“Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans.” ~John Lennon
When I was in my late twenties I went on a trip with my mom and brother to Scotland.
Though I was a bit trepidatious about spending so much time with my family, I was excited for the trip too. When it finally arrived, I couldn’t wait to see the gorgeous Highlands, tour ancient castles, and eat endless amounts of shortbread. When we got there, I did exactly that, and it was incredible.
But though I loved my mom to the moon and back, like many parent-child relationships, she also got on my nerves a lot. As the trip progressed, I found myself annoyed at how many pictures she took, her repetition of the same stories, and how late she’d sleep (and snore) in the mornings while I itched to get out exploring.
Lack of contact with my friends and a lack of personal space from my family had me crawling out of my skin with impatience and frustration.
I’d listen to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now each morning as I drank my coffee; his reminders to stay present in the moment (the “now”) reminded me it was pointless to “argue with reality” and wish I wasn’t where I was. But inevitably, by the end of the day I found myself counting the sleeps until I got to fly home and sink back into normal life.
What I couldn’t have known on that trip was that my mom would die of a heart attack mere months after getting back to the states. The pictures she was so bent on taking every five minutes would be her last few captures of earth; the conversations we had over hotel breakfasts would be some of our last mother-daughter interactions.
I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I’d soon ache for her repetitive stories, miss shoving the pillow over my ears as she snored, and long for a “do over” of certain moments where I acted like a brat.
In the years since she’s been gone (and through a lot of self-work) I’ve forgiven myself for being human and wishing my time on that trip away—but that experience taught me that we can never take time, life, or the people in it for granted.
Though it’s easy to forget, life is always only happening in the present, and good old Eckhart Tolle is still right when he reminds me (repeatedly) of the power of now.
But however well I learned this lesson after my mom’s death, this feeling of wanting to fast forward into the future is one I’m noticing a lot lately, both in myself and the culture as a whole.
The Coronavirus pandemic has caused many normal parts of life to screech to a halt, and it sort of feels like life itself is actually halted too. After all, for those lucky enough to not be ill (or have ill loved ones), the changes to daily life seem like a giant “pause” button has been pressed on our world—like we’ve stepped into some dystopian movie.
When will I be able to go back to work?
When will we know that the curve has flattened?
When will I feel safe in a crowd again?
When will this be over?
When we watch those dystopian movies, we know that eventually we’ll be able to get up from the movie theater, throw our popcorn bucket away, and continue with regular life.
But this current version of the world isn’t a movie: it is real life, and though it feels anything but normal, there’s no one holding a giant remote keeping us on pause. Though the roads are empty and the grocery shelves bare, the calendar pages still fly by and each day that passes is one of a limited number we each have in life.
If losing my mom unexpectedly taught me anything, it’s that I don’t want to wish life away, even when things feel bleak, overwhelming, or downright scary. Life is happening right now, and there are ways we can continue to live it while still holding space for the surrealness of it all.
In the spirit of being present with what is and making friends with even an uncomfortable reality, I offer you some tried and true steps for staying present with life—whatever it may be bringing.
1. Start your day intentionally
In the most normal of circumstances it’s tempting to start the day by grabbing our phones, and in the midst of a pandemic it can feel almost responsible to check the news at the crack of dawn. But unless we’re actually headed out the door at the very moment our feet hit the ground, there’s no reason to make a screen (or the news and opinions on it) the first thing that we see.
Starting our day with things outside our immediate reality can introduce panic, anxiety, and a frightening picture of what the future day or week might hold.
Before interfacing with the world, I’ve found that spending at least a half hour with just myself (and the family right in front of me) can ground me in the present and equip me with the foundation to face what’s going on elsewhere.
Within this time, I imagine how I want my day to go: How do I want to feel, respond, or show up to whatever happens? Yes, imagining the day ahead involves leaving the present—but in a way that lays a foundation of protection for each future moment that the day will bring.
