Today was supposed to be the start a writing week, which would include this weekend, and every day of the coming week. Though I’m still not prepared to announce details, I am already working with an editor on the latest draft of The Juliet Stories, and expect the ink to dry on the publishing contract fairly soon, at which point I will shed superstition and tell. Suffice it to say, there is work to be done, and I am glad to be doing it. But twelve hours a week does not feel like enough time in which to accomplish what I want to do. So, Kevin kindly offered to help me make more time. Writing weeks are hard on everyone, require a ton of extra scheduling and planning, and are, frankly, a gruelling way to produce new work. But I’ve found them to be an extremely efficient use of time. The last writing week, I wrote two new stories while spending my days and nights completely lost in my own head. I need that level of focus. Therefore, the planned writing week. But early on in the planning, it seemed the week was already being chipped away at: AppleApple’s eighth birthday happened to fall during the week; there were necessary parties and cakes to be made; then The New Quarterly contacted me about their fall launch–yup, during writing week. But we decided to go ahead, largely because this was the only week that could work before the new year.
Yesterday morning, my grandma passed away. How quickly plans change. How easily they can be changed, when something critical arises. How little the little problems matter. Of course, we will be at her funeral–no matter when it falls. What could be more important than taking time to honour her life?
I am looking at a photograph of my grandma holding Albus. He is six months old, a drooling fat baby, nearly wriggling out of her arms. She is so completely herself in the photograph. A small smile crosses her lips as she gazes down at him. Her hair is done, like it always was. I think of all the ways that she was there for me, even though we lived at a distance. I remember the angel food cakes that she made for many of my birthdays: with strawberry icing. We were frequently travelling on my birthday, which falls between Christmas and New Year’s; I remember on several occasions that we blew out candles and ate Grandma’s specially-made cake for breakfast, before my family set out on a long birthday drive home. Her recipe for sugar cookies (a very unusual cookie that looks and tastes like a muffin top) was the last recipe she gave me: I phoned to get it a few years ago. She was already showing the early signs of Alzheimer’s, but she was able to read me her recipe, which was for a batch twice as large as the one I make (and which is posted on the blog). She had lots of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to bake for. She not only produced enormous batches of cookies and other baked goods, pickles, and all manner of canned foods; she also worked outside the home for most of her life. I never heard her complain. She was possibly the most composed person I’ve ever met. She could be relied upon to bring calm and dignity to any situation.
So. This is what this writing week will bring instead: memories, family time, and a batch of sugar cookies. Who knows, it may bring some stories home, too.
My middle brother got married yesterday. We had fun posing in our backyard before heading out to the wedding, where the kids behaved angelically, sat unsupervised on a blanket at the front for the whole ceremony, and tossed flowers after the kiss, on cue, as rehearsed. Proud parenting moment!
We spent the long weekend at my brother and sister-in-law’s farm, where we’ve gone for a few years now, to camp in comfort on their big lawn. There is always a bonfire, and the beach is nearby. We went into town early on Saturday to watch the Germany-Argentina game (my brother didn’t sit down the entire match, even when it was apparent that his team was going to win), and then Kevin and the kids and I vegged at the beach all afternoon. It was so relaxed. Lots of work to pack up and lots of laundry today, but so relaxed in between.
Our family meeting was so good, yesterday, that I was buzzing for hours afterward. It wasn’t that we’d solved problems or perfected the use of the talking stick (NO TALKING STICKS! was my decree). It was that we talked. There was conversation. Back and forth. Ideas flowing.
It all started earlier in the day, when I picked the kids up from school for swim lessons. If we walk fast, we can just get to the pool in time. I had fresh-made banana muffins to offer to grumpy eight-year-olds, pining for play dates.
“This is the worst day ever! I hardly have any time to play with my friends!”
Mondays and Wednesdays (and Fridays, sometimes, too) are days we currently keep free for after school play dates. Tuesdays are music days. Thursdays are swimming. And those days are also family time.
