Oh yeah …
… it’s the last day of school!
A list of interruptions, on this, the first day of summer holidays:
– monitoring 1 disastrously neurotic dog’s behaviour while small friends are here to play all morning
– baking 2 strawberry rhubarb crisps (worth it!)
– finding the person who left wet towels all over the bathroom and reminding said person to pick up after said self
– 2 loads of laundry, washed and hung to dry
– morning snack for kids and friends, of marshmallows and graham crackers
– 1 dead bird discovered behind barbecue on back porch (+ 1 FYI text to Kevin and these timeless words: “Just don’t look at it. Dad will take care of it when he gets home.”)
– 1 teenager wondering what’s for lunch, when he can play video games, and why he has to take swim lessons this summer
– 1 box of macaroni and cheese
– the remains of lunch, all over the counters, including 1 pan in which 1 dill pickle was experimentally fried (“It basically tasted like a warm pickle.”)
– 1 lost key, needed for cat sitting purposes
– many many phone calls from friends and parents of friends
– 1 child requiring sunscreen application and opinions on swim suit choices
– 1 child requiring a thank you card which she could last-minutely turn into a birthday card, cleverly incorporating the words “thank you for your kindness”
– 1 child requiring a walk to a birthday party
– making a list in preparation for a girls’ night getaway
– fielding multiple logistical questions about scheduling, babysitting requirements, and plans for the afternoon
It’s 1:45PM and suddenly the house has gone quiet. I’m alone in my office. I’ve got about an hour and fifteen minutes to put to use. This reminds me of the olden days, when I struggled to string together enough coherent thoughts and unbroken minutes to make, say, half a poem, or a quarter of a short story. The key is to have a goal, even a small one, and a plan, and to stick with it when the quiet strikes.
And so, I’m off.
(But I do intend to write a follow-up post to my previous one, discussing the important distinction between being a writer and writing. It’s the former I’m wrestling with, not the latter. It’s not the act that I find problematic or difficult, but the acting.)
I’m in Bayfield at their writer’s festival tomorrow afternoon, where I will do my best to be a writer. Check my events page, above, if you’re interested in finding out more (about the event, that is; not about being a writer).
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.
Girl runner, yesterday, school track meet: won her age group in the 1500, 800, and 400.
I’ve got a six sticky notes affixed above this computer, with reminders about where to funnel my writing energies, should I sit down at my desk in the morning at a loss. Four of the notes have been stuck up there for a year; two are new this year.
Here is what they say:
* Blog 3x/week + photos
This reminds me that I rarely take photos with my real camera anymore. There’s a practical reason for this, and it isn’t just because I’m short on time, or prioritizing differently, though that may play into it too. The practical issue is that the computer on which I process my photos is dying a long slow death, and frequently and suddenly conks out, taking with it any work I’m doing. It conks out most often when the work is processing photos. Further, the device I use to connect the camera to the computer is faulty and it takes multiple frustrating attempts to download the photos so that I’m even in a position to process them, at which point the screen inevitably goes black. It’s all rather discouraging, and time consuming … so the quality of photos on this blog, and therefore the quality of photos recording my family’s life, has dropped steeply. Nevertheless I’m still blogging two or three times a week, with images via my cellphone’s camera.
This reminds me that I am not just a novelist, but a short story writer, and that every once in awhile, if inspired, I should write a new one. I try to keep at least one unpublished story in reserve, in case (fantasy!) a literary magazine comes calling with a request. (Actually, this has happened twice in the past year, so it’s not a complete fantasy.) In time, I expect to have enough stories to fill a new collection. How much time? Who knows. It’s not like the world is clamouring for new collections of short stories, so I will give this project as much time as it takes. No rush.
* Poem a day “Light” + write + attention
This refers to my 2015 meditation journal. I aim to write in this journal for 15 minutes every day, often immediately after meditating. Some days, 15 minutes turns into much much much longer. Some days, I save this journaling as a reward for completing other writing. Truth is, I really love writing in this journal, and don’t need the reminder. However … very few poems have emerged. It’s mainly stream-of-consciousness prose. The title “Light” refers to the file name for this year (last year’s file name was “The woman formerly known as”). “Write” is my word of the year (and a very good word it’s been for me, so far), while “attention” is my secondary word. I’ve applied my secondary word mainly through meditation.
* Memoir on learning how to swim
This is a personal essay I’ve been working on, off and on, since last summer.
* Essay on being edited, relationship with editors
This is a personal essay, the idea for which was given to me by the editors of The New Quarterly, which has never developed into more than an idea. Yet I leave it up there, just in case it sparks something.
* Novel Forgiveness in Families
This refers to the novel I’ve been working on. Funny thing is, that isn’t the title, and I have no idea why I ever thought it might be. (But I know exactly where I got it from: it’s the title of an Alice Munro story, one I think about from time to time, from her collection “Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You,” another marvellously evocative title.) (Also, it occurs to me just now that “Forgiveness in Families” would be an excellent title for an essay that perhaps I will write someday.)
I have room for two more sticky notes above my computer.
