Thinking Smaller.

A bright and windy Saturday afternoon in the early season of Fall. I’m sharing the last of the day’s Sun together with my eight-year old daughter, as we drive to our destination. Outside the car she notices the wind as it stirs the leaves into small vortexes near the ground, and the torn fabric of a flag, showing signs of its age as it whips wildly atop its unsteady pole.  Ideas flow from my daughter’s lips like honey, with a fluid viscosity and a laughter that bubbles of youth and energy.  I’m slightly subdued and seriously considering a coffee at this late hour, as the yellowed orb of the sun slowly melts into the horizon.  As we approach the toy store, my little girl’s voice sings in excitement while my auditory cortex shifts into automatic, mindlessly hearing but not entirely processing the endless sound of her kid-like chatter.  I’m distracted.  By the cogs turning in my frontal lobe.  Systems shifting my thoughts elsewhere:  Distance to the next Coffee shop.  Monday’s business workload.  Parent-teacher Meetings.  Quantity of laundry in the hamper at home.  Schedule of tomorrow’s programs…The never ending “to-do” list of life.

A sharp thought jumps to the forefront of my mind, washing my distractions clean, at least for a short while, and I remind myself to consciously stay in the moment, practice my mindfulness and direct my thoughts to the here and now.  To uncover the hidden joys in the short seconds, the minutes, the hours that make up my days.  The beauty hidden in small units of time.  To think smaller, as I breathe in the minutes and elongate them like taffy candy in the hands of a young child, a practice in stretching the sinew of joyous moments out over time and space.  And there is no better moment than now, for small hints of change are making me painfully aware, as of late, that the passage of time, from my daughter’s childhood to her youth, is approaching. Her hands are losing the sweet puckered dimples at their knuckles.  Her wispy and wild hair, still luminous with a youthful sheen, is rarely if ever found in braided pigtails anymore, once held tightly by mismatched elastics at their ends.  Her shoelaces are tied on her own accord, zippers no longer need my guiding hands, and she sleeps, although just as pure and peacefully as she did as a baby, with far fewer stuffed animals tucked lovingly into her folded arms.

Entering the toy store, the wind picks up and blows my daughter’s mass of straw-coloured hair in front of her eyes.  She stops to giggle, claw the hair away from her eyes and mouth, and then turns directly to face the wind.  Hands outstretched and fingers splayed to catch the thrill of the wind’s fury and power, my eight-year old daughter closes her eyes to enjoy the experience.  I close my eyes too.  Not to feel the gust of wind, but to inhale and attempt to quieten the loud noise in my head that wants to tell my daughter to hurry up – That I have laundry to get to, paperwork to complete, emails to get through, and dinner to prepare.  Instead, I exhale slowly and repeat my mantra “Think Smaller”.  The shrill of laughter and the wide smile on my daughter’s lips confirms my choice as I cement my feet firmly into the ground, open my eyes, and watch with pleasure as my daughter drinks life in.

Inside the toy store, my little girl dances through the aisles, each one brighter, more colourful and more intriguing than the next.  Her heart skipping in time with her feet.  I’m adrift in my head, trying to tease apart the ongoing, intersecting, and often complicated weave of divorce schedules, work obligations, family events and kids playdates.  Then a little hand, tenderly pulls my sleeve and I’m right back where I ought to be, watching through the sparkling eyes of my child, our small space in time in a toy store aisle.  Here in this aisle an eight-year old girl has an opportunity to choose.  Which toy? Which special treat? Which box to take home and call her own?  Her lips are loose with excitement and her questions are endless.  While her thoughts are loud like thunder, I actively work to keep my voice silent, for I know that if I speak my mind, I could easily convince this child of which toy would be the “best” choice, we could be at the cash register in a heartbeat, and back out in the blistery wind, homeward bound to tackle my adult “to-do” list in no time.  Instead, I think smaller.  Exhaling slowly, I consciously take my agenda out of the equation.  Bending down to match my daughter’s height, together we ponder, we process, we consider.  Which toy?  How much fun would it be? Would her brother like it?  Why?  Why not?  We delight in conversation as if there were no rush at all.  We think smaller.  I see the puffing of her chest in pride when she finally makes her decision, and we leave the toy aisle with a sense of grand accomplishment.

Driving home, I peer into the rear-view mirror and glimpse my growing child, still in her booster seat, although not for too long, and holding the large toy box on top of her lap, choosing to carry the weight of it for the ride rather than bear the thought of it being out of sight in the trunk.  She’s examining every corner of the cardboard box, peeking through the plastic window and chatting with excitement about what she can see.  Thinking smaller, I keep my mind in place as we imagine together the fun we will have building this brand new wooden bunk bed for her dollies.

No sooner have we arrived in the front door and my little girl is puncturing the box to reach at the treasures within.  Laying the labelled pieces across the living room floor, we build.  Spending the better part of the evening with an instruction manual, a screwdriver, a hammer, a boxed pizza, and our four hands together, we piece away, bit-by-bit toward the final product.  Thinking smaller, I leave the piled laundry in the basement, the busyness of work a thought far off in my mind, and I ponder and plan with my daughter where each sticker should go on her new toy bed.  When it is built we are both beaming with pride, and my daughter, my beautiful soulful daughter, hugs me tight and says “Mommy, the best part of this toy was the fun of choosing it and building it WITH YOU.”   I hug her back even tighter, cup her head in my hands and kiss her forehead hard and long, grab my phone and take a picture of us together with her dolls’ newly built toy bed, making sure I capture the moment in pixelated bits so that we can remember…and yet somehow knowing that in thinking smaller, I have managed to create a moment that neither of us will soon forget.

