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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Susan Tiner said...

Family rules are important. I admire you and your husband for formalizing them and making them a part of your daily family life. Your girls will benefit from the structure. We tried to have rules for our kids, now 32 and 25, but we weren't all that successful. The rules existed, but compliance was poor :-).

Irene Latham said...

Kirie, I love Rule #2. Definitely brace against the very word "rule" but also enjoy the guidance such words provide. I think I have lots of rules that I don't necessarily call rules. Which makes me think you and I are a whole lot alike in this! Freerange is so beautiful in theory... like you, I don't find it works for me in real life. Need a little structure to fully enjoy freedom.
Thanks for this post. It belongs in a women's magazine. Send it in!! And keep 'em coming. xxoo

La Belette Rouge said...

I am not sure where I read this but recently I read this phrase, "this feeling is temporary and breath is eternal." It is my new version of "Be where you are." That mantra helps me be where I am without feeling it is permanent. It is the fear that this moment will last forever that makes me freak out.
Dear you, I am so happy you are back blogging. I missed you so much. I look forward to reading the rest of your "Rules".
p.s. I LOVE green beans.

Judy said...

I'm sooo happy you are back in the blog world!! I certainly have missed reading.

I'm not a fan of formal rules but I know I have always lived by them.
I was so interested to see the rule #2 of be where you are. Of course you know I love yoga and one of the main things is to be fully present in the moment! I do love it but can't always be there as hard as I try. Your Mom is a master of being in the moment and never missing what is going on in the moment. Keep up the posting!! Hugs to all Aunt Judy

Hannah Stephenson said...

Welcome back, welcome back, welcome back!

I love this series of rules, and look forward to others. This rule is so helpful--it drums up mindfulness and attention.

My dad always used to tell me when I was little, "Don't panic, don't despair."

Julianne said...

You're back! I loved The Power of Now. I didn't at first, but then read it later and it really resonated. I so get what you are writing about the rules. I crave them yet I buck them. My family bucks them big time, so leaving me frustrated. Welcome back!

Kirie said...

Susan, I am clinging to structure these days, and the "Rules" have that feel to them. I hope it helps the girls just having them around. Compliance, or consistent practice....well, I can't guarantee that! I bet you did a great job with your kids. And my guess is that you are seeing some of the fruits of your parenting now that they are adults and you can meet on more-or-less equal ground...


Kirie said...

Irene, I know we are alike in this need for/bucking of structure! I think poetry especially flourishes with some structure to hold it. I've found that having a specific scaffold around the poem gives me a freedom to express more. Strange how that works. I would love to hear your thoughts on that.

Thanks for the sweet compliment--I always have ambitions to send things in to one place or another. I need to get it together someday and actually do it. xoxoxxo back to you!

Angie Muresan said...

I, too, grew up without rules. I want to say that I set them for my children, but it isn't true. The only thing I'm strict about is kindness and good manners.

Kirie said...

That is a great mantra, one I might borrow. I will add it to the other one you shared with me: all will be well, all will be well, all will be well. That fits nicely.

My own version is something like that, but I think about wind in the sky. Lately, when the girls are pitching a fit, I literally "draw" a mental picture of a little raincloud, gently moving eastward. The wind is eternal, the cloud is moving, and it's moving away. When I paint, clouds are always a challenge for me, so trying to figure out how I would actually paint that cloud as it's moving is a mental exercise that keeps me focused, but also lets me escape for a second from the tantrum in front of me. One of these days, I'm going to paint a canvas that's just sky filled with moving clouds.

Come on over, rain or shine, dear Belle, and I'll make you some green beans.


Kirie said...

Judy, I think yoga is a perfect example of being in the moment. I love the breathing, but I am in great need of practice to improve my flexibility. I think the practice is what counts--it's good you are working at it!
I do think my mom can be in the moment. It's a hard thing when you have as many demands as she does...She is lucky to have you to share moments with her.
Love to you on this special day!!


Kirie said...

Thank you for the warm welcome back! I have missed the blogging world. I am eager to be back visiting at yours and see what lovely concoctions of words you've made lately.

I think your Dad's phrase is fantastic. And look how it worked: you're repeating it now. That is exactly what I am hoping for with my girls.


Kirie said...

Thanks for coming back to the blog! So great to be back writing again, and even better to know that people are reading it.
I do love The Power of Now. Strange, I vividly remember exactly what I was doing when I was reading it--more so than with other books. Perhaps I was so taken with his explanation that I took it deeply to heart and felt those days with more detail than I usually would. I think I should go back and reread it and see what resonates today, both in the book and in my future recollection of it. Does that make sense?

I think it is so hard to work with structure and family, especially when they are an independent-minded group. I can relate to how frustrating that can be. But you are giving them something they need by working toward some rules yourself, though. Maybe just showing that you value rules can also make a difference, right?

Best wishes to you!

Angie Muresan said...

Kirie, I am so very happy to see you blogging again. You were and are a favorite of mine.

Happy Thanksgiving, dear friend. Sending my love and hugs your way.

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