Wow. Some really interesting changes are taking place in my life right now. Changes are causing some conflict, and also opening up opportunities for discussion and potentially radical shifts (though I suspect these will be slow and steady rather than sudden and shocking).
This year, I’ve focused on my spirit, and that’s taken me to places of quiet reflection and also drawn out of me greater confidence and courage. My family has been noticing this is round-about ways, as I head out early in the morning to go for a run, learn how to swim, take time to bury myself in writing, head out as soon as supper’s on the table in order to take a yoga class, or set up the tripod and camera; all things that I am doing on my own, that don’t necessarily connect to their lives, and that might actually exclude them in one way or another.
Kevin and I have been struggling to find, in the midst of this extra-curricular activity, time to spend together. This morning it occurred to us that this is a problem of home economics. Kevin was the one who made this observation, not me. He observed that I am responsible for the bulk of the domestic work, and if I add in other work, whether or not it is of the paying variety, it means that my time becomes more and more squeezed. So I am writing down a list of all the domestic/household labour that I do (and that he does, too), with the idea that we work to split it more evenly, and also among the children, to some degree.
It’s quite a list.
Thinking about sharing this work, and therefore having time to focus more freely on the triathlon project and writing generally, brought me to a new revelation: I think part of me wanted to go back to school and become a midwife because then my time would be accounted for, my work outside the home acknowledged as important, and the family obligated to pick up (some) slack–because I wouldn’t always be there to do it for them, and with good reason. It is a little fantasy of mine to imagine children packing lunches for school and getting their own snacks after school, and then tidying up. (I did say it was a fantasy).
Kevin admitted that he has fallen into gender stereotyping–well, we both have. He works and earns the money, and I keep the home fires a’burning. Except I also try to squeeze in a side career, and it is indeed very squeezed. Partly this is practical: because he earns the money that keeps us afloat, his work-time isn’t optional, and mine, with its occasional grant/prize windfalls and trickle of odd-job cheques is nowhere near enough to feed and house a family of six. So, the divide has made sense. But we’ve also become trapped by it, and blind to it. Because of course my work will never add up to much if I can’t commit to or pursue freelance jobs that would require even moderate time commitment over and above what I’ve already carved out. And fiction writing is the kind of business that demands long-term investment, a risky investment at best. But without investment, it will add up to precisely nothing.
So, our question now is: how to go forward, treating what I do, outside of domestic duties, as work worthy of more time, and energy?
This is Kevin’s story, not mine. Yesterday evening, while I was out exercising (mental health), Kevin was home with several extraordinarily grumpy children. He set them up with a movie, went outside to water the plants, came back in and sat down with the newspaper thinking he’d grab a minute of calm for himself. He had just read the “thought of the day” in the Globe and Mail.
“There are moments when everything goes well; don’t be frightened, it won’t last.” – Jules Renard
As those words hit his eyeballs, he heard crying from the basement. The movie was over (though he hadn’t realized, it was a very very short movie). The older children were complaining vociferously. And CJ was covered from head to toe in permanent marker (his own doing). He was the one crying. Kevin said he just stood there in horror. Then he popped CJ directly into a bath and the permanent marker proved not so permanent after all. He introduced me to the subject by having me read the quote, then showing me the photo (above) and saying the words “permanent marker.” Needless to say, all my zen calm went out the window till I’d heard the end of the story.
Seriously. I was imagining that child striped with permanent marker ALL SUMMER LONG.
A couple more things, unrelated to permanence.
1. I’ve decided (for now) not to write more about writing. It’s too risky; I’m too superstitious. Everything that I write about writing has the potential to be a complete lie. In the moment, or immediately afterward, I might feel that something I’ve written is wonderful–or terrible–and time might prove it to be quite the opposite.
2. However, I will say that writing and yoga/exercise go together extremely well. I was in a muddle over a story that wasn’t working (there I go, writing about writing), and instead of giving into anxiety, I thought, hey, I’ll take this to yoga. For those of you sick of hearing me blither on about yoga, you can insert the word “meditation” instead. It’s where I go to find meditative space. I haven’t found a more effective method of removing the self from myself than through guided movement that is challenging to breath and body. So, I took the story to my meditative space. And then I didn’t think about it for the entire practice. And at the end, I had a calm reflective observation to take home again: the story wasn’t working because it was trying to do too much. And it was expressing something that I didn’t want expressed through my character. So I scrapped it, and started over completely afresh. It was a relief not to waste more time muddling.
