This, I promise myself, shall be a quick post, written in haste while the bread for our supper bakes.
Yes, I’m onto the sourdough trend, like everyone else on Instagram; and I’m rather chuffed to say I developed my starter from scratch during the early days of this lockdown when it seemed like there was almost nothing to do except huddle-on-sofa-scrolling-the-news and make-your-own-sourdough-from-scratch, and so I did both.
But anyway. We’re past that point at our house, now. I think it’s week 5? We’re into the rhythm of being with each other all the time; and hardly with anyone else. The kids, by some strange miracle, recently started a running club, plus they cleaned the basement, like really cleaned it, like three days’ worth of organizing, purging, rearranging, and decision-making, in order to make a rec room haven. Impressive!
And, at last (and so far!), this has been a good writing week for me, which is more than I can say for all the other weeks. Today, for example, I spent an hour and a half drawing ideas for my 16th century novel. It was an odd way to start my writing day, and not in the least what I’d planned or intended, but it helped. It lit a flame. After lunch, I worked on a chapter from another project. And that’s been the day. What more do I need? It was ever so satisfying. Tangible, calm, simple.
Sit down, do it.
Hey, just realized my recipe for a writing day is kind of like my recipe for sourdough! You mix up a starter. It spend days on the counter. You feed it: flour and water. It ferments and bubbles. When it’s ready, you fold part of it into a bowl with more flour and water. You bake it. You serve it. And you feed the part you didn’t use, so you can use it tomorrow. You do this over and over again. Every day. It’s repetitive. It requires only a few ingredients. Every loaf is a bit different. But every loaf draws on the same bubbling, fermenting starter, and so it’s also of the original source — like every story I write draws on the same bubbling fermenting starter of my mind, and I have to keep feeding it, and I have to keep using it, and it’s exactly that simple. (Oh, and during those times when you can’t use it, you can put your starter in the fridge for awhile and it will wait till you’re ready again.)
Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it. Feed it, use it.
Recipe for a writing life.
PS Here’s today’s loaf, fresh out of the oven! And my post just done! Did you know that if you put your ear close to the bread when it’s fresh out of the oven, you can hear it “singing”? It pops and crackles.
This photo is completely unrelated to this post, and purely for your amusement (or, if you don’t much like dogs in glasses, mine).
This morning, sitting cross-legged and meditating in my friend Kasia’s virtual-yet-live yoga class, my head was quiet with deep and peaceful thoughts. Hours later, though I scribbled a cue for myself in my notebook, the same head seems to be noisy with surface natter.
We’ve entered our fourth week in lockdown, or whatever this is called.
There are times, like during this morning’s meditation, when I feel grounded and calm. But I think my family would likely point to all the times I’ve appeared wild-eyed or grim, or perhaps both in delightful combination.
I’ve been thinking about how I’ve always intended to improve as life goes on; and how it’s pleasant to consider that hard times can be improving times; but, let’s be honest, hard times also expose fundamental personal weaknesses and flaws in the most obvious and predictable ways. For example, pre-children, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Post-children, I was merely a mild hypochondriac, too focused on my kids’ needs and on our packed schedule to be obsessively tracking and self-diagnosing my own (mostly psychosomatic) symptoms. In the midst of this pandemic, and in the absence of meaningful service beyond the walls of this house, the terrible hypochondriac in me has returned, and she turns up most regularly in the middle of the night.
So … am I improving as life goes on? Or am I regressing?
Am I helper or do I desperately need help?
Maybe it’s both; and maybe it always is, always was, always will be.
This was not the post I’d intended to compose. Instead, as happens when I come to this space, this is the post that wants to be written. This is how writing works, in my experience. It is always a surprise, and, crucially, it’s never a painful or disappointing or scary surprise. I just find it interesting; curious; the strangeness of what’s lurking in my subconscious amuses me. Discovering it makes me feel better.
Recommended new podcast: Sugar Calling (NYT), which is Cheryl Strayed talking to writers, starting with George Saunders, who read out a letter he’d written to his students in which he told them that the job of the writer continues even now (and that we can all do this job): be a witness to this moment. Now isn’t the time for interpretation or elucidation; it’s the time to pay attention to your interior emotional life, to the things you notice around you, to the details. (Honestly, it’s always that time, for a writer; but now is even more keenly the time.)
In that spirit, to finish this post, here are a few small details I’ve recently observed about this time.
I open the snack drawer, hoping to find a stray chocolate almond. I know there won’t be any; they were finished off days ago and Kevin won’t be shopping till at least tomorrow. But I open the drawer in hope. And lo — I discover the very large bag of dried apricots! I’d forgotten about the apricots! The apricots are orange and bright and sweet. And I am happy.
