The week has gone by in a blur. I’ve had less energy, yet have stuck to the basic routines. And here we are, arrived at a holiday. Kevin is home from work. So I am working. Yes, I am upstairs in the playroom/office typing away on a new project that I plan to reveal next week when it goes live. Stayed tuned.
This week has seen its ups and downs. And downs and ups.
One item that started up, then plummeted down, (thankfully not literally), was our porch, which we hope to rebuild this summer. It’s been steadily decaying due to water damage, and might make it one more year before falling off the front of our house–might. So we’ve been saving our pennies and gathering quotes from contractors and builders. And in the midst of this planning, my friend N offered an exciting suggestion: while we’re rebuilding the porch, could a tiny home office be built, too? There is a perfect place for it: we have a door that leads off the dining-room onto the side porch, and both door and side-porch are currently underused; wasted access, and wasted space. Would it be possible to create an insulated room right there? I have to confess that I was/am hugely excited, giddy almost, to be entertaining the idea of having a home office — a real writing space, a room of my own. I could imagine it in perfect detail: spare and functional, with white painted wood, tall windows, a wall of bookshelves, and a desk. Simple. Perfect.
My feelings were/are almost covetous. Drooling. Dreaming.
Well, here’s the down. We got our first quote for the job and it was double our budget. And we thought our budget was pretty generous. Did I mention that the quote was just for rebuilding the porch? Nothing to do with adding on said fantasy writing room? We’re not quite back to square one, because quotes can vary wildly; but my home office bubble is suffering serious deflation. And you know, maybe it isn’t my time, yet. I need to earn entry into the perfect writing space. I need to sell more books, more words. (Words for sale! Words for sale!).
Speaking of words for sale, I had a pleasant chat with my agent yesterday. And I have news! My second book, THE JULIET STORIES, will be published earlier than originally anticipated: look for it in stores this coming March (in Canada, that is). Which means that there is exciting work ahead, also sooner than anticipated: editing the manuscript on a micro rather than a macro level; discussing cover design; meeting the kind people at House of Anansi; and planning publicity for the book. Yikes! Yowza! Woot!
But enough of ups into downs and downs into ups. Time to stop typing, stop working, and let this space revert back to a playroom for most of the rest of the weekend. It is a holiday, after all.
Because my heart, speaking literally, powers my body as I work toward the goal of completing a triathlon and/or half-marathon this year.
Because I live in my head. Because I want to allow myself to respond spontaneously, without checking in with my head. If the heart says do this, I want to. At least, most of the time. Okay, even some of the time. (I’m a little bit afraid of giving myself over to my heart; I sense that mistakes will be made; I sense also that mistakes must be made).
Because of love, compassion, empathy. Because in my efficiency, I am sometimes deficient in these most important gifts.
Because it’s a challenging word, filled with challenging ideas, for me.
Because I want to explore other aspects of myself, even if it means just pushing ever so slightly against the seeming-solidity of who I am, right now.
But I’m keeping spirit, last year’s word. I nominate it to be word of the decade, an umbrella under which I will develop different aspects of the spirit. What does spirit mean, to me? It means the life unseen, not of this world, and yet expressed within this world, through words and deeds. It means: there’s more to life than what can be seen. It means mystery. It means being moved. Being open. Being emptied out to make room for God, for the divine.
My poetry book club met for the third time on Saturday evening. We were unable to get copies of the book we’d planned on reading, a collection by Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, we suspect, is even now hand-sewing the binding in readiment for shipment by ox-cart); so instead, we all brought favourite poems to share. We were giddy. It was ridiculously fun. We are getting to know each other that much better. And best of all, there’s poetry. I was deeply moved by a number of the poems, unexpectedly moved, caught off guard: ah, there’s my heart, opening.
Being moved by a poem. It feels of enormous significance to me, right now, as I struggle to balance my ambitions and my sense of self, to figure out what matters, and why.
To create something that moves someone else, it’s a strange talent. It might not even be a talent, but a gift, given and taken away on a whim. It’s also a strange thing to want to do: to express the mysterious, to give it shape and form, and to share the beauty, joy, grief, loneliness, ache with others. It’s not a profitable enterprise. It’s not of this world.
My new year’s anomie seems to be somewhat late-flowering; 2010 was a fine, fine year, and it seemed, at its end, that perhaps nothing needed changing, not a whit. Four weeks in, and it suddenly seems everything needs changing.
