I have a list in my head entitled: Jobs That Kids Can Do Themselves! I can see the title written out in perky brightly coloured bubble letters on a piece of paper and I can see the children discovering the list, glancing at it, and sighing, Oh Mom. (On the imaginary list: pick up dog poo in back yard; clean shoes after stepping in dog poo in back yard; feed and water dogs; put away clean laundry; put dirty laundry into hamper; hang wet towels; empty dishwasher; put dirty dishes in sink; empty recycling and compost bins; make breakfast and lunch; clean up after breakfast and lunch; find friends to play with…)
I have driven many many kilometres this weekend. I have driven them in my new little car. On Tuesday we gave in to the ongoing overlapping scheduling puzzle that has been our reality, as a one-car six-person family, these past few years, and we bought a second vehicle, a little pod that can efficiently travel from the mothership.
Sunset over salt mine, Goderich, Ontario.
On Friday night I was with friends in Goderich — old friends. I was reminded that even within a larger group, I look for moments of intimacy amidst the noise. I like to listen. I like to hear.
On Saturday afternoon I read at a festival in Bayfield, in a space that had been the town hall, with four other writers, and the stories they told were essential and moving and spiritual, somehow, and as the last reader of the eventful first half, I felt myself pulled into the flow in the room, and saw how there was space and focus for what I was about to offer and I was so glad and grateful to the other writers for opening up that spiritual river. How I loved stepping into the water. How I loved Aganetha, speaking through me. On the way home, driving my new little car through the rain, I didn’t want to listen to the radio, I didn’t want talk or music, I wanted to hear my own thoughts, I needed space to let the emotions of the afternoon work their way through my system. I heard myself saying, Aggie Smart is a wonderful character. Give yourself that. Let yourself know it.
One of the writers at Saturday’s event told me afterward that they were embarrassed by the organizer’s introduction of me, which was particularly awkward—title of my last book wrong, said she couldn’t find any information about me online, except some weird site called Obscure CanLit Mama, which perhaps she didn’t realize was mine—and when I got up to speak, I tried to riff off her intro and said that I didn’t mind being obscure, and wrote for the words on the page and the stories I wanted to tell, which perhaps just made everything all the more awkward. And then I read. I dove right into those words on the page. I wasn’t upset by the intro at all, actually, even if the other writer thought it was infuriatingly dismissive of my career and experience. Oddly, I’d thought it was accurate and reassuring. How nice that she couldn’t find much about me online, I thought. Maybe I can do this writing thing and remain obscure. (Although, is that really true? I’m not going to Google myself to find out.)
An author at the event told a story about Alice Munro writing while her kids were at school, and covering her typewriter when they arrived home again; I like that un-precious approach to the work. It fits with how I see myself, as a very ordinary person living a very ordinary life, who happens to enjoy an imaginative extra-life, like a room in the attic full of dress-up clothes stuffed into old-fashioned trunks or with secret passageways that I can visit and escape to, but I’ll still be back downstairs in time to help make supper and coach a soccer game. Life has many rooms. I want to live fully in all of them, whichever room I’m in.
Yesterday, I delivered my youngest child to overnight camp, and he is away from me until tomorrow. This picture breaks my heart just a little. He looks so anxious, but also like he’s trying to reassure me that he will be okay.
The writing work that I’ve submitted recently sits out there waiting for responses and there is no guarantee that anyone will like it or want it. I want other writers to know this, especially writers beginning their careers: know that even the writers you think of as more established, or as having had some success, receive rejection, sometimes, or have to begin projects over again, or abandon them altogether, sometimes. In fact, I think it’s good for a person never to get so comfortable in her abilities that her work can’t be critiqued by thoughtful professionals. It’s good never to become so precious, so valuable commercially, that no one holds you to account. (Even though that sounds awfully tempting and a person can dream!)
The best things in life are never the easiest, even if the experience of them feels easy. Getting to ease is hard.
Maybe I exercise because it is a form of extremity, it removes barriers, can push the self beyond the beyond to a purer place that doesn’t traffic in the ordinary obstacles that come between people, that we use to keep ourselves safe and protected and apart.
Behind me, a daughter inhales her asthma puffer. I can hear her breathe out slowly, then pull the medication into her lungs.
