The tall pile of papers called to me. The fourteen month-old lay curled up in my arms sleeping. I had a lot to do that day.
When my partner and I began to have children, our agreement to take turns staying at home with them when they were sick was an easy and natural decision. It has been our way all along in crafting a life together.
But taking a sick day for a teacher is tough.
If you anticipate a sick day, then you stay late the day before creating meaningful work for students that a substitute teacher can facilitate. If the sick day comes as a surprise (awakened at two in the morning to the sounds of a sick child), then at three in the morning you force your way through brain fog to create meaningful work for students that a substitute teacher can facilitate. The return to work is like walking into a house after a wild and crazy party—the mess, cleaning up and finding the path forward again.
It was my turn. Our daughter had an ear infection, again. She was up most of the night in pain. I made a pre-dawn run to my school with lesson plans and came back home to spend the day with her.
And, I brought home a mountain of papers to grade.
Multi-tasking teacher-brain thought: I am going to be home all day. I will get a lot done!
Just one problem. This sick child that I was home with actually expected me to hold her. She was only comfortable and able to sleep draped over my shoulder while I sat on the porch swing and gently moved us back and forth. We had done just that several times already. She would fall asleep; I’d put her down in her bed and run for that stack of papers. Moments later, she would wake up crying.
I was angry. There sat that stack of papers. I had so much to do! How was I going to get it all done if this kept happening. With her asleep on my shoulder again, I made the swing move with my feet, and I sat fuming.
Then, insight. This was all that I had to do that day, to be with my daughter. This did not require me to do anything. She only needed my presence and maybe my neck and shoulders. This was schooling me in letting go of the doing and embracing the being. I snuggled my daughter a little closer into my neck.
Doing and being are both important.
I practice a spiritual path that deeply reveres the natural world and its patterns, like the patterns of summer’s height and winter’s depth. At the height of summer we are in the glory of doing, going, creating and achieving. In the depth of winter, we hunker down, go inside, sit before the fire, draw on our stores (grown in the summer)
and hold each other with stories. Trying to do in the winter is as futile as wasting good summer sunshine by sitting before a fire. Why would you do that?
I took a deep breath. I embraced my daughter who was now deeply asleep on my shoulder, a little sweat forming between the two of our bodies. I remember saying out loud: “This is all that I have to do today—to be with you.”
She slept. I felt my whole body relax.
Just as the sun in its various stages can be our sage and guide in doing and being, so the seasons of a day or the seasons of a situation. I love creating an agenda for the day. I am naturally a fiery, sun-in-its-height kind of guy. I still prefer doing, but there are days when my agenda doesn’t fit the call of the day.
The guidance on the swing with my daughter in arms was this: surrender to right now.
I’m learning it, slowly. This kind of surrender immediately releases me from the tension of my agenda. It allows the possibility of good for those who are in the now with me. Pressing my agenda when the situation doesn’t call for it always creates suffering. I’m still learning.
That day we made it through another ear infection. That stack of papers was still there the next day, waiting for me. I returned to work and shovelled through the waiting mess. Today, that little girl is a grown up woman finding her own way in the world.
Something shifted for me on the swing that day.
Choosing to be in the present moment became a new, viable option, an option I continue to practice.
Without knowing it, that experience fed into a re-evaluation of how I do my work as a teacher. I no longer create so many piles of papers to work on in the first place. I am more willing to give up on a lesson plan gone bad for what is emerging in front of me. I learned to take advantage of the present moment even in my doing. In other words, being began to affect my doing.
The Buddha with all of his subversive wisdom visited me that day, on the swing, all cuddled up on my shoulder. Sweaty, fevered brow, refusing to sleep without me, she showed me that just being here now is sometimes all that there is to do.
Author: Robert Patrick
Editors: Sara Kärpänen; Caitlin Oriel