We are almost to the end of August, my least favorite month. Routines are not quite established yet, and it all feels new. Once we are in the swing of things, it makes me feel a little more firmly held. But not yet.
Yesterday’s schedule had us leaving the house at 7:30 in the morning and walking back in the door at 7:20pm, a routine that will feel normal in a few more weeks, but last night I went to bed depleted and frazzled. These years and their packed lunch boxes and homework checks and ballet tights and sports practices. It’s no wonder older parents swear to me that it flies so quickly. The rhythm of my academic life mirrors my kids’ seasons as my work schedule gains speed right when theirs does. Most weeks race like a mad dash to the finish line.
School year routines can feel good and firm and safe though – once I get used to them again. But they can also feel overwhelming. I was drowning in work tasks this last few days, unsure if I could finish things in time, and the frantic brain wasn’t helping. All of my mental browsers open at the same time, like a desk full of scribbled post-its. Yesterday morning I vowed to take a long look at my list, choose what was most important (not necessarily most urgent), and do only one thing at a time. Suddenly instead of spinning my wheels, I was checking things off my list. Multi-tasking never works as well as we think it does.
Urgency and priority are not the same thing.
The hard part about this time of year – and perhaps about parenting or even existing as a human in the modern world at all – is that it is actually up to me and only me to name the priorities in my life and to hold them sacred. No one is going to help me with that. And even worse, what the world demands of me, what is screaming loudest for my attention, is hardly ever what I truly value most. It is not easy holding those things firmly in their place at the front of my life.
I heard an interview with Wintley Phipps on the way to work this morning, and he talked about partnership and character. He said something like if you ask someone what they hold sacred and they cannot name a single thing, that person is not someone you want to be with. It’s a concept that made me stop and think and replay it in my head and then toss the word sacred in my brain and heart all day long. Sacred, holy, set apart, inviolable, unassailable, cherished, revered. (the synonym game)
He was speaking specifically about marriage and partnership, and it spoke right to me and gave voice to something I’ve thought a lot about in the last year or so and didn’t quite have words for yet. But apart from relationships, it also made me think about my own self and what I hold sacred. What is revered most and what feels holy in my own life.
Sacred to me is never what screams the loudest for attention. It is early quiet mornings when it is still dark outside and my kids are sleeping, and I am stumbling through the kitchen to feed the dog and brew coffee. It is time with only the three of us. It is the ways they share the tiniest pieces of their days just before their eyes get heavy, just after I have turned off the lamp beside them. Sometimes sacred is something simple like a lunch at my desk with my office door closed to students, or early evening light through the kitchen window while I stir something on the stove. Sacred is laughing at something one of the kids said that I wasn’t expecting to hear. It is a handwritten card or a quick note from someone. The sound of a voice on the telephone line in the age of too many text messages. It is typing words on a screen and printing them on a page to edit with a favorite pen. It’s reading a book in the late lamplight before I go to sleep.
I am not always a pessimist about the modern world – usually quite the opposite actually. But this is one area where we are not winning at all. The very things that hold most of us together don’t happen unless we claim them and notice them. And somehow that gets harder to do with every passing year and the hurried pace we all measure ourselves against.
Perhaps my resolution for the academic year ahead is just to see things through this lens. To ask myself the right question everyday – Is this important or it this just urgent? To seek the sacred and recognize it for what it is and demand space for it everyday. I once heard boundaries described like the careful hand we place around the tiny flame on a birthday candle as the voices sing and we prepare the cake for its moment on the table. That tiny burning flame that needs a shield from the space around it in order to survive. It’s up to me to name what’s holy and to shield it from all the rest.