I pulled this painting out of a box the other day, and just for the pure heck of it I hung it on our bedroom wall. Maybe it was just a strangely philosophical mood that I was in, but this painting got me thinking.
I painted it one afternoon in the autumn, shortly after our arrival in England the first year. It was the view out my living room window. The fog had rolled in so far that it seemed to come right to the edge of our yard. Just for fun I sat down and painted it. As I pulled it out the other day and looked at it, I got all nostalgic. You know how that can happen? A song, a smell, or a snapshot can bring on a whole host of memories – and for just a second can give you that fleeting, wistful, poignant feeling that is much bigger than the smell or the song itself.
We lived that year on the grounds of a 16th century manor in a little stone cottage on Church Lane out in the country. Just past the edge of our yard (covered in fog in the picture) was the Saxon Burial Field. The manor was surrounded by an old stone wall, had beautiful gardens, an Orangery, and an Apple Croft. When Charles I was running from Cromwell, he snuck out of Oxford in the night and rode his army up Church Lane, past our house, and supposedly stayed the night in the manor. We could walk the footpath down to the Thames, or across the fields to the pub for dinner and a pint. The kids played in the hedges, and gathered up “treasures” from the Saxon Burial Field that actually turned out to be bits of Roman pottery. Tiny, wild strawberries grew along the footpaths. I could see the church tower out our window, and listen to the bells ring.
When I pulled out my picture, all that flooded back. The fun memories of the family walking back across the fields in the very late twilight in the summertime, the songbirds that sang so loudly every morning, the wild foxglove and poppies that grew everywhere. Hanging my laundry out to dry on bright Spring mornings.
But here’s the problem. Looking back on it now, those are the parts that stand out. The parts I miss. But at the time there were lots of other things mixed in as well. Things like no dryer. No dishwasher. The teeniest freezer known to man. The fact that when you set up the dining table you could no longer reach the stove, the sink, or the fridge. Unrefrigerated eggs. A really, really weird picture on our wall that came with the house . . . a drawing of an ugly mosaic. Terrible maroon damask slipcovers. Orangish-brownish, indoor-outdoor style carpeting. Yucky curtains. A dreadful coffee table. A crazy homeless man who wandered the fields and got into our trash. Two twin beds pushed together to make our bed. Those were factors that loomed large as well. The beautiful parts were noticeable at the time, but so was everything else.
But now, from this distance, all the annoying bits have fallen away like dross. They’re just funny stories if I even remember them at all. That mosaic picture absolutely drove me crazy until I finally pulled it off the wall and stuffed it behind the couch. And now of course, the mosaic picture means nothing to me. Once a thorn in my flesh, now a mostly-forgotten detail.
So what’s my point in all this? My point is that I think contentment is the art of looking at the present the way you look at the past and the future. We look back at the past, having let all the insignificant annoyances fall away. We imagine the future as a bright and rosy time that will have no annoyances at all.
Think of that nostalgic feeling I was describing earlier. Say you hear a song on the radio, and it brings back a wonderful Summer in high school. You remember all the fun, but do you remember how stressed out you were about that zit? You look back on that era as the time you were so thin and fit . . . but remember how during the actual moment you were convinced you were fat? During that wonderful summer (the one you remember so fondly now) you probably spent the whole time longing for the day that you would have your driver’s license. Because, as we all know, as soon as you have your driver’s license, life becomes one long glamorous adventure. (Remember thinking that?!)
When you’re a young mom, older women tell you all the time that you should make sure to enjoy it . . . because these years go by so quickly. Instead of rolling your eyes and thinking, “let’s pray they do,” try and actually stop and listen to that advice. Realize that you’re going to look back on this someday, and the diaper blowouts will have disappeared from the picture. The messes won’t even be remembered. Instead of spending all your time imagining a flawless future, or wishing to get back a (supposedly) flawless past, try and look at your present circumstances in the same way. Let the dross fall away now, and be content now. It takes real discernment to be able to see what details are actually insignificant. You can’t (and you shouldn’t) pretend like the annoyances aren’t there. But you can try to see them in perspective. You can laugh at them. You can see them as the dross they are. You can decide to not let them distract you from the gold. You can decide to not let them dominate you. Because how tragic is it to go through every day, missing the beauty of the moment because you’re too busy re-imagining yesterday’s beautiful moment – and wishing for tomorrow’s beautiful moment. Try and revel in what God is giving you right this minute.