I thought I just needed to take care of the animals, like I take care of everything else. Then I learned the importance of sitting still.
I am sitting in my office, the room lit only by firelight. Dusky, my Poodle-Yorkie-Mongrel, is sprawled across my lap. Ramona, my cat, mews her greeting and hops up on the arm of the chair to allow me to scratch the top of her head.
It all seems so peaceful. But Dusky is holding me hostage. If I don’t sit with her in my lap for at least 30 minutes each day, she leaves a fecal deposit outside my office door.
As for Ramona, she has only recently started speaking to me in the past few months. She and I have lived together since Bob and I moved here in 1999. It has taken me 16 years to earn the respect of our cat.
I decided sometime in my mid twenties that I was not a cat person. Like Dusky, they used their bodily eliminations as punitive weapons. I wasn’t a little dog person, either, for similar reasons. Also, I didn’t have a lap. Not because I didn’t have thighs, but because I never sat down.
I was a big dog person. I still am. Big dogs never required me to sit still. They accompanied me into the car, out on the trail, into the garden, out around the farm and, most prominently, back and forth across the kitchen.
I’m still a big dog person. I have two big dogs, and I don’t think I could navigate life without them. But I became a little dog person once I had children (technically Dusky is their dog). And now, after over a decade of parenting, and after spending the last year practicing (almost) daily meditation, I am finally a cat person.
These thoughts drift through my mind as I try to clear my head and focus only on my breath for this morning’s meditation. Dan, a reader in his seventies who has befriended me through email correspondence and who spends much of his days in meditation, inadvertently serves as my sponsor. I know I’m not supposed to be thinking. I try to let the thoughts pass. But Dan tells me I can forgive myself. “Ninety percent of success is about showing up,” he assures me. I clear my mind and try again.
It is only in this last year that I have come to respect the power of sitting still. I think it is a bias that a lot of radical homemaking moms fall victim to. When we have our children, we choose to find a way to stay home with our young families. We forego the identity and broad public acceptance that comes with outside employment in favor of maintaining a nest.
And it’s really hard. While I’m sure moms who go out to work also have it tough, I often envied my friends who were able to drop their children in daycare and then spend daylight hours in the company of grown ups. They had the respect of having worked all day, they came home justifiably tired, but eager to see their little ones.
As a mom choosing to stay at home, the guilt of not having paid employment fueled me to work twice as hard. If I didn’t have a job, then I should grow all my own vegetables. If I didn’t have a job, then I should be knitting everyone sweaters for Christmas. If I didn’t have a job, I should have beautiful flowers in summer. If I didn’t have a job, I should be available to the rest of my family at all times. If I didn’t have a job, I should be able to crank out books by the dozens. If I didn’t have a job, I should be able to run a thriving home business.
Like all farm women, I heard the stories of mothers in the days of yore, the ones who squatted down to give birth to their babies in the field, then tied them onto their backs and kept working.
And I believed that line of crap. I subsequently spent my first year of parenthood in a state of guilt, pushing myself to the point of regularly experiencing painful plugged milk ducts and multiple daily petit mal seizures.
I had a lot to learn. And the body has a funny way of teaching us our most essential lessons.
I didn’t want to go on medication. Thus, I learned a lot about diet, about maintaining a less frenetic environment, about getting lots and lots and lots of rest. We became the family with the unmowed lawns, the cobwebs in every corner, and piles of laundry strewn about. I still cooked. I did what I could for the family farm. But I had to rely on Bob and my mom and dad to cover for a lot. I began to wonder if I would ever attain any of the ambitious dreams I’d laid out for myself — the beautiful garden, the novel and essays I wanted to write, the place I wanted to take as the next generation on my family’s farm.
Then Saoirse weaned. With her on our backs, we traveled to Alaska, around Europe, and down to South America. We started bringing our meats to the farmers’ market, and in a fevered period of intense sleepless energy, I wrote a book in less than five weeks. We began working on our house in earnest.
But by the time Ula came on the scene, I knew what to expect. I recognized that the period of withdrawal from the world to see exclusively to her needs and my health was temporary. I still cooked. I still managed to get to the farmers’ market every Saturday with her strapped to me. I let everything else slide. When she weaned, the surge of energy that pulsed through my body once more was so powerful, I began researching madly, then I packed my family up and we traveled the country interviewing radical homemakers. Once the research was done, I wrote the next book in two months’ time. I reclaimed the garden. I kept up with the lawn. The lap that became available when I held my babies quickly disappeared as I returned to the life I visioned for myself.
But our family paid for my lack of a lap. It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a job. I was a driven woman, and I pushed everyone around me to work at my speed. We paid for that drive with stress and illness.
And then we got Dusky. And she was perfectly obedient. So long as I provided the lap. So I learned to sit still for her, but to use that time to plan and organize my day, to respond to emails, to holler marching orders at my family. After all, I had decided that no minute should pass without productivity of some kind.
I had my dogs’ patience and forgiveness. But behavior like that does not earn the respect of a cat.
Many forces pushed me to learn to meditate and to devote more of my life to reflection and prayer. Niggling minor health complications that could really only be remedied through a peaceful mind played a part. So did my ongoing research into the power of the mind to impact external events. I began to feel that more prayer and quiet reflection were key to my health, but also they were essential to building the new sustainable and just world that so many of us envision.
So I began to meditate. And when I did, Ramona began mewing and chattering, disrupting my concentration. So I sat with Dusky in my lap, and the two big dogs lay on the floor beside me. And, not sure how else to quiet the suddenly loquacious old cat, I started chatting with her. “Are you lonely?” I asked her. Mew. “I’ve been around you constantly for 16 years. But I’ve left you completely alone, haven’t I?” Mew. She hopped up on the coffee table where she could look me in the eye. “That can’t go on, can it?” Mew.
We talked a bit longer. About the weather, about butter. Then I settled in to meditate. I still couldn’t focus my thoughts. But Dusky and Ramona stayed beside me.
It is very hard for me to still my mind. It is very hard for me to rest. But what I wished I had understood back in my twenties, and all through my thirties, was that stillness and rest are as productive as canning and gardening and knitting and writing. Sometimes it is the stillness that is required to hold a baby. Sometimes it is the presence of mind to block out the to-do list and converse with a child. Sometimes it is the nap that restores our patience, or the choice to sit and watch a little one toddle and crawl about the floor, without worrying about the phone, the texts and the supper. Sometimes it is the moment spent sitting on a rock in the woods, observing the birds, or the quiet solitude beside the fire with a dog and a cat. All these things are productive. They are moments of grace, prayers for peace in their own right. They are the moments where life blooms in full colorful joy, simply because I’ve agreed to stop and witness them. And if I don’t, well, there’ll be a mess on the floor to clean up.