I’ve decided to add a seventh called * Dispatches, personal essays. In fact, without needing any reminders and completely unprompted, I’ve been steadily working on a collection of personal essays, off and on, using a variety of raw material, some of which has arisen out of daily journaling. It’s interesting to me that most of that journal material is dead wood, yet every once in awhile something blooms from it, or mushrooms up. It’s a reminder of how patient one must be to see a long, deep project through from beginning to end. How do the little fragments cohere? It’s a lovely mystery. Looking back, retrospectively, I sometimes wonder how I’ve had time to do the work that gets done. And yet, I do, and it gets done. Inch by inch, brick by brick, seed by seed, sticky note by sticky note.
I may even add an eighth sticky note. This one will be called * Children’s project, but I’ll leave it undefined for now. My nine-year-old would like me to write a children’s chapter book; and I’ve got plots and plans for more pictures books, too.
Which reminds me, details about our local launch party for The Candy Conspiracy are being finalized as we speak! Here’s the short-point version: Saturday, May 30th, 1PM, Waterloo Public Library, and yes, there will be candy! (How could there not be?) Poster and more details coming soon. And apparently I’ll be on local daytime television talking about this tomorrow. Eek!
Oh, the word WRITE. How I love it, on a day like today, after a week like this week, when my mind is rich with ideas and enthusiasm, and the joy that comes from working. Work that sometimes, truly, feels like play.
I think we fall into our themes. We can’t always understand them, or know why they’ve become the themes to which we’ve devoted our creative lives, but they’re there. If I am to identify the themes that have occupied me in projects past, and that are highly likely to continue to occupy me during the years to come—many productive writing years, oh Lord, please, grant me—they include the following: midwifery; abortion; pregnancy and birth; mothering; siblings; running; competition; feminism; activism; rule-breaking or unconventional behaviour; gambling and debt; small-time criminality and the huckster or the shyster; peace and justice; adoption; parentage; memory; forgiveness; gifts or gift-giving; music; fame/performance; horses; spirituality; love; friendship.
I’m absolutely bubbling over with joy at having all of these pieces of life to explore. And more, and more. (Where does The Candy Conspiracy fit into the thematic framework? Hedonism? Entertainment? Fun purely for the sake of fun? Yes, sometimes all I want to do is goof off and have fun–can that be a theme too?)
I’m listening to my eldest daughter play the piano. She’s practicing her songs for the Kiwanis festival later this month. The music is beautiful, though right now she’s going over and over a few rough patches. She’s got a batch of hot-cross buns rising on the counter and she was singing the song this morning, in her pyjamas. The other kids are off with Kevin at his office, helping him reorganize and rearrange, though it’s just as likely that they’re playing video games rather than lugging stuff around.
On Wednesday, we found ourselves with a free evening. Nobody had anything to do or anywhere to go. This is so rare on a weeknight that we all felt celebratory. After supper, the adults drank a beer and the kids each had a pop and we sat around the table talking and drawing. Everyone took a turn suggesting a subject to draw, and we had two minutes to try to draw whatever it was.
Above are our people, drawn on the chalkboard, which is where we started.
It’s Good Friday. I’m going to make paska this afternoon, a Russian Mennonite Easter bread, although I’m not Russian Mennonite. Eggs, spring, colour, sweet bread, new life.
I cleaned my office!
List of things to do today, on this Sunday, a month after Christmas…
wash bedding; bake bread; make chicken stock; vacuum; exercises; write
Write comes last, but it’s where I’ve begun (well, a second load of bedding is whirling in the washer as I type, but laundry is like that, must be attacked in a steady march throughout the day).
What we’re struggling with, on the parenting front…
motivating a child who does what’s asked, but no more: and I wonder, are some born without a strong internal self-motivational engine and how best to foster/plant the seeds of creativity and initiative? Are we the dreaded helicopter parents if we schedule this child’s life on his/her behalf, or are we neglectful if we allow her/him to drift, seemingly content not to discover or pursue any interests arising from within?
Do we all have interests arising from within? What is interest? Is it creativity, curiosity, the desire for knowledge and challenge? Is it also, perhaps, the desire for more, a positive form of anxiety, a positive channeling of our dissatisfaction with what we already have?
What we want for our children is universal: we want them to be content, but also to be productive, kind, thoughtful, engaged individuals. It’s that last bit we want most of all: to be engaged. Engagement means (to me) that sweet spot where the interests within an individual connect to the world without.
What is working, on the parenting front…
this four-part system of apology. It goes roughly like this. 1. I’m sorry for [insert specific wrong-doing]. 2. It was wrong because [insert specific harm caused to the other person]. 3. Next time I will [insert possible amendment(s) to future behaviour]. 4. Will you forgive me? [to which the wronged person replies “I forgive you.”]
It feels a bit odd and formal when introduced for the first time, but I must say there’s a real appeal to it in practice, and makes saying sorry both more meaningful and more satisfactory to all parties involved.
Good ways to spend some “free” time on the weekend …
playing Bach on the piano; walking to the library with a cranky child; helping coach small boys on the soccer field; lingering, being silly with family over a supper of hamburgers and caesar salad; legendary power nap on the couch by the fire; beer and conversation with Kevin
PS I actually wrote this list on our chalkboard wall this morning. So it really will happen. If it’s on the wall, it must happen.
