One summer evening ten years ago, my mom told me a story. The memory of that night is so vivid yet delicate; it’s like I can reach out and touch it. But it would flutter away if I did so. It had been a miserably hot summer day, but mother nature inevitably took pity when the sun set – the evening was beautiful. Our windows were open and the crickets outside were singing their mating song while fireflies flickered in the sky. A soft gentle breeze whisked away the remnants of heat from the day.
Secretly, I was happy to be home with my mom that night as opposed to hanging out with my friends at yet another stupid party. Part of me had wanted to be with them, if only for the chance to see what Oliver, my next-door neighbor and the boy I secretly loved, was up to. Aware that usually only led to heartbreak, I knew I made the right decision choosing instead to remain home.
My mom had made spaghetti dinner that night, which I hastily and voraciously devoured, her homemade robust sauce my favorite. Simmering all day, it had made my mouth water as the aroma permeated our small home. I recall standing side-by-side washing the dishes in our small sink, happily satiated, laughing at bubbles flying in the air. When we were finished she dried her hands then reached in the drawer of her small writing desk for paper and pens. I recall her turning to me with them in her hand and a smile on her face.
“Let’s make lists together, Remy!”
“You and your lists, mom,” I roll my eyes while grabbing a dishtowel out of the drawer and hiding a smile as I turn away. My mom’s lists are a staple in our home, so much so if she quit making them, I’d immediately be suspect. Or I’d wonder what alien had inhabited her body. She makes one for everything – groceries, tasks she needs to accomplish, packing, donations, movies she wants to see, personal and professional goals – you name it. She doesn’t just write them out, she keeps them in notebooks lying around the house. Pick any of them up and flip the pages and you’re likely to find a few. I’ve also found them on post-it notes, on the back of envelopes, small note pads, and once on the back of my homework. She thought it was an old paper – that didn’t go over well.
Ignoring my comment she sits a piece of paper in front of me as I sit down at our small glass table. “Here’s one for you and one for me,” she holds out a pen for me to take.
“What list do you need now?”
“Just humor me, okay? I know you’re sixteen and too cool for school, but this will be good.”
“Did you just say ‘too cool for school’?”
Now it’s her turn to roll her eyes at me, “I’ll take lessons on being cool from you later, okay?”
Laughing, I poise my pen over my paper expectantly. “Okay, fine. Just promise you’ll never say that in front of my friends.”
“Deal,” she says laughing. “So, I read an article in a magazine when I was waiting to get my oil changed the other day. It stated that having goals in our lives are incredibly important. They help us have long-term vision and short-term motivation. So basically, it got me thinking. I’d like us to make a list like the one I read about, but I’m adding my own twist. I’d like to call it a list of reasons. It’s kind of like a bucket list of sorts… but more.”
“A bucket list? I’ve heard of that before. A list of things you want to do, right?”
The memory plays out like a movie in my mind. I can see her bright smile, the way her hair framed her face, how her eyes twinkled with excitement. My heart aches with memory.
“Yes, exactly. Well for this list I want you to write down goals you have, dreams you have, anything and everything you would like to do in your life. This isn’t just any list so be mindful of what you capture. This is an important list. This will become your list of reminders, a list full of reasons that can keep us going when times get hard. The items on this list are those things that deeply move you, that excite you, that call out to you to accomplish, to experience, to conquer. Whenever we need to remind ourselves of our goals, our purpose, or need a self-motivation boost, we’ll pull out this list. So think hard and large – I don’t want you to limit yourself.”
“Okay, what’s an example? What is something you’ll put down?”
Somehow her smile manages to turn brighter, she looks as if she has a secret and it automatically makes me smile too. “One of the things I’m going to put down is that someday I want to see the ocean. I want to feel the sand between my toes, the hot sun on my skin and to taste the salty sea on my lips when I go for a swim.”
“That’s a good one. I would love to do that too.”
“I also hope to be brave enough to go skydiving someday. Oh, and to pet a llama.”
“Pet a llama? Skydiving?” I laugh, “Who are you and what have you done with my mother?”
“Very funny. Your mom has dreams too, ones you have no idea about and things you may not even be able to imagine.”
“Apparently.” I still don’t understand her desire to pet a llama, but I can get on board with it. “Why is this important to you? You know, other than the fact that this is a new list you can add to your growing collection?”
“Oh, hush,” she smiles and then puts her paper and pen aside to look into my eyes. “I’m going to tell you a quick story I read once that I think will help you understand, okay?”
“There once was a burning woman walking in a field. Blooming beauty was all around her – lush trees and fragrant flowers – she didn’t notice any of it though. Constant were her worries of the potential threat of rain, wind and the constant movement of time that could make her fire cease to burn – for without it – she would be no more. Her worries overcame her and she began to cry, her tears making her glowing fire sizzle and dim.”
