How I Learned to Stay Still

Janell Burley Hofmann, October 01, 2013

I rally my son one spring Saturday morning to get moving. I have to finish some work at my office and I need him to play with our girls while I do. I could leave them all home, in a heap on the couch, plugged in to their games, buried alive by the crumbs left behind from fistfuls of cereal straight from the box. And I would. But my office overlooks a local 82-acre conservation property, with hiking trails and a gorgeous pond. The spring sun is beaming, my girls are eager for the swim I’ve promised. But he’s cranky and feeling put off. Tired! Hot! No School! Up late! No! Why?! He’s hoping his reluctance, his feet-dragging disdain for my needs is enough that I storm out in classic I-can-do-it-myself motherhood theatrics and leave him in the wake of my fury to bask in sweet solitude. But I hold fast. I push back. Right now. You do not have a choice. My job! My work! Important! Get moving! And he does. He sits alongside me, as we drive, in silence. We are equally, stubbornly, unbelievably frustrated with one another. He stomps down to the pond with his sisters. I stomp into my office and work.

Some time passes, I step outside to check on them. They don’t know I’m watching. He tosses the girls one after the other into the air; they fly into the water. He pretends to be a shark, then a monster. They squeal. He laughs. They hug and climb and tug him. He crashes down with a great splash and rises with a playful roar. They race and dig and float. They are all so happy. That same happiness in them rises from the tips of my toes to the center of my heart too. It doesn’t feel so heavy anymore. I finish my work. He wraps them in towels. We go home.

I remember this morning — the storm, the calm — even months later. I am the student. And I listen and play back what is crystal clear: stay still, ride it out. This energy is temporary — the madness, the joy. We frenzy — boil down and bubble over — only to meet back in a steady place. I roll boulders of will up mountains each day. I free fall in exhaustion. Despite my resistance, my habits, my biology, I long to stand in between, firmly balanced. I can find no value in clenching my fists, determined to have it my way, right now. The morning was always going to be just right. No amount of digging in my claws and dragging it along made it better. We made it messy, tangled it up in struggle. All we really needed to do was let go. I need this lesson. I tuck it away.

My girl, 7 and sure, vibrates with intensity. She wakes me with a kiss, pauses for a hug, then burns straight through each day until the sun’s last call. Sometimes, if I don’t catch her in time, if I don’t tuck that body into bed just as her spark grows dim, she melts. On this particular night she cries hard, her muscular, compact being thrashes. Something was misunderstood — I rushed her, she was explaining something, no one loves her, we don’t even listen. And she’s gone. She lays across her bottom bunk, angry beyond reason. I want to yell. I want to grab her and tell her to stop. She’s tired. I’m tired. Her siblings are trying to sleep too. But I remember. Stay still. I lay down next to her. Silent. I stroke her hair. I let her carry on. She pounds her legs against the mattress. I stay still. She wants me to meet her ferocity. I usually do. Tonight, I surrender. With all of my might, I stay still. Then slowly — magically — she softens. The crying stops. Her body gives. She turns on her side towards me, I hold her. She exhales — sweaty and empty — and sleeps. I lay in wonder, I lay in balance. I kiss her forehead and slip out. In not doing, I did so much. I found power in staying still.

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