“But it’s not like we’re really together, is it? It’s not like real family time.”
No, not during the actual in-the-pool swim time. But let me assure you, we’re really together the rest of the time, and it really is family time. Walking to the pool and then home afterward underlined the togetherness of the venture. There we were, walking and talking, talking and walking. It’s an elemental combination. One of my closest and longest friendships has revolved around walking and talking. We walk, we talk. The forward motion can contain silences, time for reflection, emotion, quiet, bursts of energy and laughter and ideas.
There is no time of silence when walking with four children; but what interesting subjects have occasion to emerge. On the way home, AppleApple put on the winter hat I’d brought (one for everyone, though most declined). We passed a young woman on the sidewalk. Whether or not she noticed AppleApple’s winter hat/spring t-shirt combo, I cannot say, but AppleApple certainly noticed the young woman, and kind of cringed and hunched. And then she said to me: “I feel sort of embarrassed, Mom.” She was puzzled by the emotion. It was almost as if it were new to her, and she was newly discovering and feeling something unexpected and uncomfortable. She was embarrassed to be seen wearing a winter hat on a spring evening.
What an amazing opportunity to open a conversation about our emotions–embarrassment in particular–and how they can shape (or not!) what we choose to do. “Do you feel chilly without your hat? Would you like to keep wearing it?” Yes. “So keep wearing it.” I hope I didn’t head down Lecture Lane, but I was thrilled to be talking with my kids, in the most organic way possible, about peer pressure, being different, feeling different, and the multitude of embarrassing moments in their futures that could alter their behavior, or that they could recognize and resist. One of the most wonderful things about growing up is realizing that embarrassment is so often a projection of one’s own fears and anxieties–“what if she thinks I look stupid in my hat?”–and having the confidence and self-assurance not to change, if we’re happy doing what we’re doing. Most of the time, other people are thinking nothing of the sort (except, maybe, other teenagers; I’m not sure; I remember that being a pretty judgmental phase in my life). Most of the time, other people don’t really notice, or don’t notice to the degree that one imagines. All of this self-consciousness is heightened during the teen years–years of self-discovery, when it is both necessary and painful to examine oneself in depth and superficially, to scrutinize and question and experiment, to learn Who Am I?
We didn’t get into that. I told some funny stories from my childhood about feeling embarrassed. I warned them that embarrassment would be a sensation all the more acute and frequent in the years to come, and asked them to tell me if I were ever embarrassing them (they couldn’t imagine it! Ha!), and promised that I would never deliberately try to embarrass them … but that it might happen anyway.
And, then, this came out. Albus said: “Sometimes I feel embarrassed when the other kids in my class talk about Wii and they don’t talk to me about it, because they know I don’t have one.” He had a new friend over on Wednesday (play date day), and his new friend asked whether he had a Wii, and Albus had to say no. “Did you have fun playing together?” Yes. “Do you think he’d like to come back and play again sometime soon?” Yes. “Do you think he liked you less because you didn’t have a Wii?” No.
At our family meeting, we revisited the topic: being different, having a Wii or choosing not to. Fooey said she’d rather not have one, because then they might always want to play it (the child knows her cravings, too–she LOVES tv, and knows how hard it is to turn it off). AppleApple said we could always play at C&K’s house (uncle and aunt-to-be). Albus pointed out that if we did get one, we could stick to rules about how often the Wii would be played. Both Kevin and I were of two minds. I do think our family would be able to set limitations and stick to them. But the larger and more important point, to me, tends in a different direction altogether: why not be different? Why not be the house on the block where friends come over and play outside? (Plus, in our tightly-knit ‘hood, we’re not the only house on the block with no Wii; it’s just that this year, Albus has been separated from his best buds at school, and has had to adapt to the wider population of kids).
Coincidentally, I’d just read a report yesterday that the AVERAGE DAILY screen time for Canadian kids is SIX HOURS. And on weekends, that goes up to SEVEN HOURS. (That includes computer, tv, gaming systems).
