Marking Time Mindfully
by Carol S. Hyman
When my mother died and my sisters and I sorted through things she had saved over the years, I found a Valentine’s card made out of a piece of construction paper folded into quarters. The inside was inscribed with a treacly rhyming poem and the front adorned with pencil drawings of hearts and flowers, carefully embellished in crayon. From the handwriting and the quality of the poem, I suspect it was my first offering in what became a mutual annual tradition.
My mother continued sending us Valentine’s Day cards long after we were grown, but she wasn’t one to talk too much about her deepest feelings. That may be why I remember a conversation we had shortly after returning from a vacation. I was living in my own home with my husband and children by then, and she had moved in with us. Her grandchildren delighted her in a way I don’t think her children ever did. Now that I have a grandchild of my own, I understand why.
I went into her room to talk about dinner plans. Noticing that she seemed a little down, I asked if everything was okay. “I’m trying to think,” she said, “of what I’m looking forward to next. If I don’t have something planned to look forward to, I get depressed.”
At the time, in spite of having practiced and taught meditation for many years, I remained sorely afflicted by arrogance and ignorant of that fact. I sat down and cheerfully explained at some length that her need for something to anticipate came from not appreciating the present moment. The key to a happy life being to be here now. And so on.
That was a moment, I suspect, that was not very much appreciated by my mother. Who could blame her? Looking back, I wince, recognizing that my mother’s statement pointed toward a profound insight about the human condition, something T.S. Eliot articulated as a tendency to measure out our lives with coffee spoons. When we are habituated to everyday events, filtering experience through our discursive mental chatter, we are marking time, hardly noticing the details of our experience. Like our beating hearts, mundane moment to moment life is easy to take for granted.
But let our heart skip a beat or two and we are instantly alert. Whether those skips herald a potential health crisis or the impending arrival of that special someone, we sit up and pay attention. An upcoming holiday, the burgeoning buds in springtime, the imminent birth of our first grandchild: such situations provoke the kind of eager anticipation that heightens our senses and enhances our appreciation of being alive.
Appreciation is the essence of what Valentine’s Day is about; hearts and flowers represent two ways of looking at our love for each other and for life altogether. The heart is at the heart of our existence. Without hearts, there is no human life. Or, as Verdi’s aria has it – losing only a little in translation – love is the pulse of the universe. The steady ever-present heart signals eternity.
And flowers mark the poignance of the passing of time. When I lived in Atlanta, I felt a sense of tender excitement each year as the dogwoods, redbuds, and azaleas burst into glory. Part of the preciousness of flowers comes from their evanescent quality. The natural world with its cycles reminds us of our own sweet transitory nature. I live now in Vermont where the autumn foliage rivals the splendor of Atlanta’s spring. And then it is gone, as surely we all will someday be.
Thinking about those hearts and flowers I drew so long ago for my mother, I find myself wishing that I could relive that conversation. Only this time, instead of channeling what were undoubtedly very good intentions into trying to fix what I saw as her problem, I would ask her to tell me more. And I would hope that she would be both willing and able to do that. Only connect, as E.M. Forster wrote.
Connecting starts by connecting with our own experience. That is what allows us to connect fully with others and so mark time—the eternal present and our passing days—mindfully. And that’s something we can all look forward to, on Valentine’s Day and every day.