The Power of Rest

One of the things on my to do list this morning is to sign my son up for karate. He’s been waiting for months and the time has finally arrived. Hovering over my shoulder as I pulled up the website, the questions came fast and furious.

“What color will my belt be, Mommy?”

“When’s the first day, Mommy?”

“What move do you think I’ll learn first, Mommy?”

“Mom, what about this one?” Karate chop to my arm. “Oh Mom, maybe this one!” Karate kick to the bed, followed quickly by, “OOOOWWWW! I kicked the metal part!” Then followed almost immediately by his signature dramatics, “I broke my foot and now I can do karate!”

After enlisting his brother to get him the hell out of there so I could concentrate, I went back to the registration task. As websites often are, especially when a small child is desperate for things to be finished (RIGHT NOW!), it was uncooperative when it came to my username and password. So I changed it and tried again. No deal. So I turned off the Internet and tried again. Forget it. Meanwhile, Tommy is screaming from downstairs, “MOM! AM I ENROLLED YET?”

Someone or something is going to die, I thought to myself. And then I had another thought. I went to the railing and called Tommy.

“The website isn’t working,” I said in my most calm and loving voice, prepared for the onslaught of aforementioned dramatics. “But before you freak out, let me explain.”

Steeled, tears welling in his eyes, he did his very best to hold on, but the tilt of his head told me I had only moments before said freak out would begin so I better get explaining quick.

“Sometimes websites have problems and they need a little time out to chill. You know what that’s like, right?”

Slight head nod, one tear spilling down his cheek.

“So we’re all going to take five minutes to chill and then we’ll try again.”

“Five minutes? You promise?”

“I promise.”

“Ok,” he said on the way to the kitchen, “but I’m setting the timer. That website only gets five minutes and then it’s going to get a talking to from ME!”

He went to set (and sit in front of) the timer. I went to my bed to lie down.

This new concept, the idea of lying down to rest in times of resistance rather than continuing to beat my head against whatever was resisting me, came in the form of a quasi-miracle three weeks ago. My husband was out of town, both kids had to get ready baseball, my house was a mess, the dog was a barking fool, and I had 78 eleventh-grade history research papers left to correct before finals started the following Monday. Historically, these are the times I push and push and push until I end up yelling, and then crying, and then apologizing, and then even more exhausted and stressed out than I was before.

But this time I remembered something I had read the month prior about the importance of rest. In times of great stress, would it not be better to take five minutes to sit quietly with your eyes closed, doing a mental reset of sorts before trying again? Better, why not take 30 minutes to lay down and nap? That 30-minute investment in your own well-being reaps the rewards of clarity, efficiency, and able-mindedness that before were simply out of reach. The trick is, you have to trust the investment will pay off and really let yourself rest. If not, that 30 minutes could end up creating more harm than it ever could good.

“I’m feeling super stressed right now you guys,” I explained to my children that day, “so I need to lie down for 30 minutes. In that time I need you to get yourself dressed for baseball and get your bag packed. If you can do that quickly, you’ll have time to watch a show while you wait.”

They looked at me, unsure of what to make of this new mom who isn’t screaming about the house being dirty or telling them to hurry up or trying to grade papers while doing both.

“I’m trying to do the right thing here, so please give me the space to do it. I promise to come out of my room more rested and patient. Can you promise to allow me to do it and in return you can watch a show before we go?”

“Sure!” they chimed, running upstairs to get their uniforms and back down to change in front of the TV. And then I did the previously unthinkable. I went into my room, closed the door, and lied down. I didn’t fuss or fume about the things that needed to be done. Instead, I reveled in how soft and warm and delightful my bed was, how beautiful the songbird outside my window sang, how wonderful it was that the dog jumped up to nap with me. And then I slept.

When the kids came to get me after 3o minutes, they did so with some trepidation. Could it be true that a little nap might spare them the nagging of a run-down over-wrought mother?

“Mom,” my eldest whispered from the doorway. “It’s time to get up.” Soon thereafter my youngest jumped in the bed, knocking the dog off and snuggling in beside me.

“Do you feel better, Mom?” he asked, his sweet brown eyes hopeful.

“I do sweetheart. Thank you both so much for giving me the time to take care of myself. I really, really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome…ow, stop kicking me!” And so it began again.

Only this time, I wasn’t agitated or stressed out or screaming. I got up and went downstairs to pack my things and get ready for a night at the ballpark. Thankfully, they stopped bickering long enough to follow me. In that 30 minutes I might have gotten three papers graded. Instead, I got a quiet heart and a patient mind, and later that night, rested from my nap, I knocked out 13.

It was such a revelation to me.  You mean I don’t have to push and drag and pull and fight? That it’s ok to give myself a break? That I can take a step back from something and the world won’t fall apart? And by doing so it doesn’t mean I have a terrible work ethic or am a bad mother or any other kind of potential heresy?

Maybe my kid’s dramatics don’t fall far from the proverbial tree.

At any rate, today I lied down for five minutes with my eyes closed as my son sat staring at the kitchen timer.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Here it comes.

“MOM IT’S TIME!”

No kidding?

We went back into the office, switched on the computer, and loaded up the site. I typed in my username and password as my son stood with baited breath, waiting to see if it would work. What do you know? It did.

“JACKSON! JACKSON! IT WORKED!” he ran screaming down the hallway, doing moves no self-respecting karate expert would even recognize down the stairs and around the corner and….