Monday: returned the copyedits to my editor in New York. Big day. That means the book is nearly done, and very little will change from here on in, but I need to take a deep breath when I say that because I’m a tinkerer and tweaker, and it always seems that just a little more effort and a little more time will make the book just a little bit better, so how can I let ever let it go? But I let it go.
Yesterday: felt at loose ends. I wondered, as I sat before the fire holding this computer: am I getting enough done today? I decided to tally it up, even while wondering what’s enough, exactly? I didn’t write the opening sentences to a brilliant new novel yesterday. I didn’t cross everything — or even more than three things — off of my massive to-do list. But I gained a few experience points here and there. (To explain: my brother Christian has an amusing habit of giving himself “experience points” for all of the little odds-and-ends of must-dos in his daily life; life as video game. Oddly satisfying to do, actually.)
Yesterday, tallied up
Up at 5:40 to meet Nina for a run. Floss, take vitamins. Run 8 km. Conversation. 3 friendship points.
Shower. Deodorize. Brush hair. 3 points for good hygiene.
Dress. Eat eggs on toast. Drink cranberry juice. Hug and kiss children and check backpacks. 3 points for smooth start to morning.
Take nap (half an hour). 2 points for renewal.
Drink water and surf Facebook. Waste half an hour. Lose 2 points. Also make arrangements via email re book club visit tomorrow evening. Gain back 1/2 point.
Blog about two books. Stop tallying points.
Call allergist and change Apple’s appointment to next week. Leave message at horse farm about camp this summer. Cross several items off to-do list. Points! Lose steam, fail to return other calls.
Transfer files from dying iMac to laptop. Gather all essays written in last number of years into single folder (think: non-fiction book???). Get distracted reading old poems. Win points, lose some.
Begin writing dedication and acknowledgements for GIRL RUNNER.
Eat leftovers for lunch. Read newspaper.
Try to fix iMac with help from brother Karl. Sit in front of fire. Email Hilary (agent). Finish writing dedication and acknowledgements, email file to Kevin for his opinion. Begin writing this list.
Greet Albus, home from school. Fail to think of acceptable snack.
Walk to meet CJ at bus. Also meet Fooey. Walk home with CJ and Fooey, chatting to both simultaneously about school day. Carry Fooey’s bag. Meet Apple walking home too.
Host playdate with CJ’s friend, steer them away from electronics. Help very grumpy Fooey make her own snack. Negotiate trade with Albus: read for half an hour = play Minecraft for half an hour.
Horse farm calls back, brief conversation about summer camp.
Chop potatoes, onions, garlic, parsnips and squash and make curried coconut soup for supper. Turn on radio. Turn off radio. Receive but do not reply to several work-related emails.
Make Apple eat snack and remind her to get ready for soccer practice. Text Kevin to pick up milk, bread on way home. Instruct Kevin on last-minute supper prep. Yell at Apple to get ready for soccer practice already! Lose points for losing cool; gain points because child now ready for soccer practice.
Drive Apple to soccer practice. Chat with other moms and watch soccer practice. Discuss practice with Apple on way home. Fill up truck with $100 worth of gas (!!!!!). Definitely lose green dream points.
Exchange parenting duties with Kevin, who leaves with Albus as soon as we arrive for their team’s soccer practice.
Eat (cold) supper with Apple. Plan CJ’s birthday party with Fooey and Calvin, add to guest list. Clean up supper, put away food, fill and start dishwasher. 10 points just because.
Supervise Fooey’s piano practice. 2 points.
Feed children snacks. Supervise tooth brushing. Read Farmer Boy in front of fire. Put CJ and Fooey to bed. Bonus snuggling points.
Fold laundry. Try to think of acceptable snack for Albus, now home; no acceptable snacks. Albus retreats upstairs unhappily. Lose a few points. Kevin leaves for hockey.
Eat grapefruit in front of fire, read first chapter in book that happens to be on coffee table nearby: IMAGINING LONDON, by Anna Quindlen. 1 point for self-comfort.
Convince Apple to brush teeth and take asthma meds before letting her finish her book in front of fire, whilst snuggling with dogs. Apple finishes book, briefly discuss, send to bed.
Albus back downstairs, still seeking snack. Helps crate dogs in basement. Cheers up. 3 points for mysteriously good mothering moment. Albus drinks chocolate milk and eats peeled orange. Brushes teeth. Goes to bed.
All children now hugged and in bed! A million points!
Surf Facebook lamely for forty minutes whilst castigating self for not being in bed. Read article on lost Malaysian plane, for example. “Like” photos and statuses of friends. Do not reply to work-related emails. Am reminded of the old days when I would slump in front of the TV and watch just because I was too tired to do anything else. Mildly depressing; maybe necessary? No points gained, but decide no points lost either.
Brush teeth, take probiotics and fish oil. Lock house. Turn out lights downstairs. Carry folded laundry in basket upstairs. Read LADY ORACLE by Margaret Atwood for approximately fifteen minutes. It’s not even 11pm! Turn out light. Goodnight.