Mornings at our house are quiet. The kids don’t go to school, the adults don’t go to the office, and nobody ever sets an alarm clock. Daybreak is devoid of morning show deejays, clattering bells, and the digital arpeggios of smartphone apps. Gone too are exasperated claims of “I’m coming!” and other muttered grunts issued amid the thumps and bustle of animated bodies getting reacquainted with gravity. No one is tripping over objects they were asked to pick up the previous day, barely maintaining a vertical perspective, as if they are taking out their new legs for a test spin. No one is angrily shouting that we’re out of bagels again, and there is no scramble to claim optimum bathroom time … in fact, any movement at all is purely incidental, because no one is going anywhere.
There is a languid ease to our unconventional - some would say ‘irresponsible’ - lifestyle. It flows with a rhythm that is unencumbered by schedules, or punctuated by the mechanical alarms that direct them. It’s like every morning is Saturday morning. And yet, certain aspects of traditional routine persists. Early and often, I still pay fealty to the dark lord of overpacked agendas and accelerated heart rates. Kneeling before the cradled carafe, I partake of the communion of processed stimulants. I am but a humble servant to the demigod of demitasse, and with gratitude I receive the gifts of racing thoughts and frayed nerves that literally pour into my humble cup. My body is revived, my spirit rejuvenated, and with divine agitation, I go forth to face the day.
I need a shot of inspiration.
In the day’s first act of loyalty to the master of dark roasts, I head to the kitchen, where I throw long shadows across a floor bathed in the golden hue of early sunrise. I’m only semi conscious, my eyes largely unfocused, so that blurred edges are diffused, lines becoming indistinct from one another. Solid objects, already glowing softly in the low-lying sun, seem to overlap and melt into one another, and it appears I’m in a fantasy world of fairies and gnomes, a realm where wee creatures rule, at least until the humans return. It’s when I scout the area for scurrying trolls that I remember : I’ve forgotten my glasses.
After a return trip to the bedroom, my vision is clear and so is my grip on reality, although I still keep an eye open for any lingering elves. It’s a beautiful scene - although somewhat mind-bending - but I can’t linger here. There is movement in the hallway; a presence (human, fortunately) threatens to invade my fantastical interlude. If I am to avoid detection, I need to escape immediately. On the verge of panic, I spy a black puddle - the dregs of yesterday’s coffee. I can stomach the stagnant brew, if it will help get me out of here, but it’s gotta be hot. So I nuke a cup, flinching at every strident beep of the microwave. Then, with an added spring to my step, I slip out the back door.
My escape plunges me into the dappled sunlight of our post-dawn backyard. The stars have all disappeared, and with them, the stillness of the morning’s wee hours, when you can hear the flutter of bat wings or the muted conversation from inside your neighbor’s house … not that you were listening. I missed that eerily beautiful part of the night, with its preternatural calm, because I was still asleep. Although my goal was to find some peace and quiet, I’m not dedicated enough to wake up before dawn. I prefer to spend the dark hours in bed, not out here. I’m not a vampire.
Now that I’m outside, I linger on our deck, perched on a hill above town, where the relative peace is broken only by a lonely, far-off train whistle, a few birds, and the staccato roar of the refuse truck’s diesel engine grinding along from house to house. In the wilds of suburbia, I’ve learned to filter random ambient noises, soaking some in, discarding others, and arbitrarily assigning pleasant associations to those I can’t ignore. If I submerge myself deeply enough in the moment, I can romanticize the shattering crash of recycled glass. The transformative sound of hurled bottles exploding in the truck fills me with a sense of wellbeing … once it has been sufficiently filtered through multiple layers of perceived reality.
Cascading garbage aside, the outside world’s tranquility welcomes me, and I shut the sliding door to cut myself off from any internal disturbances. The door shushes at me, reminding me that my personal isle of serenity hangs on the brink of cacophony. I take joy in the experience of life, as it emanates from everywhere, various forces intertwining naturally, without constraints. Well, almost without constraints. I exert separation from those life forces that dwell within my home, because asking them to join me will shatter my peaceful reverie. So I strive to keep this experience to myself, inviting no one. It’s as if there is a nest of angry bees nearby; we can coexist peacefully, but sudden movements may trigger pandemonium. The universal party cry of ‘Come one, come all’ does not apply here.
Amid this tentative exile, eventually the first bee emerges from the nest, in the form of my youngest son, naked and wrapped in a blanket. He’s got style, this kid, letting it all hang out but still keeping warm. Once he’s awake, he’s got no time to get dressed, because life awaits! He charges into the kitchen, dragging his blanket across a floor strewn with yesterday’s dirt and last night’s pizza crust. My wife and I aspire to one day own a Roomba - one for each room, perhaps - but whoever builds those things has never been to my house, where legos, dirty socks, and ruptured bubble wrap are held in place within a semi-permanent glaze of old ice cream and play dough. Placed amid the no-man’s-land of our living room, any automated cleaning system would be overheated and smoking, bleating its surrender in a bizarre Morse code of blips and squawks, by the end of the first afternoon.
