I’ve set the timer. I’ve given myself fifteen minutes to sketch out a few thoughts that have been floating around my mind, not necessarily connected to each other.
The main thought is this: the easiest way to express love, care, and pride to my children is to be present. Example: on Tuesday evening, I drove Fooey to her gymnastics class. I usually drop her off and Kevin picks her up, an hour and a half later. But on Tuesday, I made a spontaneous decision. Did I really need to go home? I didn’t, really. So I stayed. She was thrilled. The bench on which I sat was hard, but the task was easy. Watch. Wave, occasionally. Give a thumbs up. Smile. And on the way home, talk about the class, and anything else.
She’s been a happier kid in my presence ever since.
It reminds of last winter, when I started going to my eldest’s indoor soccer games. It was a small time commitment every week that required sitting on the sidelines and watching (and again, uncomfortable benches!), yet it seemed to bring about a complete shift in how we were able to relate to each other. I wasn’t saying: I care. I was showing it instead.
It is such a blessing to be home again, to have again the opportunities for these interactions. Having four children means having to spread my attention a little thin at times, and this fall it’s meant lacking entirely in attention and presence to offer. Skype calls are ridiculously insufficient, let me tell you. They are the stuff of tragic-comedy. Being present on a computer screen in your living-room is one step removed from appearing as a character on TV.
Okay, so maybe I only have time for one thought today.
Or maybe I can squeeze one more in, here. It’s about what matters. It’s not a small thought, but an enormous one, the kind of thought that should pervade one’s life at all times, and I think it does even if it’s not always at the forefront of the mind. It’s about rejecting cynicism and doubt, and throwing your arms around life in a way that shouts, Life is precious and I am here right now, alive. It’s about putting into perspective the meaning and weight of accomplishment and success, and turning to the people and connections and rituals and routines that bring you daily succour. It’s about humility, grace.
It’s about presence. While present, be present. It’s about giving what you have to give, and not questioning whether it’s big enough, good enough, strong enough, fine enough, valuable enough. It’s about sitting on the sidelines with love, pride, a touch of boredom, a touch of restlessness, and deep, joyful care.
The timer’s gone.
I’m home. And I’m tired. But that’s not news. I’m living in a blur of present moments that vanish behind me, and I’m not doing a great job of keeping track. To every thing there is a season. This seems not to be the season of reflection and stillness, and I’m in serious need of such things. That’s why I’m glad for the glancing moments of reflection & stillness provided by this blog.
I had eight events in eight days, plus teaching, plus children, plus travel. This morning I got up early and went to my spin & weights class for the first time in four weeks. It wasn’t hard getting there, it wasn’t even hard being there, but I hit a point during the lifting and swinging of the kettle bells when I realized that I’d crossed some physical line. I had to take a brief break. “You went pale,” one of my friends said. I knew it, too. I was able to come back after a swig of water and continue, but I didn’t push hard, because I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
Kevin works in Toronto on Mondays, so back home, I had the morning routine to hum through. Greet the already awake, yoga-practicing daughter, wake the eldest, start making breakfast. Around 7:38 there came a great stomping from upstairs. Crap, I forgot to wake Fooey. She doesn’t need to be up at 7:15, but she likes to be up at 7:15, and insists on being woken; but I don’t like waking her unnecessarily early. So. Was it forgetting on my part, or making a wise parenting decision that she should sleep longer? I wasn’t even sure myself. But she sure was sure.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Stomp, stomp, stomp.
“I hate those kinds of eggs.”
“You forgot about me.”
“You didn’t even make me hot chocolate. You don’t even know what I like.”
Some long while later I said, thinking I would drill into the heart of what seemed to be the issue, “I know I’ve been gone a lot. But I’m home again now.”
“And you’re already making mistakes.”
Instant reply. Articulate. True. She’s smart. And she’s cutting right to the core of my feelings of weakness and doubt.
If you think parenting is about being the adult in the situation, well, you’re absolutely right. It is. And I was the adult in the situation, and I simply apologized again, hugged her again, promised again to do my best, and life goes on. But on the inside, in that moment, it felt like she’d touched on a pain I could never fix. And I thought, parenting is also about this. It’s about feeling pain, and calmly carrying the pain to the kitchen where you go on loading the dishwasher.
“What can I do to make you feel better?” I asked her.
“Don’t be late to pick me up from violin lessons,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, and then, after mentally running through my list of recent failings: “I’ve never been late to pick you up from violin.”
“And you’d better not be today,” she replied.