Behind me, my other daughter and her friend practice what I think are dance steps, her friend instructing her, one-two-push. But when my older daughter joins their conversation, I realize that a soccer ball is involved, and the friend is teaching my younger daughter a fancy soccer move, in our living-room. Maybe she will use it in her game tonight.
The nervous little dog comes into this office and lies down near my feet. She is distressed by change and change is constant in our house, in the summertime.
If I were to write a poem today what would be my subject?
If I were to write a short story today what would be my subject?
Here is the blog post I’ve written today. What is its subject?
The American writer, James Salter, died recently, aged 90. His output, said the obituary, was modest: six novels, two short story collections, a memoir. I think that output sounds quite fantastic. Nine books in total, not much more than a book a decade. I think it must have meant he cared deeply about what he published and rejected a lot of his own ideas and attempts. This is just a guess.
Enjoying this room I’m in. Hope you are too, wherever you are.
School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
Coach and soccer player # 1.
My meditation focus for this month is: anxiety.
I spend way more time not in my office, writing, than sometimes I’d like. But hey. This is Life. For the record, here is what I do when I’m not in my office, writing. This is not a lifestyle endorsement, trust me. After reading this, you may suspect that I need an intervention.
Yesterday. Pack laptop, leave house at 2:30 to pick up AppleApple early from school, drop her at piano lessons; drive back to different school, pick up CJ for piano. There’s a lag between the two pick-ups, so I edit in the car for 25 minutes, shutting down my laptop only with great pain; CJ wonders why I’m late. Drive back across town to music school. Arrive in time for CJ to do his home reading out loud before his lesson, while I attempt to listen and finish the edit I’d abandoned in order to pick him up. Fooey calls around 4 to say she’s home (Albus texted earlier, same message; now I know where everyone is). Fooey has a friend over—is that okay? Okay, so long as dogs are crated. Soon, a text from Fooey: Can another friend come over too? Parenting by text; answer, no. I’m now downstairs at the music store buying an intro to cello book for AppleApple, and discussing the launch party plan for Candy Conspiracy with my friend Zoe who works at the music store. CJ’s lesson done at 4:30, home again, I set out food for supper, start oven to make store-bought french fries, chop veggies to go with hummus. I also telephone my friend Marnie to discuss our coaching plan for the boys’ team and to arrange transportation/child exchange for this evening; while on phone I wash the walls going up the stairs, because I happen to notice they are filthy and my mother-in-law and her new boyfriend are coming to visit this weekend; I’m sure they won’t care, but this is the kind of detail one notices under these circumstances. Kev home at 5:10. I’m changing into soccer gear, urging AppleApple to pack a supper for herself and get ready for rehearsal, and by 5:30, we are back in the car driving across town. I’ve eaten a pita smeared with baba ghanoush and a few red peppers. Traffic is nuts. I’m oddly calm—no, it isn’t odd, actually. I’m calm because just after we pull out of the driveway, I ask AppleApple to entertain me on the drive, to take my mind off the many anxieties about our evening’s schedule; and she tells me cool things her class learned during a lecture on quantum physics from a visiting scholar. And my anxiety melts away.
Drop off AppleApple, enjoy a few minutes alone in the car by listening to pop music on the radio—Chandelier gets stuck in my head; in fact, is still stuck in my head. Windows down. Sweet. Switch station at 6PM to listen to CBC news about NDP win in Alberta. Back home, grab a few fries, locate a watch, briefly talk to Kevin, clear table and help clean up from supper. At 6:40 everyone in the house is back in the vehicle, with a bag of balls in the trunk. Drive up the street and drop off CJ, pick up Fooey’s friend who is also on her team (a fair exchange of children!), visit briefly with Marnie, pick up coaching stuff. Drive across town and drop off Albus and Kevin at their practice field. Continue on to our practice field. Find parking, haul balls to field, talk to a friend whose son is playing in the time slot before ours.
Coach and soccer player #2.