Oblivious to these concerns, my son charges full speed through rooms piled deep with debris, like the detritus at the foot of Mt Fuji. I make a note to avoid wrapping myself in that filthy blanket later, when its molecular makeup will be perhaps 80% fleece and up to 20% foreign particulates … although I’ll likely set aside these unpleasant facts, when I find myself feeling chilly on the couch and it’s the only thing within easy reach. In that case, I’ll ignore the smell, disregard any random pricks on my skin, and try to convince myself the crawling sensation is just my imagination. None of this is his problem, of course; his concept of laundry is simple : he makes a mess; someone else cleans it up … and hands him a clean shirt afterward.
Before reaching the kitchen, my son would have stopped by our bedroom to look for any available adult who could make him breakfast, and to wake one up if they were all asleep. Now that he’s out here, it means my wife has issued, from deep beneath a protective barrier of linen and polyfill, a mumbled and semi-coherent directive to go find Daddy. She knows I’m awake and has, arbitrarily and without consultation, opted to pass this nurturing opportunity on to me. It would appear the first round of ‘It’s Your Turn’ has gotten underway, with Mommy delivering the opening serve.
Not that I don’t readily engage in our daily matches. If I had still been in bed when he peaked in on us, I would have implemented my go-to strategy of pretending to still be asleep. She never buys it. Probably because I’ve never seen myself actually sleeping, and I have no idea how to fake it. But I try it anyway, possibly making a big display of slow, heavy breathing or throwing in some ‘involuntary’ finger twitches. Which she ignores. She just makes the day’s first request, waits a moment for me to absorb it, then repeats the question. There is no wall of sleep to break through, so she speaks at a regular conversational level. Should a third attempt be necessary, her irritation - not my acting - has her speaking in clipped, concise syllables, a little louder now and often accompanied by the backbeat percussion of elbows and ankles.
And that is why I like to circumvent that whole situation by getting up first and hiding out here. Stealth and speed are my primary tools for bypassing the internal alarm that immediately switches out of passive mode to go full alert when it senses me easing my way from under the covers and out the door. Some kind of extra-sensory perception triggers it, to keep tabs on me even when she’s sound asleep. Once I’m committed to my escape by standing up, I won’t stop moving until I’ve reached the hallway bathroom. If I make it that far, I’ll pause to offload the overnight’s buildup and do the household a favor by pressing the handle for the first time in what appears to be at least a week. Three boys in a house means there is a lot of pee, but not much flushing. Now, lighter of foot, I make my final escape, avoiding known squeaky floor boards or toys with sharp edges or wheels.
Once I’m finally outside, the pressure eases, and I’m free to let my mind wander where it will, tending toward the contemplation of life and other ‘big picture’ issues. I have escaped a warm bed in the embrace of the woman who loves me, in favor of a lonely, cold confrontation with the many obsessions that crush my spirit daily. In dimly lit silence, my spirit lies exposed and vulnerable. Numerous phobias run rampant over it, unchecked by reasonable, logical arguments against their viability or the likelihood they will ever come to fruition. My imagination is as morbid as it is active, delightedly conjuring endless routes to my inevitable demise. But then, teetering on the edge of the pit of despair, I recite a list of gratitudes that I use like a lifeline to climb past my ego, which is holding me hostage.
I guide my mental meanderings away from the dark and gloomy, and I remain sitting in stillness. With this cat in my lap, I can’t get up anyway. Without asking permission or giving me any warning of her intentions, she has staked her claim through a strategic regimen of claws, purrs, and fur. Fluffy tufts waft away on the morning breeze with every stroke of my hand. The rest clings to my fuzzy black house jacket until her fur seems part of the garment’s design. Not really a bathrobe, it’s more like an unnaturally puffy, overstuffed fleece that makes the wearer look like an overfed Muppet. My wife has dubbed it my ‘house jacket’, its name serving as a reminder of the one place I am permitted to wear it.
Disregarding the blizzard of fur, I now have another life force joining with mine, which greatly eases my guilt at having actively avoided those of my family. Then my leg falls asleep. When I eventually have to move it, the tranquility of the moment is broken, and my cat jumps down. I tell her the magic hasn’t dissipated - it has just shifted its flow - but she’s over it. It is a cat’s job to inspire awe, not receive it. She doesn’t care about rivers of energy or the flow of life forces. She just wants to eat.
When my second son makes the scene, he strolls through the kitchen, heading straight to the couch in the living room. Once there, he merges with his favorite blanket and devolves into a lower state of being, pulling his head and every appendage underneath, until any recognizable human trait has been absorbed into a cocoon. His body is now an amorphous mass, a perfect complement to his inert brain, which, at this early hour, remains puddled at the bottom of its skull space. He is like a giant larva, purchased online from J.Crew, with a knitted Dark Forest shell, and Ruby Raspberry cross stitching. He’s no longer sleeping, but he’s not quite ready to be part of this world, so he remains, waiting to pupate, content to navigate this lower life cycle in a fashionable array of color.
