Nine years ago, after my husband had a major health scare, I swore I would change. Never again would I slog obliviously through life or fail to appreciate the good things in it. I’m proud to say I lived up to that vow—until it slipped my mind. Within months I had gone back to acting as if each day were something to check off while I worked toward true happiness. Then we had another health scare—our baby daughter’s, this time—and I went through the same cycle again: Promise, perk up, peter out. It’s the story of my adult life and of many friends’ and colleagues’ lives, too.
What’s the best way to quit cycling and just stick to the “perk up” part? I’ve tried various things over the years, from meditation to journaling, with mixed success. But my latest method may prove the most effective of all: asking myself, What would Lily do? My daughter, formerly the newborn mentioned above, is 8. And like most 8-year-olds, she’s a master of savoring the moment.
Let’s say we’re at a restaurant, waiting for our food. Although Lily may ask every few minutes when her grilled-cheese sandwich is going to get there, she doesn’t sit around wishing we had eaten quickly at home instead, so she could get a jump on her math homework. She just draws pictures on her paper place mat. As it fills with ballpoint fairies and ponies, she doesn’t tell herself they are flawed fairies and ponies. Nor does she think enviously of people who might draw better than she does, or worry that, 10 years from now, she’ll regret not having focused on leprechauns instead. She keeps sketching hooves, manes and wings. When the place mat is full, she stops. She might give her artwork to someone at the table. She might save it for a friend. Either way, she’ll spend little time looking at it afterward. Drawing is what matters, not having drawn.
The grilled cheese arrives. Barring hideous circumstances—lurking tomato slices, unauthorized spices—Lily doesn’t think nostalgically of superior grilled cheeses she has eaten at other restaurants or look ahead to the chicken nuggets she hopes to order next time. She immerses herself in the perfection of this sandwich, right here. She praises the gooiness and brownness of it. She takes little appreciative bites, humming as she chews. Almost always, she pronounces it the best grilled cheese ever.
Does Lily’s knack for being “in the now” have downsides? Perhaps. When she is sad, scared or angry, she is very sad, scared or angry. (People in the tri-state area, I would like to formally apologize for recent outbursts you may have heard, regarding spiders in our bathroom and/or the failure of Lily’s brother to let her play My Little Pony games on his laptop.) But is that too high a price for being joyfully engaged most of the time? Watching Lily in action—galloping down the street astride a stuffed unicorn, say, or twirling in our backyard in strap-on butterfly wings or handing me a crayon and asking, “Mommy, did you ever see the beauty of that blue?”—I have my answer.
One recent fall evening, after 10 hours spent chasing a deadline, I looked out the window of my home office and saw it was almost dark. I sagged, realizing that the long, restorative pre-dinner walk I had planned wasn’t going to happen. Was it even worth lacing up my sneakers for the mere 15 minutes that remained before I had to cook ravioli?
As happens more and more, What would Lily do? gave me a good kick in the pants.
Moments later I was climbing the hill to the reservoir across the street from our house. The farther I got from the shadows of buildings, I realized, the brighter it became. Up here, I could still see blue sky and, below it, ruddy streaks where the sun was ducking behind the city.
Thoughts of my still-unmet deadline intruded. I shoved them back. I felt the breeze in my hair, smelled crushed leaves and pine needles and distant, last-ditch barbecues. As I stepped onto the reservoir path, a friend happened by. We strolled together a few minutes by the undulating water and I petted her dog, noticing for the first time what a sweet, concerned face he has. After we said goodbye, I took a different path downhill than usual—one that let me see the sunset as long as possible.
I reached the bottom and crossed the street. No one else was in sight. Would Lily have skipped along the sidewalk to our front door, cheeks flushed and blood racing? She would. I did. And a little voice in my head crowed, Best walk ever.