Learning to be present for my children

November 28, 2023 • 4 min
Learning to be present for my children

When my late wife Chastidy was battling terminal cancer, and the animation studio I helped start was falling apart, I went on my first personal retreat for career direction. To my surprise, the primary takeaway wasn’t a new vocational trajectory (though that came in time), but a refocus on being present with my little girl.

At my daughter’s Christmas concert this year, the string section didn’t elicit the same nails-on-a-chalkboard cringe that it did last year. What changed? Was it a year’s worth of growth? Did the students learn how to properly tune their instruments?

Do you know what else needs to be retuned? You and I.

In 2012, I helped start an animation studio at the former Lucasfilm building in San Rafael with a group of industry veterans. My childhood dreams were fulfilled by working on computer graphics for video games, TV, and feature films. But in 2017, when the studio went through a roller-coaster ride of being funded, then not funded, much of my thinking centered around my career. Seeking direction, I booked a cabin at an idyllic retreat center north of San Francisco.

I prayed, wrote, drew sketches, and drew near to God. During one of my five days at the retreat center, I saw a handful of crows while hiking. My thoughts immediately went to my daughter, who would point at any bird she would see—pigeon, sea gull, or crow—and say, “Caw, caw, caw.” 

Later, at a chapel service, we were asked to reflect on our day with a moment of silence. I could hear birds chirping outside of the building and my focus turned back to my daughter. This gave me so much joy I had to hold back laughter. We were then instructed to express something we were grateful for. I sensed I needed to spend more of my time enjoying the moments with my daughter because she wouldn’t be little forever. I was so moved that I went from holding back laughter in the time of silence, to holding back tears in the time of sharing.

The reason I am working is for her, not the other way around

In the arc from laughter to tears, there was a recalibrating of my heart and mind. Being present with my daughter, enjoying the moments, putting her before my career in action and in thought was not the answer I had sought at my retreat—but it was the message I needed. God wanted me to refocus in that area first.

As I was leaving the retreat center, I stopped by their art studio to chat with their instructor. I asked about how she incorporated spiritual practices with making art. She mentioned  when participants were unhappy with their work, she would have them cut it up, rearrange, and collage it into something new instead of throwing it away. We often get so upset with ourselves when we don’t get something right on our first attempt that we want to give up. We discussed how to apply this technique to life and not be so critical of ourselves. “Be patient with everyone” (1 Thess. 5:14 NASB). That includes you!

In art and in life we can adapt, be flexible, and show ourselves some grace

 On the drive back home, I had a strong impression to listen to the band Keane. Though a fan, I hadn’t listened to them in years. My jaw dropped when I heard the lines about taking pieces of dreams, spreading them out, and rearranging them. 

It described what we were just talking about! When I got home, we wrote down our dreams, goals, and desires on pieces of paper and rearranged them into a new life plan. This led to revisiting the idea to create children’s books. I recently published our first book from the direction I received after the retreat. The career guidance came after recalibrating my focus toward my daughter.

Like an instrument, I am not tuned once and always on key

This year, during a spring break trip to another cabin a few hours north of here, I struggled to be fully present. Though on vacation, I wrestled with not letting my thoughts drift toward work. I apologized to my seven-year-old and asked God to help me be fully present with her. Like a dulling color or an unsettling note, when my attention starts to drift, I need to be recalibrated. When I find it challenging to stay present, I need a tune-up.

It is okay to reflect on the past or plan for the future. But I have to remind myself I am never living in tomorrow, I am never in yesterday, but in today only. “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).

As you take the time to refocus your attention on being present, be patient with yourself. When tuning an instrument, we don’t turn to the right key in one pass. Like focusing a manual camera lens, we go back and forth. We push past and keep turning left and right until it is focused. That push-and-pull fosters humility. We wobble with arms outstretched before we find balance. Have grace with yourself when you don’t stick the landing. Ask God for the perseverance to endure the cringey notes in yourself and in others. He will give it!

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About the Author:

Matthew Ronan

Matthew Ronan is an artist and writer who’s worked in film, television, and radio. His credits include projects for Disney/Lucasfilm, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and the Michael Jackson estate. He recently published The Girl With 5 Hearts, a children’s book he illustrated and co-authored with his late wife Chastidy. He lives in San Francisco with his daughter Catica. @MatthewRonan on IG and FB

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