Lying there on the couch, he is not quite ready to engage with life, as if he’s a timid swimmer, knee deep, but still near the edge of a bubbling brook. The room is alive with energy that swirls around, pulling at him, but he resists. He is content to watch, while finite moments, each one rife with opportunity, pass him by. He’s never been one to be distracted with fear of what he’s missing; his focus is on what he’s actually doing. Later, when life’s noise and commotion have him feeling trapped and overwhelmed, he might long for the quiet interlude he’s enjoying right now. So he enjoys it, rather than pushing through it. When he’s ready, he will enter slowly, easing the transition into full engagement with another day on Earth. But not yet.
He’ll stay there until hunger or boredom or the nagging of his brothers entices him to participate. Until then, the joy he exudes in his sloth-like trance is affirmation that my inaction is not only acceptable, it’s commendable. His expression says it all : pure contentment. At least I imagine it does; I still can’t see his face. He remains as a massive blob on the couch. But surely, this blob is a model of tranquility. I tell myself that I can learn a lot from my children if I pay attention, despite their occasional embodiment of giant slugs on the furniture. I am determined to learn the lessons they bestow upon me, even if it takes me all day to do it … while I sit here quietly, by myself.
There still is no sign of my wife. Hopefully she’ll show up soon - somebody needs to take care of these kids. I suppose I could lend a hand, but I came out here for an important reason : I’ve heard how important it is to make time for mental health. If I can find the time to relax sufficiently, I can devote myself more completely to my family. With a healthy mental frame of mind, I can give 100% of myself to them. I can be there for them. So the rest I seek is really for my family’s benefit. Or something like that. If the time I spend out here is an investment toward my ability to face another stress-filled day, I can start by avoiding the stress inside my house.
My meditation practice usually goes something like this : I try to sit in stillness… but my kids keep waking up, disturbing my reverie; I try to quiet my mind … but I hear them inside, breaking furniture and rattling flatware; I try to ignore outside distractions and focus within myself … but my mind wanders, and I’m thinking about last night’s dinner, where my lost sock went, and whether I fed the cat. Meditation is so hard - WHY CAN’T I FIND PEACE??
The yelling inside my head never works, but that’s how this process usually ends. I’m told meditation takes practice, and that’s the reason I give when my wife asks why I’m still outside, ignoring everybody. It’s a pretty handy excuse, and I use it often. I find it works particularly well when I’m trying to avoid something … like spending time with loved ones. But I have good intentions : through meditation, I’m clearing my mind of the unnecessary clutter that accumulates daily. But I’m torn between the possibility that what I’m doing is life-affirmation … or life-avoidance.
It’s a battle I've often waged, largely based on what other people must think about my meditation practice … and how that inactivity has affected the state of our house. One popular theory suggests that expanding my mind is not as important as expanding our living room. Another says that if I want to eliminate clutter, I should start with our garage. It’s oppression of the wanna-be Zen master through obligation and labor; don’t they know chores block Universal flow?
Admittedly, my self-imposed solitude keeps me from helping inside. I may be maintaining a regimented, meditative practice, but I’m still sitting on my butt while I’m doing it. Where do I cross the line from disciplined practitioner of meditation to lazy father and selfish husband? There may be beauty in stillness, but I don’t ever recall lying on the couch when my wife said, “I admire your willpower. No, don’t spoil the moment by getting up! I’ll mow the lawn.”
My oldest son is lucky to get up before lunch. I used to think, in the interest of preventing bedsores, perhaps we should be rousting him from his excessive slumber. But I realized that when he sleeps this late, he doesn’t eat anything, at least until lunch. We’ve skipped an entire meal ! In a house with three boys, that’s a sound strategy for maintaining a healthy bottom line. Plus, he tends to wear his pajamas all day long, resisting numerous requests to put daytime clothes on. This has me doing less laundry, requiring less of my time and energy, and creating less waste. So it’s good for me, and it’s good for the environment. Double score! Call it a child-rearing / life hack.
I imagine the positive impact my wife and I could have, conserving natural resources on a massive scale, if we kept all of our kids in bed, all the time. Who said this whole raising kids thing has to be difficult? It would be like raising tomatoes! But the dream of turning our family home into a vegetable garden starts to crumble as I ponder the logistics of taking the rhododendron to Disney World or teaching the zucchini how to ride a bike. It was the thought of enjoying little family moments like those that got me started on this whole child rearing journey; I guess the dream of raising sentient succulents is out.
Once a few practical solutions get into my headspace, the Dad responsibilities begin to take over, steadily pushing peaceful serenity aside. I consider inviting family members to come out and join me. The significance and efficacy of my practice will increase exponentially through shared experience, plus it would allow me to further procrastinate. But I don’t bother asking; I know what their response will be. In a kid’s world, movement will always win out over stillness. Cacophony is more captivating than silence. And hunger trumps everything. To them, there is no appeal to joyful inactivity. My awe is not contagious; it is mine to experience, alone.
Seriously - where is Julie and why isn’t she feeding these kids breakfast?