I’ve been wandering through a book kindly sent to me by my Canadian publisher, Anansi, called The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday, by Sharon Blackie. One of her suggestions is to find a place to return to, daily if possible, outside somewhere. A place where you can sit and simply be, and observe the natural world around you.
At first, I fantasized about biking or walking to a nearby park to sit beside the little creek that runs through it. But after several days of not biking or walking to the park to do this, I recognized that, as is often the case, fantasy and reality are two divergent paths. I do love my fantastical life, as lived in my imagination, but down here in reality, setting into action even small life changes requires a different toolbox.
Let me back-track.
I’ve just finished a three-day workshop on instructional skills (teaching skills), which was intensive, immersive, challenging, and rewarding. My takeaway could apply to life as surely as it applies to lesson-planning: to meet your objective, you need to identify it clearly, and create a process that leads you toward it.
So if my objective or goal is to sit outside in nature, and specifically, to find a place that I can return to daily if possible, what process would lead me toward that goal?
The answer turned out to be quite simple and straightforward, in this example. Best of all, it emerged naturally. After several days of not biking or walking to the park, one morning last week, I went to the back yard and sat down on a stump. Something must have called to me. I’d just walked my youngest up to meet his friends before school and instead of going into the house as usual, I went into the yard. The dog was with me, the air was sweet and temperate, and the buds were at their very newest, just barely emerging in a soft fuzz of yellow and green overhead. I took off my sandals and sat with bare feet in the grass. I closed my eyes. I listened to the birds and the traffic, and the jingle of the dog’s collar.
Aha. I’d found my spot, my place outside in nature to which I could return almost daily.
So I’ve been returning, not quite daily, but often enough to see already small changes in the grass and weeds and flowers. Today, I opened my eyes after a ten-minute meditation and thought, This is my work, too.
It might not look like work. And it might not register as work, because it is so full of pleasure. But I know that in order to write, to create, and yes, to teach, I must be contemplative. I must reflect. I must be quiet and listen and observe and watch, and be. In this quiet place — quiet on the inside, I mean — such wonderful fantastical ideas play across my mind. So much of my work happens in the imagination. So it is inevitable that some of these ideas will capture my interest enough to be named as possibilities to pursue here in the real world.
The process by which these possibilities are achieved seems to me both practical and mysterious. We are ever-changing, and our needs and interests are ever-shifting. The process by which we move toward goals, and the goals themselves, also change and shift, as they must; often unconsciously. I like when I can recognize what’s happening and celebrate it. I like when I can recognize what I want to have happen, and can tweak my daily routine to see it come about.
Exercise is one area where it’s been easy for me to set goals and achieve them. These goals have changed and continue to change, affected by injury, age, and intention. I am aware of both the changing nature of my goals, and of the changing processes required to meet them. Therefore, I feel ease and flexibility in my approach. Parenting is the same for me, somehow; ever-changing, but replete with clear objectives: to support and to love. The work might be hard, but the meaning of the work is clear.
Naming a goal is perhaps the most difficult step. Narrowing it down. Understanding it, understanding why you want this particular change, or outcome. Committing to it. Why do I want to sit quietly in nature as often as possible? Immediately, answers float to the surface. Because it calms me, because it connects me to something bigger than myself, because it clears my mind. It helps me to see the bigger picture. It feeds my spirit.
What if I were to name a different goal: to publish another novel. I’ll confess that my motives feel less clear in this example, even though the goal appears straightforward. Certainly, I understand the process. But the underlying objective, the greater why of it all, eludes and troubles me; no doubt it’s different now than it was when I first published. And so I wonder … Is it to further my professional career, both as a writer and a teacher? Is it to share knowledge in a creative way? To entertain an audience? Is it to earn a living? Is it to publicly express ideas important to me that can’t be otherwise expressed? Is it to garner attention and feed my ego? (How I fear this last intention, how I fear it might be a secret intention I hide even from myself.)
It seems to me that writing a novel expresses a different intention than publishing a novel. I’m at ease with the former; I’m uncomfortable with the latter.
Yet I want to name it as a goal. I want to publish another novel.
I want to learn from the process, again, how to go forth into the world carrying an idea, and how to share it openly, generously, without fear or shame. I want, also, to polish an idea until it becomes a publishable book, full of breathing characters that live beyond me.
Somehow, my body understands that sitting quietly on a stump is part of the process that will lead me there.
I am sitting near the window in my dining room. The kettle is rattling on the stove. So far, I’ve scarcely glanced out the window, except to acknowledge that I am sitting near enough to it to see out. But it occurs to me that it’s the window over the kitchen sink where I should write this, and the kettle is now nearly at the boil, so I will be going there — now.
