Looking Forward, Eyes Closed

If we were heroes, my son Henry and I would have the same super power.

He and his dad toured the East Coast by car this summer. Before they left, Henry made a note of a comic book store in New Jersey he wanted to see that is the basis for a reality television show.

During most of the drive there, Henry insisted he was going to wind up on television. And his dad kept reminding him, the chances of that were slim. The store might not be open. The odds that the show would be filming that day were not good; the odds that they would need Henry in the show were even slimmer. Yet, Henry, all full of 13-year-old hopefulness, kept insisting it was not only possible he would be on television, but that it was going to happen.

When they arrived at the store, there was activity out front, but it didn’t look open. Henry hopped out to ask what was going on. Guys at the store entrance told him the store was closed. Because they were getting ready to start filming. And, if Henry wanted to, he could be an extra. Did he ever!

Henry was positioned in the background, looking through comic books, while the main characters negotiated the value of movie memorabilia.

This story brought to mind another well-known family legend — about the time I made a tree branch destroy the picnic table, or at least that is the way it’s told. I had been insisting for weeks that we needed to replace that old, weather-worn, wooden table. My husband disagreed. And then one night, we heard a loud crash – a thunderstorm smashed a tree limb down the middle, removing all doubt. After that, I got my new picnic table. My kids joked that if I had a super-power it would be making things happen by saying they will.

I told Henry he must be the same way. Actually, it’s not so much a super-power, but an ability everybody has — not to control the weather or what time a comic book show will be filming, but to set the intention on what you want and go for an opportunity when you see one.

Setting the intention is one of my top three favorite pastimes. I’m never without a wish, whether it’s modest goal such as giving my next Toastmaster speech, or a grand one-step-back-from-the-impossible aspiration, such as moving my family cross-country for grad school. I enjoy setting a target in the future and breaking that down into steps that start now. As a result, I am in a nearly constant state of anticipation, which can be a lot of fun.

There is a balance though, and I am working on this lately, between planning ahead and making the most of what is in front of me now. A big chunk of happiness lies in appreciating the mundane, because that’s what every wish-come-true becomes once you get used to having it around. Every ‘there’ becomes ‘here’ if you stay awhile. This here is what you have.

So, what if, just for now, everything were exactly as it should be and there was nothing left to wish for? What would happen if I quieted the goal-setter in me and practiced thinking more like that?

About two months ago, I was browsing my city’s downtown marketplace and noticed a table where a nice lady was handing out flyers about the benefits of meditation. She was starting a class for beginners and asked if I would like to participate. I was in a suggestible mood. I said sure. A few days later, I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of a clean, bright room, with my hands folded just-so on my lap, slowly learning to breathe extra-deep.

At first, I found the physical posture uncomfortable and didn’t feel much else, but I sensed that I was onto something positive. So, I decided to trust the process for a while, ‘run the experiment’ as a friend of mine would say. I continued to attend the class weekly and to practice a few minutes daily, gradually increasing the time to about a half-hour. At home in the evenings, I sit half-lotus on a yoga mat, looking forward with my eyes closed, and set an alarm that sounds like crickets. As best I can, I focus on my breathing until they chirp.

Most days, my busy mind hardly sits still. And often there is a lot of background noise in the house. I had my doubts. Within a few weeks, though, I noticed changes in the way I reacted to every-day irritations. More patience, less complaining. And I was more aware of the small things that can make an otherwise unremarkable day seem great. Like the busy chaos of family life on any given Wednesday. Or the calm of an empty house for a few hours. Or the sound of high school marching band practicing in a nearby football field on an August afternoon.

After about a month, I noticed that areas in my life that had been stuck started to shake loose. Old habits lost their grip. I took care of projects around the house that I had put off for years, especially clearing out old junk. I found myself naturally making healthier choices. Fried chicken no longer had the same appeal. I wanted the lentil salad.

The more I focused on accepting the way things are, the more life started to shift in the direction I had wanted it to go, and I noticed a general arc toward greater contentment. I could say more, and maybe I will in a future blog, but for now I will leave it at that. Along the way, I also learned that there is scientific research to explain how this works. Curious readers may want to watch this TEDx Talk by skeptical neuroscience researcher, Sara Lazar. Or check out the book Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson. There are many approaches to meditation. It happens that the class I found is Heart Chan, a practice based in Buddhism as taught by a long line of Chinese master teachers.

My family keeps me from taking this practice too seriously, especially Henry. To let them know when to leave me be, I posted a sign on the bedroom door that says “Meditation In Session.” My son drew a cartoon on it.

