Rex Huppke | Take my advice. Look up now and then. Watch something you don’t notice as much as you once did drift along for a minute or two. Let your brain coast.
I saw some clouds the other day.
That’s not inherently exciting, I know, but stick with me.
It was a weekend evening and I was grilling on the back porch with the grill lid down and my mind, as usual, was racing.
Life is hectic. I’m sure you can relate.
I’m busy with my kids, with errands and bills and projects and household chores. And I’m abundantly busy with work, which is never farther away than the phone in my pocket.
That’s why the clouds surprised me. I might’ve forgotten they were up there.
I happened to glance west and caught sight of two mountainous puffs of white, framed in fiery red and pink from the sunset behind them, creeping eastward. It was stunning, richly detailed, the kind of meteorological marvel you see in grand vistas, not out the corner of your eye on an average weekend night at home.
I couldn’t look away. It held my gaze for several minutes as the grill sizzled and my brain, blessedly, slowed down.
Clouds. When was the last time I stared up at the clouds? How long had it been since I studied their shape, their tinted edges, their speed?
I know it sounds like I’m cracking up, but this brief, out-of-nowhere moment hit me hard, a reminder that I sometimes do a lousy job following my own advice.
I’ve written in this space about mindfulness, about living in the moment and taking time to let your thoughts drift, about the importance of disconnecting from work so it doesn’t always feel like a boulder chasing you downhill.
And there I was, looking at a pair of clouds like I had never seen such a thing in my life. Like it had been months since I had taken the time to look up from a screen and notice that there’s a sky above.
Damn. It made me mad.
We work like crazy building careers, in part because we don’t want to look back and wonder if we should have tried harder. That’s a good — and important — mindset for a working person.
But I also don’t want to look back and realize I never paid attention to the clouds. Or to other simple things that come and go whether we pay attention to them or not.
There’s no way to do all we want in one lifetime — to be the best father or mother, the best employee or boss, the most mindful person. With every decision we give and we take. I prioritize my family, and that takes from my work. Then I prioritize my work, which takes some from my family and more from the time I might spend noticing clouds.
This isn’t just me, this is all of us. It’s a brutal thing to calculate, and we tend to do it without thinking, perhaps because thinking too hard about it might drive us nuts.
I don’t claim to have a solution to the daily juggle of work and family and me-time and everything else. There are plenty out there who would make such a claim while trying to sell you a book or a three-hour life-coach session that would let you in on their secrets.
All I can tell you is what I came up with after pondering my sky-gazing, mid-grilling, back-porch revelation.
I’m going to try to not be so hard on myself about failing or succeeding in this elusive quest to strike the right balance between work-attentiveness and mindfulness. That doesn’t mean I surrender. I just think I — and perhaps many of you as well — get too mad at myself for not living in the moment, and being mad only compounds the problem.
I’m also going to reverse what teachers told me when I was a kid and got caught spacing out in class: “Get your head out of the clouds.”
It was reasonable advice at the time, but I think as we get older and busier and more burdened with responsibilities, we might benefit from occasionally getting our heads back in the clouds.
So that’s my advice. Look up now and then. Watch something you don’t notice as much as you once did drift along for a minute or two. Let your brain coast.
After I watched those clouds the other day I checked the grill and everything was fine — nothing burned while my mind was elsewhere.
I think there’s a message in that.
Thanks for sticking with me.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.