Last week on the freeway, a car did a 360 and crashed into the shoulder, right in front of me. I pulled over and called 911, then got out of my car and walked back along the road to make sure the driver was okay. No one else had stopped.
A woman in her late 20s with dust all over her face was standing by her car, crying and shaking. I led her to my Honda, gave her a Handi Wipe for her face, and listened as a torrent of panicked words flowed from her mouth—she was unemployed, she didn't have insurance, she shouldn't have been driving at all, people were so crazy on the freeway. I agreed that people were crazy. I told her that I'd seen the guy in the pickup cut right into her lane. I told her that it wasn't her fault, that she was lucky she wasn't hurt, that the cops would come and fine her, not arrest her, for driving without insurance. When the tow truck arrived, I handed her my number in case she needed a witness. I gave her a hug and told her "Good luck."
The next day, when she found my number in her wallet, she would remember me as the lady who stopped and remained calm at the scene of the accident. To her, I would be the woman with the two kids' car seats in back, the kind of mature adult who stays clearheaded and calls 911 and offers hugs and empathizes and has a travel pack of Handi Wipes in her glove compartment.
What the hell has happened to me?
Right before the accident, I was listening to Eckhart Tolle on my car stereo. He's the guy who tells you to live in the now—sort of like the guru Ram Dass but more clean-cut, and with a German accent. "Please pay attention not just to the words, but to the silent spaces between the words," he was telling me as I hurtled down the freeway at 70 miles an hour. "That's where the shift happens." I was trying to focus on the silent spaces between the words as a means of putting my worries and neurotic thoughts aside. I wanted to shake off the frustrations of my workday before I picked up my daughter from daycare. I wanted to be relaxed and present, not harried and distracted and bossy. I wanted to be living in the now.
I've never exactly been an expert at now-living. In fact, I had Eckhart Tolle on in my car to begin with because five years earlier, when I was trying to gather the will to dump the last of a string of freewheeling, noncommittal stoner boyfriends, I was given the CD by a Reiki healer recommended by a friend who was having so much trouble living in the now that she could barely sleep at night. I was skeptical, but the Reiki healer, despite having a job title that sounds like an exotic dog breed, was a very good listener. Sure, she would conjure the spirits of the universe occasionally, rallying them to aid me in my quest to find myself and, if necessary, ditch the man whose childlike sense of wonder seemed to require him to remain unemployed indefinitely. But the universe did appear to be on my side more often during that time, plus the healer gave very pragmatic advice: Exercise. Get more sleep. Read this book. Stop thinking that way. Mostly she encouraged me to open myself up to the unknown, to stop hiding from the world. She quickly recognized that I was a creature of habit, interested in safety above all else, and she could see how it compromised my enjoyment of life. She told me to try new things for a change, drive to new places, stop and eat at random Chinese restaurants and taco trucks, wander through the world with open eyes, dare to be vulnerable in the face of life's unpredictable twists and turns. I ate some really bad Chinese food during that time, but something shifted inside me. I became more courageous. I listened to the Eckhart Tolle CD she gave me only twice before I resolved to dump the stoner and move on.
That was then. Today, five years later, the baby is crying. The 2-year-old won't put on her underwear. My husband left for an early meeting, so it's all up to me. The dogs need to be fed. The sink is filled with dirty dishes. And before he left for school, my 13-year-old stepson told us that if he has to spend another day in a room that's painted lavender pink, he's going to lose his mind.
The world is one big blaring alarm clock going off in my ear, but I'm staring blankly at myself in the mirror. My hair is pulled back in a knot—not the carefree knot of a younger woman who hit the bars last night but the perpetually frazzled-looking knot of a 39-year-old mother who spends her free minutes (what free minutes?) staring into the middle distance like a ghost, fantasizing about central air-conditioning. I look haggard and confused. Why am I getting it all wrong? Why can't I be the kind of mom who gets up early to work out, then showers and styles her hair and gets dressed, the kind of smooth professional who can jiggle the baby while coaxing the 2-year-old into her underwear? Why can't I be the relaxed, organized career mom instead of some harried, slovenly zombie?
But I know the answer to that: I am not and was never going to be the relaxed, organized, manicured career mom, any more than I was going to be the shiny, effusive cheerleader or the diligent Gap employee or the virginal good girl or the wise young lady who dates only responsible, emotionally available guys. I am a disorganized, melancholy second-guesser who rhapsodizes a little too loudly over the pleasures of a cold beer at the end of a long day. I am enthusiastic, yes, and passionate, sure, but I'm also fundamentally ambivalent, angst ridden, and conflicted. I am distracted, overwhelmed, and mostly unprepared for whatever lies ahead.
Sure, I was the lady with the Handi Wipes who stayed calm and called 911, but tomorrow it's just as likely that I will be the one with dust on her face, crying and panicking.
Most of the time, I am the messy disaster, the daydreamer, the disheveled, self-deprecating deep sigher. I am the one who complains bitterly about twisted car-seat straps and an ungodly tide of dirty laundry that never seems to subside. I'm the one who snickers mirthlessly when a moth flies into the baby's milk and it all has to get poured down the sink. What I want to know is how other people my age with my responsibilities get by. I want to know how they try and fail, and I want to know exactly how they feel and act and what they say when they're failing.
"This is a f***ing clown show!" is what one friend tells me he says when everything is going wrong. "What's a clown show?" I asked. He wasn't sure, but I think I know from my own experience: It's loud, stuff is spilling on the floor, and you can't all fit into the car.
But you could never fit into the car in the first place—that was only an illusion. All you can hope for is to accept your flaws and get a reasonable hold on your circumstances. No one wakes up one day and suddenly they're living in the now—even the Reiki healer and Eckhart Tolle and the spiritual masters of the universe agree on that.
You're never fully prepared. You never really arrive. The best you can do is to keep painting the walls to suit your new circumstances.
"That's it!" I think. "I've finally turned the corner! Everything is right. I've arrived at last. Everything will be perfect from now on!"
Of course, that's not true. But this is: I love this f***ing clown show of mine. The unruly dogs, the distracted husband, the alternately sweet and enraged 2-year-old, the enormous baby who still wakes up at 4 A.M. even though she clearly has the fat stores to hibernate through a long winter. I love them all, along with my overwrought teenage stepson and my little, overheated house and my hairy rugs and my smudged windows and my scrappy, overgrown yard, and all of the imperfect manifestations of this imperfect life. I am flawed, flawed, flawed, and I will rarely feel shiny and complete and utterly calm and prepared.
But look how hard we try, you and me, us and them, everyone. Isn't it sort of sweet, to see how determined we are to do better, to be stronger, to make sure our kids and our mothers and our partners and even our dogs know that they're loved? Sometimes, even as my world is in chaos, I see myself braiding my daughter's hair, drinking my tea, blending up a fruit smoothie and singing and dancing crazily to distract the baby from the blender's scary, grinding sound, and I think: "That woman is weird, but she does seem to be enjoying herself."
Adapted from Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead), by Heather Havrilesky, copyright © 2010.