Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Rules

Several years ago, my husband and I found ourselves repeating certain ideas again and again to our daughter, Ada. These weren’t directives like “Eat your green beans,” but more general instructions along the lines of “Stay calm, honey.”

At some point, the most-repeated phrases grew roots. We found ourselves calling them up in so many contexts that we couldn’t help but notice their significance. They started to feel like Rules with a capital R, and we even began calling them that. Naming them Rules felt a little strange for me, but it gave them a value and a shape that made them Real. And I needed them to be real, because it was soon clear that these would be guidelines for good habits for both my husband and me, too.

Like any family, we have regular little dos and don’ts that aren’t written down anywhere but are pretty well understood as law in our house. You heard these standards before, I’m sure: no running, don’t hit people, quiet voices indoors, don’t take your sister’s toys, clear your place when you’re finished, etc…. Such are important simply to ease the motions of living together in a household. And most of them are dictatorial and begin with negatives. Necessary, probably--but pleasant or life-affirming, definitely not.

So we might need the day-to-day standards, but, at least for me, they need a counterbalance so our house isn’t filled with negativity. I have felt how easily I could slip into dictator mommy mode. I admit there are often days that I feel so overwhelmed with the chaos that parenting can bring that it feels tempting to just impose martial law around here. I fight that urge. In the midst of a potential breakdown, I try to step outside myself and see how I might look to someone else if I were to get draconian. I hate that image of myself, and so I resist. I resist and I keep myself from calling up my own enraged voice, loaded with volume and DON’Ts. Instead, I try to get quiet inside, so I can listen to the voice calmed and assured by some of our Rules.

These other Rules feel like big ones, hefty and solid and filling space in the way a good piece of furniture can. I feel as if in cultivating these, I’m constructing a sort of heirloom, one that I can share with my daughters right now, as I practice the Rules on a daily basis myself.

We call them our family Rules, but they seem pretty universal to me, as each one appears to apply in countless settings. I’m sure my husband and I have unintentionally gleaned them from old, old sayings and philosophies, but put together like this as ours, they feel like ours, comfortable and homegrown enough that we can practice them unselfconsciously. I think that’s partly why we’ve been able to stick with them for seven years now.

When we decided to call them Rules, we actually wrote them down and assigned them an order. Eventually I actually framed them and posted them on a wall in the art studio. On some level, I felt strange giving them such an official space. But I also felt compelled to do it.

I grew up a free-range kid; no bedtimes, no set meal times, and lots of unsupervised space. And even now, and even though I am the one who wrote the rules, having a constructed code of conduct for my own family feels slightly foreign to me, and maybe a little threatening. Old habits die hard, I suppose. If, as a child, I had met a family who had a set of general rules posted on their wall, I would have snickered about them and their tightly-wound life. Given the right circumstances, I probably would have even tried to break a few of those rules ostentatiously in front of the parents, just to show off my own free-thinking self.

Clearly, I was actually starved for predictability and routine, and it takes no deep analysis to see that my flaunting rejection of healthy habits or structure was less about “free thinking” than it was envy.

Sitting down to consciously develop “rules” was like claiming new territory for myself. I like to imagine that I have the capacity for a certain amount of structure, but I recognize my own tendency to swing from one extreme to another like a Kirie-pendulum. The structure offered by our Rules literally is a counterweight to my urges to be flighty or self-centered or irresponsible.

I was going to tell you that I cling to the Rules as a necessity, but I don’t really. I don’t need to, as at least one or two of them visits me each day in my thoughts, unbidden. They are becoming /have become part of that internal voice I have, the calm one that knows what to do.

I’m trying to start that voice playing in my kids’ heads. I often ask the girls, midstream in some activity, “What’s the first (or second or third, etc) rule?” Bringing a rule into my consciousness often feels like pressing a pause button for me. It seems to have a similar effect on Ada and Esme, if for no reason other than it makes them stop their current activity for a split second to think outside of themselves.

Over the next months, I’ll share the rules individually. It’s amazing to me how useful they are for me, and many of things I think about during the day somehow come back to one or another of them.

Contrarian that I am, I’m going to start with the second rule on the list. It seems timely, as this summer and this fall have been full of moments of waiting for something to start, something to end--waiting, in other words, for a different time.

But the second rule bucks that waiting. The second rule is “Be where you are.”

Of course you recognize that rule from many ancient philosophies and modern spiritual practitioners, from Zen Buddhism to Eckhart Tolle. It’s not new by any stretch. But in the context of my own set of rules, I find it’s possible to make it personal, to make a practice that I can do outside of the boundaries of any set philosophy.
Here’s what I’ve found about Rule #2: Minute by minute, being where you are is a steadying thing. Strangely, being where I am makes me feel anchored and free at the same time. When I turn my focus to being present, suddenly I find I have a hidden well of quiet, one that runs deep, and is surprisingly full of space. Being in that moment frees me from the constrictions of wanting to be someplace else, sometime else. For those few moments, I can just be. And, even when I am feeling sad or miserable, being where I am surprises me by making me feel gratitude.

I call this one up when I notice myself longing for something different. For instance, my husband, due to unavoidable travel, recently missed a holiday with us. Over and over during that day, I naturally found myself wishing he could be home to share our celebration. I felt the lack of his presence as surely as I could feel the temperature of the air, or the solidity of the empty chair that sat at his place. Rule #2 pulls me away from that longing for a few minutes and asks me to notice the flouncy skirt and mismatched leggings my 4-year-old joyfully wears that day, and the particular expression my older daughter has on her face as she draws a detailed picture of a house filled with princesses. I notice the sound of our kitty as she brings me the catnip mouse I made for her, and the not-so-perfect turkey cutlets I cooked, the creamy potatoes, the crisp lettuce with my favorite dill dressing. When I focused my attention on these details around me, I noticed how tiny and simple and beautiful they each were. They converged for only a short space in time, and if I had been lost in longing land, I would have missed them, too. So I say softly to myself, “Rule #2, Be where you are.” And I am. For now.

What do you think of rules? Do you embrace them or buck them, or like me, a little of both? Does your family have them? What rules or habits do you practice, and how do they add to your life?

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