Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
I was at a Dead show the first time I heard it. 16 years old. A circle formed at the edge of the stadium’s corridor during the drums-and-space jam. Undeterred by the revved-up traffic and whirling skirts, that circle was a solid, swaying knot. All twenty or so human links weaved in and around each other. I heard the voices in unison and asked a woman dancing nearby what they were saying. “Serenity Prayer,” she said. She repeated it for me.
Was it an invocation? Some kind of magic spell? It must have been if it managed to help a bunch of folks in recovery navigate the rainbow pharmacopeia that trailed the band in its transcontinental wanderings. Somewhere along the way, I memorized that prayer without intending to. It is now such a part of my cultural vocabulary that it’s as firmly planted as the opening of the Gettysburg Address and the entirety of Frost’s “Two Roads Diverged.” In fact, it barely registers anymore.
How deep do these lines run? Do they stay safely entombed or do they erode? It has to be a matter of practice.
Sometimes, it’s a matter of the right trigger.
I am standing in front of the mirror in a bathroom at work putting away my toothbrush, and I catch a glimpse of myself. The image is strange, raw, and dimensional in a way that a reflection should never be. I wonder if anyone else passes through these disorienting moments. One stays with me from when I was 10 years old. In the restroom at school in a dark rectangle of glass, I saw — really saw — the pre-teen girl who inhabits my story. Never had I encountered anyone so eerily familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Even through the haze of 3 decades, the memory is so clear, it’s like looking at a photograph.
Today, I blink at the middle-aged woman there and I’m floored by how striking she is. The year is still fresh, and her life is as big and messy as ever. On this bitter January day, the kid is home with Grandma. The dog is curled up in a patch of sun. Outside her office door, students wait with nerves jangling and questions firing. The day has been tough — it always is — and she’s been striding the corridors of her building, hopping in and out of meetings, sorting out projects. She stumbles and reaches. She risks. She chokes. She learns.
I know with startling certainty that she is powerful beyond measure.
Of course, she is a trick of angles and light. She seems solid there because she is standing right here.
This is when the Serenity Prayer comes roaring into my ears.
The things I cannot change. The things I can.
The words roll through me. On their heels come unfixed wishes, urgent questions. Of the many needs that motivate me — finances, fitness, art, relationships, my son’s well-being — what is within my control? What isn’t?
All day, situations I can’t anticipate spring up from the earth or tumble down from the branches above. It’s a surprise every time. A jumble of thoughts and feelings determine my response, and I’m usually at the reaction point — avoidance or recoil — before I even register what got me there. Fear can feel like an actual physical lash, tightening around my chest, constricting breath and vision and eventually freedom of movement. When I slow the tape down enough to identify the frames, they say something like This is too big for me, or I don’t have what it takes, or I don’t have time. The crushing sense of despair intensifies. I feel overwhelmed, tight, tired, frightened. I call the task a “challenge” or an “opportunity,” and try to will myself to face it. The fact is, I’m half a mile past the point where I judged it to be large and unwieldy, and shouldered it anyway. I experience it as a burden without stopping to catalog the contents.
It can seem like 100 of these chores strap themselves to me every day, and inside each, 100 obstacles. I am Grimm’s Drummer at the lake, and the thimble is rusting in my hands. Meanwhile, the woman in the mirror blinks back at me. She’s got something figured out:
Every moment contains the things I can’t change and the things I can.
The trick is finding the difference. When I pause to sort situations into their appropriate piles, I only need to pick back up the work that falls to me. The rest I can leave. This is more radical than it sounds. Accepting it means stepping out of the vortex of complaints and self-doubt, and actually taking small, significant steps forward. Courage is required. Any “thing” I dare claim as mine to change contains discrete, manageable tasks. The skills to complete each of those tasks are within reach. It is up to me to do the reaching and the completing.
Serenity, Courage, Wisdom
Accept, Change, Know
For this fleeting moment in the office ladies’ room, my mind is awake the way it is when I pause at a break in the trees on a Shenandoah ridge. One option is to kvetch, “None of the wildflowers are blooming, and my pack is chafing, and man are those cicadas ever going to shut up?” Instead, the high-altitude approach calls for noticing one brilliant slice of earth and sky. For a moment today, my gaze lands where my heart must have known all along it could: On me, a bright woman at the start of a new year, in sync with a vibrant, changeable planet.
In the spirit of the Happy 100 Days Project, I begin 2015 with a commitment to seek out small, enriching habits. The aim is to name choices that are in my power to make, choices that will allow me to walk in the skin of the woman I glimpse today. Instead of 100 chores and 100 obstacles, this project is to notice 100 Things I Can.
Here I will gather up powerful crumbs and write about them. Like that circle of dancers, this will be a chance to step out of oncoming traffic and call upon strong, simple truths. I’ll begin here to sort out the things I can change.
Maybe, too, other Things I Can will emerge. Things I can cultivate. Appreciate. Learn. Things I can shed. Things I can nurture.
Things I can inhabit.
Things I can live.