shopping cart filled with a whole chicken, canned tomatoes and the makings for a pumpkin pie. I stood in the check-out line, which snaked in and out of aisles and back around the dairy case in those days before the storm, and began to second-guess my nonchalance.
Residents of DC – especially transplants from cities boasting entire seasons of actual severe weather – know much is made of inclement weather threats in this town. I was incredulous when, in our first winter here, schools closed for the day with a mention of flurries in the forecast. Said snowflakes never appeared. Wimps, I thought. We have braced ourselves for rain, winds, hail and snow. These threats rarely, if ever, mature to realities. All this wolf-crying contributed to my calm state. But better safe than sorry, I reasoned.
A gentle rain began to fall. A blustery wind followed. Tree branches swayed. Shop owners boarded up windows and sandbagged doors. As a mild undercurrent of panic set in, I wondered if anymore D batteries or jugs of water remained on store shelves for non-believers like myself? We dug up an assortment of candles and flashlights, then went to bed.
On Monday morning, with nowhere to go but upstairs or down, we front-loaded activities requiring power. My four-year-old had been asking for a pumpkin pie from the day he plucked his squat, orange gourd from the vine. “But I’ve never had a pumpkin pie,” he pleaded. We carved pumpkins the day before and the question bubbled up again. Today was the day. I preheated the oven as I made the boys a pot of extra-thick oatmeal for breakfast. We combined pumpkin puree (from a can, not from the pumpkins we carved) with spices, milk, cream and sugar using this recipe from Food52 as our guide. Breakfast dishes cleared and pie in oven, I pushed ahead. Onto the next electric-requiring activity.
I sent the boys upstairs to watch a movie – while we still could! before we lost power! – while I collected the makings of a bolognese sauce from the talented Lynda at TasteFood. I didn’t even try to photograph my version. Jump over to Lynda’s site and admire her gorgeous photos there.
I had a pie, a pot of bolognese resting on the “warm” setting, the makings of a salad in the fridge and an alarming supply of drink. It was 10 a.m. If the power were to go out, we were ready.
The day progressed and the lights stayed on. The rain fell more urgently and the wind blew aggressively. We built towers and trains with Legos, colored monsters and aliens with markers and played rounds of word games and Candyland. I invited neighbors for dinner. Clad in rain boots and parkas, our friends arrived with smiles. We were happy for a chance to get together on a random fall Monday. This was actually fun. So far, no one appeared to be in danger. We stuffed ourselves with spaghetti laced with Lynda’s chunky bolognese and polished off bottle after bottle of wine. The kids retreated to the playroom, leaving the adults to carry on with conversation.
And then, a not-at-all-funny thing happened. The storm, the one that seemed unworthy of fear, became real. Not in my home or on my street or even in my town. But as the images appeared on news websites and in horrific clips on the evening news, the reality of a nightmare unleashed itself. I watched the television. I checked the news by laptop and phone. I was lucky to have these lifelines, not to mention the safety of my family and neighbors.
Homes under water. Businesses destroyed. Towns demolished. People displaced, cold, scared. Lives in danger. These people were just hours away by car. I was struck by what a difference a few hundred miles made. I was heartbroken to hear of the woman trying to flee the storm with her small boys in her arms, only for them to be swept away by the violent winds and carried away by the rising water. I could think of nothing worse.
Perspective is a familiar old buddy who sidles up quietly, perhaps taking you by surprise. It taps your shoulder saying, “I’m here. Check me out. It’s been a while. I didn’t want you to forget me.” But the story it tells isn’t ha-ha funny. It’s sad or scary or downright rude. You have an a-ha moment. The smile stretched across your face at the recognition of an old friend disappears when you realize what your pal is here to say. The tap on the shoulder had come.
The inconvenience of a missed day of school, which had irked me as I watched a normal rainy day unfold in DC, now seemed trivial. The prospect of cabin fever became ridiculous. If the biggest threat we faced was boredom, we couldn’t be any luckier. The sad images of destruction and danger underscored this point. We were safe and warm in a fully-powered house teeming with of food – and each other. It was more than we could have asked for.
I sliced the pumpkin pie. Though Halloween was just days away, Thanksgiving came early for us. The moment of clarity settled into my bones, its warmth permeating my fingers and toes. I had everything I needed and wanted right here, so much to be thankful for. All that I take for granted each day without meaning to – two healthy children, a loving husband, good friends, food, comfort, warmth, security – were on display with all distractions stripped away. This is what it’s all about. It shouldn’t take a natural disaster to spell it out.
Today I’m making two commitments. The first is to help. Too far away to donate blood, fresh water or supplies needed to help the victims in need, I chose to make a donation to the Food Bank For New York City, whose Superstorm Sandy relief efforts distribute food to those affected by Sandy throughout the five boroughs. There are numerous organizations accepting donations of time, money and supplies. Even small gestures count.
My second commitment is to to be present and to say and do things showing appreciation for the here and now. Sometimes the phone, the text and the email can wait. Take a breath, take a look and just be happy to be.
Wishing you warmth, safety and the of course, presence – right here, right now.