Realize the so-called planned club-led practice is not going to materialize: this practice is going to be Carrie-led. Set up drills and games and try to teach skills and make it fun for nine friendly funny nine-year-old girls for an hour. Make up a team cheer to go with new team name: The Fierce Green Grapes! Wait with child whose parent is late to pick up. Begin to quietly panic. Call parent. Parent arrives. Drive back to pick up Kevin and Albus at their field, discuss practices and strategies for future drills on the drive home. Drop Albus at home. Drop off Fooey’s friend, pick up CJ, chat with Marnie. Home to use the bathroom. Return to truck, drive across town to pick up AppleApple from dress rehearsal for play. Discover dress rehearsal is going late. And later. And later. Sit in parking lot, listening to an interesting program on CBC Radio’s Ideas, by Lynn Coady, on literary snobbery and the future of books. AppleApple finally done, arrives dressed in clown costume.
Drive home. So hungry. Kevin has made tea. I drink tea and scarf the rest of the baba ghanouj (not homemade) with very stale tortilla chips that I find on the counter. And a few leftover carrots.
Bed. Read two pages of Knausgaard. Sleep instantly.
Alarm goes at 5:30, and I’m off for a run, and at it again. More soccer tonight!
“I think I’m going to need therapy to get through the next two and a half months,” I told my friend at the soccer field, only half-kidding. So be it. The quiet during the day is keeping me sane, I think, and the early morning exercise, and the writing. Although the writing also consumes me terribly; or wonderfully. So maybe it’s good to be distracted and occupied by evenings spent outdoors with one’s children, even if it requires a whole lot of driving and elite-level scheduling acuity.
Wish me luck. I need it. Or better yet, wish me calm.
For our final “fun” event of March break, we rented a third of an indoor soccer field, and played soccer together as a family. My brother Karl joined us, too. It was a fun event, not merely a “fun” event, so much so that we’ve booked more family field time, and are going to play hooky this afternoon — hooky, and soccer. My brother Christian is planning to come along too this time. I predict a decimation of the oldsters by the fit and skilled youngsters.
In honour of the occasion, here is a poem I wrote while watching my 12-year-old at a soccer practice this winter.
Girl at soccer practice
I only ask to be more or less still as I fall under the spell of a girl lifting into flight a ball with knee, foot, foot, knee, body, foot, foot, the ball never striking the ground, air-bound circle, and I only ask to fall to watching, to trust the meaning of what is here and shows itself and asks only to be seen, to be watched
I only ask for a moment and another, air-bound circle, to restore what seems lost from me; what there is no need to find when I focus on such focus that it seems it might never
Soccer, soccer, and more soccer. It’s a theme!
Right now, I’m debating whether to play soccer again this summer. I’ve signed up to coach or assistant coach the two younger kids’ teams. And my #FridayReads is Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby, an odd little memoir (and quite possibly his first published book), in which he details his soccer/football obsession as an Arsenal fan through the 1970s and 1980s. He paints a disturbing picture of the dark underbelly of football culture in the UK (has it changed? I’m not sure), with its tribalism and violence, misogyny, and racism. Hornby looks around the stadium and observes that he and his fellow fans are utterly outraged at almost all times, filled with fury and disappointment as they watch their team play; and it seems such a strange misery to devote oneself to so fully, like one’s ordinary life can’t bear the burden of strangled rage, and so one becomes a football fan in order to let loose, in the company of others, this vast current of dissatisfied energy. Of course, there are the communal highs, too, when one’s team wins. Culturally, we devote a vast amount of news coverage and personal energy to sports, particularly professional sports, and that interests me. Why? What need is it filling?
Although I enjoy sports, I read Hornby’s memoir with the detached curiosity of someone who is not involved and cannot fully understand. I like to play more than I like to watch, in all honesty. (Unless I’m watching my kids play. See poem above).
icicles on Aggie
Daily meditation, in slightly increasing increments of time, has given me plenty to think about … even while I’m practicing standing a small distance away from my thoughts, trying to observe rather than control or judge them.
The thinking never really stops.
Here’s an observation applicable throughout the day, and in parenting situations too. The physical state of the body greatly affects the mind’s ability to focus. Obvious? Yeah, I know. I spend a lot of time discovering the obvious. Or, more accurately, rediscovering the obvious. You’d think you’d remember all the wise and useful things you’ve learned, at great cost, over years of experience, right? Well, I don’t seem to. I need reminders.