I’m still chronically future-oriented — that’s a part of life and will probably always be my nature. For starters, I can’t wait to see Henry’s television debut. I hope the show used the shots he was in. It won’t air for several months. In the meantime, we already have our family travel plans set for Christmas. And, I aim to do a couch-to-5k running program this fall…

But, I am getting better at balancing the goal-setting with living in the moment.

A few nights ago, my son wanted my attention, to help him construct lego scenes in his room. “Mom, you said you would build the hut for Obi-Wan and Luke Skywalker,” he demands.

“Just a second,” I call out from another room, “I need to answer this text message. My friend and I are planning a visit to New York City.”

“You’re procrastinating, again, Mom. That’s not the way of the Buddha,” he teases.

At first, I laugh with him. Then, I pause.

“You’re right, Henry. It’s not,” I say. I put the smart-phone down. “I’ll be right there.”




Life According to Henry

If I get his voice mail, I’ll hear a sweet boy’s voice explaining that I can leave a message, unless I have the wrong number. If I talk to him live, I’ll hear something quite a bit lower with a squeaky undertone, the voice of a young man on his way.

Before he left on a three-week road trip with his dad this summer, I asked my 13-year-old son how we would like to spend a Sunday with me. Henry had two requests. One was to make a pizza from scratch using a recipe he found online. The other was to show me the collection of comic book super heroes and super villains he created. First, we shopped for ingredients and then we spent the afternoon preparing a delicious meat and cheese pizza with room for improvement in the crust.

After dinner, he declared it comic book character time. He sat me down with a portable file box filled with pencil drawings of creatures, robots and people he made up. Ordinarily, tidiness isn’t Henry’s strong suit, but he keeps his comic book characters alphabetized. For each one, he invented a back-story, an alias, a set of super-powers, a costume and relationships to other characters. Some got their powers because of a science experiment gone haywire. Some were alien. Some were super-enlarged bugs or germs. A number of them were organized into leagues. Henry handed me several pages at a time and insisted I read each description aloud. He watched for my reaction. I pointed out the ridiculous. I called several in a row my favorite. He laughed heartily.

That first night we made it through the letter C. We got through the rest of his collection over a period of days and finished just in time to pack for his trip.

While the menfolk are away, I am clearing away the junk mail and old school work and I come across stray drawings of Henry’s, miscellaneous monsters and mutants that didn’t make it into the box. I stop to consider his approach to creativity. At his age, he’s not too concerned about whether his favorite things lead to a marketable skill, although they could. And even though people have been coming up with super heroes and villains forever, he doesn’t worry about whether his ideas are original. He knows they are. And he just likes making them. “Do what you love and you’ll always be happy,” he has told me before.

I set the drawings aside in his room, and give my son a call to see how the trip is going.

“Hi Mom,” he croaks.

By now, Henry is in favorite place, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where grandparents, and aunties and uncles and cousins abound as well as Cousins Subs, his favorite sandwich shop. He tells me about visits to Port Washington and Kenosha and going to the beach and watching the film The Lone Ranger. Understandably, I have been out of sight and out of mind.

I tell him that I am thinking of writing about him this week. He chuckles and asks why. “Because you say smart things,” I say. “Like what?” he asks.

“Like that time you said, you might as well like yourself because you have to be with yourself all the time.” He says he doesn’t remember saying that. But I have it written down. March, 2011.

I ask him if he has been reading. I had sent along a set of books on audio and in paperback that I bought for a family book club experiment. The idea is that father and son could read them on the road and our daughter and I would do the same at home. And then later we could talk about them. To my surprise, it’s working. We’ve read Treasure Island so far and have recently moved on to the Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which his father recommended, inspired by something Henry did a couple summers ago.

In preparation for 6th grade, Henry needed summer school for math. Each day, he dutifully caught the bus to a nearby middle school. Each afternoon, I asked what he was learning about math. “Not much,” he would say. Only after the last day when he brought his stuff home, did I discover what was going on. Initially, the teachers led him to the wrong room and he never bothered to correct them. So, he spent the two full weeks studying English, a favorite subject that is already a strength, instead of math, which he dislikes. Afterwards, we introduced Henry to the word “scam” and explained that it was not a nice thing to do to your parents. His dad compared him to Tom Sawyer and Henry didn’t understand the reference, then. I think he does now.

“How far are you in the story?” I ask.

“Well, I am past the part where he paints the fence,” he says.

“That’s great,” I say, amused. “Me, too.”

Amy Ambrose, amy@faceyourtalent.com