I’ve had braces for the last two years and I had upper jaw surgery a few months ago as part of the process. This week I had the bottom brackets removed – I’m getting so close to the end of what’s been a long and often painful process. One of the things I’ve reflected on in these years is the power there is in focussing my attention.
On Monday at the orthodontist I used a tool I learned as a small child – wiggling my toes. I had a lot of dental work as a kid and for almost every appointment my Dad would be there, squeezing my hand, rubbing my leg, reminding me to breathe, and sometimes he would tell me to wiggle my toes. I followed his coaching and while I don’t think I realised it at the time, it almost certainly made a huge difference in the moment of my experiences. It calmed me to hear him and feel his soothing touch. And to wiggle my toes drew my attention away from the pain in my mouth and helped me to notice that there were more parts of my body.
So earlier this week at the orthodontist, when there was a sense of building discomfort and I was starting to worry that I wasn’t going to be able to keep still and calm, I wiggled my toes. Only after I wiggled my toes did I remember that I wasn’t really breathing and I took some good, deep and steadying breaths. And quickly the hyper-focused feeling of hating having to squish my tongue at the back of my mouth was replaced with feeling my chest move up and down and laughing inwardly at my toes wiggling ridiculously at the end of the chair. And my body could be calm a while longer.
While researching Charlotte Mason’s educational theories I read about the practice of bringing our attention and our notice to things: the wonder and the curiosity that comes with studying a leaf; the raising of our spirits that comes from looking at and observing beauty; and the power for a mother/educator that comes with giving notice to the individual loves and needs and interests of each child.
For this school year I’ve worked to find time and ways to notice each child. The most powerful practice with this was during the weeks of Lent earlier this year when I spent time each day writing down the things I noticed for each child – remembering why they were tired, reflecting on the stress of the afternoon likely being tied to the disappointment of the morning, paying attention to the hard focussed work they had given a subject that we had struggled with the day before. That time spent noticing each child had a noticeable impact on my understanding, patience, and love, and every time I use that tool I’m reminded just how significantly it shifts my perspective. Instead of focussing on the fights and the failures and the stresses of a day, I take the time to remember to wiggle my toes and the panic in the struggle is calmed.
One of the religious ideas I find most comforting is that the Lord is always reaching out to everyone equally – but we have to notice. It brings a balance and an equality to the Lord’s love that was truly life changing for me to understand. At points in my late teens and twenties I questioned religion primarily because the pain and inequalities people face seems too bad to incorporate with the idea of a loving God. But much of that resolved when I started to understand the freedom, even in worldly suffering, that every single person has on an emotional and spiritual level if we turn to and notice the Lord. It’s too difficult for me to sum up in a (comparatively) short article – but my experience at the orthodontist feels like a good basic example of freedom despite suffering. Yes, there are two suction hoses, multiple pieces of cotton wool and four hands inside my mouth, but I have the freedom to say a prayer, and sit in wonder as I physically feel the calm washing through my body as deep breaths soothe my anxiety. It is still difficult for me to know that there are people in difficult natural world circumstances who don’t have these ideas and truths to help them thrive spiritually despite their natural world situation. But I find it helps me to accept that no matter our worldly situation, God CAN be reaching out to us – His children. He can be noticing us and caring for us individually, and we are all invited to turn and notice that love and feel supported and uplifted, regardless of our physical circumstances.
Like many people it’s easy for me to get carried away by the tasks of the day but it has been transformative for me to work on developing my skills in noticing. And I enjoy finding ways of bringing my noticing back to the Lord. When I wiggle my toes I am in awe of bodies – so incredibly designed that I can be distracted by feeling so many sensations in my mouth and even still be able to move my toes – and I can feel a prayer of thankfulness that I have a functioning body. When I remember that a child worked incredibly hard to focus after having a huge meltdown the day before (which required extra love and nurturing in a way that thoroughly drained me) – I can take a deep breath and feel resources re-filling inside as I remember that the Lord is always helping us to grow in love for each other.
One Charlotte Mason educator explores a monthly journaling idea I’ve been working to use which fits with these ideas for me. In reflecting at the end of each month she suggested taking the time to answer four questions:
What things happened that I’m grateful for?
How can I turn those things back to praise?
What hard things happened that I’m grateful for?
How can I turn those things back to praise?
I’ve really enjoyed looking back on the month and reflecting and wondering and noticing these things. And I have especially enjoyed the opportunity to find ways of bringing these reflections back to praise. I’m so grateful for the many things that I would miss feeling without this work of remembering to wiggle my toes, and being sure to notice things as they come and go.