I leave magazines in our bathroom. It’s a slightly subversive act because I tend to stock the ones that my three sons wouldn’t pick up and read on their own: National Geographic, Modern Farmer, Orion, Harvard Magazine.
I myself have learned some of the most amazing things about the world in these unexpected moments in our bathroom. Dogs can be trained to sniff out cancer. Sheep whose wool is best for carpets come from rainy climates. I now smell rain in every wool rug I encounter. That the strange and beautiful relationship between bison and prairie dogs coevolved to shape a prairie now impossible to replant without them. The cows in our pasture are apparently a package deal.
Photographs and illustrations informed by months of research from a master artist’s eye enrich my life in a flip of a page. A phrase from a poem seen in a glance becomes a mantra for living, smoothing the rough rocks of my life seemingly instantly by the cool river of inspiration.
My children emerge from the bathroom twenty minutes after entering, magazine in hand spread open. They casually plop down on the couch to continue. I smile, but do not even speak for fear of interrupting this moment. They are on a quiet journey through the stacks of life’s library, led by their imaginations.
These moments of reading are just that—small unaccounted for slices of our day that do not show up on any to-do list or any intention set in my morning. They more resemble times when you stumble upon a dollar bill on the ground or run into an old friend in a city teeming with strangers. They enrich our lives in ways we do not even know we needed.
So much of our lives are focused on a specific goal as if we were panning for gold and our lives depended on it. Sifting and sorting, repeating tasks and doing for singular purpose; wishing for a specific outcome. It’s as if we are living our lives to create the Big Moments: the vacations, the graduations, the promotions.
But as our bathroom magazines can attest to: it’s the unexpected, tiny moments where the real living happens.
Last night laying in bed with my soon-to-be twelve-year old son and talking about our days, we burst into laughter at a story he shared about his substitute math teacher tossing beef jerky to the winners of a math game they had played. We laughed until tears ran down both our cheeks at this quirky moment. Life had thrown us both an unexpected bone.
I remember when my mother was dying from cancer, I was searching for what to say; what to ask. If ever there was a Big Moment, surely this was it. Another blazing sunset had settled over our farm’s pasture and now was reflected on her bed covers; her room was extremely still.
She had singularly brought each and every one of us into her room throughout the day and said her goodbyes. But she hadn’t yet called me in. I sat with her and could feel her stirring in what I imagined was pain, but she reached for my hand. She needed to go, but wanted to say something. But she had already lost her ability to speak.
I wish I could say that I felt some sort of awakening in that moment or some sort of jolt of philosophical reckoning. But instead I remember feeling anxious, like I was sitting down for a test I didn’t study for or worse: that I wasn’t up for the task for what was about to happen. I wanted her to speak to me in the very same way you crave water when you’re parched. What would she have said to me? I ached to know.
My mother looked at me with anxiety in her eyes. As my six-week old first-born infant outside the room could attest to: it was my turn to do the mothering. The torch had been passed. For a moment a list of things I should do intruded. I needed to call my sister who had gone home back to her bedside. My father was upstairs having already gone to bed. My mother’s sister Jackie had said a final rosary and kissed her on the forehead; should I call her back? But I held my mother’s gaze long enough for answers to come all at once, like the fluttering open of those folded origami fortune tellers we all used to make as kids. I knew whom to awaken or call and who not to. And none of that was important right now.
In my mind’s eye, I was back with my mother playing in the the surf at Old Orchard Beach, something my husband and I had done every year as grownups, visiting my parents while they were on vacation. In this particular moment, the post-storm waves were towering like buildings falling down around us. My mother and I were trying to stand our ground, but were getting slammed into the sand. After each set of waves and a tumble or two, we’d stand up, find each other and wordlessly come back together, bounding forward in that child-like way you move against water, with your hands fluttering like birds on either side of our heads. I had looked my mother in the eye while we both were laughing. She was smoothing back her hair in a simple gesture of grace. I stopped and realized she was stunningly beautiful, her eyes like sapphires against the gun-metal green water and fair sky; her smile the picture of pure joy. I fell completely into her radiance, as the sea water shimmered into a halo of light all around us. I remember at the time telling myself to treasure that moment; that it held a truth I would always need to come back to.
And here I was, needing that memory: my mother’s blue eyes now darker in the dusky light. I grabbed her hand and said, “Mom, I know you think we need to have a special moment—some Big Goodbye. But every moment in our life together was special–even the small ones. I love you. It’s okay to go now.”
The sky had opened and I saw that indeed it was true, that those found moments in our lives when we think we’re heading someplace else and find a treasure instead are when the real living happens and that there is never a need to create anything more special.
© Laura Parker Roerden 2012