I’ve been thinking that I need a better answer to the question: How do you fit everything in? I usually laugh and say, I have no freaking idea, or something to that effect. But that’s not quite true. That’s the lazy answer. Because of course I have some idea. I’m doing it, after all. It isn’t just magically happening, it does take thought, care, effort.
Here’s the thing: the real answer is awfully long and detailed, hardly useful in interview situations, when the pithiest answer is best. But this is my blog, and we don’t care about pithy so much here, at least not all the time. So here, I present to you the non-pithy, heavily detailed, low-down from one woman’s organized life. (Note: I’m not suggesting you adopt these measures yourself; I recognize that many would not wish to lead such a strictly organized life. Please take this as descriptive rather than prescriptive.)
1. First of all, as you already know, I don’t procrastinate. Think of it, do it, done. If it can’t be done, make a note in a calendar so that it will be done. This unclutters my brain a great deal.
2. Keeping detailed notes in an online calendar also unclutters my brain, and prevents me from dropping too many balls in one day.
3. If I drop a few balls, I forgive myself. I think that’s key.
4. I lower my standards and relinquish control. The house isn’t very clean. The sheets aren’t regularly changed. The laundry is washed and dried, but may pile up for days unfolded in baskets in the basement. The meals aren’t planned. The kids aren’t terribly well-groomed. The garden is unkempt. And it’s okay. Because the domestic front isn’t exclusively my responsibility anyway — there are six of us in this house. As soon as I recognized this (and it wasn’t easy), I stopped critiquing others’ contributions. I would observe that an absence of critique makes it easier for others to take responsibility and contribute.
5. I’ve gotten good at assessing my own patterns of behaviour. For example, it’s no good to schedule exercise at lunchtime, which other people seem perfectly capable of doing; that will never happen for me. At lunchtime I will be working so intently on something else that I will forget to eat lunch, let alone remember or choose to exercise. So why fight the pattern? Instead, I schedule exercise early, or at times when I won’t be doing anything else, and will be outside somewhere (i.e. kids’ soccer practice).
6. Yeah, I schedule exercise. I schedule friend-time. I schedule writing time. I schedule everything. Some of it is actually jotted on the calendar, and some is just me, in my own head, blocking out time, observing the flow of the day, grabbing the moment and designating it: writing time. Or: interview time. Or: course prep time.
7. If the schedule isn’t working, I reassess on a deep level, or, often, I just go with the immediate flow and change course in the moment. The schedule is there because it works. If it doesn’t work, the problem is the schedule, not me or my family or us. I ditch what’s not working.
8. I don’t let the work that requires deep thought and focus overlap with all the rest of the work that requires deep thought. If I’m writing an essay, I want to be writing an essay and that is all. I try to apply this same principle to all activities. If I’m reading to my kids before bed, I want to be reading to my kids before bed and that is all. If I’m out for coffee with a friend, I want to be out for coffee with a friend and that is all. Heck, if I’m driving across town on errands, I want to turn on the radio and listen or stare out the window and daydream and that is all. You get the pattern.
9. I try to finish what I’ve started, or finish what I’ve decided needs finishing during this block of time. Big projects will not be finished in one go, or even in ten or twenty. But they can be finished in many small chunks of concentrated time. My dad used to have a sign on his office door that read: “If I do just a little bit every day, eventually I can let the task completely overwhelm me.” I remembered that recently, and had to laugh. Because that pretty much sums up my strategy. I do a little bit of many things every day. Thankfully, I don’t feel overwhelmed. In fact, I feel quite the opposite. I feel interested, engaged, challenged, and fruitful.
10. Finally, I don’t try to do it all.
I realize it may look like I do. But I don’t. Instead, I try to make what I do count. I’m actually strategically and instinctively an opportunist (not in a bad way, I hope; I mean, I look to recognize and enjoy opportunities that exist, rather than demand the existence of ideal/idealized opportunities).
Sometimes opportunity is about efficiently gleaning multiple benefits from one task. For example, my teaching gig is a) a job, b) interesting and intellectually challenging, c) a chance to free-write during in-class exercises, d) helpful (I hope, for my students’ sakes!), and e) excellent training in public speaking.
Other times, opportunity is about embracing what’s immediately important. For example, this fall is about promoting Girl Runner. It is not about writing a new novel. If I try to make it about writing a new novel, I won’t enjoy going out into the world to share Girl Runner. And that would be a real shame. It would be a shame for two reasons. One, because there’s no way I can write a new novel amidst all this distraction, so I would be unhappily beating my head against an invisible wall. Two, if I were wishing to do something else, I would fail to appreciate what’s happening now.
Life’s short. I have right now. If I’m managing to wreck right now with my own expectations and worries, well, I’m wasting all I’ve got. I believe that.
After a quiet week, I was so looking forward to having everyone home. And they’re back, and all’s well with my world. But I’m glad they got to be away, free and independent and outside in a way that can’t be duplicated at home. I’m too tired just now to reflect more deeply on all that’s happened this summer, but I know the memories that seem to be sticking are located outside. Walking the dogs with the little kids in the evening, running in the early morning light or on shaded trails, sitting in sand beside water, swimming at noon, doing annoying running commentary beside children’s soccer fields (can’t seem to stop myself; sorry, everyone nearby!). I have no idea how to gear up for the fall, for back-to-school, back-to-teaching, travel, soccer tryouts, swim meets, music lessons & practice & homework, other than putting absolutely every little thing on the calendar, and then doing my best to show up.
But I don’t know how to put be still, outside on the calendar. Anyone figured that out?
My book! She is here!
