Practicing Mindfulness and Gratitude

Practicing mindfulness and gratitude

Mindlessly, I flip through my most-frequented apps. I check to see what new kids’ clothes I’ve sold on Kidizen. I pop between my Zillow and Trulia real estate apps just for fun — are any good properties for sale in our town? We’d love to downsize and simplify a few things. I check my monthly sales total on my Teachers Pay Teachers app and calculate my goal progress for the month, right on track to surpass my April goals. I open Instagram to whichever of my accounts is logged in and then toggle between the three of them. Without thinking, I open TpT again, only to realize that I just checked that app a minute before. I set my phone down and exhale. My toddler picks it up and hands it back to me, as if it should be a permanent extension of my left hand. He’s so accustomed to seeing it there. I place my phone under the cushion of the outdoor patio furniture behind me and reach for the other things I brought outside with me on this gorgeous spring day — my leather-bound journal, my Bible, and a book, “Not the Boss of Us.”

I read a few paragraphs from Kay Wills Wyma’s newest book and look up, pausing to really take in my own backyard. We’ve lived here two years now and are reaping the benefits of the landscaping put in by the prior owners. The first thing I noticed was the wide-open sky. It reminded me of my honeymoon in Montana, aptly-named “Big Sky Country.”

I’m praying about a lot of things these days. God has been placed a calling on my heart that I can’t quite comprehend without having to unravel a lot of other things. I’m not sure what to do. I want to be obedient, and I’ve been praying for over a year now. It’s hard to not wonder, worry, and try to take control.  I take a break from my futile attempts to play out every possible scenario in my head.

I look around my backyard, practicing a mindfulness exercise I teach my elementary students regularly: Notice five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can touch, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

It’s an exercise in grounding oneself when thoughts are racing, whether from anxiety or the general overwhelm life so often seems to spiral within us.

I record a few of my observations in my notebook. Later, I’d transfer them to Instagram to steward my words in case they can bless someone else.

  • I see: my toddler eating a lollipop and playing with his fairy garden, my breastmilk ring and all that it symbolizes to me, my neighbor’s dogwood tree, and tall grasses waving in the wind way up on the hill behind my house.
  • I hear: songbirds, trees rustling, far-off train, wind chimes.
  • I smell: familiar scents of springtime and new mulch that remind me of childhood and home.

I also note what I would have missed by staying inside today, on this gorgeous 70-degree spring day: my new neighbor painting a canvas on her patio, wind chimes, the baby figuring out the swing, the way our trees throw twinkling shadows on freshly-cut grass.

My gratitude list:
1. The baby all to myself this weekend while the big kids are camping with daddy
2. Pink dogwood in bloom
3. A fragrant backyard
4. Gentle breeze
5. Everything we need
6. Vacation one month away
7. Chorus of birds outside
8. Good friends
9. Summer within reach

Recently I spent several nights away from home, traveling solo to a conference. I knew, going into it, I would have a chance to meet one of the most famous authors in my profession and ask her my questions about the next steps in publishing my first children’s book. I didn’t know, though, that her keynote would resonate so much with me that I’d spend the next several weeks contemplating hope and its role in combating anxiety and depression. I wondered how I could use the information to help my families at school.

During her keynote, we watched this powerful video by Nature Valley. I’m glad I grew up in a generation when playing outside and interacting with the world around me was natural and expected. Now it seems like going outside has to be intentional. Meanwhile, our fixation with technology seems to be stripping us of hope.

I watch my toddler playing in the fairy garden. “Fade-ees! Fade-ees!” he squeals in delight as he moves the small plastic fairies around the miniature garden we made last summer in a large ceramic planter on our deck. Without his brothers here, he has his pick of any fairy he wants, and he clutches all of them in his tiny fists. He drops one, and it rolls under the woven ottoman. He points up to the playground we built up on our hill and asks, in his words, to go play in the mud kitchen.

“You can go up there,” I encourage him, easing back onto the couch and reaching for my Bible and notebook.

“No. Mommy come,” he demands. I put my books down, thinking longingly of the quiet time I’m so desperate for, but I follow him up the hill and watch as giddily he transfers measuring cups’ full of muddy water back and forth from the 99-cent Goodwill cupcake pans to the matching pans in the sink. A little mulch drips down the front of his striped romper and he is concerned for just a moment, then returns his attention to the cakes he is making me. I notice the blue handprint painted near the sink, the pink dogwood blossoms near the swings and peer through the lilac bush, its blossoms already dropping in the short-lived Virginia spring. If it hadn’t come up here, I might have missed them entirely. I watch my neighbor mow her lawn, amazed at the checkerboard pattern she seems to so effortlessly create every single time. I appreciate whoever hung wind chimes far enough away that I can enjoy them without interrupting sleep over them.

These grounding exercises lead me to a conversation with our Creator that only He can orchestrate. The feels of the breeze against my face slows my own racing thoughts of what I could be doing right now to prepare for the workweek ahead and the rest of my family’s return from their camping trip. The scent of lilac brings me back to the present moment. God has called me to notice this very scene before me. “Truth,” Wyma writes, “Truth that tomorrow’s worries and yesterday’s happenings don’t get to overinform or steal from today.” My two-year-old has not a care in the world as he enjoys his red lollipop and sloshes water around the mud kitchen we fashioned from a yard sale kitchen sink, old wooden pallets, some extra boards, and a corrugated steel roof. It is their favorite activity, and all three of my boys still fit side-by-side in front of the sink. Just as spring will segue silently into summer, there will come a time when they won’t be able to all fit across, forming and serving mud cakes together. And so I’ll soak it up now, instead of looking ahead to the next thing, the next house, the big picture. God is calling me to see this very moment before me before my littlest toddles back inside the house to snuggle against me for a nap. Laundry and packing lunches and Friday folders from school can wait a little longer.