Yesterday, I struggled to sit quietly for the full twenty minutes, and not only because I could hear my kids rolling around wrestling and mock-arguing in the next room. I struggled because it had been a morning without much activity. I’d snuggled a grumpy kid in bed, read the paper, eaten breakfast, sipped a coffee. All was ease and leisure. And then I sat down to meditate and my body, it turned out, was flaring with unshed energy. I hadn’t noticed! If I’d noticed anything, I would have said I was feeling a bit grumpy or anxious—I would have interpreted my physical state as being a state of mind, as if the two were quite separate.
Those twenty minutes felt endless. I was crawling out of my skin with wanting to get up and move.
This morning’s meditation, by contrast, felt easy. I was alert, steady, and twenty minutes flew by, so quickly that I couldn’t believe it was already over. The difference being quite simple, I think: this morning I got up early, and exercised. My body, by the time I sat down to meditate, had shed plenty of energy and was prepared for quiet and stillness, and therefore my mind was capable to quiet stillness too. This is more than enough reason to get up early and exercise, in my opinion. (I set my alarm for 5-ishAM, five mornings a week, and for that habit to stick, I need a good reason, frankly.)
I applied my new-found/re-found observation yesterday when the kids were practicing their instruments. The six-year-old was getting frustrated and impatient, so I sent him running a loop around the house—once, and then twice—pretending to time him. (Side note: funny how much he loves being timed for activities; maybe the opportunity to lay down a “best time,” no matter how arbitrary, is endlessly exciting.) Anyway, after setting a new course record, he sat back down at the keys, panting a bit, but with a much happier spirit. Same for the nine-year-old violinist. (She didn’t need to be timed, however.)
It made me appreciate that three out of four kids walk to school every morning, and the fourth kid usually gets up to do some exercise before breakfast.
Makes me ask, too: How often is our physical state affecting our mental state, and we’re completely unaware?
This morning, when the plumber arrived to hopefully fix our toilet before our annual scotch party this Saturday, I was on the couch by the fire with the dogs, enjoying the last minutes of my nap. I answered the door, trying to appear not to have been recently asleep. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the problem, then removed myself to chastise and crate the dogs, who had threatened to remove the plumber from his leg. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Now, I tell myself that the plumber has no idea what I ordinarily look like, so perhaps he wasn’t as frightened as I was by the sight of me.
My hair had dried funny and a sizeable clump was standing straight out over my left ear.
And I looked approximately a decade older than I actually am due to raccoon-like, circular, darkish, bruised-looking dents around my eyes. Goggle eyes!
Evidence of early morning swim. It lasts longer some mornings.
The good news is this: I got up to swim.
I’m managing to rise early every single week-day to exercise. More good news: I was able to run intervals at an indoor track yesterday. Very very slowly. When I tried out the running a couple of weeks ago, it’s possible I was going way too fast. Oops. That’s not like me at all. Ahem. But even a slow run is thrilling when it’s pain-free. Add in the daily walking at my treadmill desk, and I’m actually covering a lot of kilometres these days.
And I’m trying to meditate, just the tiniest bit. Ten minutes a day. It reminds me of swimming laps. I do a lot of counting and controlled breathing while swimming laps.
Today, AppleApple wondered why I don’t swim faster; this was not exactly a critique. Despite being a quite damning critic of the inefficient swimming styles she observes in the lanes all around us, she says my stroke actually looks like it’s being done correctly. But with such a proper-looking stroke, she thinks I should be going faster, and I agree. So perhaps there are unseen inefficiencies. Next time, on her suggestion, I’m going to try rotating my shoulders more — stretching forward on the glide like I’m making myself as long as I possibly can. (Why do I always imagine that I can improve, no matter what I’m trying to do? Is that a really irritating trait?)
The plumber has left. The dogs have calmed down.
It’s time for meditation, followed by walking and writing. Nobody will be here to see the goggle eyes or to judge the sticky-out chlorinated hair, not even me. I’ll be gone too; that’s what it feels like when I’m writing, like I’ve left the room, left this season and place and time. Away: inventing imaginary memories for imaginary people who seem so strangely real.
(Note to self: check mirror before picking up kids for piano lessons.)