When I wander to the living-room to narrate, unprompted, this tiny emotional journey to my (mostly indifferent) daughters, the elder child lights up: she’s experienced the same hope / disappointment / surprise / happiness each time she opens the snack drawer too.
(At this time, I often wander into rooms to narrate, unprompted, my mundane experiences to whoever is sitting there. I don’t always get a reply.)
A second observation, which I haven’t yet dumped on my children (because I think they will mock me for it), is this little oddity: I’m actually enjoying washing my hands. Multiple times a day. For at least twenty seconds each time. I’ve always washed my hands somewhat obsessively, but after watching a how-to video, I knew I could do even better; however, the thought of all that hand washing, and the actual fact of it, was almost overwhelming. The way thinking about changing your baby’s diapers day after day after day can feel overwhelming if you let your mind go there. The endless futility of the task! Standing there, doing the same thing over and over and over again. I felt impatient every time I squirted soap on my hands, washing, washing, washing.
But more recently, in the past few days, I’ve noticed that the hand-washing ritual has become almost welcome. It feels like a deliberate pause, a gentle self-massage, a quiet moment to myself. I plant my feet, and breathe deeply (our soap smells really good). Weird, huh.
My mantra these days (whispered only to myself) is: What’s your rush? What’s your hurry?
That feeling of impatience that arises at various moments throughout the day — I know it’s not coming from my circumstances, because there’s literally nowhere to rush to. So it must be coming from deep within my self. (Where do I think I’m going? Why do I need to get there? What could be better than here and now?) And if I notice this, I can feel my way through it, somehow, to a place where at least for a few breaths, I’m in no hurry at all.
This post is for my dad, who says he likes reading these blog posts (though we also communicate one-on-one). He noticed that I’d had a regular flourishing of posts when the pandemic was first announced and we were suddenly thrown into this strange time of global uncertainty and disruption; and then, I kind of stopped.
It’s been pretty up and down over here. And sharing the downs is harder than sharing the ups. This is not a great time to be a hypochondriac, for example. Is everyone else in a panic when they wake with a runny nose? The anxiety alone causes tightening in my chest. In truth, it’s not that hard for me to stay home with my family. I can easily list five things to be grateful for today! But to be stuck home, sick, would be a totally different story, one I find overwhelming to imagine; just as I find it overwhelming to imagine being a health care worker right now. So, I vacillate between many different emotions, including guilt for enjoying any part of this time.
My mood shifts throughout the day, and from one day to the next. I had a night of shimmering, comforting dreams. The next night, I woke every hour certain something was catastrophically wrong (like, a global pandemic, maybe?). Last night, I slept from the moment my eyes closed till the moment my alarm went off.
I know my mood affects my family’s mood. When I am frightened, anxious, spiralling from too-much-Twitter feed (note to self: remove that app from your phone!), I’m helping no one. I’m seeding worry in our tiny family plot. And, yes, that’s going to happen from time to time. What I’m trying to do, when it does happen, is to recognize that it’s happening, name it, and ask my family for forbearance and forgiveness. Apologize. Accept feedback. Forgive myself. Try again. And do my level best to change the channel by seeking out activities that improve my mindset.
Here are my current top five comfort-giving, mood-boosting, survival-tactic activities:
My first sourdough loaf, six days in the making, an experiment necessitated by the national yeast shortage. Can you believe this loaf is made of flour, water, salt, and time? And that’s all???
One. Baking, cooking, cleaning
I must confess, if I were to get sick and need to self-isolate within our house for 14 days, as the guidelines suggest, my biggest challenge (assuming I was still functioning well enough to stand and breathe), would be to stop baking, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry. Performing these tasks assures me that I’m nurturing my family, and also that I’m in control of something: keeping the house functioning, relatively smoothly.
On the flip side, maybe I should practice ceding control over some of these tasks, while everyone is home together now?
Two. Meditation and yoga
I have a new best friend. Her name is Adriene, and she posts free yoga on her YouTube channel, and our relationship is entirely one-sided, but feels strangely real at the moment, especially when I sneak away from the family, close the door, and join her for a 20 minute heart-and-hip opening practice, or some such, which inevitably scrolls into another video of whatever yummy-sounding Adriene-offering is popping up next. Combined with my real friend Kasia’s nightly live-streamed yoga classes on Facebook, I’ve been doing excessive amounts of yoga. I’ve also been meditating. A lot. My office, which is tiny, has become a yoga and meditation studio, primarily.
