On Being a Sandwich

Life has been recently been inviting me to explore a new practice: the art of being a sandwich.

Some time in my early adult life, about the time I realized my generation didn’t have all the answers, I developed a habit of seeking and listening to mentors.  One of them talked about a sandwich she was in, squeezed on either side by her parents and her children. I commiserated, imagined how hard it must be, but I had absolutely no context. At that time my sole purpose was to get through the day as a teacher and mother of small children without turning into a Screaming Banshee.

It wasn’t long before I started trying to support my original family, now far across the continent. Phone calls, emergencies, cross-country flights. I simply assumed it needed to be done without asking whether it was mine to do. There was struggle. There was stress. Still, I was convinced it was my job to manage all of it, above and below me. I got good at it. I kinda liked the feeling of competence: Look at me! I can handle it all!

But the thing is, when I didn’t ask myself whose job it was,  the sandwich of my life got squeezed flat. Just like the gummy p.b. and j. leftovers in the bottom of my kids’ lunch bags.

What I didn’t know then was that I was actually in rehearsal for the challenges of The Big Grinder, the whopper of a sandwich in life, the big squeeze between caring for elderly parents and supporting young adult children. This last month alone my mother, who lives half way across the country, has been in such pain that she has been sent to the hospital four times. My brother in the same town has been in the same hospital three times. My daughter was hit by a drunk driver and was lucky to get out of the scene with severe whiplash, but has been unable to work, requiring lots of support.

When you add in the fact that I’m just recovering from my own brush with mortality and accompanying injuries, it’s a lot. Even with a supportive life partner who handles more than his fair share.

Now my own life experience has been the source of serious mentoring, so I reach back into that old lunch bag and extract what I learned before.  I call it the Art of Being a Sandwich, which has some basic principles I mostly follow (because I suffer if I don’t):

The body knows the difference between the urge to help as if there’s a building on fire and humbly showing up to be of service. The first has more adrenaline, which can be fun, but it’s a burnout. It comes from the belly, from fear. The second comes from a notch up on the chakra scale, and it has more warmth, less of a burn.

Much can be done from bed. I light candles, make the calls, drink hot tea. Taking time to be quiet, to meditate and settle down, has a huge payoff for me and for them.

When it’s time to get on the plane, take the drive, pitch in, show up like a midwife preparing for birth. I bring something for comfort, something to support the breath, some calming music, strategies and practices to focus the mind.

Rely on the kindness of strangers. I just returned from my last cross-country jaunt with such deep appreciation for the Midwestern folks who are now a part of a team I can count on. Good, compassionate, and generous, they’re just like people everywhere.

Resources, resources, resources. I now have a notebook full of the names of people who can do what I can’t, when I’m not there.

As I return from my latest mission of mercy, there’s still some filling in the sandwich, and it’s only slightly smushed from the journey. And I know what I have learned from other art forms: more will be revealed through practice. So I rest, build up the filling through self-compassion and care, and savor the little moments for ordinary life, which seem all the more precious.

What about you? What would you add to the list? It’s still growing.

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