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The Places Where Real Life Lives

When I was a kid, my mom taught me how to bake a cake. I should point out here that this was the 1950s, so it was not actually a cake from scratch, but rather a box mix. We tossed in the required egg and water, stirred it up, and poured it into the two pans I had coated with butter. When the timer dinged, I was happy to see the cakes, each risen like a small, golden hill. When they were cool, my mom carefully sliced a bit off one of the cake tops so the other could sit evenly upon it. After all of that, we were finally at the fun part—covering it with icing. Of course this was also a mix, but my mom let me do it. I spread the chocolate carefully over the bottom layer before placing the second atop it and then I slathered the whole thing with the rest of the icing. Gone were the uneven parts of the cake, the air holes, the ridges, the cracks. Now everything was perfect.

Stressing about my abundant life must give my crazy brain something to do, the way a hamster feels when you let him loose on his wheel.

I tell this story today because I have been thinking about that icing on that cake and how I so often focus on that part of my life—the gooey topping that covers all the “blemishes.” It comes in so many forms—everything from careers and identity, to clothing styles and keeping up with social media. And what I’m realizing is how much time I spend fiddling around with perfecting the icing, all the while forgetting how lucky I am to have the cake in the first place.

I never know if I focus on the superficial because it’s easier, or simply because the payoff seems more immediate, but every once in awhile I get how silly it is. When I spend hours fretting about not having enough time to myself or about making sure I’m going to get to the gym three times this week, it’s then that I see the first-world-problem that this really is. I don’t think I’m going to become a person who just pulls herself up by her bootstraps and simply becomes determined to be happy. Still, I am feeling as if I’d like to remind myself of the reality of my life a little more often.

From every angle, I am—by all counts—the luckiest person in the world. I have been blessed with enough common sense and good health to survive nearly 66 years, a village of people without whom I would be lost, a safe and lovely home, and the most adorable, loyal dogs that ever lived. There is so much more, but these are the basics. If I never had one more thing, I would be completely fine. And yet, I rarely focus on these basics, concentrating instead on what I don’t have or the crazy-making pieces of my life that are never quite perfect.

I think being happy with the fundamentals is both easier and harder than striving for flawlessness in the unimportant. On the tough side, I continually question my depth and worth as a human if I am just content with lying on the couch watching bad TV with my beloved partner while we take turns playing Words With Friends. But even typing those words I can see that stressing about my abundant life must give my crazy brain something to do, the way a hamster feels when you let him loose on his wheel.

This is one of those realizations that is almost counterproductive, though. The minute I start thinking about the ways in which I should be more grounded in the important aspects of my life, I start back on the path of focusing on the wrong stuff. So, instead of making one more proclamation about all the ways in which I’m going to be a better person by swearing off bad emotional behavior, I’m thinking the key must be in simply appreciating what I’ve got when I remember to do it.

I’ve been trying that lately and it has paid off in lovely, time-expanding ways. Last weekend, despite being ever so grateful for a three-day respite, my mind kept rushing to the next day, to all the tasks I “had” to complete. I was grieving the arrival of Monday night while it was still Saturday morning. But each time I started moving toward one of those torturous thoughts, I made myself stop—and I can’t even count how many times I had to do this. But it worked. I looked around the room, took my partner’s hand, petted the dog, ate an apple, felt the afternoon sun on my skin.

Those are the places where real life lives, you know? The rest is icing, the pretty, sugary, sticky cover we use to occupy us and keep ourselves from just sitting down and paying attention to this lovely moment. So, when I think of it, I’m reminding myself to do it more—to breathe deeply, relax my body, and enjoy the cake.

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