I watch her speak, her hands moving as she tells the story.
“Suddenly out of nowhere right in front of her appeared a telephone. Startled by its presence it took her a moment to see the sign above it that read, ‘Telephone to God – ask anything.’ Head swimming with questions and curiosity she tentatively picked up the phone and to her surprise it immediately began to ring.”
Unable to help myself I lean forward in my seat, eager to hear what happens next. “Was it God?” I ask.
She nods, “The voice on the other end said, ‘Yes, my child, how may I help you?’ God himself answers and asks.
Many questions ran through Burning Woman’s mind, but one was prominent. She wondered if God would help her put out her fire for good and take her home. She knew it would mean the end of her existence, but it would also be the end of her constant turmoil as well. Other questions fought to be asked as well – things like could God keep her fire burning forever? Would he if he could? If she lived, could she ever find peace and contentment? Would she be able to love, know happiness, true joy? Could she have a family? Though she wondered about them all, none of those questions left her mouth.
Instead she found herself asking, ‘How can I calm my fears enough to remember to live in the moment? I fear my fire will continue to simmer instead of flare and the constant worry will make me never be able to enjoy life or take notice of the world and its beauty around me. This is no way to live.’”
“It was almost as if the Burning Woman could hear God’s smile over the phone. ‘Breathe. Just breathe, my child.’ Angry at God’s advice, Burning Woman begins to reply angrily, but before she can God adds, ‘Whenever you feel yourself getting anxious – whenever you fail to see the beauty I’ve created because you’re enveloped in worry and fear – just breathe.’”
“I don’t know if I can,” Burning Woman fears.
“You must,” God states firmly.
“Give me a reason.” Burning Woman insists stubbornly.
“’Because, I love you, because you matter, because I have a plan for you,” God states simply and with that advice, the phone disconnects.
I could feel how large my eyes were in my face. I’m not sure how I would have felt about receiving that advice. “I think the Burning Woman’s anger was justified.”
My mom just smiles and continues, “Burning Woman hung up the phone and instead of the initial anger she had felt, uncertainty and despair were the emotions she battled. Worry and fear washed through her in an uncontrollable forceful wave that made her gasp. The flames of her fire began to tamper more than ever. She started to panic, she started to give in, but suddenly, she heard God’s voice in her mind once more giving her instructions. Slowly but surely faith and hope began to push back the worry and fear. Before she could think twice, she closed her eyes and did as she was told – she inhaled. She inhaled, once, twice, three times…”
“What happened?” I ask my mother anxiously.
“When her eyes opened, her mouth did as well in shock. It had begun to rain and instead of being frightened at the sight, she felt wonder. Her fire was burning brighter and higher than ever before. The simple act of hope and faith made her fire roar even in the rain.”
“How?” I ask bewildered.
My mom’s smile becomes radiant, “What does a fire need to burn, Remy?”
Brows in a furrow, it takes me a moment to understand. When I do, my smile is wide, “Oxygen.”
She nods, “Oxygen. As soon as Burning Woman stopped worrying she was able to live in the moment. She could breathe. She was able to exist in the here and now instead of wrestling with unknown possibilities. It’s important, Remy, that when we get stuck in life’s attempts to make us lose hope – when we get caught up in the past or fret over the future – that we have reasons to fight against those feelings. Writing them down will allow us to tangibly see all the reasons we have to keep going and remind us of all the things in life we want to accomplish – all we want to do, see, feel or whatever the case may be. It’s important that we stop, breathe and live in the here and now. It’s all too easy to get caught up in things that may never happen – to borrow trouble. We will always have worries and fears, but if we give into them they’ll start dimming the fire we have within, and we’ll lose sight of all we have to appreciate around us.”
“Wow. I like that story,” I tell her.
“Me too,” she reaches out and touches my cheek with love and tenderness. “That’s why you and I are going to write a list of reasons, Remy. The places we want to go, the things we want to see and experience… those are our reasons for pushing through the tough times. When we are having trouble, when our fires are simmering, it will be a good reminder for us.” She trails off and her pen begins to move across her paper as she starts on her own list.
A tear runs down my cheek remembering her words and the story she told that night. We had no idea that in a year’s time, life would throw us such a horrendous curveball that we would practically forget all about those lists. We had no idea how hard hope and faith would be to hold onto, or that the next few years would be full of pain, fear, suffering and constant worry. Or at least that’s how it was for me; her story may have been a bit different. That night, we ended up spending the rest of the evening making those lists. We wrote them, read them aloud, laughed together over our dreams and wishes, and weren’t afraid to share and speak them no matter how trite or imaginative.
That night, we gave each other another reason.