I just finished reading Nick Hornby's new book, Juliet, Naked, which was like eating generic freezer-case cheesecake: It filled the anticipatory void in my stomach, but left me annoyed over the unremarkable waste of calories.
Hornby's three aimless characters are so consumed with self-pity and the waste of their passive lives that I struggled to feel empathy. I know that's Hornby's shtick. The British author of High Fidelity and About A Boy is very much like Mistress of the Mundane Anne Tyler when it comes to the art of detailing daily life.
I can appreciate that -- and I even recognize a bit of myself and some of my friends in Hornby's stories about obsessive mixed-tape enthusiasts -- but after the 100th page of navel-gazing, I grow impatient. I have enough lint in my own belly button without worrying about everybody else's personal debris.
This isn't a book review; I have a point here. There was one passage in Hornby's book that struck me as super simple, but insightful. Annie, the main character, is a 40ish British woman who feels she has wasted her youth in a 15-year relationship with her boyfriend, the boorish obsessed fan of a reclusive rock musician. Stuck in the doldrums of everyday life and full of "what-ifs," she is consumed with having a child so she can avoid nostalgia and her melancholy existence.
"The cliche had it that kids were the future, but that wasn't it: they were the unreflective, active present," Hornby writes. "They were not themselves nostalgic because they couldn't be, and they retarded nostalgia in their parents. Even as they were getting sick and being bullied and becoming addicted to heroin and getting pregnant, they were in the moment, and she wanted to be in it with them."
Sometimes the best writers say what you already know, buried deep in your subconscious, but they say it in such a way that you are forced to retrieve the wisdom and dust it off. Turns out -- no surprise -- that Hornby is a father, the dad of an autistic teenage son. I'm sure that, like me, he has plenty of gripes about not having enough me-time. Yet, even though his child's needs are undoubtedly more demanding than mine, we share a great gift given to us by our kids: the Here & Now.
We live in the age of distraction. Text messages, voicemail, e-mail, Facebook, cell phones – they could easily devour my day. And yet there are those little people, tugging at my sleeve, calling my name. "Mom, listen to this story I wrote." "Mom, come play ping pong with me." "Mom, I'm hungry." "Mom, LOOK AT ME."
Life unfolds in the present. It's easy to let that slip away, squandering our time worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Mindfulness – the awareness of the present – is at the root of Buddhism, Taoism and many Native-American traditions, not to mention yoga. It's why Thoreau went to Walden Pond; it's what Emerson and Whitman wrote about in their essays and poems.
We might not recognize it on a daily basis, but it's also the Religion of Being Mom. And we are all disciples learning at the feet of our children.
After birth, they are simple creatures, consumed with the art of breathing, eating and pooping. That focus doesn't stray much as they get older. No one is better at living in the moment than my 9-year-old daughter, who can by hysterical and in tears one minute, singing and skipping the next. When she plays with her dolls, nothing else matters. When she eats a chocolate chip cookie, it has her full attention.
Mindfulness meditation has been documented to slow the progression of HIV and treat eating disorders, fibromyalgia and alcohol abuse. A 2003 University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that a short stint of mindfulness meditation produced lasting positive changes in the brain and the function of the immune system, improving resiliency.
It seems contradictory that the same miniature humans who create anxiety and stress in my life also can be credited with reducing it. But I have no doubts that they have saved me from my own decadent self-interest. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed being single. And I think some people – and the world – are better off not having their lives interrupted by children. It's just a relief to have someone else to worry about.
It's not true that parents don't worry about the future. On the contrary, we're consumed by our children and their future health, education and well-being. We're just not allowed to ponder too long when there are school lunches to pack, homework to help with and soccer games to attend. Sounds terribly boring and mundane, doesn't it? Not sure I want to read a book about it. But, in the end, it's a great story.