3. Meditative calm: is it a selfish pursuit? Sometimes, when I leave behind a pile of frantic children and kind generous husband, the impulse to go off on my own feels hideously selfish. But here’s what yesterday’s practice brought to me, in calm reflection: self-knowledge is not the same as selfishness. If I did not take time to recognize my own motivations and know my own desires, my boundaries would be muddier, my actions murkier; I would risk carrying anger without knowing why, or bitterness, or fear. I would be more likely to blame my circumstances and my loved ones for anxieties of my own creation. There is no perfection. I might come to know things about myself that are uncomfortable and unflattering. It’s not a route to happiness or contentment, either. What it brings me is access to calm.
4. I’m still looking for ways to find calm within noisy moments. The other evening, this is what worked: I said, “I am not going to start shouting.” No one could hear me saying it, because in order to be heard over the cacophony, I would have had to start shouting. But when I start shouting, whether or not it is in anger, my body interprets it as distress. Even if I am shouting in a calm way, just to be heard, my body hears upset, and emotional escalation is inevitable. So. I just repeated over and over that I would not start shouting–as much to remind myself as to inform the kids. Eventually, I found a break in the sound, and was able to communicate: time to brush your teeth. The evening progressed with remarkable calm (Kevin was at soccer; those evenings on my own are evenings when I really do need to remind myself not to shout).
5. What I like most about meditation is something I resisted strongly at first. Stop telling yourself your stories, my favourite instructor told us. I was like–yah, right, that’s my job, that’s what I do. I’m not about to stop. Slowly, with practice, I got braver. I realized the stories weren’t so fragile that they would get lost; though in truth, they do change. I began to let go of the stories, the interior narration, during the practice. Madeline L’Engle, in one of my favourite books for teens, A Ring of Endless Light, wrote about letting go of “very me,” to make room for “very God.” In other words, make space for illumination. The mind is a miraculous place. Just because you’re not consciously thinking about a problem or a worry or a story doesn’t mean your mind isn’t sitting with it somewhere deep and low. When I practice emptying my mind, afterward amazing unexpected observations (I hesitate to say solutions) come flooding home. There is space where before there was not. And the space is compassionate and open and loving, so there’s room for ideas that I might not accept at other times. How often have I refused an idea out of fear or laziness?
For example, I wanted that story to work and kept muddling over it because it was a story already mostly written (an older story) and it seemed easier to work with something that already existed than to start from scratch. It was a barrier impossible to recognize without calm reflection.
6. I know yoga isn’t the only route to calm, though it happens to be mine, right now. Kevin says he finds that kind of quiet, deep, meditative thought while gardening. I wonder where you find yours?
Why have I not felt like blogging, this past week? I’ve had a moment, here or there, that could have been turned into time to blog. But I chose not to.
1. My head is full. Too full. Which makes it hard to zero in on a subject. I’ll be honest with you. My head is full of Life, good and bad, dark and light, hope and despair, grief and excitement. Sometimes I just want to sit and let myself feel what I’m feeling, quietly. Without trying to put it into words.
2. This hasn’t been conscious, but I’m finding some balance in my days and hours. In a sense, I’m making compartments for different tasks, different identities. This morning is quiet and interior: I am writing. The house is empty. My mind homes in on this other world I’m making. There’s some of the source of excitement: making something, gathering up the disparate pieces and sensing that it’s coming together, even if it’s not quite there yet. (I abandoned the memoir awhile ago–did I ever write about that? I am working on the story collection, the Juliet stories.)
After school, I’ll enter into the noisy chaotic compartment of motherhood. I’m trying harder to check email less frequently, sit down with a kid in my lap more frequently; that also means not squeezing in a blog post while a child stands at my knee and screams for attention.
Whatever it is, it seems to be working. The full-on mothering days feel sweeter because I have these other days and opportunities to express other parts of myself. I am luxuriating in the freedom I have within every day. I just have to accept its seasoning and flavour. Say, freedom to go out for lunch with a friend. Freedom to bake sweet treats for/with my kids. Freedom to walk rather than drive. Freedom to volunteer at the school fun fair.
