There’s a post I wrote awhile ago, a year and a half ago, to be precise, to which I keep returning. (Read it yourself, here, if you’d like).
The question I was asking then (and which I continue to ask) boils down to what kind of life I’m seeking to live: is it a life with unexpected twists and turns and seemingly disconnected variety, or a life of intense and singular highly focussed work; or is there perhaps a third way, a way in between those two extremes?
A year and a half after articulating that question, I can’t say an answer has appeared. Has life, as it’s been lived since then, spoken? Not in any expected way. Not loudly. Not directly. But also, have I been listening to the universe in the same way? Expecting it to reply? I have not. And I’m not sure why.
Instead, I’ve been running.
Is that a metaphor? Have I been running away? Or toward? Or is running a question and answer contained in itself? This morning, I woke up a bit later than usual, but realized that without a run, my day would be consumed by negative energy, and that I needed to run as far and as fast as I could in the time available, in order to burn that energy off.
Where is this negative energy coming from? It manifests itself in a general grumpiness, irritability, sometimes in a muddled mind, or I get lost in thought. Not practical, useful thought, but distant drifting foggy thought in which I cannot find my way. There is something about running (or biking or swimming or any exercise that gets me working physically) that burns off the fog, that releases me, even if only briefly, into a happy state. Afterward, I feel productive. Alive. It’s like an energy exchange: bad for good.
What will you do with your life?
My youngest starts school in a year. A year, therefore, is my self-imposed deadline. Deadline for what? For direction. For the universe to point me wherever I’m meant to be going, or for me to point myself, to step off, to launch, to turn around, to choose. I type that as if it were absolute, as if I might choose the wrong path, as if there is a right path and a wrong path; and there’s not. I believe many paths could be right. Success (happiness? contentment?) is dependent on how I walk the one(s) I choose. Nevertheless. My youngest entering school carries the pressure of a deadline. I’m at an age when it feels like, to paraphrase a character in The Juliet Stories, I’m holding in my hands a diminishing collection of possibilities.
So. I have a year to figure this out. I don’t know about you, but a year doesn’t feel as long as it once did. Turn your head, laugh, and it’s vanished.
“You did a good job of keeping everyone busy this week, so you could write your book, Mom.” — AppleApple
I’m a bit of a beast when it comes to getting things done. I should modify that claim: it applies only to things that matter quite a lot to me. But when I set myself a goal, I figure out how to get there. No procrastinating. No excuses. Obsessive? Single-minded? Something of a perfectionist? And yet I’m extremely lackadaisical in other regards. You should see the living-room floor right now, for example. Apparently, clean house is not one of my goals.
Getting through the line edits for The Juliet Stories was.
Here’s how it was accomplished. 1. A blog-friend put me in touch with her babysitter, who was able to entertain four children for several hours on short notice, so I could go over my editor’s notes in detail. 2. Another friend took all four children for a morning of play at her house, and fed them lunch, so I could have a phone conversation with my editor before beginning the edits. 3. Kevin took Friday off, and spent the entire weekend with the kids, on his own, while I holed up in the playroom to work. 4. The two older kids agreed to go to soccer camp this week. 5. A friend babysat the little kids on Tuesday and Thursday, and another friend did the same on Wednesday: lunches, snacks, outings. 6. I sat in front of the computer and forced myself to concentrate on the minutiae.
The only part of the book that remains unwritten is the acknowledgments. I’m saving the writing of them for a rainy day, as a treat. Sometimes I find myself drafting all the thank-yous in my head, with a kind of dreamy gratitude. Because the above paragraph represents only a fraction of all the help this book has received from friends, and family, and babysitters who have come to feel like family. It’s been a group effort.
And, lest I dare to compare, it’s been different from the first time around, when I wrote Hair Hat almost secretively, and with a deep unwillingness to identify myself as a writer, almost as if I couldn’t believe it myself. (Impostor syndrome, perhaps). This time around has been messier. The process has taken longer. It’s involved way more people. I’ve had to ask for more help. And, thanks in large part to this blog, I’ve gone public with all the mess and agonizing and stops and starts and work and luck and gratitude; and that’s made it all easier, actually.
Maybe it’s gauche to go so public with the ups and downs, airing my dirty laundry; or maybe it’s like opening the front door and inviting the neighbours in. I hope it’s the latter. But it’s a fine line.
Thanks to all who’ve accepted the invitation and walked in to my untidy house.
I am working again today, my third consecutive day, though perhaps with less enthusiasm and energy than on days one and two. Friday, I ploughed with confidence through the first two stories, slow and steady, and with the phrase “take heart,” in my mind.
Yesterday, I tackled my nemesis and felt satisfied. I wrote a new scene for another story and felt calm. And then I spent hours waiting for a couple of words to arrive: dialogue that must say enough but not too much, that will illuminate, leave space for mystery, and not confuse the reader. Oh, and complete a story with a few final rhythmic beats, too. Harder than you might think.