2. Check in with what’s real
What’s actually real to me right now? Not what’s on the news, not what I wish were happening, but what is right in front of me?
I do this by asking myself: How am I feeling physically, emotionally, spiritually? I babble with my baby and “talk” to her about what I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.
Though it is responsible to stay informed about community guidelines and general advisories about the current pandemic, checking in with our senses and what is truly real in our world can keep us from zooming forward into the imagined dystopian future.
3. Take off the productivity pressure and slow down
Regular life is often filled with lots of rushing: rushing to work, dropping the kids off, walking the dog, or getting that “thing” accomplished and behind you. Being quarantined has abruptly cut off much of that “hustle” mentality, but we sneaky humans find ways to hold onto our comforting (if unhealthy) habits.
One of those habits is the tendency to stay busy. During this “stay at home order” I’ve seen a productivity push emerge: a pressure to take this time to learn, create, accomplish, perfectly schedule your children, organize community initiatives, and do it all without physical support from your regular village.
If you’ve got the bandwidth to use this time in a “productive” way that feels good, more power to you— there’s nothing wrong with accomplishing when it comes from a place of inspiration or power. But if, like many of us, you’re struggling to do even the smaller tasks in life right now, I encourage you to reject this push for productivity and lean into the slowness that this time has created.
If it’s tougher than usual to get ready for the day, practice noticing everything about what getting ready for the day entails: “Right now I’m combing my hair, now I’m feeding the dog, now I’m getting into the shower.”
As you notice (and say) what you’re actually doing, allow yourself to just be doing that thing—not shaming yourself over the language you’re not learning or wondering why working from home isn’t as smooth as you thought it might be.
Leaning into slowness, noticing and staying with every individual action taken, and giving yourself permission to be overwhelmed (and likely slower than usual) is a key to staying present with life exactly as it is right now.
4. Be a time traveler
During the Scotland trip, I wasn’t particularly grateful for my mom, because being with her felt so normal: after all, I’d never not lived in a world with her in it. Now, however, I’d be so grateful to wake up to her snoring or to hear her re-tell the same story about Buford the run-away cow.
Because I’ve lost her, I realize how precious the time I had with my mom was—and the sobering but truest fact about life (in even the best of times) is that we will eventually lose everything.
Everything will someday be rendered precious, because the nature of our lives is impermanence. Though I doubt any of us will miss the fear or heartbreak of this pandemic, we just might miss the extra time with our family, the unique ways people have been kind to each other, or the incredible global connection we’ve experienced by going through the same thing at the same time as every other human on the planet.
Kind of like how we might be envious of our former selves that (mere months ago) were going to basketball games and brushing up against people in sweaty yoga classes, our future selves might someday miss these strange times, if only because we hunkered down and spent them with people who are no longer in our lives, or parenting children who are now grown and out of the house.
Though the experiences are decidedly different, I see some parallels between the sudden death of my mother and the current moment in time.
After my mom died, I kept trying to gather pieces of myself and fit them back together: I was waiting for the day that things would feel normal again. But my relationships, goals, and every thought going forward felt different…because I was.
Similarly, when the world, our communities, and individual lives return to what one might call normal, these things likely won’t feel the same. Our world will now be different because we are.
But rather than grasping at the familiar of yesterday or projecting into an imagined tomorrow—I hope you’ll join me in holding space for the mourning, destruction, and transformation that’s happening both collectively and within each one of us.
Yes, things are difficult at present, but as the great Ram Dass said, let’s be here now.
This—right now—is our life, and while we still have the choice, let’s decide each day how we’d like to live it.
About Melissa Pennel
Melissa Pennel is a life coach, writer, speaker, and podcaster living in Northern California. When she’s not making faces at her baby or playing laser with her cats, you can find her writing on her blog or talking about living with meaning on her podcast “Follow Your Fire: Life, Work, and Purpose” (available on her website, iTunes, Spotify, or Soundcloud.)