I’m conscious of my underlying desire to be independent, financially; not because my survival depends on it, but because, as Fran Lebowitz says in an interview in Bust magazine: “Here is the key to independence: earn your own money … This is true of life–people who are paying you, whether they are paying for you like parents who pay for children or paying like a boss pays an employee, they’re in charge of you. You don’t want someone to be in charge of you? Don’t take their money.”
Now, I am in a marriage I consider happy, in a partnership I consider equal; nevertheless, the fact that I earn next to nothing, that I rely on Kevin to support our family financially, bothers me, and it has for a long time. I read that Fran L. interview on Saturday and it went click in my brain: the key to independence. (I read it out to Kevin, too, and he understood). I wish I could say that writing were my key to independence; but it’s not. If my family relied on my earnings, I would have to do something else, use my current skill-set in a different way; and I can’t think of any job I’d want to do that would use my current skill-set. And so, I continue to return to the question: do I want to retrain? Do I want to gain a new skill-set? Do I want to equip myself for an entirely different job?
It’s not that I imagine myself never writing, were I to earn my money differently. It’s that I imagine myself writing the way most writers write: look around–most writers, even successful writers, have day-jobs. The most successful writers, those earning a reasonable living from their writing, work their tails off pitching stories, writing grant requests, and working freelance from job to job until they become Mordecai Richler and editors come to them with story-requests (and I happen to know that Mordecai Richler was an extremely hard-working and not at all precious writer).
I’m not much good at pitching stories. I work pretty slowly. My overall interest, when I write, is to make something lovely, not to earn money.
And that is why I come back to the idea of retraining and earning my living in another way. Earning my living, period. I’ve given myself the imaginary deadline of CJ entering school, which is in a year and a half, when he starts kindergarten. I will be thirty-seven, not too old, I think, to start something new.
I’m not sure that heart relates remotely to this dilemma. Or, maybe it does and I haven’t puzzled out how, yet.
Cooking with kids: AppleApple’s menu yesterday was vegetarian. She had a hard time narrowing down her menu choices, perhaps because I went to the library and got out some kids’ cookbooks, most featuring foods of different cultures. In the end, she made iced mint tea with mint picked from our backyard patch (not from a recipe). For the main course, she served freshly made pear/applesauce with mashed potatoes, and a Caribbean-flavoured squash soup, with a red and yellow pepper salad on the side. Dessert was canned cherries from Bailey’s and peaches canned by my mom. It was such a local meal!
Fooey’s up next weekend.
And last weekend, Albus’s German sausage hotpot did the body good.
Day of rest, two Sundays on: all is well. With church in the morning, it’s impossible to make elaborate plans for the day, and that actually works out fabulously if one is ‘re able to let go of the idea of getting other things done. It does mean piling more into Saturday, perhaps; and I am also now planning to use my Tuesdays home with the little kids as baking days; but if the redistribution of tasks results in more days like yesterday, where I had time to play the piano, work on homework with Albus, and doze off (while trying to read a book), I’m sold.
Also thinking about how to fit everything in, and reminding myself that a little every day adds up to a lot. As I prioritize my goals for this coming year, I think about the 365 project, and how committing to spend between 5 -30 minutes a day on that has added up to an ongoing master class in photography. The same goes for the triathlon project, which dovetails with my more general goal to be fit both mentally and physically; this morning, instead of mucking around the house this morning, I chose to go to yoga class, and not only feel stretched out and fit, but I enjoyed a burst of acute organizational powers in the forty minutes afterward, sitting in the sunshine at a picnic bench, waiting till it was time to pick up CJ from nursery school. Lots of notes were taken.
The first step to fitting everything in is to set strong priorities. And then make leaps. Put into play whatever needs to happen to make those priorities become a part of the routine. But stay flexible, because if something’s not working, you can always make changes, even drastic ones. Here’s what went onto my “fitting it all in … a little at a time” list of priorities: triathlon project (including swim lessons for me); photography; fiction writing; church; friends. (That list does not include the daily priorities of feeding and caring for my family, which kind of goes without saying, for me).
My office has been touched-up, tidied, desk debris cleared (dusty three-year-old “must-do” piles purged into the recycling bin); we purchased a proper adjustable chair (and removed the folding chair which had replaced the exercise ball both of which had rendered me nearly lame on writing week; seriously, I temporarily lost all feeling down one leg), and Kevin used the skill-saw to customize the tiny computer desk I’ve been using since 1998 (now there was a worthwhile $99.00 investment in pressed-fibre technology). And suddenly, I am sitting in well-organized comfort before my computer screen, in a sunny room that is, yes, still a playroom; but the toys are easily hidden in cupboards and closet, and the bookshelf holds kids’ books on the lower shelves and my books on the upper shelves. I’m ready for the new year.
