The older I get, the more aware I am of just how fast life is moving. When I was little, time could not move fast enough. Those black and white wall clocks with the silver rim affixed front and center to every classroom- those are burned into my memory. I much preferred the ones that gave me sixty individual ticks that I could count-as opposed to the red wand moving unbearably slowly but continuously all the way around. (Ha, decidedly type A as early as kindergarten!)
I often stared at those clocks eager to be doing something or being somewhere else-always in anticipation of gym class, recess, or going home at the end of the day. Teachers and classmates interrupted these trances; suddenly I was learning something new or contributing to the spark of young friendship. My mind and spirit were open enough to put one desire aside and embrace what was in front of me. Time didn’t sweep over me so rapidly; those daily experiences acted as speed bumps—the kind that annoy you at first but are then grateful for when you don’t run over the biker that just wandered in front of your car.
I got to thinking about how this anticipation creeps in at such an early age but also about how much more easily it could be curbed back then. The older we get, the more difficult it seems to focus solely on what’s at hand; we’re worrying about the past and trying desperately to control the present—positive each of these moments will add up to determine our future.
I’m on a perpetual quest to live in the present; I fail often. I maintain a regular yoga practice and consistently find time (even if it’s on the subway) to meditate and try to ground myself in the now. Still, the possibilities of the future crowd the corners of my mind and often push themselves to the forefront.
So, now I’m wondering… is there something I can identify and recapture from my youth that would allow me to slow things down and take each experience as it comes? What can I learn from my 8-year-old self?
For a few days I sort of casually examined the differences between my younger and now more adult (are we there yet?) self; thank goodness there are many. I have to say though, it seemed the only outstanding difference as it pertains to my ability then and now to stay in the present is the manifestation and handling of FEAR.
I often hear people say that kids are fearless. I must have been the exception. I long to, but am not able to identify any time in my memory where fear didn’t play a factor in my feelings about a situation or in my decision-making. Born a cancer and sensitive as they come, I’m told I tended to have a pulse on what was going on around me pretty much from infancy.
When I was in the first or second grade, my parents bought a cottage out on Clear Lake in Chelsea, Michigan. During the purchasing process, they ran into an interesting roadblock: there was an existing law down in the Chelsea books that said land could not be sold to any person of color. It was 1990. My Dad didn’t flinch. He told his lawyer to see that the antiquated law was removed and he proceeded to purchase the property.
I remember asking my dad how a law like that could still exist in 1990. He said it was simple- no black person had ever tried to buy land there until he came along. This was clear once we arrived at our new home away from home. There was not one person for miles that looked like us.
I suppose my dad felt an awful lot of pride in the purchase of that home; as he should have. He was able to provide my brothers and sister and I with experiences he could never have dreamt of growing up. Days there were filled with chores then swimming, and climbing trees, and hide-and-go-seek, and BBQs. There’s a lot of joy to be remembered in that place. But, for me, there is also a lot of FEAR.
Every day we went out for our chores or to play there was an absolute insistence from both our parents that we stay together and stay within our property line. When we were swimming in the lake we could never go too far out, or too far left, or too far right; we made sure never to float into our neighbor’s part of the beach.
At night, after dinner, we would all snuggle up in the living room and watch movies together—often a John Wayne flick or some Sergio Leone Western. My father’s daughter, a movie buff to the core, this was my favorite time of the day. It was also the scariest. It seemed like every 20 or 30 minutes my dad would get up and do his rounds. He’d check and make sure the doors were still locked and peer outside into the darkness. Sometimes he would hear a noise. He wouldn’t jump up- he didn’t want to alarm us; he always made it seem casual—sometimes acting as if he was simply grabbing more tobacco for his pipe. But I knew what he was doing; I had heard the noise too.
Somewhere in my memory I can see him peering out the window, bat in hand and lowered by his side. I remember my mom telling me in later years that he slept with an axe by their bed.
My enjoyment of cowboys shooting up saloons was interrupted by a horrific thought- “if the Ku Klux Klan or other bad men came, my Papa would have to fight by himself.” Probable or not- that’s what I worried about. My mind often wandered to makeshift weapons I could use to help him if the time came. I hoped and prayed it wouldn’t.
It didn’t. The Ku Klux Klan never came to our cottage. Although there may have been a few unpleasant interactions with town-folk, our time there was overwhelmingly positive. And, even though I would consistently suffer some pangs of anxiety when I saw our neighbors drive around in their pick-up truck or when nighttime fell, the experiences in between were so frequent and rich that I was able to snap out of that frightening place in my head and enjoy the time with my family.
My siblings do not all recognize that place as one filled with such varied emotional entanglements. They are able to view it much more simply—it’s where we took our vacations.
So it seems I’ve identified and confirmed the somewhat unique presence of fear in me from a terribly young age, but I’ve also been able to see a pattern of miraculously quick recovery. I’ve worried, I’ve anticipated, I’ve dreaded—then life has interjected itself. It has been bigger, louder, and stronger than my fear, and it has required my attention.
At certain points, I’ve let my fears drown out life’s calls. I’ve been deafened and paralyzed by what might happen. Then, I wake up and inexplicably I’ve gotten older. My fears are compounded by missed opportunities and a seemingly unmarked passage of time.
That’s it, maybe that is what I am supposed to look back and learn from the worry-laden grade-schooler. I have to let myself get interrupted by those daily experiences. I must give way and let them slow me down. I think those moments are the meat and potatoes of a true existence. I must temper my fixation on the past and the future– the appetizers and desserts—after all, no one gets those at every meal.
All this opens up my mind and spirit to the light, and to a life that’s unimaginable in the darkness of fear. I want to wake up when I’m seventy or eighty and think- “man, look at the life I’ve lived.” I hope it’s varied, and colorful- maybe even exciting. Hmm, I wonder what life will be like at seventy? See, there I go again-let me get back to focusing on today.