Children and the power of now

Living every momentI often receive messages like these: “Let me know the next time you are in town. We must meet.”

Or, “Sorry, I couldn’t make it to your reading this time. When are you coming this side next?”

And I wonder why this time is never good enough.

When I ended my teacher innings and moved back to my city, they asked me, “What next?”

“I don’t know, I am still savoring my present,” I said.

It wasn’t enough. They wanted more. They wanted me to be reflective, to tell them how it was, whether it added value, where do I go from here — stuff that adults normally ask you. But I had learned something that I was finally putting to practice. To live in the now. I mostly learned it from Re, but also from the many students I was teacher to this year.

The trouble with adults is that they either live in the past or the future. Children live in the moment. And the twain seldom meet. In the past year, I have met several parents and I have also witnessed several bankruptcies in communication between parents and children. The reason is the same. The child says “I did….” and the parent says,” You should have done…”

Ditto with relationships that fall apart and degenerate. When something isn’t working, we seldom say, “It isn’t working.” Instead we say, “May be if you did….. it would have worked.” Or, “I wish you were more….”

So when you look at a sunset, it’s your child who is actually enjoying the sunset. Your partner is trying to take a picture (or worse, write a tweet) and you are bemoaning the fact that he is not enjoying the sunset, so you don’t enjoy it either.

Compared to adults, children cannot extrapolate themselves temporarily into the future. This is their greatest asset. It allows them to fully enjoy the present. That is why children usually look happy while adults are found saying that they would have been happier if…..

Even in the ‘alternative’ school where I taught for a year, I always saw happy children and grumpy adults.

I guess it’s because children don’t yet have the baggage of memory. It helps them see things as they are and not what they should have been or could be.

Re moves freely and fluidly, skipping on sidewalks, running to swings, bending over backwards, doing endless cartwheels and pirouettes. I, on the other hand, have become rigid. I was once like him; I wasn’t afraid to dance, pirouette, jump into the water, fall over, or roll in mud, but now I am.

One of the greatest gifts a child can ever give you is the present tense. As an English teacher this past year, I have often done a lot of transformation of the tenses with the kids and I found that even the worksheet and grammar gurus are either basking in the past or the future and showing us how to perfect it. I did notice that the present tense is marginalized even there. It was telling, I thought.

There was a child who loved to work with his hands. His parents want him to be better-groomed, go to IIT some day, develop more social skills. One day, they told him over the phone that he was going to a big school. His dorm mates told me he was crying all night. He didn’t want to go. The day he left, I asked him if he was happy. He said. “I want to make my parents happy.” I could see the child in him interrupted already. He had already moved from the present into the future.

Strange as it may seem, it is harder to not be in the present moment than it is to be in the present moment. The present is our natural state. But we have spent a lifetime learning to sublimate our soul, living in our heads, and disconnected from our here and now. Obsessing about the past and future has become our natural way of living. Our need to be intelligent and rational, to plan our life has taken over our hearts completely.

If we allow children to be their true self, they will show us the way. They will guide us back to who we are. We just need to be open to their world, and stop trying to make it our own. By observing them, listening to them, and staying curious, we have some chance of redeeming ourselves.

The last time someone asked me about the next time I would be around in their city, I gently reminded them that ‘next’ is future tense. And I have decided to live in the now. Because life doesn’t always give you too many second chances. I am not an expert in the future, but I can do the present well. And that’s enough for me.

(The above post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 13th April, 2015)

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Of bulbuls, sparrows and living in the moment

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A few weeks ago, a red-vented bulbul started building a nest in the space between the tube-light and the wall in my classroom. To me, it was new; to the kids, it was the usual. They had seen enough of it in the wilderness that was our campus. We were all fixated though, by the intricate detailing of the bulbul, her carefully choreographed architecture of the nest, her to and fro trips, each time bringing something that secured it. Finally, it was all done, and it was the prettiest, most exquisite piece of craftsmanship I had ever seen. Although I couldn’t help wondering why any bird would choose to build its nest indoors when there were so many trees available on campus.

Soon after, she laid her eggs, and sat pretty on it, taking in the world around her and watching with faint amusement the goings on of Mr &Mrs Sparrow who were trying to build a nest of their own in the groove of the other tube-light.

The sparrows appeared to spend a lot of time fighting and arguing and not much got done, and most of their nest was on the floor and they just weren’t able to get it together. I kept musing on my theories on collaborative parenting and how true it is even in the animal kingdom – this whole agreeing to disagree business. Evidently, the sparrows lacked the skill and planning and aesthetic sense of the red-vented bulbul.

Meanwhile, one the bulbul’s eggs landed on the floor and crashed, and we all cried a little. She continued to sit in her nest, stoically for the next few hours and we thought she was incubating her other eggs. The next day, when I walked into class, the bulbul was nowhere in sight, but Mr&Mrs Sparrow had moved into her nest, and were now collaborating on how to extend it.

I had a few questions: Would this qualify as breaking and entering? There was no evidence of any other broken eggs, so the bulbul couldn’t have abandoned her nest. Did the sparrows break her eggs in the nest and cover the evidence? Was it possible that the bulbul left out of grief? Was it possible that she laid just one egg?

I was overcome by sadness, just thinking of what the bulbul must be going through. Was she grieving her unborn baby? Did she seek comfort in her nest and now felt betrayed? Were the sparrows right in moving into her home without as much as granting her a mourning period? Where was her partner when she needed him the most?

The children looked at me as they would at adults who tend to complicate the simplest things with their convoluted logic and questioning.

In the meantime, the sparrows were adding their own flourishes to the nest, rags and twigs from here and there, a wire, a piece of feather. And they had actually extended the neat, compact little nest built by the bulbul into a three-bedroom mansion of sorts. It was shabby, but huge, like those monstrosities in big cities.

The children had forgotten all about the bulbul and were now focusing on the sparrows and applauding them every time they managed to get anything into the nest without dropping it on the floor. The sparrows were also extremely sociable and talked back to the kids every time they talked to them, unlike the bulbul who was aloof and anti-social for the most part.

Why am I telling you all this? Because lost in the escapades of the bulbul and the sparrow, I realised something important. That living in the past is our greatest undoing as adults. We are never able to appreciate things for what they are because we never pay attention to living well in this moment. Children are able to do that. And each time they do that, they are able to make the next moment a little better, a little easier to bear. Soon they have strung together a whole big awesome life of little sweet moments.

As adults, we seldom do that. Instead we make five-year plans, and I have done my share of those. We have long and short term goals and there is no time to savour the moment we have now. I think one of the greatest things to learn and experience from children is the ability to live in the moment. We are so busy extrapolating the present into the future or the past that we are so often not here. Children are always in the here and now.

I finally know that the only way to complete anything five years out is to make sure that I’m making the most of this moment right now. Perhaps the sparrows will hatch their eggs and have babies and will live happily ever after. Perhaps they won’t. The important thing is, they are in the now. I will now go back and cheer those sparrows.

 

(This post first appeared as my column in Pune Mirror on 6th October 2014)