On stopping time and help arriving just when you need it


I am one of those cautious people who resist speed. I harden up in fear and can’t relax into it, let alone feel the thrill and joy of being on the edge or out of control. I had a flash of insight this morning after a heart-opening yoga class that my problem with speed extends to a wish to stop time from passing so quickly. The correlation drew me in and showed me something surprising.

I had had a late night, one of those unavoidable parenting experiences that at first I resisted. Once I acquiesced, the night was quite revealing. Our 13-year-old son had taken the light rail with a friend downtown, to attend the Orioles game. The O’s (who’ve been in a long downhill slide since July) scored ten runs in the bottom of the eighth inning. That’s two grand slams and a couple more homers just for good measure. All those at-bats take a lot of time. My son’s friend had already fielded his own father’s warning that they must leave after the seventh inning or find another way home. The friend volunteered me; they stayed, and were rewarded with a spectacular homer-fest.

When I got the text at 11:00 that they were just getting on the train at the ballpark and needed a pickup at the station, I despaired. After hosting friends for dinner and doing all the dishes, I was ready for sleep. So ready I was unsure I would still be awake forty minutes later to get them. I also knew there was no other option and I had to suck it up.

Two dead cellphones later, they stepped into our neighborhood’s favorite watering hole to borrow a phone from a stranger. I was so tired by the time they called, I kept dozing off during the drive to get them. My anger and resistance to the situation melted partly because I couldn’t spare the energy to maintain it, and then from the heat of their joy as they recounted the many adventures of their night. Their sincere-to-the-point-of-groveling apology didn’t hurt, either.

Their first stories were about the people in the Tavern. The older woman who loaned the phone told them about her own son (a torn ACL has scotched his hopes for a football scholarship to Hopkins), as well as offering them a ride home, which they—thankfully—declined. When Toby spotted my car pulling up, he said, “She’s here!” and everyone in the place cheered.

As I lay there in savasana recalling their joy, blessed relief flooded me that it is this simple: just show up. I did that, and was rewarded by Toby being his goofy self with me, sharing openly, all his teenage hardness dissolved in the thrill of freedom and adventure. His going out, expansive and free in the wide world, and then returning to the safe container of home and mother.

I was deeply moved with relief that I’m not such a bad mother sometimes, with gratitude for him being our son, remembered laughter at his stories and wonder, and, mixed in, the sweet grief over how quickly time passes when you’re not looking. How on earth have we come to this place, already, that my son can hop the light rail, get his own tickets to the ballgame, meet strangers in the stands who teach him how to fold the huge American flag they had brought, walk into a restaurant and ask to borrow a phone?

Mary Oliver’s words ring in my ears: Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

I lay there thinking of him as a carefree toddler delighting in his world, or asleep in the abandon of dreams, or cuddling before all those bedtimes, reading and telling stories—never dreaming that it wouldn’t always be just like this.

How quickly time is passing. I think of that mantra of parents everywhere: The days are long but the years are short.

I wept for his lost childhood, for all the times I had missed being present to his moods and struggles. I wept for the continual letting-go that all parents experience, for the toll it takes on my heart. I wept for the toll on my psyche and self-esteem, for the crushing and battering of getting it wrong, of raising my voice in anger, of impatience and frustration and mean remarks, or sarcasm—that most tempting and toxic of energies. I wept for my own wounds that erupt into such behavior, seemingly out of my control, certainly without my consent. And, finally, for the miracle of sincere apology and the humbling relief of vulnerability to admit a wrong.

As I lay there, I thought again about my hatred of speed, that enemy that steals time, that pushes it to pass ever more quickly. And right then, in the space between each breath, I heard the way to freedom.

Stillness, it said.

There is a point that you can return to again and again where time does not pass, does not even exist. It is, as we say, time-less. That still point at the full end of an in-breath, that gathering in of life force and love and wonder and beauty. It appears again at the empty end of the out-breath, that giving, entirely, of my Self. My love, light, trust, laughter and pain shared, in humble honesty.

I have been dogged always with the feeling that I am somehow doing my life “wrong.” That I am not getting it, missing something fundamental that everyone else takes in stride. In that moment of wonder and revelation about stillness and time and speed, I entertained, oh so briefly, the notion that I’m doing just fine. That last night was one such moment of utter grace and beauty and love, love, love. That Toby is a lucky boy, but not half so lucky as his mother.

And, wonder of wonders, those moments are already past and behind us. I have no choice but to let them go as I have let go all other moments with him—the blessed and the awkward and the angry. He is off to a soccer game, full of stories for his dad of the night’s adventures and I am sitting here writing this. And weeping again at the sheer opening amazement of it all.

Why do we tell stories, anyway? We gather them from our living engagement with life. From stepping forth, wholeheartedly (or not) into What’s Next. And we never, ever know for certain what’s going to happen. Every experience—from the most frightening to the mundane to the transcendent—passes through us and is gone on the wings of time.

The message I heard today was whispered as a secret: you can stop time; you can slow it way down, whenever you want to. Enter the spaces between breaths, show up, be here and real and help the people who need you. That’s it. Simple.

Why tell stories? In Three Uses of the Knife, David Mamet writes about Act Three, that point near the end of the story, where All is Lost. The hero has tried everything and is truly at the end of the line. But then, just when things are looking the bleakest, help shows up from some unexpected quarter. Has the hero somehow summoned this help by finally ceasing his struggle and surrendering to his fate? His trials have forced him to pare back every façade, every false assumption, every pretense and ego-driven need to orchestrate. Until finally, finally, help arrives.

Whether he welcomes it with open arms, or even recognizes it, is always a question. Because—and we all know this from hard experience—help rarely wears the clothes we’ve imagined.

This is the story of how Toby came to us. At the end of eight long years of struggle and heartbreak, of having every layer of old identity stripped away. At the 11th Hour, after we had given up so many times we’d lost count. We learned of his pending arrival the day before my husband’s mother died. And Toby entered this world the day after my 39th birthday.

We tell stories—our own or others’ or even made-up ones—to replay this pattern. To assure ourselves, when we are wandering in the unknown, that help will arrive. Just in time. It always does. Always.

2 thoughts on “On stopping time and help arriving just when you need it

  1. I sometimes find speed actualy slows life down. It can force you to be fully present. I love to ski and have done so for 50 years. The fine line between control and not brings me into the moment like few experiences can. I will admit to staying on the control side more and more as I get older however. I try to just enjoy the moment, that is all we have.

    • What a great insight. I agree, 100%. For me, this happens mostly with sailing. On our last trip, we had plenty of wind, which always intimidates me a bit. This time, instead of going to my “happy place” (i.e., daydreaming about something else), I decided to pay attention and be more present. The fear fell away and I enjoyed it more.

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