One of my family’s favorite books is called Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy. It’s the story of a harried mama elephant, Mrs. Large, who seeks a few moments of respite from her three young children, but just can’t manage the act. She leaves them at the breakfast table and sneaks off for a bath, along with a pot of tea and the morning paper. The eager kids follow, with their musical instruments, books, and toys. Eventually the whole family ends up in the tub, frolicking together, everyone happy and bright, except for mama.
One of my family’s favorite books is called Five Minutes’ Peace by Jill Murphy.
Finally Mrs. Large sneaks out of the tub, slips downstairs, and plops herself in front of the crumb-covered kitchen table she had fled a few minutes before. And there she blissfully savors three minutes and forty-five seconds of peace before her soggy children come stumbling down the stairs to climb all over her again.
I didn’t actually buy this book for my young sons. I bought it for me. I identify with mama elephant—adoring my boys unfailingly but also longing for a little more tranquility in my life. I admire Mrs. Large’s resourcefulness and creativity (not to mention her sneakiness). And I envy her ability to settle for a little less than perfect—to make the most of a few brief moments of peace, even though she longs for so much more.
I must admit, I’ve spent a great deal of time fantasizing about freedom lately: A silent walk alone in the woods. An uninterrupted conversation with a dear friend. An afternoon with no agenda besides a good book, a cup of tea, and a nap in the sun. Of course I love my kids, and I do my best to soak up every fleeting second with them. But busy days with young children can leave even the most mindful parent gasping for a few sweet breaths of quiet and calm.
“My five minutes of peace,” I thought. “Here they are!”
And so I surprised myself the other day as I reclined in a beach chair in the backyard watching my sons prepare a salad of leaves and sticks in their playhouse. My attention alighted on the brilliant beauty of fall—fiery maple leaves drifting toward the earth, hidden cicadas buzzing in the trees, a breeze just sharp enough to hint of cooler weather ahead. I noticed the twittering of birds all around, their voices complemented by my sons’ own chirping nearby. I realized that although I wasn’t completely free to follow any whim—I had my children to keep track of, after all—life in that moment felt remarkably beautiful and serene. “My five minutes of peace.” I thought, “Here they are!”
This happened again a few days later while nestling in a hammock with the kids. I wasn’t vacationing on a Caribbean beach or immersing myself in a weeklong yoga retreat, but I was enjoying a simple moment, lulled into ease by the swinging of the hammock and the expanse of crisp blue sky overhead—so vast and full of possibility. “Another few moments of peace,” I whispered to myself, “right here in the middle of this crazy day.”
The more I’ve looked, the more I’ve stumbled upon these golden little gaps. They appear like unbidden gifts hidden among laundry, errands, and the endless demands of a three- and a six-year-old. At first I called them “stolen moments,” but then I realized they weren’t so much stolen as simply found—fresh little pockets of peace that, in my fierce hold on life’s mundaneness, I had almost overlooked.
I have learned to make the most of mama elephant’s moments whenever they do appear. I smile, exhale a sigh of relief, and settle into them. I let that welcome peace sink right into the marrow of my bones, and whisper a secret prayer that this moment may soothe and sustain me until the next restful pause arrives. With each passing breath, some measure of sanity and clarity blooms in my chest. I feel reborn, reawakened, revitalized—ready to slide back into the beautiful chaos of my day.
As Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck wrote, “You cannot avoid paradise. You can only avoid seeing it.”
The newly discovered oases have prompted me to consider that life may be best measured in tastes rather than meals, in minutes rather than lifetimes. We don’t have to reach for the whiz-bang perfection of eternal peace in some other time and some other place. We can find ways to savor it in little bites, like mama elephant, right here and now in the midst of our everyday lives. As Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck wrote, “You cannot avoid paradise. You can only avoid seeing it.”
This possibility inspires me to stay on the lookout for new niches of tranquility—even the littlest ones that pass in the blink of an eye and are nudged aside by responsibilities and life’s mundane chores: A feathery flash of yellow from a migrating warbler. A walk with the family with no aim other than fresh air and a taste of twilight. Those first hazy seconds upon awakening, and the last soft breaths before sleep. When strung together, these simple moments foster a profound sense of inner peace that transcends life’s craziness and chaos. They sustain us, enliven us, and illuminate our days.