Because of course this is the real new year. Forget January 1st. I am filled with excitement and energy and ideas and plots and schemes and plans and routines, and my calendar is chock-a-block from one end to the other with everything we’re going to do.
I have spent today baking in preparation for school lunches and after-school snacks: chocolate sunflower granola bars; granola; banana muffins; bread. I didn’t feel much like baking all day, but put my head down and gutted through it–not unlike my run this morning–and it’s done, and I feel ready. The school bags are filled with supplies and new shoes. The lunches have yet to be made, but as part of our re-division of household labour, Kevin has offered to take over the packing of the lunches (YESSSSSS!!!!), as well as breakfasts, and Sunday evening supper–aka cooking with the kids. He’s also been noticing and doing dishes more frequently. I can’t express to you the difference this makes, but if you are the regular dish-doer at your house, then you will appreciate the change, too. The kids will pack their snacks on pizza day and sub day; I’m not sure whether we’ll also work to transition them into packing their own lunches more often. Baby steps. If I could get them to throw their dirty laundry into the basket, or down the basement steps in the direction of the washing machine, and to put away their individual piles of carefully folded clothes each evening … well, those seem do-able goals for the near future.
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?
Thoughts come to me while I’m hanging laundry. Do yours strike during particular activities?
On an evening out with friends, recently, we came around to talking about chores (we’re all moms or moms-to-be), and one friend mentioned that she genuinely enjoys hanging laundry on the clothesline–she didn’t mean that she finds it a chore she can tolerate, or doesn’t mind doing, but that she genuinely takes pleasure from it. She described hanging the napkins together so they flapped in the wind like a prayer flag. And those of us who regularly hang laundry realized we often do something similar: making patterns, following interior rules about what goes where; in essence, creating something that pleases us aesthetically. Do you have rituals you follow, or patterns you make; or does another chore bring you a similar kind of aesthetic pleasure? I think it points toward the artistic impulse.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about a particular philosophical dilemma, which is related both to parenting styles and parenthood generally: I think all parents are occupied, whether consciously or otherwise, with finding a balance between individual pursuits and collective responsibility. (This is a societal question, too, and where you land on the scale is probably indicative of your political beliefs).
This balance comes into play in virtually everything I do. Do I push my son to practice piano, or do I hope he will come to develop his own talents? Probably a bit of both, right?
Maybe I need to explain this idea in more concrete terms. I’m thinking about how families work. How very much I would like my children to walk to school together, and to take responsibility not only for themselves, but for each other. However, my eldest wants to walk with his friends: they have made a thoughtful plan for meeting and walking together. I am proud of his initiative, and glad that he has strong connections with friends. But I want him to be a helpful big brother, and I’d planned to have the three kids walk to school together next year. What’s the balance? This one is easy, because we’ve already worked it out. Albus will walk with friends. We have other options for getting his two sisters to school. In this case, we went with the individual, because it did not harm the collective.
I don’t think the balance between individual and collective is ever perfected. It’s an ongoing challenge. For example, I’ve also been thinking a great deal about how spiritual and artistic practice requires uninterrupted time. There’s no short-cut for this. In order to go deep, you need to enter into yourself while letting yourself go. This isn’t necessarily selfish, but it might appear to be, and certainly can feel selfish, when one is a mother (or father) to small children. Children are notoriously good at pulling you out of wherever you’ve gone–if they need you. And mine seem to need me a lot.
But there’s another issue: If I’ve arranged childcare and freed up time to work, what guilt I feel if the work that ends up getting done is invisible, even to me. If it makes next to nothing. If I sit and stare out the window. Writing a story sometimes appears to be a quick process, but I believe there is a great deal of invisible unknown work going on beneath the surface that makes the story possible.
One final thought from my laundry-hanging philosophy session. Practice, and consistently doing something, makes that thing easy to do, so that that what appeared impossible or even merely inconvenient proves otherwise. I am thinking of the snack-making. Nothing in the cupboards to pull out, so I whip together cheese and apple slices and raisins, in individual containers, and the kids love it. Nothing in the cupboards, so I pull out the popcorn popper and everyone watches the process, and devours the results.
Yes, it takes more time and effort, but not that much more. The difference is actually inside my own head. Does it feel difficult and hard, or possible and simple?
(I did not get up early most of this week, and I missed it a great deal. So, this morning, I did again, and went to yoga, and appreciated both the effort and the ease).