I choose a tea made for relaxation and stand at the window looking out over the sink. My timing is poor — the subjects I’d intended to observe are coming inside. Why? Because they are done — the older child beat the younger one at a game of soccer, played with a mini ball and nets. The older one tells me the score but I do not remember it long enough to write it down. I see now that the yard is growing dark and it will be difficult to observe much of anything. A neighbour’s porch light glows bright yellow from beyond the back fence — far away, but the brightest thing there this is. Green leaves still hang on the branches of the big maple, moving fitfully in the breeze. The leaves on the black walnut are of a lighter green, almost yellow, pointier, and hang like drips, trembling. The sky has gone the colour of bath water, clouds pale like veins or striations of veins.
I have the sensation of already having written all of this, of having stood here writing these words, already, before, as if there were nothing new in them. And yet. And yet the very sureness of their existence is the surprise — that they are known or flow from me as if already known. I hear the youngest begin to sing in the shower; the bathroom’s just off the kitchen. He is singing his own version of the Spanish words to Despacito.
I see plane lights blink red and white across the darkening sky. By the time I write down the words that prove they exist, they are gone. I glance back up to confirm it — gone. The leaves now look like hair overhanging swampland. I see in the window my own face, reflected against the blackening surface. This is not what I came here to see. Tired and ghostly. The youngest emerges in a towel, leaving sopping wet footprints across the tiles.
“I’m cold, Mama.”
All the writers I read about, the ones I long to emulate, write in longhand on lined yellow notepads. Well, I think, this will have to do.
I am writing this in block letters into a notebook, standing up, staring out of a dark window at my own face whose reflection can’t escape being sectioned by the shining porch light, while the youngest, now in pajamas, returns to guzzle water. He stands far too near to me. The sound of the water being gulped and gasped down his wide open throat — “Dogs can’t drink water like people, Mom!” — disgusts me irrationally. He belches. His chest is bare. He is gone.
I’ve now written long past the clock. Will my students do the same? Will they get lost in their own windows?
“I don’t see why you have an office, Mom, when you’re so happy writing in the car.”
My laptop was the best investment I’ve made, writing-wise. It comes with me to the pool, to the backyard, to the couch, to various soccer fields, to parking lots, and of course, to my pocket-sized car, aka the Chub-Chub.
I spent this past week driving my eldest daughter to a soccer camp about an hour away. That meant I had to stay for the day, which, trust me, was all part of my master plan. In this way, I carved out a writing week (or four days), mostly spent sitting in the back seat of the Chub-Chub. I napped there. I ate snacks there. I read stories there. And I wrote there. Next week, I’m off to a writing workshop in New York State, where I will be an anonymous participant: camping with a friend in our family’s enormous ten; eating vegetarian meals; doing yoga at dawn (if the mood strikes); and writing, of course.
On Sunday, I put that tent together all by myself. I was perhaps unreasonably proud of the accomplishment, as you can see from my body language, above. I’m not mechanically minded and this is the sort of endeavour I happily off-load onto to Kevin, but I did it with a little help from a YouTube video (an elderly couple lifting up a tent that vaguely resembled ours), and a lot of thinking, and some jumping and throwing (the tent is very tall and I am not, and getting the fly on is really a two-person job). It took over an hour, I will confess. In the end, I observed that seeing behind the scenes to the mechanics of production does not inspire confidence. I preferred not knowing that this airy structure over my head was made merely of thin rods and poles stuck through nylon sleeves. There is knowing, and there is knowing. There is knowing in a theoretical, yes, dear, way. And there is knowing in a visceral, I hammered those stakes myself way. And the thunderstorm that threatened the afternoon seemed much more threatening when I’d built the damn tent myself, and knew its materials intimately.
To be responsible is to be forced to confront vulnerability. That is my observation about growing up, generally. The older I get, the more fragile the structures around me seem. The more tenuous. The more invented, in a way. What I mean is that the security of everything I hold precious and dear, even my beliefs, is supported by a certain level of cognitive dissonance, but also by the suspension of disbelief. To dig in, to help build, to get my hands dirty, to make or unmake, is, for me, to witness the complexity and arbitrariness of experience, of life itself, against which there can be no absolute assurances of safety and security.
All of this from putting up a tent in our back yard.
And, also, from sitting with my laptop and thinking and thinking and thinking.
PS Yes, I have my voice back. It is weak and a bit raspy and rough, but it exists, and I am once again in the world, where it is so much easier to participate with working vocal chords.
It isn’t summer anymore. We’ve leaped into fall. A friend told me she was trying to figure out how to preserve her summer-self; and if I could, I would bottle the kids’ playfulness and super-summer energy, and that hat-wearing blissfully-at-peace-vibe I’m getting from Kevin in these photos. For myself, I’d be content to stand in the lake taking photos.
