On Using the Good China and Making Hard Stops

china
Photo credit: Sean

“Life is long, if you know how to use it.”
― Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

My Dad has been building a house, literally by himself, for about the last 30 years.  It is a wicked amazing house, set back at the base of a hill between some big oak trees, on his ranch in the south Texas hill country. The process of building started way back when I was about six years old. He and my mom poured over house plan magazines until they settled on one they liked. In the meantime, my brother and I helped him find and gather up all the best river rocks we could to serve as part of the future house’s walls. Big, flat, white limestone rocks pulled from the riverbeds in the Texas canyon where I grew up…we made piles and piles of them until at last my dad was ready to start building.

Over the last few decades, he has worked on this house whenever he could, a few hours here, a few hours there. He poured the foundation, plumbed the pipes, stretched the electrical lines, dug the well, and laid cinder block after cinder block, all by himself.  As far as I know, the only thing he accepted significant help with was putting on the metal roof and having custom kitchen cabinetry done by a local carpenter.  The house is now livable, but still has some detail work to be done.  It is wonderfully unique, well-built, and has a fabulous stone fireplace. It would pretty much take a nuclear bomb to bring that house down.

Truth be told, I have bittersweet feelings about this house, in all of its fabulous-ness, because of how it relates to my mom, who passed away almost five years ago now. That house was my mother’s dream, what she built her future around, and sadly, it was a future that was never realized.  It still kind of breaks my heart.

Being a bride in the 70s, my mom received beautiful china, silver, and crystal bowls for her wedding.  Every so often my mom would pull everything out from the dark recesses of her kitchen cabinets and we would polish the silver as I oohed and aahed over the beautiful pieces.  I would always beg her to let us use the china and silver for everyday use, it was so pretty.  But she would inevitably say, no, this is special…it is to be saved for the “new” house, as though the old ranch house I grew up in wasn’t worthy of beautiful dinners and lovely things.

Mom also talked of the dinner parties and family gatherings we would have when we finally moved to our ranch, away from the ranch that my dad managed. She subscribed to Southern Living and would pore over the magazine pictures, visualizing how she would decorate the new house. And most every time I suggested doing something with the house we currently lived in, she would say, no, let’s wait until the new house.

The china never got pulled out and set at the table.  The silver was never used to serve food at parties or even be displayed.  My mom died from cancer exactly a year after she retired from her college teaching job, just after all the kitchen appliances were installed in the new house, just after all of the custom cabinetry was done, and just after all the downstairs was painted a lovely, calming, buttery yellow.  I still choke up thinking about it. I don’t blame my dad at all for not getting the house done in time for her to live there…he has busted his ass for my family and his employer for the last 40 years, working harder than anyone I have ever known. But it hurts, nevertheless, that my mom never got to have that dinner party.

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I found out this week that a grade school-through-high school classmate of mine passed away.  She was only 37, and left behind a daughter and young son.  The news sobered me and reminded me that life is not guaranteed for anyone.  It is one thing for me to work in a hospital and experience the illness and passing of relative strangers; it is entirely a different thing to experience the passing of people you know, or once knew well, especially when they are still young

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Last week I took my boys up to the southern edge of Lake Michigan to celebrate a friend’s graduation from seminary.  A different friend joined us and we spent the day before the graduation sitting on the sandy beaches of Indiana Dunes. After 6 hours of sitting under a shaded umbrella while my boys dug in the sand and played in the water, none of us were ready to leave.  It was too calm, too peaceful, too thick of the life that we so often miss with our frantic, electronics-filled days that are jammed with commitments and obligations.

Our day on the beach made me recognize something.  I try to squeeze in meditation or contemplative sits into my days, I try to regularly exercise, and I try to keep up with all of my appointments and deadlines to avoid falling behind.  But I know this was not enough. All I have been doing is squeezing in thing after thing into my life, knowing that EVERY SINGLE DAY would involve either housework, or errands, or homework, or clinicals. These things, as important as they are, made every day feel exhausting and creativity-stifling. There are things I really want to do but am never getting to because I always feel like I should be doing something else…something productive, or useful, or adult-ish.  The things that make we want to get up in the morning were just squeezed in here and there as I could, never receiving my full time and attention.

I need regular hard stops in my life. Time to just set aside work and all the “should-dos”, time to really rest and recuperate and have fun and pursue creatively the things that really make me happy – a sabbath, if you will. I’ve known of people who have set aside a day in their week to do nothing other than what they wanted to do. I’ve known of people who even did this while in school, and amazingly, saw their grades improve. And while I grew up reading the Old Testament’s commands to take sabbaths every week and every seventh year to rest, I never saw the need until now.  I used to think the Sabbath was for God; now I know it is for us.

Today is my first hard stop, and I discovered a couple of things leading up to it. I worked harder this week on my schoolwork and other obligations in anticipation of quitting today. Instead of quickly falling behind at the start of every nursing school semester as usual, I am actually ahead. Second, I am not dreading the start of tomorrow and the next week, because I know that I will have another hard stop coming up in just a few days. I gave myself license to sleep in today, and to do whatever brings me joy, and I have experienced emotional and physical rest in that.

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A friend of mine and I got together for coffee a few nights ago. During our conversation, we talked about how we always tend to live our lives constantly reaching for the future, pursuing goals, and “saving the good china” for later because we believe that once we get “there” we will be happy.  But we both had to admit, that being “there” never makes us happier. When we get “there”, there is always some new goal to work towards, some new thing that we feel we need to be happy.  And we tend to find that we are usually never more happy or sad than we were in the past.  Richard Rohr says it this way: “It’s heaven all the way to heaven, and it’s hell all the way to hell.”  Basically, how you do things now is how you’re going to do them in the future.  If you’re not happy and content now, you won’t be happy and content in the future.

My friend and I concluded that happiness is a state of mind.  The only place to live is in the here and now, because that’s all there actually is.   In general, there is never really a “right” time to do things, either.  If we wait to live our lives and pursue our dreams for the “right” time to come, we’ll likely end up waiting forever.  Or, in my mom’s case, our lives will end before that time ever comes.

So this is my grand, or maybe not so grand, conclusion: chase after what you’re passionate about NOW, be grateful for all that you have NOW, schedule in regular hard stops to recalibrate yourself NOW, and use the good china TONIGHT at dinner.

 

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