I grew up in a household where it was a joke to say that you were worth what you worked. Our family friend Brent used to say this about us, and it became something that we laughed about and responded with a “ha ha ha” and acted like we were just kidding about, but somewhere deep down we believed it.
It is something I still struggle with to this day.
I remember one time when my sister’s friend Betsy came over when I was in college. Betsy’s smile and personality and presence were warm and deep and genuine and spirited and she exuded positive and fun. We were all students and college professors’ kids, and we were blessed to be among the few to get to attend the private catholic school for free. Can you say “tuition remission.”
Betsy and my sister were seniors when I was a freshman at UP, and Betsy seemed to “get” my German-Work-Ethic Mom. I remember this one time when Betsy came over to our house in southeast Portland, my mom offered Betsy a chair to sit on in the family room while my mom scurried away to clean up the kitchen; but instead of sitting down, Betsy followed my mom around.
My mom didn’t know what to do, so she said, “Betsy, feel free to have a seat,” and my mom went on to the dining room to do something else, but Betsy did not sit down. She followed my mom into the other room.
My mom chuckled, not quite sure what to think. “Betsy, feel free to have a seat,” and Betsy said, “I can help you do what you need to do,” but my mom scurried away to finish picking up papers.
And Betsy followed my mom with that beaming smile and warm presence.
“Betsy, really, you can sit down, I have a few things I need to do first,” but Betsy smiled some more and said, “I can help you do what you need to do, and I will sit down when you are done.”
“I came here to talk to you, and when you are ready, we can sit down.”
It’s funny how I remember that from so many years ago, but it stood out as I have been reflecting a lot since the Accident on getting (or not getting) things done and the feeling of a time crunch and the obsession with accomplishments and our never being able to sit still in our lives.
When I think about my childhood and what mattered and who mattered and then into my adulthood, what and who mattered, the people that come to mind are people who made — and make — time for me. People that were not rushing around or acting like they had so much to do, people that sat and talked and valued the art of being, the art of presence, those are the people who stand out in my mind and heart and made a difference.
Whenever I went over to Jeanie’s house as a child to play after school at Garfield Elementary, Jeanie’s mom was there. When Jeanie and I walked the half-mile to her home on those neighborhood streets, we could see the ranch style home of the Higinbotham family from a distance, and as we got closer, we could see Mrs. Higinbotham standing in the kitchen window that overlooked the street, and we could see her smile at us as if she had all the time in the world.
And when Jeanie and I walked into the Higinbotham home, there Mrs. Higinbotham greeted us with “Well, hello girls, how was school today?”
And we’d say that it went well.
And Mrs. Higinbotham would then say, “That’s wonderful. After washing your hands, I have some sugar cookies for you.”
And Mrs. Higinbotham placed her homemade warm sugar cookies on a plate for us on the kitchen table, and after we washed our hands, we sat down to eat those buttery, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies, and she sat down too with us, and just talked to us.
She had time. She was not in a rush. She was not in a hurry. She did not have an agenda.
Did she have things to do? Of course. Did she have a to-do list? Absolutely. Was her house perfect? Of course it was to me, because I did not care about a perfect house. Or a house picked up perfectly, or decorated in matching colors.
As a child, I remember the warmth of the home, the non-chaotic, non-rushed, caring feeling that I got every time I went over to the Higinbotham’s home. That feeling was created by the presence of the people who lived there, who took the time to just be fully present.
What mattered there was not how much you worked, but the time you had for people.
My 11-year-old son came into the dining room area a while back and started asking me a question. I was working on my computer at the time, and looked up briefly while I finished another email or tweet and social media message or article or blog post.
“Just a minute, I’m almost done,” I said to him barely looking up.
Kids don’t always have a minute.
What he said next was brutally honest, but it was how he felt at the time.
“Mom, you love your computer more than me.”
I know some people might think, “Well your kid needs to learn patience,” and “Your kid was manipulating you,” and “Your kid needs to know you work and have a life beyond him,” which all may be true.
But nonetheless, I think our best lessons are learned through our kids.
I put my computer away and I looked my kid in those big brown eyes and pulled him toward me.
He melted into my arms as I said I was so sorry, and that I love him so much and that he means the world to me and that I love him way more than my empty computer.
And, my son looked at me and smiled and grinned and I hope he truly felt it inside his little heart.
That is what I try to do as a mom, to send the message to my five beautiful children, that they are my world, that they mean everything to me, and I hope that they feel it too. They know the difference between when we are distracted and when we are there with our hearts and souls. And, as a friend, as a daughter, as a sister, as a mentor, as a person, I try to send a message to people, that they matter, that I have time for them, that people mean more than an agenda.
There is no substitute for un-rushed, un-interrupted, un-hurried, un-harried time with someone. To be present.
So many people I know are that way. My daughter who lives in Germany gets it and she shows that unhurried, unharried, I care about you feeling toward her family when she is home on holidays. That love and value for people.
I want to show that value for people, that unhurried, fully-present spirit, a person who has no other agenda but to love people. And not only on vacation and holidays, but always.
We need to make a deliberate effort to be fully present with our children, with our families, with the the people in our lives. To put away the i-phone and computer and the to-do list and agenda, and just be there for people.
To sit with them, to look at them, to be present with them. To make them feel like they matter, and that they are important. It’s the only thing that matters to them.
Just ask Betsy. Or Mrs. Higinbotham. Or my kids.
Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment?
Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions.
I must trust that a little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits,
here in this world and in the life to come. — Henri Nouwen