She’s missed me most vocally, while I’ve been away. And she is the child who seems least comforted and assured by my efforts to comfort and assure—that I’m here, and all is well. Maybe I can’t because I’m not sure, either, that I’m here and that all is well.
I’m here. I mean, I am. I’m here.
I think she will love these photos.
But I’m tired, as I said. And I’ve been in a strange, performative, public space that’s kept me on the alert, energized, and apart from them, kept me occupied with concerns unrelated to hot chocolate and violin lessons and morning wake-up times. Maybe she’s right. Maybe I did forget about her this morning. At 7:15AM, I forgot that she insists on being woken, and maybe she insists on being woken because it assures her that she is remembered and therefore loved.
This isn’t what I’d intended to write about when I sat down just now. I wanted to write about the weekend, with its whirlwind of events. I’ve been to the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo, and to Books & Brunch in Uxbridge, and both were memorable and special events, and I would like to write about them sometime. But we don’t always get to choose what wants to be written. And I guess it’s fitting that I’m writing about this instead, because, yes, I’m home again. I’m here, now.
It’s that eternal present in which I’m existing. In order to be very much present, I have to be very much present. Leaving room for little else, past & future.
And in today’s eternal present, oh, how I don’t want to be late for violin lessons.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
This morning began unusually. I woke at 6AM, refreshed after a very very long sleep, having crashed out just after 9PM last night. Teaching takes a lot of energy, at least for someone who would skew toward introverted on the personality continuum, and I had my class on Wednesday night (a happy place to spend three hours, I must tell you, even though our windowless brick room in a hive-like building resembles a bunker, and gets very muggy when packed out with creativity and debate). What a day to go and teach. I think it was a good thing, as it forced me to be focused and to pay attention to something other than the noise.
There was some noise on Wednesday. There was this lovely interview done by the Canadian Press, which ran in various media outlets. There was the phone call from the Writers’ Trust to confirm that Girl Runner was on the list, and various emails to note upcoming appearances and media requests associated with the award. I checked my calendar a lot. And my phone. Twitter and Facebook kept pulling me in. It was a lot of noise, as I say, and I found myself unable to settle and reflect, or even, quite, to feel what was happening.
So I was grateful to my students for occupying my evening. We talked about poetry. There was so much to learn from the discussion, so many reminders of why poetry matters, why words matter.
photo credit: Shari Lovell
Kevin had gotten take-out ramen for supper, which I reheated in our shiny new microwave when I got home, nearing 10PM. (Yes, we finally got a microwave, and I must confess my leftover lunches are much more enticing than those consumed during our long, cold pre-microwave era.) After eating, all the kids in bed, Kevin dug through his scotch collection (so many bottles, each with an inch or three of liquid, leftover from our years of hosting scotch parties), and pulled out a particularly choice selection. I don’t have the name handy. But he went online to check its current value, were it full and unopened, and announced that we would be celebrating with a $5,000 bottle of scotch. I mean, seriously?! There was just enough for two wee drams.
One of the pleasures of the scotch party is hearing our friend Mike read the tasting notes, so to keep with tradition, I will tell you that this ridiculously pricey scotch tasted heavily of oak barrels, with overtones of straw (or was that the colour?) and undertones of turmeric and cinnamon. Or something like that. Maybe it was nutmeg. And a bit of blue sky.
It was a lovely celebration. I was up five hours later to run with my speedy friend Heather, who kindly slowed down for the occasion; also because that will be my last run before I attempt the Toad, tomorrow morning: 25 kilometres of likely-to-be-muddy trail. God help me.
The book I was reading this morning is called A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki. I’m going to keep talking about it until I’m done, and probably for a long time thereafter, and the next reader I’ve got in mind is my 11-year-old daughter.* We’re both of us possessed of a lot of energy and drive (I hazard to suggest she’s got even more of both than I do), and we both of us need to find ways and reasons to turn down the noise and become still. (And not because we’re crashing!)
my girl runner
Wednesday, after the prize announcement and before teaching, I dashed over to her school to watch her run a cross-country race. She came second out of a large field of 7th and 8th graders. “I’m so tired! Weirdly tired! Like way too tired!” she told me immediately afterward as she lay prone on the grass. “You just ran three kilometres really fast,” I pointed out. “That’s not it!” “Well, maybe you’re too frail and shouldn’t run more than 200 metres,” I suggested, tongue in cheek. She’s read Girl Runner. She smiled faintly. Then she sat up and took off her shoes. “My feet are too hot!”