But in all seriousness, I do find myself taking time, post-summer, to wade in the water. By which I mean, to step into the flow that surrounds me at any given moment of the day. On Friday evening, for example, CJ and I went outside to figure out why there was an enormous transport truck blocking traffic at our corner (a driver lost in the uptown construction woes, we surmised) — once outside, we decided to go for a night walk around the block, just the two of us, and there was the moon, a sliver shrouded in mist, and we walked and he talked, and talked, and talked. In all the busyness, all the exhaustion, there is time for this, and many more tiny moments that come calling, quietly, for attention.
I’ve had a most beautiful weekend. Later on that same Friday night, just after I’d gone to bed, I got the phone call I’ve been anticipating: my sister-in-law was in labour. I leaped out of bed, gathered a few items, including my camera, and drove my fogged-up car down the street. And here, in their quiet house, time slowed down, or lifted, suspended itself to wait patiently for the work that was being done, and before dawn, the emergent babe took her first beautiful breath.
Being with someone in labour is like inhabiting the most meditative space I can imagine. I am honoured to have been invited to share, again, in this experience.
Later that same day, now Saturday, I dragged myself from a sinking nap, dressed in soccer gear, and went with our family to celebrate the end of Albus’ and Kevin’s soccer season — pizza followed by a just-for-fun game: the boys’ team v parents/siblings/coaches. It had been raining, the grass was muddy, and I was out-schooled and outrun by the 14-year-old boys, and yet, wasn’t it fun to play? Something else, I just remembered: in the middle of the night of the birth, my brother and I were suddenly famished, and we ate granola bars covered in chocolate that tasted like heaven.
Yesterday, waking after sleeping through the night, for 11 hours straight (!), the flow flowed on. Fort in the living-room. Processing photos. Friends to play. Kids climbing over the back fence. I baked a fruit crisp and listened to the radio. A run in the park with the eldest girl (hill intervals — she wanted to do hill intervals!). We ate supper all together. The floors did not get vacuumed. All together, we played backyard volleyball until it got too dark. There was time, there was time. Even though I also had to do class prep for today, and answer emails, and get organized for the trip to Spain: I leave tomorrow. I hope to step into a different flow when I walk out the door for six days of being an author, all on my own. I plan to travel old-school, with a notebook and pen rather than a laptop. So, no blogging from abroad. But lots of observations, I hope, lots of words on the page, descriptions, mysterious scenes, tangible building blocks for more stories to come.
Work that is not work, but play.
This morning, I meditated, after a long spell of not taking that time.
Coincidentally, or not, this morning, my kids started their new school year.
My focus for this session of meditation is “focus.” This is good, and useful, just now, when I feel scattered and need to be reminded that multitasking is neither efficient nor the way I want to be in the world — instead, I wish to be present inside of the moment I’m living, whatever that moment may be.
I find myself resisting the impulse to be lulled into behaviour that is repetitive and familiar, but does not serve me. I have to resist these impulses almost constantly. Name them? Reaching for the phone when it vibrates (as it has done frequently today); keeping the phone nearby and on vibrate (do I need to do that?); falling into the social media hole; forgetting what I sat down to do; neglecting to set a real achievable goal.
So, today, after meditating, I set a real achievable goal: re-read Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook and take notes in preparation for teaching, which starts next week. I set a timer for an hour, which helped set the focus.
Blogging is on my list of real achievable goals for today, too. I’ve given myself 15 minutes.
I also reminded myself, during this morning’s meditation, to resist the urge to wish I were somewhere else, doing something else. Resist longing for what you do not have.
The key to productive creativity is to find a balance between focus and relaxation.
I think of Alice Munro writing her stories at her dining room table.
Did Alice Munro give readings and presentations? (My schedule is filling up quickly.) I think she did not, or she did not make it her focus. Perhaps this made her writing life clearer to her, her writing time her own. Perhaps she refused, and set boundaries that I am either unwilling or unable to set. I am in the thick of it with my children, too. They need me actively involved in their lives, taking notice, staying alert to changing situations, changing relationships, changing bodies, changing desires.
So it is impractical to wish to be free for a length of time — a few weeks, a month — in order to focus entirely on the writing. A writing retreat. Away? I can’t imagine it being possible, right now.
And yet, I am longing for something like that. I don’t know how it could happen, but perhaps it will if I am open to the idea.
Coming back from the cottage, I am aware of the noise and hurry of the city, and I am missing the quiet, missing the closeness to nature. That said, last night I went for a walk and it was so good for me — it didn’t need to be a run, I decided, I just needed to be outside, and a walk satisfied my restlessness and soothed my mind. Before going to bed, I stood briefly on our back porch and listened to the rain and felt the cool air, and noticed a spider with a red spot on its body, which had constructed a large and intricate circular web from post to post.
Today, when I sat down for my meditation, I could see out the window, in a treetop rather far away, a squirrel racing through the branches, dipping and almost falling as it hurried away or toward something.
Nature is close, everywhere. I only need to notice it.
