Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been taking it easy.
Really easy. As in not doing much of anything other than what absolutely, positively needed to get done.
For example, that time spent pulling together receipts, filling out reimbursement claims for our international health care provider, making photocopies of the entire stack and then standing in line at the post office to ensure it all gets to Belgium in a timely manner? Five hours of my life I’ll never get back – yeah, I’m looking at you.
Necessary, if mind-numbing.
Otherwise, for the most part I pretty much did what I pleased (if a parent is truly ever able to do precisely that). I hunkered down, enjoying the holidays, relaxing and spending time with my family. Oh, and reading. LOTS of reading.
Lest you think I have been a complete and total sloth, I should note that in the run-up to Christmas, I was doing quite a bit. Trust me.
We all know what that’s like: errands, chores and myriad little details attended to before we can sit back, take a deep breath and declare ourselves ready. Because we all know holidays don’t happen by themselves. Or rather, the celebration of holidays doesn’t – it requires time, effort, energy, focus and an innate ability to juggle multiple tasks.
But at a certain point I was finally done with all the preparation. I’d wrapped up a couple small projects that had been consuming a fair amount of my time. After careful consideration and much discussion, the Christmas tree was selected and brought home, and subsequently set up and decorated. Final gifts were purchased, wrapped and either posted or put under the tree. Christmas cards were written and dropped in the mail, on their merry way.
The pine garland, wreaths and outdoor lights were hung, bringing a properly festive spirit to our front entrance. My excitement at being able to decorate our door this year may have been a bit over the top, but when you haven’t been able to do so for quite some time – our rental house in the Netherlands had neither an exterior electrical outlet for lights nor a way to hang a wreath on the thick old door without pounding in a nail, which of course was thoroughly taboo – it’s almost akin to, well, Christmas morning for a waiting child.
I’d finished the meal planning and food provisions were acquired. The house was clean, laundry done, and extraneous items were put away. Son arrived home from university; Daughter’s high school mid-terms were finally over and done with.
In short, we’d reached that precise moment when you look around and can declare ‘let the celebrations begin’.
In many ways there is no sweeter moment: the humdrum and the mundane have been set aside, there is nothing demanding your time, your focus is entirely on those you love, and the season lies before you like an unfurled ribbon.
Time stands still. Hope and good will abound, and expectations remain in the realm of the possible. Nobody has had time or reason to become stressed, and no one has gotten on anyone else’s nerves. Nothing has gone pear shaped.
In a word, all is perfect.
Now we all know that perfection is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.
I’m just saying that the instant when you let yourself go, allow yourself to appreciate the holidays and whatever finite amount of time you have with loved ones, when you slip into complete and utter mindfulness – continuous, intentional observation without judgment or expectations, thus being completely present and ‘in the moment’ – now that, my friends, is sublime.
No matter what happens, you’re in the thick of things. You’re open, welcoming, curious, accepting. You gain perspective and knowledge of self and others.
That’s how it was, this holiday season. We celebrated as a nuclear family, as we did in the four previous years when we were living in the Netherlands. But unlike in years past, we collectively decided not to head out the day after Christmas (Tweede Kerstdag in Dutch) to travel.
Yes, we would miss exploring a new country/culture, but we were unanimous in our desire – no, our need – to stay put this year and extend the cocoon of privacy, security, relaxation. This past year has been one of ongoing, often unremitting, change. Something had to give, and for us, it was choosing to forego satisfying the itch to journey. We traded in wanderlust for time spent in our new homestead.
Let me tell you, it was the best decision ever.
It has been a wondrous intermezzo of sorts. Having such a large block of free time is incredibly luxurious, rejuvenating, and oddly energizing. You can almost feel stress evaporating and your reserves of emotional resilience being restored and repleted.
Like many people, I spent quite some time reflecting on the year coming to a close: where we were a year ago and what we were doing, what circumstances and the passage of seasons have wrought, and all that has been experienced, embraced, tolerated, surmounted, and yes, even survived.
It has been a year in which we have mourned the deaths of my father, Husband’s mother, and the gentle soul – a single parent leaving behind three children, extended family and a community of grieving friends – who unknowingly set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to my changing careers and becoming a writer.
This past year has seen us decide to cut short our time overseas, expedite our return and fling ourselves headlong into this dizzying transition known as repatriation.
But it has also been a year in which one highlight was finally finishing The Emotionally Resilient Expat: Engage, Adapt and Thrive Across Cultures and, with the help of Jo Parfitt, Jane Dean and Lisa Hall, seeing it published by the expatriate Summertime Publishing. I wrote about mindfulness in TERE, often in the context of dealing with change and difficulties and turbulence, respecting transitions and keeping an open mind during turmoil.
It has only been in hindsight during this sustained period of reflection at year’s end that I’ve come to see mindfulness as the ultimate gift received as a result of that long labor of love, one that has stood me in good stead throughout 2013 and which I hope to practice for the rest of my life.
And so I’m sharing with you one of my favorite views during this intermezzo, from the popular vantage point of the couch, often in solitude, usually with a book in hand. It wasn’t always as sunny as the moment I took this photo, and the room certainly wasn’t always neat and orderly, but that’s not the point.
When I look at this picture, it reminds me of time well spent with people well loved. Of practicing mindfulness, hoping for the best, handling the worst, and being present throughout.