At first, she was quite disappointed in her performance, and it mattered not when I pointed out that the girl who finished first was two heads taller and a grade older. She insisted on expecting better of herself. I kept assuring her that she’d been wonderful, that she’d given her all, that I was very proud, and finally, much later, before bed, she smiled to reassure me that she was happy with the race. Mostly. I can’t argue with her. Her expectations are her own. She isn’t discouraged when she doesn’t meet them. Instead, her expectations seem to fire her with greater focus and renewed intent. Yeah. I get that. There will always be someone faster, smarter, more talented. But I think she already knows: that it’s not about comparisons. It’s about finding one’s own voice, one’s own passion.
But what about stillness? What about releasing expectation? What about rest for the mind and body?
A Tale for the Time Being is the story, in part, of a 104-year-old Buddhist nun who’s offered decades to the practice of meditation, prayer, ritual gratitude for each gift, no matter how small. She bows with her whole body to the world. She is at peace with mortality. The humility of her daily practice gives her SUPAPOWAs! Even her physical frailty is a strength.
So I wake this morning, early, thinking about how whatever I have to offer must come from a grounded place, a place where I sit in stillness and silence, practicing gratitude, bowing with my whole body to this beautiful, difficult, scary, noisy world, with openness and with humility. A gift is a gift. What to do with it? How to give thanks? How to give, no matter how tired, frail, mortal, flawed? How to be still. How to listen.
PS I’d like to point you toward a review of Girl Runner by a blog-reader who is an Ironman athlete and writer; he also digs into the history of women’s long distance running.
* Note: after writing this post, I finished A Tale for the Time Being, and discovered that in the final third of the book, there are several extremely dark scenes relating to extreme bullying, attempted rape, and child prostitution, and although my 11-year-old is a mature reader, I don’t think the book is meant for her–not yet. But sections of the book are meant for her! However, I can’t figure out how to carve out the darkness to show her the light. I think this Tale for the Time Being will have to wait, for the time being. Nevertheless I highly recommend it to a mature adult audience. What is light without shadow? (The book also contains the clearest explanation of quantum mechanics that I’ve ever read.)
I should be posting about back-to-school. But we only just arrived home last night from our brief family holiday, and my mind hasn’t caught up with end-of-summer quite yet. So this will be my holiday post. Yes, we had a holiday. We had a holiday! From everything! (Except each other.)
Somehow the summer had slipped by without all of us spending some downtime together. Sure, we got lots of projects done, including, while the big kids were away, painting the back porch, and varnishing the wood floors downstairs, which were starting to splinter.
There was the trip to the beach with the kids (but not Kevin), and the trip to Toronto with Fooey (just us), and Kevin and I dashed over to Stratford not once but twice to see plays. There were soccer tournaments and swim lessons, my sister got married, we hosted cousins, invited friends for a few meals, and the kids attended various day camps and overnight camps that fed their various interests. You know, we did a lot of stuff, and we’re fortunate that we could and can. None of this would I change.
But we also worked, Kevin and me. We worked pretty much straight through summer, both of us being self-employed and therefore loathe step away from any opportunity. Suddenly August was nearly gone, and we were nearly out of time.
And then, my dad and stepmother offered their cottage for a family getaway. Just us. (Plus dogs.) At 5AM on Thursday morning, Kevin discovered that our new vehicle (new last fall) doesn’t have a roof rack. “Um, we have a problem,” were his exact words. How to fit six people, two dogs, all our stuff, plus food for five days inside one relatively small SUV? It was 5AM and the kids were soooo excited (which is why we it was 5AM; no one could wait to go). So we just did it. Ditched the non-essentials, squashed bags under children’s feet, bought perishables close to our destination.
We really did nothing when we got to the cottage. Nothing but swim, play, eat, drink, sleep, read. I didn’t even swim, in truth, because the lake was really cold, and, besides, forget excuses, all I wanted to do was nothing. By day four of doing nothing, I felt like I’d forgotten how to do anything, which was a bit unnerving. But not so unnerving that I turned down the offer of a grapefruit beer in the afternoon. I needed the nothing. I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t our house, with its innumerable potential projects calling. I needed a few days of not pushing myself onward, nor being pulled onward. I needed to sink in. Stop. Watch my kids play.
The best part was watching the kids play. They had so much fun together.
Sometimes I think even if I’m able to give them nothing else, they have riches, because they have each other. That’s what I hope, anyway. Or maybe it’s the other way round. Maybe even if they give me nothing else, if they love each other and look out for each other, I have riches.
And I do.
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)
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