Screen Doors and Other Obstacles: Big Childhood Lessons in Mindfulness

When I was about five, I supposedly took an IQ test given to me by a family friend who was a teacher.  The result was, as that the results “shot off the page” — meaning I was (supposedly) very smart.  (I mention this not to brag, but to set up the atmosphere for this little vignette of a lesson).  But smart doesn’t always equal mindfulness.

“Heather,” my mother or father would say (I think in chorus at times), “You’re a smart girl.  You took that IQ test — which shot off the page — so why don’t you think?!”

I should also insert here that I was also taken to get my hearing tested because I wouldn’t respond when my parents called my name or spoke to me.  The result?  Excellent, superb, far-above-average hearing.  The diagnosis by the doctor, “Well, she’s just imaginative and apparently lives in her own little world most of the time.”

I also have a lot of enthusiasm.  Yes…I’ve learned how to temper all of that as I’ve grown up, but the title of today’s post comes from a childhood moment when I hadn’t learned how to do that.  This was back in the days when I lived in the equation of clever idea = immediate execution.  Where as now, it’s more clever idea + consideration of action/inaction consequences + research/mindfulness = execution.  Sometimes that’s drawn out over a period of time, other times it’s short.

And…I will cop to the fact I do still sometimes shorten it a bit too much.  Like the time I wanted to straighten my hair and I got the enthusiastic idea to buy hair straightener made for African-American women because it was made for “coarse hair” and I, too, have coarse hair.  Except…not that coarse.  My clever idea + immediate execution = shoulder-length hair melting off.

Yeah.  I melted off my hair.  That was a terrific lesson learned about ten years ago.  Learned all sorts of awesome stuff about hair care from that.  Hair mindfulness, if you will.

So to my title (every word of what’s below is true).  My family, who has reminded me about this for the last 30 years has made sure that every little nuance of this experience has been indelibly seared into my poor, traumatized — but now much wiser — brain.

When I was about nine, maybe ten, we were at my grandmother’s house in Boise, Idaho for a week or so one summer.  My mother, father, little brother (about two at the time) and grandmother were in her back yard doing yard work.  I had been in the back room where I slept reading.  I came out to the kitchen area and saw what I thought was both sliding doors open to the terrace — screen and glass door.

Oh, I thought, I know what I’m going to do!  In came the clever idea of a dramatic entrance to the patio.  Tapping into my ballet lessons, I began running through the kitchen, through the little living area with the TV and then, just as I reached the door, I sprang into a beautiful leap, ready to shout the words, Ta daaaa! as I sailed through the open door.

Instead, I was met with a bewildering smash into the rough press and scrape of screen, followed by the rattling sound a bending metal frame makes as it’s knocked from its tracks.  I landed, stumbling and confused, facing the equally-bewildered, but also angry, expressions of the adults.  In this particular moment, I don’t recall where my brother was.

“Heather!” my father said — er shouted (bellowed?)  “What are you doing?!”

I couldn’t say anything other than a stuttering, “I wanted to leap out — ?” And it did come out as a question, not a statement.

I was banished to my little back room and my book.  Snuffling with the humiliation only a child can feel.  I was told not to come out for an hour.

Readers, I’m sure you’re thinking that’s where my lesson ended and I received the wisdom.  Rather, in the immortal and perky words of a late-night infomercial, But wait — there’s more!

An hour later, I carefully stuck my head out and moved daintily, cautiously down the hall and to the kitchen area.  To my utter amazement and disbelief, when I looked at the doors again I saw that they were both fully open!

But, recalling my still-stinging, very recent encounter with that same belief, I paused.  I squinted at the doors.  Was I seeing things?  Would the adults really leave the doors open, given I was always getting shouted at not to do so because it let in flies?  No.  The screen was closed.

Wait — no.  It was open.  It was!

Oh, I thought.  I can do it this time!  This time it…will…work!  I can prove my cleverness!

Once again drawing on my ballet lessons, I began skipping through the kitchen, through the little living area with the TV and once again executed a flawless leap.  One that George Balanchine or Mikhail Baryshnikov would marvel at —

— And met with a louder rattle of bending metal frame and an even sharper (I think) scrape of screen mesh against my face.