It is amazing to discover that commitment to an activity offers up space for real relaxation and enjoyment.
Example … I volunteered at the school fun fair. Yes, I left clothes hanging on the line and it poured rain and I couldn’t run home to rescue them; guess what–they stayed on the line overnight and dried the next day, having enjoyed a lovely soft water rinse. Yes, I had to bring along all four kids; guess what–they had a blast helping out. Yes, Kevin was stuck in Toronto; guess what–AppleApple missed her soccer practice and the world did not end; plus, everybody rose to the occasion, and the big kids were able to do activities with the little kids. Yes, I applied fake tattoos for several hours; guess what–it was a blast chatting with the kids who streamed through, and their parents. I didn’t waste a minute worrying that the evening wasn’t going precisely as planned, or that we were staying longer than anticipated, or that the kids were going to be grumpy the next day.
I am a naturally impatient person, and I’m just beginning to grasp that conceptualizing any time as a waste is itself the biggest waste of all. I don’t have a lot of spare time, so it can be easy to resent time spent doing something that isn’t my first or second or even third choice; I am finding myself more relaxed about that. Inside every moment is a potential discovery.
What comes at me so strongly this week, as I sit inside quiet and some sadness, is that this is my life. I am alive. I am breathing, in and out, and I am living this present moment whether or not it is the moment I want to be living. Can I embrace each moment? Probably not. But the more moments I embrace–chosen and otherwise, going according to plan or going hay-wire–the more moments will embrace me.
You know it when you find it. You likely won’t recognize it till afterward. But you’ll know–an hour, an afternoon, longer, those moments when you are out of time and inside the experience, just being within it. Often, you have a sense of not wanting this–whatever this is–to pass. Or even no sense at all of time passing. You blink, and hours are gone. You wonder where you’ve been. You’ve been inhabiting yourself, that’s all. For me, these moments seem to come more easily when connected to something physical, walking, running, kneading, drinking, laughing, sometimes with company, sometimes alone.
Guess I was ready to blog …
This is what happens when I get up early and exercise. I didn’t even set my internal alarm this morning, it just decided to go off.
I made a special Mother’s Day supper for myself: blanched local bok choy and asparagus, chopped local cilantro, heated and spiced homemade frozen chicken broth, dredged tofu squares in cornstarch and fried till crispy, cooked rice noodles and rice, and brought the feast to the table. Lately, I’ve been serving meals with options. I bring the options to the table, and everyone customizes the meal to his or her liking. This has proven very popular indeed, though does mean that Fooey’s been eating a lot of rice with yogurt. This was make-your-own soup night. It was delicious. As usual, the meal was interrupted by trips to the potty (me and CJ), and so by the time I’d gotten to my second bowl, the table had emptied and I was finishing my Mother’s Day supper alone. Which isn’t the worst fate for a parent.
But then I choked. I really did. I felt something slide down the wrong tube. I stood and assumed the classic choking pose (hands to throat) and walked to the living-room. I was still coughing, but the cough seemed to be dragging the thing further down, blocking the airway almost totally. Since I couldn’t speak, I looked at Kevin, and he looked at me–with what looked to be some annoyance. Like, really, honey, you’re seriously choking? And I was like, yes, I’m seriously choking. Good thing I’m the one who took the First Aid course. Meanwhile, in the background, as I thought to myself, well this is really not the way to go, I could hear my children’s voices. Fooey and AppleApple were hollering, “If you’re going to throw up, go to the bathroom, Mommy!!!” And Albus was repeating, as if deranged, “Mother’s Day surprise! Mother’s Day surprise! Mother’s Day surprise!” These would have been the last words ringing in my ears had I not reached down my own throat and dislodged a cilantro stem. Kevin got into position (it’s not called the heimlich anymore), but I indicated that I was once again moving air into and out of my body. Things began to calm down. The scene returned to normal. But it sends me into paroxysms of hysterical laughter to recall Albus shouting, “Mother’s Day surprise! Mother’s Day surprise!” Tell me that wouldn’t make for a good line in a short story. Where did the kid get his dark sense of humour? (I couldn’t get him to parse afterward why he’d landed on that phrase. He said he knew I wasn’t dying, so that’s why he said it).
