I feel as tightly wound as the springs of the trampoline that we are standing on. It’s late afternoon. A storm is blowing in and it’s cooling and inviting after the heat of the day. It should be wonderful to be outside enjoying it all. Instead, I am smiling at my daughter with a fake, forced smile. She has been explaining the game we are about to play. It involves a very large wolf (me) and a teeny tiny leopard (her). Somehow there is a ball, which belongs to the leopard. I am not allowed to touch it because I am a wolf.
She has been setting the scene for this game for an eternity.
“Ok!” I finally say in my best cheery wolf voice, cutting her off mid-sentence. “Want to go pouncing with me, little leopard? arf, arf.” I start to prowl around the edge of the trampoline.
“We can’t talk to each other!” she says indignantly and slightly impatiently. “You’re a wolf and I’m a leopard. Also, we can’t play together. You’re so big that you would step on me and crush me.”
Breathe. Long breath. It is not enough.
“What exactly do we do then!?” My fake smile is completely gone as the exasperation takes over. Lewis Carol had almost certainly endured the complicated plot of a young child’s game when he was inspired to write Through the Looking Glass. I feel exactly like I am having a conversation with the Cheshire Cat. Not only is everything nonsense but I’m being glared at as though I’m too stupid for words. She starts over. Explaining the game. Again.
It has been one of those out-of-sync days. My head is entirely elsewhere. I want to be curled up with my nose in a book or even tackling my to-do list. I want to go for a run and ponder a bit of writing, rolling the words around on my tongue as my mind drifts. I want to meditate without worrying about being interrupted, or do a bit of yoga without having a gangly little body crawl under my plank or downward dog.
I want space.
My daughter wants space, too. She wants the space to build a fort that takes up the entire living room, right where I am trying to clear away some leftover weekend clutter. She wants the space to let her little imagination run wild as she creates a world where giant wolves and minuscule leopards live side by side. She wants space next to me, space where she can draw in her favorite notebook while listening to a Judy Moody book on CD, happily chattering about each twist in the plot. It is as though there is an imaginary circle around me and we both want to occupy it. I want it for me, she wants it for her.
I have never been good at sharing space. It is not that I don’t like people. I love people. But my thoughts–they take up a physical space. They need actual room around me, room to grow and shrink and come and go.
I know that this is not a challenge limited to parents. It is a challenge faced within every relationship: the challenge of balancing each person’s needs for companionship with each person’s need for space, silence, solitude.
Sometimes the solution to this awkward, weird dance between “mine” and “ours” is to set clear personal boundaries. It is to make sure that we get enough alone time. It is getting up early in the morning and using that time for meditation or reading. It is taking whatever time you need to do whatever nourishes you.
But sometimes the solution is actually the exact opposite. Sometimes finding space means giving space. This is because sometimes the space that we’re craving isn’t physical space at all. What we’re really craving is heart-space, that place of open generosity where our world intersects another’s and we feel no resentment, no desire to claim our circle back, only happiness that we are together.
Which is all well and good in theory but doesn’t solve the problem because back on the trampoline I was seriously failing to be connected and engaged. What does help, at least sometimes, is this lovely little heart-centering practice:
- Start with a few deep breaths to settle your body and mind.
- Think of a time when you felt perfectly happy or content with another person. Imagine where you were in as much detail as possible. What do you see? Smell? Hear?
- Focus now on how you felt. Lean into that feeling, holding on to it. Smile. Open your eyes and return to whatever you were doing with the intention of passing on that same feeling.
*This is a fast little meditation. It’s not meant to take 20 minutes. It takes me about 2.
I’d like to say that I did my meditation, settled into the game of “Wolf and Leopard Don’t Play Together” and connected with my daughter in a new, amazing way. It did not go that way. Instead, I floundered through the game until–thank God!–it began to rain and we had to go inside. But I tried.
If there’s anything holy to be found in playing an endless game of let’s-pretend, I think it’s this lesson in cultivating heart-space. It is a realization that sometimes the hardest inner work doesn’t happen in our quiet sanctuaries but in our ordinary white-bread, American suburb moments. Whether we pull it off or not isn’t really the point. The real mark of grace is that we want to try at all. It is an opening, a small bit of heart-space that might just grow into something bigger and better than we ever thought.