Finding Sanctuary

For years after having kids and while taking care of my mom, I had to modify what I thought my life was supposed to be to accommodate what it actually was. I spent far too long trying to shove the round peg that is me into the square hole that was my expectations of myself. Life intervened. Lessons were learned (painfully).

Eventually I let go of some things and I adapted. I left the working world and focused more on my family and my health. It was disorienting and I was consumed by guilt and grief because I wasn’t living the identity I had constructed for myself of being a “working mom.” A paycheck validated my worth and provided confirmation that I was contributing substantively to the world, as sad as that is to acknowledge. Without it, and without a title, I felt diminished and like my tether to and meaning in the broader world had shrunk. My life was fully in the service of others, consumed with sports schedules and camp sign ups, meal planning and doctors appointments. I craved purpose and passion. I got dirty diapers and dishes.

All moms are working moms.

a dear friend pulling me out of the abyss

I couldn’t accept for a while that this was a point in time, a temporary passage and where I needed to be for then, but not forever. I felt like I couldn’t hack it (and of course I assumed as I looked around that everyone else could and was doing “it” better than I was). What was “it,” you might ask? I am not even sure. Life? Work? Or, better, that most elusive work/life balance? My go-to mentality when I am up against a wall is that I must not be trying hard enough. But I couldn’t get out of my own way, and as most people eventually realize walls are pretty solid things. I remember reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron and wanting to chuck it against the wall after the 13th page because what she prescribed was to sit with my discontent, essentially, and what I wanted was a to-do list to fix it.

When the pace of life and the noise in your head gets to be too much, where do you find sanctuary? For me, there’s nothing like the smell of warm pine needles on a forest floor, the lapping of lake water against an evergreen shoreline, a boulder-strewn mountain rising in the distance, the stillness of sitting quietly by a pond. No cellphones, no crowds, no distractions. With headspace I can reorient and find my center again.

But for the longest time when my kids were young, I couldn’t travel. The place I dreamed of, Mount Katahdin in Northern Maine, was simply too far away and my life was too busy and too consumed by caring for others for me to disappear into the wilderness. Eventually I would institute an annual pilgrimage to Katahdin, but what about all the time in between? I learned to seek elements of Maine closer to home, and to find stability and happiness within. This is what Pema Chodron teaches, but it took me a while to accept it. It’s still a work in progress. I still get wound up like a top and overwhelmed by life. I still am my own harshest critic. But I find my center by carving out time for exercise; laughing with good friends (always reliable for grounding); being curious and just saying yes! to something new sometimes; taking a walk in my suburban wilderness (often now with my dog); and delighting in the little things like a crisp blue sky, flowers, or a box of cookies arriving in the mail. These are highly recommended life hacks for moms and for everyone else who might feel like life is directing them versus the other way around.

Yesterday I was reminded, spectacularly, about the power of finding sanctuary, be that a mountain vista or a more traditional place of worship. At the end of a tour of historic properties in a small, central Massachusetts mill town, our tour guide invited us to see the interior of one of the local churches. As you might guess, I am more of a nature-than-built-environment-as-sanctuary kind of person, but I am also curious. We walked through a dark entry foyer, nothing of note. But as the door to the sanctuary opened, it was a like a curtain that had veiled and protected my heart through this long, challenging year of isolation, lowering expectations, and gracefully accepting our lot was swept aside. This sanctuary of towering ceilings, stained glass windows, and ornate carvings forced a long, deep inhale. This church, modest in presentation from the outside and unexpectedly, stunningly beautiful on the inside, restored part of me that I didn’t even know was missing. It jolted awake a part of my brain that I hadn’t quite even realized was dormant. It reminded me of all the beauty there is in the world, and that you often don’t have to go very far to find it. There are unexpected treasures everywhere, if we are willing to stretch ourselves, be open-minded, and pull open the door to see it.