To commemorate Mother’s Day (though not the choking incident specifically), after supper, I took a few photos with the kids for the 365 project. I’ve started calling it my 365. As in, I haven’t taken my 365 yet today. Which I haven’t. But I have gone to yoga class. I’m not sure I would have made it this morning had CJ not woken three times between 3am and 5:30am, and when I convinced him to return to bed after the last nursing session, I got up, ate a banana, gathered my gear, and escaped. I thought, at least if he wakes up again, I won’t be here to have to fetch him. He only agrees to let Kevin help if I’m nowhere in sight. And then I was so glad I’d gone to class, despite only five hours of broken sleep. Moving while breathing, in a room of other people moving while breathing. It’s a good solitary/yet not-solitary ritual. I’ve now gone to seven classes in eight days as part of the studio’s fifteen day challenge. It’s been easier than it likely sounds. But our family’s schedule is so busy that I can’t find time to go again till Wednesday, early morning. My best discovery during this process has been that I love practicing first thing in the morning. I’m weaker, less flexible, and it’s harder to balance, but I don’t push myself quite so hard either. I’m kinder to myself first thing in the morning. And I’m closer to sleep, so I’m closer to that dreamy in-between meditative state. It’s been easy to find that quiet mind in every class this past week, but sometimes I wonder whether I’m now practicing on auto-pilot. Is it a good thing to go away from myself so thoroughly, to be lost in the moment, to be mindless? I’m emptying my mind during that hour and a half practice–with what am I readying it to be filled?
Last night, for our Sunday-night movie, Kevin and I watched No Impact Man. It is an inspiring and entertaining film, and what makes it really good is the dynamic between husband and wife. The premise is that the husband (a writer) wants to write a book about living a year with no environmental impact whatsoever, a pretty much impossible experiment, but one into which he throws himself, and his family comes along for the ride too. He and his wife (also a writer) have one young child, about CJ’s age in the movie, and live in New York City in a small apartment that’s perhaps on the ninth floor. They stop using elevators, subways, cars. They stop eating out, and only eat local food. They give away their television. They buy next-to-nothing, and nothing new (including toilet paper). As the experiment progresses, they do with less and less, including no electricity. They wash their clothes in the bathtub with homemade laundry soap. The wife is not a typical environmentalist, and her voice makes the movie refreshing. She sneaks off to get her hair dyed, and needs needs needs coffee. It actually ends up being a dynamic and moving portrait of a marriage. Going off to bed, I wondered what more I could be inspired to do. The idea of giving everything away actually makes sense. It is so hard to go by half-measures. The things that jump to mind for me are … well, honestly, this computer. Can I put limitations of my computer use–would I bide by them–or would it be easier just to close it up and put it out of sight, use it only during working hours? There is some freedom to that thought. On the other hand, this computer is my main form of communication. I would hate to go back to relying on the telephone, a medium I’ve always disliked. Or a real radio, rather than internet radio.
But, I’m going to think about it.
That is sound of me breathing deeply and sighing it out, like the body needs to do and craves to do sometimes. And then you discover that you’re sitting with shoulders hunched up to ears, and jaw clenched, and you let it all drop down and soften.
Because it’s been two weeks since I’ve had this privilege: the still and empty house, emptied of children and husband, and only mine, for three hours exactly. I’m the only one of us who gets this privilege, come to think of it, since the children are never left here solo, and Kevin’s privilege is to work away from home at an office. I’m grateful to be here, right now.
I am trying hard not to think about CJ in his new pull-ups at nursery school. He was not so keen to go this morning, though the last few times he’s loved it–running out the door with a cheerful “bye-bye Mom!” (Yes, he calls me Mom. C’mon, kid. Couldn’t we do Mama for at least another year?) But it’s been two weeks since he’s headed off to nursery school. Plus, the potty training. That’s enough to throw anyone off balance.
Just ask me.
The constant checking and reminding, the spidey senses alert to the cues, the way I can intuit, even when he is out of sight, that he’s paused and we need to rush for the potty. It’s bizarre. It’s also comforting to know how tuned into him I can be. And hopefully I can be that tuned in to all my kids, when I need to be. Because I’m not always so tuned in. Writing tunes me out. Tunes me elsewhere. Sometimes it tunes me so distracted that the world goes on around me and I respond, but through a haze, so that afterward I remember the things that really happened as if those were a dream, and imagination was reality. Or, worse, that absence was reality.