You know those moments in movies when the film slows way down, like in some action movie where the hero is running from an explosion nipping at his or her heels, but still with enough time to dive into water and into safety, thereby allowing the viewer to absorb every little detail of the moment?

That’s what that was like, except instead of heroism it was the burn-crunch of thorough humiliation (and surprise that I was wrong…again).  As I sailed through the door I remember where everyone was.  It was a moment that lasted for exactly 49.26 minutes by my count.  Enough time for me to digest all the little subtleties.

  • My mother was to my left, kneeling by a hedge.  She had a trowel in her hand as she dug up weeds, and she had on white gardening gloves.  The expression on her face might, to some, appear blank.  But I know it was just utter disbelief that can only come from a parent who simply cannot wrap her brain around the fact her child just did what she did (for further examples, refer to any number of Calvin and Hobbes strips).
  • My father was by the tree my grandmother had planted in an octagonal planter box.  He, too, had on gardening gloves — leather — and stood, holding a shovel.  His expression was rather similar, but there was also a hint of anger rage that comes from the disbelief that his child just did what she did.
  • My little brother was standing on the patio, almost directly in front of me (I nearly tackled him), eyes wide with surprise.  He had a toy in his hand…though I can’t quite recall what it was.  A car, I think.  (Andrew was also the only one who started laughing).
  • My grandmother was at the back of the yard, kneeling by her rose bushes, tending to weeds there.  She was looking over her shoulder, expression one of morbid disbelief.  Though I guess that phrase really sums it up for everyone — morbid disbelief.

I think you can imagine the level of shouting and tears that followed.  The level of humiliation I reached that can only be described as feeling like my brain began to boil and ache from the amount of blood rushing to my face.  The sobbing apologies uttered from my garbled, mortified tongue and throat landed on deaf ears.

I was sent back to my room for the rest of the afternoon.  The rest of the day is something of a blank.  I can’t even recall if I ate dinner with my family, or if I had to eat alone in my little cell (Oh!  The humanity of angered parents!)

My father had to go to Sears and buy a whole new door; with my first venture through it, he was able to use a rubber mallet to pound it back into workable shape.

That afternoon made a profound impression on me (I’d be worried if it hadn’t, as should you).  I learned caution that afternoon.  I can’t quite say I fully got the whole mindfulness bit, but there was definitely a seed planted that day.  I learned how to slow down between clever idea and execution.  I learned how to actually go up and first test the door through which I wanted to leap.  And even to walk, rather than stuff myself into a canon, light the fuse and, with a hearty boom, launch myself into my plan.

I learned how to break down my execution into small steps and small changes.  Over time, I’ve learned how to speed up the process…but still keeping the necessary analization in there.  There are times when immediate action is necessary — which is why it’s also so important to listen to that Little Voice of yours.  (Thinking back to that moment — er those moments, plural — my own Little Voice practically screamed at me No!  Go up at TOUCH THE DOOR FIRST TO SEE IF YOU’RE RIGHT! But I ignored it.)  You will always know you’ve ignored your own Little Voice, because, some time later, you’ll find yourself thinking…just as I did as I sniffle-blubbered to myself in my room…I knew I should have ________ !

There’s also a necessary aspect of being present to the moment, too, and focus (both of which I’ll touch on in later posts).  But I wanted to first bring this in to show why it’s so necessary as you get fired up on your goals and ideas for how to reach them to bring in at least a modicum of caution and testing (especially against what you’re thinking and what your gut is telling you…gut instincts are always right).

Hopefully you won’t have to learn that lesson the way I did; it’s always best if some sort of (ahem, preventable) humiliation can be left out, and I share this story with you to illustrate that it’s always — always — best to look before you leap.  Literally and figuratively.

That way you’ll avoid a lot of other obstacles as you’ll find better ways to step through them.

Had your own screen door moments?  What were they?  Leave a comment below, email me or drop off a story in the discussion forum.

Questions? Comments? Leave one below or email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org, swing by my Facebook page, or message me at @SmChangeLife on Twitter.

— H


3 Thoughts on “Screen Doors and Other Obstacles: Big Childhood Lessons in Mindfulness

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