So, this arrived yesterday. It’s the finished book, freshly arrived at the Anansi offices this week, and sent directly on to me, so, no, it’s not quite in stores yet, but will be soon; and for sure by Sept. 6th, the official pub date in Canada (other countries coming next year). This will be my reading copy. I’m going to write that on the inside cover. Actually, I’m going to do that now, while I’m thinking about it, because that is how I’m approaching life, that is my survival strategy: think of it, do it, done.
My motto (for real): I don’t procrastinate. Oddly, this can cause problems.
But it solves more problems than it causes, and it’s been working for me for years, so I’m sticking with it.
“Reading copy. Aug. 19, 2014.” GIRL RUNNER
See? Thought it, did it, done. (And yes that is yesterday’s date, because yesterday is when I received the book, and that’s what I want to remember.)
This fall is already knocking down my door, and I want to welcome what’s coming, not greet it with anxiety or worry over all that I can’t control. Here is the visual that’s keeping me grounded these days. I am a still point in a fast-moving river. I’m not drowning. I’m not even swimming. I’m simply being pulled along, like a leaf or a branch, floating through all that is happening and trying to take it all in.
It’s going to be busy.
It’s already busy.
My strategy: stay very organized, and don’t get pushed ahead of exactly where I’m at — stay with what’s happening, here, present in the moment.
This morning, walking through the kitchen, I had a flash of memory that made me laugh. I was remembering standing at the counter stirring up a batch of biscuits for supper, a baby strapped to my chest in a sling, a toddler lying at my feet crying that she wanted to “help,” and the older two freshly home from school and in that state of exhausted, hungry, miserable transition. Chaos, noise, demands, needs abounded. The radio was on too. I grabbed the camera and took a video to preserve the moment, because it seemed very comical to me. And I thought to myself this morning: if I could be the still point in that storm, I can be the still point anywhere, anytime, but most especially, most easily, in this storm of my own creation, that I’ve been working toward for years now. It’s here. And I’m being pulled along.
“Who dumped the clean laundry onto the basement floor? Who? Who?” [Voice of rising rage.]
“I had to find my soccer shorts! If you’d just fold it, I wouldn’t have to dig around.”
“If you’d just fold it … [muttered]. Get down here and put it back into the basket.”
“If you’d just fold it …”
“When exactly am I folding this laundry?”
“Last night I was at your soccer game until 9 o’clock.”
“And I was in my office working all day today. Do you know my earning potential?”
“Neither do I! But I’ll tell you my earning potential while I’m folding laundry.”
“Someday, you’ll have to all do your own laundry. You could each have your own laundry hamper in your own room that you’re in charge of.”
“Nice. My own hamper.” Pause for thought. “Won’t that waste a lot of water?”
“You wouldn’t do laundry every day. You’d do it maybe once a week.”
“You’re right. That’s not going to work. The sports clothes! They stink. You can’t wash those once a week.”
“Maybe we could all fold our own laundry.”
“Maybe. Or maybe you could take turns folding laundry. Everyone could have a laundry night. It’s hard to find your own laundry in the basket when it’s all mixed up.”
Fast-forward to 8:30PM, same night, post-soccer practice, post-late supper, post-bedtime snack. Carrie folds two giant baskets of clean laundry at the dining-room table. At the other end of the table, her family enjoys a games night: Settlers of Catan. (Carrie doesn’t enjoy playing games, so this is not quite as unfair a set-up as it sounds.) An hour passes, perhaps more than an hour. The game ends. The laundry is folded, carried to rooms, placed into drawers. Carrie glances into the hamper in the upstairs hallway. It’s already nearly full.
(Solutions, friends? How does your family handle its dirty laundry? Help wanted. xo, Carrie)
kids on the fridge
I never seem to get the end of my inbox. I think I’m there, and then I realize something else is waiting to be answered, and I’ll admit it makes me feel ever so slightly that I’m constantly letting people down. But one must prioritize. And I probably say Yes far too often as it is.
I’m in preparation mode, full throttle. It happens that Kevin is also working very long hours this week, and I’ve developed a cold, so an element of this particular preparation mode is survival. I completed a lovely nine consecutive days of yoga and then I stopped the challenge. Likewise, we’re doing no early morning swims this week (and by “we” I mean swim girl, although I also get up with her, and then run while she’s at the pool, and I decided neither of us needed the added activity). I need rest — sleep, pure and simple — more than I need to prove to myself that I’m a superhero.
Also, I’m not a superhero.
I used to travel a lot, before kids. Now I travel rarely, so rarely that going away for a whole week feels like a huge leap. This will the longest I’ve been apart from my kids ever. Come to think of it, it will also be the longest I’ve been apart from Kevin since we got married. You should see the detailed daily schedule I’ve written on the chalkboard wall. But I know from travelling experiences past that once I’m away, I’ll be where I am, not here, both mentally and physically. I’m remembering how much fun it was to go to Vancouver and Winnipeg on my own, with The Juliet Stories, little adventures out of the ordinary.
I’m in the ordinary right now. In fact, it’s so ordinary that I have to go back to the mall to return some items purchased yesterday on behalf of a child who doesn’t like what I chose. I’ve got a sick kid home today, and I’m boiling up a huge pot of chicken stock for soup, and I’m brewing my garlic & ginger tea. Health! Please! I keep checking the temperature of the moods in our household and wondering whether this meltdown or that case of the grumps is due to my imminent trip. Yesterday we had a piano practice conniption, and this morning we had a weepy existential crisis (not me). I can’t help but feel some measure of guilt for wanting to go on an adventure that excludes my very favourite people on earth. Yet I feel sure that it’s important to get out of my comfort zone. I suppose that’s why I’m going. It’s like adding salt to the broth.
One last thing: I got to run with my big kids on Sunday afternoon. It was beautiful and sunny and it felt like spring. We got muddy. I didn’t care how fast I was going nor how far, and I thought that perhaps this was why I wanted to run all along — so I could run with my kids.
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.