And this is the easy stage. Except maybe it’s not. Maybe there isn’t an easy stage. Yes, the stories are structurally sound. They are thoroughly imagined. That intensive and demanding work is long since done. But we’re down to the details, the nitty-gritty, the word here that could be stronger, the paragraph there that is too vague, the stray fluff that if left in might distract a reader, might sap energy from the larger story.
It’s work that makes me feel like pulling my hair out, like running for hours (in the opposite direction). I know these stories all too well. Can I walk through such familiar terrain and observe with fresh eyes? I cannot. It is impossible. The best I can do is force myself to pay attention, slow down, creep along, praying for a depth of concentration that will allow me to finish what I’ve started. To see it through to the end.
It should be easy. A word here, a word there. Grace notes.
That’s a musical term, but I’m hearing it differently all of a sudden. Notes that grace the whole; but also, notes that arrive by grace.
That sums up the work I need to do today, and the work I’ve been doing. Waiting for grace. Sitting with my stories, picking slowly through them, hoping for grace. I can’t rip the words out of thin air. I have to invite them over. And be here when they arrive. They’re whimsical, fickle, unreliable guests. There’s no predicting how they’ll surprise me.
Which is why I’m still hanging around waiting, I suppose. It’s tedious. But somehow I trust I won’t be bored, in the end. Neither will you, dear reader, I hope.
I’ve sorted out the first few weeks of August.
Yes, that feels worthy of the headline. I just could not get my head around the planning, but with some help from Kevin, and from friends, have marked out a number of solid consecutive days, starting next week.
I also talked all of the kids into a week-long, morning VBS program at a church down the street (Vacation Bible School, that is). It’s, um, free. (The photo above illustrates the enthusiasm expressed by all the kids toward this proposed plan; I think they’ll enjoy it more than they expect).
And all of this should tide me over until my babysitter returns. My only regret is that I’ve had to cancel some fun summery week-day plans during the next two weeks. But if work goes smoothly, I hope to reschedule fun at the end of the month. Fun is always more fun when a weight has been lifted.
My editor has returned my book, with the line edits. The treatment is fairly light, except for two stories, one brand-new, which is admittedly underwritten, and the other, which has been a nemesis for years now; both need more work, and quiet thought. Every time I look at her message, a faint wave of fear washes over me. Because it’s summertime. Because my babysitter has extended her stay in Germany through mid-August. Because I may need to spend our week of family holiday, when Kevin has time off, holed up and working, rather than hanging out with my family. There may be — must be — alternatives, but my brain has yet to plot these out. Basically, I need to schedule time away from the children. Quite a lot of time.
July is coming to a close. In my mind, August magically turns into a month of productivity. But what are the children doing, exactly, while I’m confined at my desk, deep in concentration? Imagine us stepping into a parallel universe, one I believed existed pre-motherhood. The children play quietly at my feet; the older ones fetch snacks for the younger ones; no one poops; no one makes up songs with lyrics offensive to anyone else, and sure to draw ire; birds chirp and soft breezes soothe through open windows; words flow from my fingertips; we all wear crisply ironed linens — why not?; their hair is brushed and their nails are clipped and supper will be a picnic already prepared and waiting for us in a basket. As soon as I’ve solved this tricky handling of plot and character — no, it won’t take long — we will dance merrily outside to the bug-free, itch-free grass to eat it.
Alternatively, I need to find some childcare options, and mark out on the calendar a bank of whole days and weeks, and get this done. Yikes. Here comes August.
My friend Rebecca wrote this thought-provoking post on ‘thin spaces’, the Celtic concept of places (or moments) where the spirit world comes very near to our world. We can reach through and touch it; or it brushes us. She asked where we find our thin spaces. It might be a physical place, or it might be an experience. It might be something we can seek out, or it might be something that we can’t, that just comes upon us.
Here is my short list, the things that jumped immediately into my mind:
– being with someone during labour and birth
– sometimes while writing, when the words seem to come from beyond me
– when someone reads a poem out loud
– when my body is working very hard and my mind becomes very quiet
I was out with my siblings last night (and Kevin!), and I was thinking about how all five of us Snyder kids are both creative and impractical (thank heavens Kevin is practical). I don’t mean we’re disorganized or incapable of functioning in the world, but I do think we look at some practical things, such as work and earning a living, differently. Somehow, we must have been raised to value the making of things more than the buying of things. I think within that is some quiet value, never spoken of, of thin spaces. And our thin spaces maybe aren’t that profitable, but we were raised to choose unprofitable over practical if unprofitable feeds us in other ways.
I think many people choose the work they choose because it brings them closer to those thin spaces. What’s your work? Does it take you to unexpected moments or places of peace / calm / meditation / joy / insight / grace / giving / acceptance / fill-in-the-blank-with-your-word-for-a-thin-space?