Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ordinary Graces

So I was bummed cause I just found out I didn't win an essay contest which consisted of describing "the most important day of your life."

While I was sad that I didn't win, I was even more sad that I wouldn't have the chance to share the essay as I so enjoyed writing it; but then it hit me, that's what a blog is for. Here it is:

Ordinary Graces

By Sarah Johnson

The most important day of my life was last Tuesday. Or maybe it was Sunday. Okay, I don’t remember the exact day, but the moment is clear as glass.

I was smacking sunscreen on my four-year-old’s back. We were packing to go to the lake. My husband Pete, me and my three young boys. I was rushing. The kids were fussing. I was grabbing. Towels, hats, sunscreen, what else?... Moving quick before the baby cries. Throwing on my suit before the baby cries. Running from my house to the car with sippy cups and sand-encrusted toys. Moving moving moving before the baby cries. Water jugs. Animal crackers … what else, what else, what else?

“Do you know where my sunglasses are?” Pete asked without looking up from the paper.

I bristled big, scaly spikes up and down my back and was about to torch him with a breath of fire but then juice boxes came to mind. Are we out? I’ll go check …

It was sometime around there. Sometime between the scaly spikes and sandal strapping that I heard a voice.

A whisper. A breeze. An Angel. A Suggestion of Grace.

And in a snap, I made a decision -- a decision I’ve continued to make over and over again since that moment. A decision that made that day and every day I make this certain decision, the most important day of my life. Let me explain.

I was strapping on sandals in assembly line fashion. I remember wrestling with two pairs of soft, uncalloused feet when I made a choice that turned that ordinary lake day into something extremely more powerful: I decided to do all the packing, schlepping and sun screen slapping while still remaining pleasant – nope not just pleasant, down right happy. And Kind. And Thankful. And Courteous … even to my obtuse spouse. Delighted to my core – just tickled pink. Honored to be the one finding the lawn chairs and throwing them in the trunk. Privileged to gather plastic finery: the shovels, buckets and sifters.

Before you sound your Dingbat/Doormat siren, it gets worse.

I remember actually praying: “Thanks for this insane amount of work. May I have more? More details? More sand-encrusted toys? More sippy cups? A husband who’s even more oblivious to the frenetic drama unfolding in his living room: ‘Have you seen my fishing rod?’ ”

I know, I think I’ll make lasagna …

Stop there. It didn’t go that far. And before you dismiss me, let me explain and assure you that I did not cook dinner that night. We had takeout. My favorite Chinese wontons. My husband picked them up to surprise me (my good mood was contagious as moods typically are).

Wontons and no mess -- not a bad trade. Although, not in any way equal to presenting sunglasses, a fishing rod and three lake-equipped children quite the way Martha Stewart dusts, mixes, kneads and bakes French brioche – seamlessly, sans tantrum.

Chinese takeout, however, is not why I served my family so well that day. And it’s not why I served them with a smile.

Here’s the reason: At that moment of sunscreen smacking, the gentle voice I mentioned explained to me what it means for a mother of 3 small children to “embrace her life.”

I know “life embracement” is a bit of a popular, modern-day concept that I keep reading about on blogs and in articles like this one. Whether it be some fancy pants TV psychologist or a self-help columnist, I feel like I’ve been hearing the advice of “embrace your life” a lot lately. But what exactly does that mean?

Before I answer, I must first share a bit more about that summer day. Seeing it was truly the most important day of my life. Not only because I didn’t ruin it by throwing a fit but because the water sparkled.

The air was warm and dry. No bugs. Gus was two and loved to stomp sand castles. The bigger the better. A twelve-year-old girl had made one of triumph with ravines and valleys leading all the way down to the lake. He had it in his sights and took off before I could stop him. He was heading for the tower. I screamed his name but he wouldn’t stop.

He kicked sand on every well-oiled body in his warpath and hit a few lesser castles along the way. A trail of destruction. He was laughing as he closed in with a flying leap.

“Gussie!” I screamed as I managed to grab a foot, which pulled me down on the masterpiece as well.

The adolescent artist sobbed. I apologized profusely and offered soft serve. She refused.

I scooped up my kicking child and exclaimed a loud reprimand to appease the girl’s glaring mother but as I started back to our blanket I squeezed that small, shirtless wonder. Sure, I don’t want him ruining other kid’s fun so I didn’t let him see me smile. But oh I smiled.

