I found zen in a garbage can

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If you had happened to drive by house this morning, you would have seen me crawled inside an overturned garbage can muttering what felt like futile prayers to St. Anthony as I slowly removed, piece by piece, those lingering bits of trash that cling to the bottom and rot. What I had lost was not, believe it or not, my mind. That, for the first time in a while, felt securely in place.

For any of this to make sense I’ve got to back up a few days. This past Friday morning I rented a minivan and drove 7.5 hours to Russellville, Arkansas, where I had a delightful dinner with friends. The next morning I was on a twisty, turning, anxiety-ridden shorter drive through the Ozarks to Ridgedale, Missouri, where I painted at a wedding with a truly spectacular view. The next morning, Mother’s Day, I got up and made the long drive home eager to see the little boy who turned my entire world upside down when he made me a mom. Driving all day was the last thing I wanted on Mother’s Day. And yet, somehow, it was exactly what I needed.






I used to dread long solo drives, but now I often welcome them as a chance to let go of my email and social media for the day and give myself over to podcasts, audiobooks, and discovering new music. Although completely unplanned, a theme started to emerge in my day’s worth of audio bingeing. From an interview with a Buddhist monk to the audiobook I made it halfway through (the Conscious Parent by Dr. Shefali Tsabary), and a lot of stuff in between, the message was clear: live in the present moment.

It was a message I needed to hear and one the experience of driving through several states helped me to hear– it is impossible to hussle through an all-day drive; you kind of have to surrender to it.

Dr. Shefali’s book brings this message directly to parenting. She believes children are unique spiritual beings whose worth resides in their essence and not their ability to live out our notions of success or happiness. Therefore, she claims, we parents should affirm their unique being rather than constantly judge (even positively) their abilities, talents, accomplishments or failures. She suggests saying things like, “‘I like sitting here with you” over “You’re so good at coloring!” In all my raging anxieties about what it means to usher another little human through this world and in downright fear that he will not feel whole or secure, I very often overload my son with affirmations and their less sun-shiney counterparts, criticisms– “You don’t listen,” ‘I can’t take this anymore,” “why can’t you just…”

The book is long and this post started with me in trash can, so I’ll try not to get too off course. I do want to make it clear that the book does not suggest we let our kids run amuck and forego discipline. Instead it asks us to discipline from a place of wholeness and authenticity rather than from our egos.

With all these ideas swimming in my head, I finally arrived home, got my son back from his stay with his grandparents, and vowed to be truly present to him. I am a fish out of water at this. After a long weekend, I wanted nothing more than to start thinking of the week ahead, the tasks that must be accomplished, the laundry that must be folded, the emails I needed to answer, the blessed routine with which I must get reacquainted.

But my son wanted to have what he called “mommy project” time. So we engineered a falcon (and not just any falcon but a Martin Kratt of PBS’s Wild Kratt’s in a falcon creature power suit falcon) out of tissue paper and lots of tape. I put my phone in another room as we worked. I watched his face as he navigated his beloved tape. Even as we worked, I found my ego urging to take over, nudging me to hurry up (bedtime was fast approaching). I resisted getting frustrated (maybe even offended?) when my son wanted to redo the face since it looked kinda funny.

We laughed and laughed. Rolled around on the floor, laughing, and then sent our tissue paper falcon into the air to see if it would fly. It fell as soon as it was released, and we laughed some more.

When I eventually put my son to bed last night (right at our usual time, I might add), it was as though Dr. Shefali’s voice was whispering to me: “You see. You are enough. Your presence is what he needs. Everything else is secondary to that.” I have done activities like this with my son before, but typically, while my hands move and even as I talk to him, my mind is somewhere else. I am thinking about what is coming next. There was freedom in letting go of the past (the long, exhausting weekend) and the future (all the things that needed to be unpacked and organized) and being only in that moment. 

I only spent a couple of hours with my son on Mother’s Day, but I wondered how many entire days I have spent with him where I wasn’t really with him at all.

Which brings me to this morning when I had to bring the rental minivan back to Enterprise and couldn’t, for the life of me, find the keys. In the two hours it took me to eventually uncover them in the outdoor trash can, I tried with all my might to remember the lessons of my weekend– Be present, even in this. I threw a little slant eye at life, chuckled, and reminded myself that even in this there was some kind of opportunity. As I tore apart my house searching for the keys, I purged some much needed junk, I looked under all the remaining tissue paper, and smiled at the project we’d undertaken the night before and the new one we are planning. I reminded myself again and again that the keys were in fact here since I had driven the car to my home and that they would be found. I witnessed myself letting go of what I’d planned for today with a little more ease than I’m used to. I didn’t lose the keys because I’m unforgivably irresponsible or the universe hates me. I lost the keys because losing keys is a part of life. It just is.

My natural inclination in situations like these is to curse and lament. To repeat things like, “why me!? Why today!? Every time I have a million things to do, something like this happens” or “You moron! Why can’t you just put keys in the same place every time!”

If nothing else, the whole experience gave me a blog post topic for this week. And even though I haven’t gotten into the studio today as I had hoped and as I had planned, I’m eager to see how being truly present in my paintings will help them evolve.

And in case anyone is worried, I most certainly disinfected those keys before returning them.


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Denise Hopkins

May 14, 2018

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