What I hope for this fall is to be present wherever I find myself, in whatever situations come calling, large or small, brief or drawn out. I hope to be inspired. I hope to be productive. I hope to be peaceful.
I see myself walking in the humid evening air. I see that I don’t need to run, I don’t need to push myself to extremes, necessarily, to tap into a stream of calm that is always present outside, in the natural rhythm of the earth and seasons, days and hours. This is what I seek.
School project being completed at 10PM by kid after soccer practice: not exactly what I wanted to be assisting with, but nevertheless well worth my time. Why? Read on. (Yes, that is a pyramid made out of rice krispie squares.)
On Facebook last week, I posted a photo of my daughter at one of her track meets, and expressed my pride at being there to watch her race. Among the complimentary and sweet messages in response, an acquaintance posted this comment: Can you write a book or blog about how you manage your time?
It got me thinking: could this be a book that I could write? (Kevin says no; he thinks the subject would bore me silly.) (Note: “Could this be a book I could write?” is a surprisingly common question that I ask myself.) I do have a facility for squeezing a great deal into my day, including time for watching my kids do the wonderful and ordinary things that they do. And yet I often think my facility for organization has more to do with privilege than talent, because I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on tasks that may be essential or unavoidable to others, such as a long commute whether by car or public transit, or a full-time job performed primarily for money. Truth is, I resent and rage at any perceived waste of my time, such as waiting in long line-ups to sign official forms, or sitting in traffic on my way to an event I don’t want to attend. I’ve tried my best to work at being patient in these situations, and to learn patience and stillness from them, but I feel keenly any waste.
What’s being wasted? Time. Precious and diminishing with every breath.
Yet I’m quite willing to “waste” copious amounts of time doing things like this: meditating followed by journalling / blogging.
So it strikes me that a significant element to effective time management is defining what you consider wasteful, and rearranging your life to perform those tasks as infrequently as possible. Again, I recognize that it’s a privilege to be in position that would allow a drastic life change, like quitting a job, but most of us can probably find some small ways to change the lives we’re living if the lives we’re living cause us enough pain. How does change happen? In my own experience, it happens in a variety of ways, but most often it happens because I notice a point of discomfort, pain, unhappiness, and recognize that things I am doing (or not doing) are at least in part the cause of my unhappiness.
What comes next is that the routine has to change. The structure has to change. You can’t say “I’m going to make a change,” and not create the structure to support it. Small example: None of us are getting up at 5AM to run because we feel like it; it’s because we’ve decided it’s worth doing, and we’ve arranged our schedule, our habits, our routine to support our choice: we’ve checked the weather, we’ve laid out appropriate workout clothes, we’ve gone to bed a bit early, we haven’t had a drink, we’ve set our alarm, we’ve arranged to meet a friend or friends, and with the wheels in motion, we simply show up and do what we’d planned. But without the supporting structure to carry us through—to carry the idea through to action—we’d sleep in, telling ourselves, I’m too tired right now, I’ll just do it tomorrow, or I’ll run tonight instead, or … and the imagined moment never arrives.
It’s like painting lines for bike lanes sandwiched between live traffic and parked cars and then blaming cyclists and drivers for colliding. It would be more useful and more accurate to blame the structure instead, rather than putting the onus on human beings to make rational, correct, perfect choices at all times, in all situations, in all weathers. Human failure is inevitable. Therefore, change the structure, put the bicycles in a separated, unobstructed lane, and everyone will both feel and be safer.
Structure is what shapes our lives, far more than we accept or acknowledge, and this is true right down to whether or not we floss our teeth, or eat lots of veggies. That we are “creatures of habit” is a truism because it’s true. So scan your daily life for routines that aren’t serving what you value. Maybe there’s room for a change, here and there.
I realize it’s more philosophy than step-by-step advice, but here is my time management strategy in a nutshell.
1. Identify what matters to you.
2. Be curious, be open. Respond to pain or unhappiness (and to joy too!)—recognize it, don’t ignore it.
3. Figure out what changes are possible.
4. Don’t think about making a change, actually force change to happen by altering the routines and structures that govern your daily life.
One last piece of my time management strategy: celebrate every little thing worth celebrating. The sandwich that tastes good, the kid who is telling you a story, the green of the clover coming up in the back yard, being outside, a good nap, holding a 3-minute plank, chatting with other parents beside a soccer field on a particularly fine late-spring evening, driving with a child and having a side-by-side conversation. Don’t waste your own time by wishing you were somewhere else. Whatever it is, wherever you’re at, take it in. Tell yourself: This is not a waste. This is my life.
PS I feel like this post has a slightly preachy or evangelical tone. Please don’t think I think you should be getting up at 5AM to run; rather, I think you should be getting to do your own personal version of an early-morning run, that is, the thing that’s kind of hard but makes you feel alive.
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