An essay about life, work, and just being cool with it all, by one of our favorite essayists, Sarah Fought.
“When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy.’ They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” John Lennon
It’s been a little over a month that I have been back to work full time after a blissful two years of part-time teaching/stay-at-home parenting. I am so grateful for that time with my son, but this year, it is my husband’s turn to stay home, we decided, and my turn to spend my days away from my family members, trading that time for money to provide shelter, food, and warmth.
So, he quit his job and oh, yeah, we also decided that we should buy a pop-up camper off craigslist. That experience is a story in and of itself.
This year of our lives is dedicated to travel throughout Virginia in an old pickup truck towing a pop up camper. It is dedicated to planning an extended summer trip, destination yet to be determined. This year is dedicated to finding and following bliss. This year is all about holding on to whatever sparks joy and letting go of all that doesn’t. This year is all about creating the happy life.
I am excited for this current life setup. I am thrilled for my rough and tumble son to spend his days with his rough and tumble father. What a gift they get to be for one another this year.
My husband loves to quote his dear grandpa, Floyd Moore, who lives on a piece of land next to a creek in West Virginia in a camper with a little cabin, storage shed, outhouse, and a fishing boat. He says, “You are rich if you don’t have to work.”
There is so much truth to that, especially when work feels like work.
In my work, I’ve been very lucky. Teaching art isn’t the type of job that begs complaining about. I like kids and I make art so the past decade of my life spent as an art teacher has been pretty wonderful on all accounts. It’s truly a joy when parents come and tell me that their child has been talking all morning about how they have art class today, and when another parent shares that their daughter wears her special shirt that says “ART” each Monday for our after-school clay workshop.
There is no compliment more precious than the adoration of a young child.
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and affection of children; to learn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.” Bessie Stanley (often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson)
This full-time back to work, though, is a new normal that is taking just a bit of getting used to. The days of packing lunches and multiple bags and trying to shower, breastfeed before work, get the frozen milk in the cooler for the sitter, convince the baby that he is excited to get in his car seat at 7:30 in the morning, and all the rest of the things that most working parents do every day are over for me, for awhile.
There are trade-offs, though, I’m finding. Working with children all day does not allow for a lot of “me” time, let alone painting time, writing time, music time, hiking time, river time, cooking time, and all the other time that I had been nurturing in my part-time working life over the past few years. My energy level at the end of the work day is low, at best.
Many days at school, my work feels like play. Some days, it feels a lot like waiting tables. Other days it feels like putting out small fires. My work at school is wrapped up in the lives of hundreds of small children and in meeting their basic needs while trying to educate. So, upon reuniting with my own child at the end of the day, I have very little left in the way of patience and energy. I also have very few hours before we start it all over again. This is not ideal.
The undercurrent running through my soul is that my truest work is here, in this writing practice. My truest work comes from a place of truth telling, not lesson planning. My work is shifting into what it wants to be. It wants to be a spiritual practice, it wants to move to the woods. It wants time to open itself up like a flower, to expand and grow. It wants money to become a tool for making dreams real, not a limitation.
At school, I have befriended our custodian, Mr. Ware. In one of our first conversations, he told me that he lets compassion guide him and from that moment I knew that we would be friends. Last week, we were having one of our chats at the end of the day when he comes to survey the art room disaster and he suggested that I look up the word “intention.” He said that contemplating this word has helped him a lot in his life.
So, I did.
Intention is both “a thing intended, an aim or plan” and “the healing process of a wound.”
In yoga practice and in meditation, the instructor will often ask folks to “set their intention for their practice.” Other than that, I had not yet formally set any intentions. I have set goals and I have made resolutions but these are outcome-based, usually external. Intentions are the deepest desires and wishes in our hearts.
My googling of intention led me to an article by Deepak Chopra. He gives some steps for setting an intention. He says that intention is like a seed. You must plant it in your consciousness during a restful time in order to let it manifest and grow. Once it is planted, you release it and stop thinking about it.
So, I let myself feel into my psyche for my deepest wish. I found it. My intention in this life is to be free, to be happy, to love, to just be. To slow down.
We took the pop up camper out for its first official trip, to a very rainy but very beautiful Lake Moomaw in the Allegheny Highlands of Virginia a few weekends back. We knew there was rain expected. We knew that it wouldn’t be all sparkles and rainbows of togetherness. There were moments of marital disagreement, I won’t lie. But, rain camp was really good. It was an even cooler type of togetherness, the type that comes from a shared purpose, a shared intention.
We are campers. We go camping. We go together. Rain or shine.
Lake Moomaw is a gorgeous mountain lake that is basically the headwaters of the James River. We arrived Friday mid-day, set up our camp, Rickey and Henry Hollis went exploring while I made coffee and rice and beans on the outdoor stove in the rain. I’m a summer gal and this was a pretty cold trip for my tastes. I was determined not to be a complainer. We played in puddles, we put the baby to sleep in the sleeping bag and stayed up sitting under a tarp shelter, by a campfire, talking for hours.
Slowing down life happens over weekends like this one. We explored, we had no agenda. We saw beautiful places. We met kind people.
When we arrived home on Sunday afternoon, I took a hot bath and listened to an On Being podcast, “Mindfulness and Mindlessness,” in which Harvard professor and social scientist Ellen Langer shares her research and her take on what a mindful life can be. She said that we should not aim simply for work/life balance but for work/life integration. We shouldn’t see the mind and body as separate entities, as they are, in reality, one and the same. So, my current work, my time teaching at school, and my true work, my time writing, my time painting, my time making music, my time dreaming, my time sitting in my backyard, kayaking on the river, making Sunday lunch, having a beer with friends, and being a mother and a wife — it all wants to be integrated.
This insistence on joy is spilling over into my world of work. However, that world is bureaucratic, there is much tedium that sparks no joy. The schedule itself is barely conducive to the work that wants to happen through this new, joyful lens. Back to back to back 45-minute blocks make it tricky to create space for creativity within a safe and caring environment. The classes are big, and some children just bring unruly energy with them.
So, I reflect. And I change what I can, where I can, within myself.
I provide moments for stillness for these children within that 45 minutes. I provide a time to play. I provide a time for exploration. I feel pretty good about it. I have shifted my art teaching into a learner-directed, choice-based curriculum. I have opened my windows and turned off the fluorescent lights. I have moved art class outside to our school garden every other week. I am talking to the children about kindness and peace. I am talking about togetherness and mindfulness.
This shift towards a life of cohesiveness in all areas has me turning to the woods. It has me on a mindfulness journey, gathering experiences along the way. It has me camping in a pop-up camper with my family and putting myself in the way of beauty. It has me singing songs. It has me painting.
We are all on a trail that leads to the present moment, with each new step. The dream is happening now. We are happiness pioneers.
“Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life.” Omar Khayyam