Calming a Room Full of Crying Quintuplets

At our Precepts class on Saturday, we broached the topic of mindfulness as a way of bringing a monastic-like focus into a lay life. We talked about Dogen’s exhortation to use everything from cleaning the temple to personal hygiene as an exercise in mindfulness practice. Darlene Cohen said especially in lay life, focusing on tasks like doing the dishes, or folding laundry, or preparing meals, can bring those monastic forms to life, deepening our experience of an integrated nature of reality, a sense of “all is one.”

I have a tendency to try to be “efficient” in my movements. By that, I mean reaching for something with my left hand while sliding something else closer with my right hand, and nudging the refrigerator door shut with my knee, and at the same time talking on the phone. Sheer madness. I catch myself at it all the time – trying to carry too many things at once, balancing precarious loads instead of making a separate trip. Losing the thread in a conversation with a friend, because I am checking the balance online in my checking account. Making lists of the lists of the things I have to do.

The two most frenetic times of the day for me are right when I first wake up and when I first walk in the door, returning home from work. As I have mentioned, we have three dogs, five cats, and a very opinionated parrot. We have recently added a stray who we have dubbed Bliz (short for Blizzard) to the mix, who we are feeding twice a day — all white, he blew in on a cold rainy day, half starved and very scared. Who could refuse?

When I wake up, the dogs race to the kitchen and circle until they are fed. The cats, too, run to the counter, and pace up and down, while I am preparing the dog dishes. Barney (the parrot) is covered at night. He begins his one truly obnoxious sound, a very high pitched squawk, which is his demand for immediate attention — fresh water, fresh food, and yogurt dipped treats, please.

I have to open a can of dog food, scoop out dry dog food into three bowls, get out two separate pills for two of the dogs on meds, open a can of cat food and put that out, and uncover Barney, and take care of his food needs, all in the shortest time possible in order to avert complete cacophony.

It is a bit like having six-month-old quintuplets who have all awakened from a nap at the same time starving, and you’re just one poor mom.

That’s just the inside crew. Gordy is patiently waiting outside the French doors on the deck. So I grab another can of cat food, and feed him outside, then on to the latest addition, over to the tool shed to pick up Bliz’s dish, back into the house again, one more trip, and finally, everyone has breakfast. The whole thing gets repeated when I come home from work.

The other night, though, I had a “wake up” moment. I came in, bustling as usual. I took off the dogs’ collars (they have to wear bark collars when we’re out), fed them dinner, put out the cat food, and was generally racing around. Barney was putting up a terrible fuss. He was just squawking and squawking. I checked his food dish. It was full. I opened the cage so he could get out and go up top, and rushed over to take care of some other detail. He kept squawking. I looked up at him in exasperation and said, “What?” He continued to make a racket. I was losing my patience.

Then it hit me. I walked slowly over to the cage, taking a deep breath. I put my face up close to him. “Hi, Barney.” He nuzzled up against my cheek. “How are you? Did you have a good day?” He cooed, and bobbed his head around, prancing back and forth a bit, with a few good-natured chortles. That was all he wanted. He just wanted me to see him.

I have been trying, these past few days, to reframe my mornings. The dogs will always be excited about breakfast. Barney will always get wound up and impatient. But I can bring some calmness, some grounding to the experience, if I take each step purposefully, touch each animal one at a time, as if they are the only one in the world at that moment. Saving time is much too costly in the long run.

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