Certainly, when I’m lying in my grave and I’m offered to do just one of them over, it would be that sunny day last summer. Let’s say it was July 14, 2007: I’ll call it The Perfect Ordinary Day at the Lake. My wedding day? Nah – too many pictures. Too much smiling. The days I gave birth? Nope. Too much screaming. Too many drugs. Graduation? Blah. That promotion? Blah. Blah. It’s all dust and smoke compared to watching my two little boys stomp and splash at the water’s edge.

I scooped up my sandy two-year-old that day like I decided to scoop up my life earlier that same afternoon over an application of SPF 45. [Here’s the part where I tell you what it means to “embrace your life”]

Obviously, different things to different people but on that blessed day the Angel of Goodness whispered my own personal answer to me in the breeze. She explained that life happens in the split seconds. Whether it be a look. Or an answer. A pat on the back or the withholding of one. She explained that the tone I’d use when replying as to the whereabouts of my obtuse husband’s sunglasses would set the tone for the day. For everyone. She told me to Choose Grace. To not be angry. To offer thanks.

I obeyed her and it sounded like this, “In your car, honey.”

The husband was pleased with his hefty task. Obtuse, I tell you. Obtuse.

But speaking of his obtuseness, Pete has a far more weighty load of perfection. He’s actually high quality. He wakes up every morning with our rooster baby to play at the crack of dawn while letting me sleep in. He makes a great living and basically worships the ground I walk on.

No, Pete is certainly not a splinter I need to remove on this back deck survey of my life. Actually, the wood here is supple. Sure it could be painted. There’s always room for improvement. But it’s splendid enough that I most certainly should stand on it every day, stomp my foot and scream at the neighbors: “Your grass is not greener!”

Splendid enough that I should daily do what the Angel of Goodness suggested while my greasy toddler wiggled and the room smelled like summer – Choose Grace. Embrace the Ordinary. Turn on a dime and face the moment with kindness.

Now I ask you, doesn’t a husband who picks up take out, plays with the baby at 5 a.m. and worships the ground I walk on deserve to sit out on the lake packing every once in a while? And don’t I even serve myself better by setting the tone for the day with a kind, rather than a snippy, answer given while applying generous amounts of sunscreen?

I think so.

So that’s just it. That’s the most important day of my life. It happened last summer but could have just as easily been yesterday as the lesson is still fresh. The sand, the lake, the babies and the sunscreen. My boys splashing in the sun while the baby slept on his daddy’s chest. An Angel of Goodness whispering in the breeze and the fact that when I’m quiet, I still hear her.


Andy said...

This is great. I'm sending it to Lindsay right now...

lindsay said...

Hi Sarah - I really enjoyed reading your essay and I know why Andy sent it to's a lesson (or should we call it epiphany?!) I need to encounter as well. What a great view on the bigger picture you have and what a difference it makes to smile and serve than do with resentment. Great life lessons indeed, ones I need to learn. Thanks for the encouragement!

Sarah said...

You guys are sweet; it's funny you say "life lessons" as that was the name of the column I wrote the essay for; I'm glad you enjoyed reading it as I enjoyed writing it; however, I struggle daily making the choices it prescribes.

abigail said...

You hit me in a sore and tender spot. NO FAIR!

I'll be returning to read this again, no doubt, so thank you.

I also think it's pretty funny that you were bummed that you didn't win the contest, but only because it shows how accustomed you are to winning them. It's like Debbie being bummed that she got an A- for once in her life.

Sarah said...

Alrighty Abby,

Thanks for the compliment but the fact is other than the fishy fable I've only won 2nd place in the backstroke (there were 2 swimmers). Accustomed, I think not; Flattered, definitely.


Oh Sarah!

I wish we were neighbors, running in the sun together.

The Herrenbrucks said...

I don't know you ( I don't think ) but I found you from my friend Carly's blog. I just read your essay and I have to say that it really spoke to me. It reminded me to get up tomorrow and spit grace out of my mouth instead of the harsh tones I usually do. I too have a sweet and precious husband who gets up first with the baby... and has since we brought her home from the hospital. He waits and lets me sleep and go the gym and takes care of our precious little girl.. and far to often I am shouting orders and "reminders." Thank you for that little nugget of truth!