I remember walking through tall grass, leading our bay-coloured horse back to our adobe home, and thinking about Julia Roberts. I’d been in rural Bolivia for a couple of years already when somebody sent me a magazine including an interview with Roberts about her sense of style. I couldn’t stop thinking about the article and how ridiculous it seemed in my context. Why readers would be interested whether Julia wore flats or heels or accessorized with clutches, boggled me. Where I lived, clothes were nothing more than a way to cover up skin, serving as something to wipe hands on or identify people from afar. (Pedro always wore a pale pink collared shirt; Miguela, an over-sized white t-shirt; and Sabina a teal dress.) I loved the no-stress dress code of my neighbours and I wasn’t sure I’d ever care about what I wore again. But of course, things changed. I moved back to Canada and suddenly it mattered again. I no longer felt comfortable wearing baggy, mismatched items and became conscious of the statement I was making through my clothing.
The same sort of shift, albeit briefer, takes place when we go camping in the wilderness. Shampoo? Who needs it? Kitchen gadgets? Superfluous when you have a knife and a few matches. Clothes? Their only value is in the protection they provide from the elements.
Having a baby is like entering a new culture or the wilderness. It shakes up priorities, even more than a four-day backcountry adventure, and at least as much as a four-year stint in a foreign country.
A few weeks ago Stan went on a canoe trip and the girls left for fiddle and guitar camp. This meant I was alone (for several days and nights) with my newborn child. Before my family left on their adventures I was looking forward to cocooning with my daughter. I imagined bonding for a few moments while I rocked her into a deep slumber, then climbing into my own bed to make up for lost hours of sleep. Instead, I found she wanted to be held. All the time. Even during her short, fitful naps. I made laps around our living area, eying the pantry while patting her bum with one hand and cradling her floppy head with the other, wondering when I’d have my hands free to ingest calories or refill my water bottle. When I thought it was safe (no one is as fluid and graceful as a mother who wants to keep their baby asleep) I’d lay her down and then make a mad, but oh-so-quiet, dash to the kitchen. Diving into the fridge, gulping down water, and then rushing back to my bed for a rest, I knew what my priorities were. Water. Food. Sleep. Everything else, like deodorant, became non-essential. (On a good day I managed to apply it to one arm; it was only four hours later that I got a chance to do the other side.)
What matters can change instantly and sometimes all it takes is looking at life through a different lens. A few weeks after my solo stint I was sitting outside in a lawn chair nursing Vivi, counting the hours until my in-laws would arrive. While I was more than happy to have them, I could feel panic set in with each suck. It had been a long time since their last visit and their impending arrival changed the way I saw my home and yard. Suddenly everything looked different, or more precisely, shabby, as I envisioned what they might think of our place. It didn’t help that I was immobilized and couldn’t do anything except stare at it: the ripe tomatoes rotting amongst tangles of thistles gone to seed, the green plastic turf covering our porch that was torn and frayed, the back door peeling paint like a an old snake shedding its skin, the badminton birdies, pvc piping, and other unidentifiable objects from our last creative endeavor hidden in our un-mown lawn. And why hadn’t I noticed the dirt on our house-siding or the cobwebs?
Since I was bound to my chair and couldn’t tackle any of it I did the next reasonable thing. I called my mom. Unfortunately, she didn’t offer much consolation.
“Well you certainly won’t be able to fix it in two hours,” she said. And then, after musing about why there are so many weeds in our lawn she added, “It’s just the way you live.”
Great, I thought. We’re hopelessly shabby and it’s our way of life.**
She continued when she sensed my despair.
“You didn’t notice all this stuff before because it’s not important to you. Different things matter.”
Of course, as soon as Stan’s parents walked through the door and the kids jumped into their arms I remembered why they’d come a thousand miles–and it wasn’t to evaluate the state of our porch or lawn. They’d come to be with us. To make life easier for us. And to do this:
In a post titled What Matters you might expect a heartwarming list to share on Facebook (100 things to do before you die or 10 important lessons to teach your children) or at least a pithy answer to the question, but I have neither. Only an obvious observation: we fly to another country, go into the woods, have a baby, or host visitors, and our perspective changes. Things that didn’t matter become important and other major issues suddenly disappear from our radar. Drinking water moves to the top of the agenda; deodorant moves down. A patch of weeds seems urgent, and then, insignificant. This morning, with Vivi’s skin pressed next to mine, her rib cage pushing in and out and relaxed fingers splayed open like a star fish, I thought about my work pants hanging at the back of the closet. And about how life changes shape faster than fresh taffy. One day I’m clicking down a hallway in dress boots, the next I’m scheming how I might take a nap and shower in the same day. How easy it is to get frantic about the place we are at–whether calming a screaming baby or rushing to a classroom, and how quickly our priorities can change. Was it only this spring I carefully transplanted heirloom tomato plants whose fruit now threatens to rot in my basement while I spend hours inhaling milky baby smell? What consumes us, worries us, drives us, excites us, angers us, and moves us is often as fleeting as the sweetness of our children’s breath.
What is important to you today that will be trivial tomorrow?
Wishing you the foresight to enjoy what matters and let go of the stuff that doesn’t,
**I felt a lot better about our “way of life” after Stan showed me the earrings he made me last week using our backyard refuse. (He salvaged the metal from our barbeque handle before hauling the grill to the dump.)