Why not take a small stand against that, as a family, and just go without? It felt, by the end of our conversation, that everyone was willing to think about the larger implications of the choice. Childhood is so short. There is only so much time to play, and to play creatively. When I think of those kids digging that massive hole in our backyard, and the immensity of fun that was had, the enthusiasm, the dreaming and planning, the dirt, the physical labour, the cooperation … I think, yes! More of that, please! My own childhood was blessed with outdoor play, mess-making, freedom, imaginary play, and a connection to the natural world that was so natural I took it for granted.
Different. It’s okay. It’s better than okay. To be unique is to be a human being. To be confidently, happily, creatively, serenely, humorously, vividly, acceptingly and compassionately unique is to be a content human being.
Maybe you’ll eat ice cream with chopsticks (as per AppleApple, above, at last night’s family meeting; yesterday, they learned about China, and the three children in her class who came from China taught everyone how to eat with chopsticks).
So … we took a hasty, six-hour road trip, plagued by Easter traffic and stomach woes (you don’t want to know more), that was nothing short of blessed with wonder and luck. We arrived late on Thursday, not sure whether Kev’s sister was near labour, or whether we might have headed out too soon, and by Friday aft, when I saw her, I thought …. hmm, I think this is going to come together after all. Around 7 that evening, her partner called to say: Come over! Midwife arrived! Yes, I was honoured to be part of the birth, serving as doula as well as auntie-to-be. We transferred to hospital early on, the daddy-to-be negotiating country roads with an impressive lack of panic, and labour progressed beautifully. Labouring women fill the room with bravery and courage and strength, and my sister-in-law was calm and focused and when called upon for a last-minute miracle, delivered. Literally. Our family’s new nephew and first cousin arrived at 1:26 in the morning, with loads of black hair and good wail.
We are home again, alive with love and excitement and pride.
I woke up feeling unpleasant. So did Fooey. She felt even more unpleasant than I did. I won’t get graphic on you, but let’s just say it was messy. And she was feeling so unpleasant that she just leaned over the side of her bed. CJ almost suffered a moment of sympathetic upheaval himself, but AppleApple was able to coax him away from the scene of carnage. I seem to be on the tolerable side of unpleasant as long as I don’t eat. I can stand and cope and do laundry (very important, under the circumstances, especially since Kevin is working in Toronto for the day.)
Photo number one depicts the three eldest children (yes, Fooey, too!) embarking on the walk to school, yesterday, without adult supervision. Well, to the walking school bus, which is only a couple of blocks uphill. At the family meeting, we’d decided that for the purposes of crossing the street, she would walk in the middle and each of the older kids would hold one of her hands. The after-school report was pretty good, though they had difficulty crossing “the hard street,” the one with the four-way stop and cars hurrying to commute to work. Apparently there were conflicting instructions from the drivers at the four-way stop. One woman waved them on, and another “old woman” waved to them not to cross, because she wanted to go. She went. The kids wisely waited. I was proud of how they handled it, making the best decision for themselves.
Photo number two depicts us this morning. Yes, I’m strangling Albus. Mostly in jest. He is a natural ham in photos and strives to hog the limelight. A gentle restraint was in order. I love the chaos. I love my family. We had ourselves a bit of fun.
The two oldest are quietly playing Lego together, after taking charge of lunch. With a bit of nauseated-Mama assistance, and some decent teamwork, they made tuna melts in the toaster oven. AppleApple sliced the bread and cheese, Albus worked the broiler. A friend has offered to bring supper, and I won’t turn her down. Even AppleApple, who had experienced a mild frisson over being in charge of the food prep today, thought it was a happy development: “Or we would probably be eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches for supper.”
If all goes as planned, the two eldest will be heading out soon with hockey sticks for a game of street hockey around the corner. I’m glad this gorgeous spring-like weather won’t go unappreciated.