I’ve been thinking about going deep. What it means and what it takes to get there … to the depths, to the core; that place that is more metaphor and idea than something tangible. I think that to get at the profound emotions, at a profound understanding of the world and one’s place in it, to get perspective, which brings calm, you need time. There isn’t a substitute for sustained time to focus the mind.
Yet, it happens that often I write something profoundly moving and real in a flash.
I believe those flashes of light don’t come out of nowhere. There is hidden work that gets done while I go about my everyday, alighting on surfaces and meeting multiple demands. Effort doesn’t pay out instantly. Experience can’t be bought or faked. There are no short-cuts.
This morning, I greeted the silence by playing piano. I’m not a fabulous piano player by any stretch of the imagination, but I love the way I’m able to let go and be inhabited by rhythm. When I’m in the right mood, I crave the feeling of fingers on keys, getting inside something larger than myself. I don’t even think. It’s not great music, but it feels amazing.
Here’s something funny, though I’ll have to paraphrase, from poet P.K. Page who died last year. She said that a census-taker came to their door, and she gave her occupation as “housewife.” Her husband asked why she hadn’t said “writer.” (At this point in her life she’d been writing for, oh, about forty years). And she replied: You know I don’t feel comfortable claiming to be a writer, I’m so uncertain about my talent, etc. To which her husband said, But you are a writer. You don’t have to claim to be a good one.
Next on the morning’s silent menu … upstairs to the attic to search through old files. Then some writing. I am writing a story for children. It’s short. And maybe profound. And came at me all in a heap, unexpected, while I was working on the potty training and serving lunch to three preschoolers. It didn’t make me a better mother to write this story down, and that’s the damn truth. The question is: did it make me a better writer? Or worse, the question I should really stop asking, but somehow cannot: does writing it down matter? Mindless question. Mind over matter.
In today’s yoga class, which seemed to catch me feeling more tired than usual, I kept thinking: this sucks and it’s hard. Fortunately, the instructor seemed to catch the vibe (which might have been everyone else’s too, who knows), and asked us to take our thoughts elsewhere if something negative was coming up. So, I changed it to: this is challenging, and it might be rewarding. Not quite thoroughly positive, but all I could muster. And it helped.
This week’s classes have brought out a few Big Thoughts. One, that I always have a little more to give. I always do. I don’t think that I do, I can’t imagine it could be possible, but if asked to give a little more, reach a little further, hold a pose a little longer … it’s there. I can. This is a strengthening metaphor for the whole of my life. The only thing holding me from giving more is my own belief that I’m spent, and that I can’t.
That said, my other Big Thought was that pushing toward my potential is a delicate balance of being compassionate while asking more of myself. Compassion isn’t about letting someone off the hook, it’s about recognizing the frailty and vulnerability and strength in another person. Even if that person is oneself. The more I practice yoga, the more open I become to accepting my weaknesses, and the difference in my practice from session to session. It’s humbling. Some days I feel strong and energetic. Other days it is more of a struggle. And pushing through on the days of struggle leave me with a greater sense of accomplishment afterward, while on my strong days the sense of accomplishment is accessible within the practice itself.
In other news … CJ has been peeing on his potty with more consistency–and a lot of pride. The other evening, he timed it with dinner and got a hearty standing ovation from his family. I am almost considering hunting in the attic for some toddler-sized underpants, but I’m not sure how quickly to move with that next step, especially since he gets cared for out of the house and by other people more often than the other children did at the same potty-training point. At this point in the training, once the body awareness is there, it’s a pretty big leap to being consistent all day long. It requires an adult with spidey-senses on the alert. Full-time. For at least a week or two. And when training this early, it also requires spare pants in the diaper bag. If he’s ready, I’m ready. No pushing.
Finally, can I just say … I was pretty disappointed in myself for not enjoying March break more. More precisely, for not enjoying being with my children non-stop during March break more. However, it did make clear that last summer’s writing holiday will not be happening this summer, not unless I crave a nervous breakdown. I’ve become accustomed to having time to pursue my own work. I need it now. Even when it sucks and it’s hard. Because, yes, it is also challenging and potentially rewarding.
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