When Matthew S. Rosin put his old professional life in education policy and philosophy behind him and embraced life as a stay-at-home dad, he came to see fatherhood as a journey of learning to be the man his kids need him to be. In his reflective writing, Rosin explores the joyful and deeply humbling ways his kids call on him to renew himself on their behalf: to embrace surprise, refine his strengths, and wrestle with his vulnerabilities. The reflection below is one in a series that Rosin is contributing to STAND Magazine.
Don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers.
We’re taught to carry some version of that metaphor around with us. It’s meant to remind us of a truth so basic that we often forget it: the nectar is in the journey, not the destination.
But living that metaphor, especially amidst the push and pull of adult responsibilities, takes practice. We fail frequently and sometimes miserably.
Lately, the metaphor has been ringing loudly in my ears.
My preschooler is passionately interested in scents and relishes smelling the flowers we find on our walks. Every. Single. One. At least, it feels that way sometimes. And that feeling trips me up for two reasons.
First, my own sense of smell is poor. Scents that my wife and kids notice immediately are often, for me, dull at best and hidden at worst. As a result, I rarely take time to smell flowers or anything else.
Second, I’m not very good at dwelling in the moment. “Productive” thoughts get in the way. I worry about getting places on time, even when I don’t need to. My muscles tense at the inefficiency with which my kids put on their shoes.
I live a surprisingly-large portion of my life as though it were an inexhaustible to-do list. My spirit is pressed and squeezed into tiny check-boxes on my cell phone. Each marks some future moment when something to-be done will be done. I hurtle from one check-box to the next, judging the success of each day by the tasks I’ve discharged.
Then my preschooler stops before a garden awash in flowers and draws deeply from one. Then another.
“Okay, let’s keep going,” I say, my attention fixed on the dinner yet-to-be-plated a few blocks away.
“Daddy, smell this.”
I smell it, perceiving only dimly the source of my child’s joy.
“Mmm,” I hum vaguely, then, “Okay, let’s keep going,” my voice more brittle than before.
My child inhales from another flower.
The check-box pulls at me, and anxiety flares beneath my skin. Simultaneously, a bit of spirit spills from the too-tiny box and rebels, screaming in my inner ear: “You’re not listening!”
I’m trying to cultivate a new stance toward walking with my kids, in the hope that I will become more mindful of and whole-heartedly responsive to the real possibilities of the moment.
There is no administrative “solution” for this inner swirl of anxiety and guilt. I could budget more time for walks, and perhaps I should. But time-management techniques cannot redress alienation from the moment—from flowers, from child, from self.
As Henry David Thoreau, a strong advocate for walking and wildness, wrote, “there is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business.” There may be little I can do to remediate the lack of natural “wildness” alongside my neighborhood sidewalk. But I can certainly learn to respond more fully to the wildness of my child’s wonder.
So, I’m trying to cultivate a new stance toward walking with my kids, in the hope that I will become more mindful of and whole-heartedly responsive to the real possibilities of the moment.
I’ve taken up meditation. I’m learning to note, without judgment, when thoughts of things not-yet-done threaten to pull me from the present moment, so that I can set those tasks aside until a more fitting time.
This is not easy. Old habits are hard to break, and “productive” thoughts do their damnedest to intrude. My brow begins to furrow only seconds after I smooth it. And too often, I “decide” that I’m “too busy” to meditate that day.
But when I meditate regularly—in other words, when I practice—I feel the difference during the rest of the day. It becomes easier to note and stand apart from my “productive” thoughts, and they don’t sweep me away as often.
I’ve also started going out on occasional “smell walks” with my preschooler. I commit in advance to not worrying about timely arrival at a destination. Although we may know where we’ll end up, we’ve no concern about exactly how or when we’ll get there. We just walk, stopping whenever my child wants to investigate a flower or an herb. Then comes the invitation —always the invitation—for me to join in.
I got the “smell walk” idea from reading the work of Alexandra Horowitz. She leads the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College and writes fabulously about how dogs experience the world. Her most recent book, Being a Dog, delves into the smell-world of dogs and encourages her human readers, sight-driven as we are, to reconnect with the many and meaningful scents that populate our lives. Horowitz also describes how her own perception of the world has been transformed by her research and, especially, by the “smell walks” she takes with her own dogs. Her world “has changed color,” she writes. “It smells. Well, it has always smelled . . . [b]ut I had not bothered to open my mind to the smells.”
It may seem strange to take inspiration from a book on dogs to deepen and dignify my parenting. But the moral point is this: I can learn to participate in my child’s olfactory joy—and because I can, I feel that I should. By doing so, I learn to respond more fully to the moment as my child knows it, and my child learns there is no flower that I will not bend myself to investigate when called.
Sometimes, I detect the scent my child describes only barely or not at all. But some scents do spring to consciousness. They stir the nostrils I’d previously thought could perceive very little. Then my child and I talk about it.
Thankfully, my kids are inexhaustible sources of wonder, unconcerned with being elsewhere or at any other time. They always give me another chance to affirm that dwelling in wonder is necessary and nourishing.
And my kids get another chance to witness their dad’s re-awakening to the world.
Matthew S. Rosin is a dad, husband, author, and composer based in the Bay Area, California. He writes about how fatherhood changes the man. Rosin also writes short fiction, including the novelette The Honeydrop Tree and stories in KYSO Flash, The Luxembourg Review, r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and Shotgun Honey. He holds a Ph.D. in Education from Stanford University and used to work in the education non-profit world. Check out more at www.matthewsrosin.com.