Twenty-three years ago on October 16th, I walked down the aisle in the gorgeous Stanford Memorial Church, built by my ancestors, with the late afternoon light pouring in through the stained glass windows. I remember the long, red carpeted aisle with a slope that I walked down, tugging my father– who was beaming proudly– to slow down and take it all in. I remember the gold Byzantine mosaics and the frescoes on the wall, like the great cathedrals of Europe that this church used as a model. I remember the beaming faces of my standing guests as we slowly passed by and the look of wonder on my husband-to-be’s face, seeing his bride for the first time. Even though earlier in the day it was pouring rain, and I hadn’t left enough time to pack for our honeymoon, and I was beyond nervous about the wedding going well, I somehow had the wisdom, once I was dressed and waiting at the back of the church, to let all that go and just be with the moment. So many of my friends had warned me that their own weddings were so stressful, that they got distracted and forgot everything. I didn’t want that to happen. I wanted to be present, to soak in each moment, so that someday I could look back on that day of important moments and not forget.
I used the lesson I learned that day to focus on the moment while I was parenting young children, reminding myself that there is only one moment when they say their first word (“Mama” for my daughter and “ball” for my son), or when they take their first steps, or when they start really talking or go off to kindergarten for the first time. I knew how tired and distracted I was, so I reminded myself constantly to pay attention. Now that my kids are 13 and 11, I’m grateful that I didn’t have a smart phone when they were little- it would have been too hard for me to just be present. But even with older kids who themselves want to be distracted all the time by computers and phones, it’s such a gift to put everything down and just listen.
Now I know that not every second of life is worthy of paying attention. Frankly, when I’m at the dentist or on hold for some repairman, I almost need to zone out for my sanity. Not every moment in life is supposed to be gorgeous and perfect. Sometimes life can be boring or hard, and sometimes not being so present is actually easier, like when you’re in pain or had a really bad day. Distraction can be a gift too.
But one of the things I’ve done with my kids from day one is to write down the funny things they say, and record them singing songs and telling stories. I also make a point of showing them clouds shifting in the sky or trees that are shimmering gold in the late autumn light. We always notice wobbly babies who are newly walking and little tiny puppies. In our sad, broken world, it’s easy to forget that there is still so much goodness, and that we don’t have to be famous or cure cancer to lead worthy lives.
So as you think about what work is meaningful to you and how you will find your world stage, think about the ultimate gift which is to be present, for your own sake, but also for the sake of others. In this noisy, chaotic world, we humans need more people who are kind and joyful, and who understand that the greatest present you can give anyone is to be in the moment. So as we move into the holiday season, think about how your season can reflect not just the gift of generosity, but also the gift of your truly being present. If you do that, everyone around you will notice and no one will forget.
Stanford Memorial Church