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NIV).

Great references for getting outside with kids:

  • “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather” by Linda Akeson McQurk
  • “Free Range Kids” by Lenore Skenazy
  • “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv 

More of my thoughts on mindfulness:

 

Striving for Work-life Balance

Storm clouds roll in over the hill in my backyard, pregnant with impending rain, much needed with the forest fire raging an hour away, already doubling in size despite the frontline of firefighters poised for battle. The seven-degree temperature drop and the rolling clouds blocking the sun cut the edge off the blaze of the 88-degree afternoon just hours before. My boys set buckets around their homemade outdoor mud kitchen, excited at the prospect of full buckets for tomorrow’s muddy culinary pursuits.

I love the way that even as the gray-blues of the sky darken, the grass turns a bold and vivid green. The coming storm catches my breath as I inhale the refreshing smell of spring and freshly-cut grass. Just minutes ago, my husband and his John Deere raced the storm and won. The wind gathers momentum, ferrying sweet fragrances of my neighbor’s pink dogwood across my patio.

My husband is the first to notice that the tree beside the patio, for so long bare from winter, now has tiny new translucent green leaves emerging, the first layers of shade over the outdoor wicker sofa my husband insisted on last season. I am so grateful for the sofa now, my outdoor writing and reading perch. My boys rush to get the cushions inside as the storm clouds threaten, their tiny bucket brigade passing and tossing pillows past the glass door. I count 15 more working days until summer and a much-needed respite from my counseling office and the near-daily deluge of conducting threat assessments with children born just this decade.

@TENDINGWILDASHLEYBARTLEY.COM

People often ask me why elementary school children need counselors, even as I drown in the busyness of appointments, classes, small groups, parent phone calls, drop-in meetings, and schoolwide projects. I’ve seen everything from friendship drama and separation anxiety to abuse and neglect, suicidal ideation and pacts, and parents incarcerated for drug use. In fact, I hope I’m not becoming hardened in my position–in ten years as a school counselor, I’ve pretty much seen it all.

Children are not immune to their own problems and to those of their parents. I’ve had so many children lose parents through death or incarceration that I’ve run small groups so that kids can see they’re not the only ones who’ve faced significant losses. Groups offer them a safe place to learn and practice coping skills. It is a fine line in finding time for prevention activities in the classroom in the midst of putting out fires in the confidentiality of my office.

Our realms as school counselors fall into the acronym ACES – academic, career, and emotional/social. It’s up to us to prioritize the demands that come on a daily basis. I’ve learned not to make promises even as a recovering people-pleaser.

Maintaining balance between this heavy work and raising three small boys forces me to simplify routines and prioritize commitments. After nearly six years of juggling both roles, I’ve established many new habits that have just become a way of life, from the layout of our home to my carefully crafted yeses and nos. I’ve intentionally created functional spaces throughout our home, once problem-areas, to make life run more smoothly. We just changed the guest room off the kitchen into a playroom (the day my baby swallowed a screw), which corrals many of the toys and large ride-on vehicles out of sight. We also made a mudroom of sorts using a blank wall across from the garage door, where each kid has his own hook for a coat and backpack, basket for shoes, shelf, and hanging area for schoolwork. We transformed the sitting room by our front door, once lost in its purpose, into my personal library and writing space, my retreat without leaving the house.

Sometimes people assume that I’m too busy if I have to say no to a perfectly good offer. But that’s not the case at all. Yes, we’re busy, but I use my yeses and nos judiciously so that we are not overwhelmingly busy. Being available for quality time with my boys, especially after being away from them all day, is just as legitimate excuse as any. I love being able to come home and enjoy time outside, time with my boys, traditions with my family, without rushing out to one obligation or another. Being open to spontaneity in spite of being a meticulous planner by nature is rewarding in its own rite.

Sometimes I even wonder if I say no too often! But then I remember my life of yeses, the life I used to live, and how hectic and unfruitful that time was. In fact, I have a hard time remembering it all because it was so frantic. Even back then, with a baby in tow and another on the way, we were out of town most weekends running half and full marathons, pulling long hours at work, and racing to get out of the house in the mornings. We were involved in all areas of our life and were quick to say yes if someone asked a favor of us. I’ll admit that some of that hasn’t changed, but we’re much more cognizant and careful about it now.

My work as a school counselor offers a much-needed perspective of gratitude on a daily basis. I have a plaque from Hobby Lobby on my desk at work that reads, “Children only have one childhood.” The reminder is both heartbreaking and inspirational, both for my students at school and my children at home. I constantly wonder whether I’m doing the right thing (see previous post), if I’m doing enough by dividing my time and attention. Do my students know I care about them, even if I struggle to remember all 700+ of their names? Do my own boys know that I’d spend every waking minutes with them if I could? Are they aware of the sacrifices their daddy and I make for them?

There’s no right or wrong solution to this. I’m doing what I know, and I admire those who can walk boldly in whatever path they choose for their own family. But I’m also trying to keep an open mind, reevaluating each season what else I can simplify to avoid spreading myself too thin. The worst thing that could happen would be that I’d burn out. That I’d lose heart in my pursuits. And sometimes I already feel that way!

Self-care comes in many forms. Unfortunately the many options that work for me happen so infrequently, but it’s up to me to recognize the importance of self-care and build it in, no matter how small. I know I’m a better person for it, as a mama to my kids and a confidant to my students. I just pray God will continue to cultivate and guide my heart in His calling, whether what that looks like changes or remains the same in all the different seasons of motherhood.

And speaking of seasons, my curly-haired five-year-old redhead just came in and asked me if he could shave his head for summer.

What does simplifying and self-care look like in your current season?