“OW! I broke my hand and now I can’t do karate!” Then came the crying. Then in response to what must have been his too-cool-for-school older brother’s comment that I couldn’t hear, Tommy retorted, “I’m not dramatic, I’m hurt!”

Thank God for rest, because my day is really just getting started.

Genetic Code

I love my dog. I just hate my dog’s barking. He’s a working dog of some kind, likely generations back he was bred to herd things; trouble is, we live in the suburbs and there is nothing of use for him to herd here. Unable to break the genetic bond to his ancestors, however, he instinctually herds things that are of no use. Teenagers on skateboards, children on bikes, our cats or any other animal that happens to be passing by, including the crows who sit in the trees above our backyard an taunt him relentlessly—Mario feels it is his duty, moreover, his moral imperative, to put these creatures back on the correct track. Given he has no words and he walks on four legs, he has one way of fulfilling his obligation: to bark and run circles around the house and yard, alerting anyone and everyone to the danger.

In loud, frantic barking language, it goes something like this, “OH MY GOD! THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE. COME QUICK! COME QUICK! MAYBE YOU DIDN’T HEAR ME? I SAID THERE’S A CROW/CAT/TEENAGER OUT OF PLACE! NOW! COME HERE! YOU THERE, YOU GO HOME WHERE YOU BELONG! DID YOU HEAR ME? I SAID…” And it continues like that until the crow/cat/teenager is out of sight and he can relax, knowing his job is done. Either that or he figures then it’s just in somebody else’s domain and no longer his responsibility.

As if that’s not enough, apparently somewhere along Mario’s familial line a working dog crossed with a hunting dog, because the only thing he does more than try to herd things is chase things. Put a squirrel in this dog’s line of vision (or smell) and you will witness an untold feat of canine gymnastics. He twists and turns and whines and growls and pants and paces. Watch your feet when you finally open a door because his back paws will dig into whatever is near in order to propel him out the door with the force of a cannon.

I’d imagine the inside of his head sounds something like this, “SSQQUUIIIRREELLLLL!!!!!” Based on his behavior, my guess is it repeats much like that over and over, louder and louder, until he finally can chase that sucker with bullet speed. Thankfully, squirrels can climb. If not, there’d be none left in a five mile vicinity of where we live.

No matter what kind of positive or negative reinforcement that Mario is offered, the barking and the chasing continues. The messages to do both course through his veins with such power that human intervention has no ability to override them. It’s as if he’s powered by God to do this work and, by God, he’s going to do it.

The interesting thing is, when I give him an outlet on a regular bases for this energy, he’s far less likely to spend his day as a caged animal waiting for his moment to do what comes naturally. When Mario first came to us I walked him twice a day, sometimes as much as two or three miles at a time. He herded and chased and ran and delighted both himself and all those around him (“His body language just screams ‘happy dog!’” people would say to me). In those days he didn’t pace and bark, lying on the floor in a sad-dog state one moment and turning into crazy-dog-breaking-down-the-screen-door-to-get-out when the whiff of a squirrel came through with the breeze.

Where before we could speak freely, able to say the “SQ” word (squirrel) out loud, without fear he’d jump out of his skin and frantically circle the interior of the house looking for one, we’re now editing ourselves (hence the code language) in futile hope of preventing the inevitable outburst. In those early days Mario was mostly just a quiet, contented dog that only lost his mind in delight when someone new came over to visit. Now, if we so much use the w.a.l.k. word in passing, he loses his mind in hopes of procuring the walk that may never come.

In recent years I just have not made the time to get him out like I used to. Graduate school, kids’ schedules, the demands of work…I’ve allowed all of it to get in between Mario and the daily feeding of his soul. Truth is, in feeding his soul, I fed mine too. I exercised, I spent time outside, I had time to clear my head, be still, and be fully conscious of who I was in those very moments. I’d come home every day and write, and the words would come as easily as if I was powered by God to do that work and, by God, I was going to do it.

Curious.

I’ve noticed a similar dynamic in my children. When they are doing what they were genetically wired to do, they do it with such ease it’s as if resistance did not exist. My older son plays hard outside, exercising, competing, and allowing his body to move in a way that releases any and all pent up intensity. My younger son sings and dances, loud, raucous, and uninhibited, allowing his body to creatively express any and all ideas that delight his mind. In those states, their body language seems to scream “happy children,” both to me and those around them.

The difference between us and Mario is the fact that, because we have language and walk on two legs, human intervention does have the power to override our genetic purpose. It usually starts with something like, “You should…” or, worse, “You shouldn’t…” and because we’re conditioned to do what people tell us to do, we abandon our life’s purpose—the very part of us that is and brings us closest to God—in order to follow another person’s agenda. We don’t bark and break through screen doors, but we usually argue and defy and act out in other ways, all in a pathetic attempt to get someone to give us permission to do what we really want to be doing with our lives.

While I do realize we’re all in this human civilization together and, at least to a certain extent, sometimes we do have to prioritize one thing over another just to get through life. What I’ve noticed, however, is that when we allow ourselves to live in and express our true God-given purpose as often as possible, the hard parts of life don’t seem so hard. The sacrifices don’t seem so painful. The offerings we make for one another are out of good will instead of obligation.

And in those moments, we are just like Mario running down the dirt path chasing not the sanitized “SQ,” but the living, breathing, “SQUIRREL!”

And in those moments, we are truly alive.

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