The Quiet Hum of Worry.

To string together her early memories would weave a typically quilted childhood story, rich in family and love and linked colourfully, like paper clips on a chain, by the passage of time as it gracefully meandered along the willowy pathways of youth.  Yet interspersed within those joyous carefree days of her childhood were moments marked by “Worry”. Quiet at first, Worry masked itself in commonplace occurrences: A young girl clutching at her mother’s knees, bright green eyes hiding behind chubby fingers with a sheepish concern that an adult might talk to her.  As a child, those short-crested waves of Worry would be dissolved by a protective Mom, always ready to speak up for that young girl or do just about anything to see her daughter’s eyes smile and to watch her fingers unclench from beneath her knee-length skirt.

As she grew so did her Worry.  During grade school Worry grew louder and became more palpable.  More than a thought in her mind, Worry became something she could suddenly feel in her body:  A spoiled stomach at the thought of a class presentation.  A creative idea well deserved to be heard by a teacher would become muzzled by a mouth that couldn’t form the words.  A raised hand of certainty in a crowded third grade classroom became overshadowed by Worry that her answer might be wrong, and her lifted little hand would slowly melt down her torso in time with her melted conviction.  It was a beating heart that drummed too swiftly inside the wall of her chest, burning with the heat of concern that she might be called upon or that she might be noticed, and an appetite that got lost in the silent apprehension of hiding her tangled mess of emotions from the outside world.

As those school age years rolled along, Worry morphed and transformed itself into a more vaporous state and Anxiety became to take form.  Anxiety had the presence and stature of Worry’s more shrewd and manipulative twin, and it moved and breathed at an ever quickening pace.  Anxiety created thoughts in her head that she just couldn’t quieten.  It spawned suspicion that people were judging her or were talking about her.  It whispered “people hate you” in her ear.  It reminded her that she was different.  It told her that she couldn’t function or cope like others and that she couldn’t handle the workload. It made her feel that she might go crazy, that she wouldn’t be able to control it and that her brain was not firing with the same synapses as other people.  It warned her loudly that she will lose her mind.  

Anxiety’s brilliant mental game plan ultimately bred Panic. Living with Panic was a horrible human experiment in agony and perseverance, because unlike Anxiety, Panic would not be ignored.  Panic locked her into a visceral feedback system that told her something was going wrong inside her body when everything was just fine.  Panic was contained within trillions of neurons in her brain. It was the grinding of machinery, the rapid processing of thoughts, the noise in her head so loud it was deafening.   Panic had a delicious habit of spinning every worry, every concern, and every incident into a quagmire of problems, all of them intersecting each other in such a way that she couldn’t isolate one from the next.  Panic had her lost in a buzz of “what if’s” and “I cant’s” and “how will I” and beliefs that nothing would calm down long enough for her to sort it all out.  

Panic’s presence begot Fear, and Fear whispered in her ear with a maniacal mockery.  It reminded her that she ought to run far from the Panic, for it would surely come again, and it triggered a primordial flight response coded deep within the double helix of her DNA. Fear had her locking elbows in kinship with Avoidance, her closest ally and best method of defence.  Enmeshed with Avoidance, she defaulted to saying “no” to new experiences in her life, thus evading situations that may initiate Panic once more.  

There she oscillated in the sinusoidal wave pattern of her life:  Worry was the pebble that set the ripple in motion and anxiety amplified the surge.  Panic announced itself in the wave and rose with a heart pounding crescendo to its apex before the drop, with a free fall that was often unbearable.  Fear was knowing that the wave of anxiety would no doubt begin again, and avoidance created a safe and superficial furrow in the trough of the storm.

As she continued to walk the path of avoidance, she ultimately led herself into a passage, a restrictive space so small, so stale and so dimly lit that she began to feel less alive.  And yet she lingered, staying in that dark place for too long, knowing that the beauty of the outside world was there for her, yet feeling far too safe in her own world to reach out.  But the longer she stayed, the smaller and more suffocating her world became, and she began to feel deeply hopeless and alone within the confines of her walls.  As her world continued to shrink, she knew that she either had to surrender to the inside or face her fears and get out.  And so began her journey toward the outside, with her trembling heart compass pointing bravely in the direction of Fear.  At first her pace was slow and deliberate, taking tender and trepidatious steps along the lesser known road. But on she went, with hills and valleys, steps forward and steps back, all the while keeping her eyes set on the fearful unknown, with hopes placed on the limitless boundary of the distant horizon.  Eventually, a time came along the path when she was far enough away from that dark passage, where she could take pause, close her green eyes, bright and vibrant once more, and look back with honour and with pride at the gentle footsteps that marked her journey into Fear.

It is human’s nature to hide pain, as if sharing one’s authenticity might reveal a weakness in flesh, thus she fell very much in line with the likes of all living souls, mastering the guise of composure and never letting anyone know about that inner hum of Worry, or about her journey out of the dark.  It was a dichotomous way for her to live and she struggled with its fraudulence.  Now a bright and competent woman in her forties, that young girl has finally found a courage within her to accept the quiet hum of Worry and to face her Anxiety of sharing it.  She has found strength in putting a voice not only to her triumphs but also to her tribulations, and has discovered that in sharing her weaknesses, she actually has become less worried and fearful about them, more confident in the real beauty of brevity of living raw, more connected to others, and most accepting of her true, authentic self.