For some reason, I’ve been framing all this yoga and meditation as a guilty pleasure, maybe because it feels really good, and I keep wanting to do more and more of it, and that seems … wrong, under the circumstances? But my eldest daughter pointed out last night that as far as guilty pleasures go, this one is downright healthy, and possibly even healing and helpful. So I’m giving myself the permission to do as much yoga as I need to, to get through the day.
Three. Going outside
I feel better when I’m outside early in the morning, when hardly anyone else is out and about; this is when I’ve been running. I’m nervous about adding any non-essential traffic to the sidewalks and parks right now; but it’s amazing how even a short dog-walk around the block after supper can lift the spirits. The birds are awake and busy. In our backyard this afternoon, I kept kneeling to look at tiny green sprouts unfurling their heads from the ground.
How can we live without fresh air, and sun? It seems essential.
Four. Talking to friends and family
My sibs and I have been meeting on Wednesday evenings for a catch-up. Like everyone else, we’re using Zoom. I also text quite regularly to check in with friends and family. I’m pretty sure this interaction, even from afar, is saving my sanity and restoring my humour right now. I never feel lighter of heart than after I’ve spent some time with my sibs. And feeling light of heart — it’s a challenge right now, I confess.
My kids have their video games. Kevin likes Netflix. Sometimes the two of us watch something together (like Schitt’s Creek on CBC’s Gem; and Sex Education and Feel Good on Netflix) while drinking a beer. (I haven’t taken up video games yet). What got me through some extra-anxious hours recently, however, was the combination of listening to a podcast (on a subject completely unrelated to the pandemic) while playing free-cell solitaire online. Who knew? I also like lounging around reading random articles in The New Yorker, and re-reading comfort-fiction like Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton’s National Velvet. And I’m watching the late-night hosts on YouTube attempting to broadcast, with varying degrees of success, from locations around their houses. There’s also writing & drawing, which should probably have its own separate category; on the rare day I don’t do it, I notice.
In terms of distractions, I know things are bad when I start compulsively scrolling through Twitter; that’s a sign that my anxiety and focus are spiralling dangerously downhill. (Follow-up note to self: remove that app already!) So I’m trying to minimize that form of entertainment, which is actually more of a form of self-immolation.
So that’s my list. What’s comforting you right now?
I heard a news item on the CBC this morning that said people are spending 20% of their days on devices, now. The average Facebook user spends an hour a day scrolling the site. I was listening to the radio on my phone in the kitchen, and I looked up to see my 12-year-old holding her i-pod and her phone (wifi-only) while eating breakfast at the dining-room table. There are evenings when, after supper, chores and homework have been done, everyone gathers quietly in the living-room to stare into their phones and screens. It’s peaceful and it’s creepy. At least we’re in the same room? On Wednesday, I suggested we play a game instead. I don’t even like playing games, but it was the only family-oriented indoor activity I could think of. Everyone was so enthusiastic! We played Boggle till bedtime. It was fun. We were not silent and we were together. It reminded me of being on holiday.
Why don’t we do this more often?
Oh, right. Because we’re tired. This takes energy, when the other option is easy. So easy.
Last night, by the time we got home from soccer practice and picking up our eldest from work (dark, rainy, 8PM = not ideal biking weather), a child suggested playing a game, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I didn’t have the energy to engage. I’d just been coaching 15 kids for an hour and you should have seen the state of kitchen. Instead, I tackled that. I could have asked the children to help, I suppose. But I didn’t have the energy even to ask for help (it does take energy, because I haven’t sufficiently ingrained in my children the necessity of helping around the house without complaint or argument). So no games. The kids didn’t think it would be fun without the parents, and the parents were toast. The living-room was once again a zone of screens and silence.
I was going to blog about something else in this quick post. I was going to blog about being mindful of persistent negative thoughts, which shape the sometimes negative narratives I tell myself, without even noticing, which affect my enjoyment of the world, generally. But this subject is not so different. What is shaping our life together as a family? What is shaping my children’s childhood experiences? It’s frightening and numbing to think that a powerful shaping factor could be these devices we willingly invite into our lives, and hold so close to us, all day long.
Recently, I asked my students to draw themselves in relation to their phones. The responses were a mixture of love/hate. We feel attached. We feel connected. We feel trapped. We feel helpless. Our phones are reprogramming our brains, the CBC report said, and I believe it. I’m writing a book? I should be writing a series of tweets or a video game or recording on a YouTube channel. It would be more practical.
What’s your relationship to your phone? Are you reading this on your phone?
PS Ditch your screen and come see me tomorrow at the Wild Writers Festival in Waterloo. If you’re a young writer between the ages of 13-17, there’s still space for you in my morning workshop. Or just come hang out with great Canadian writers and catch some free events.
Hey, happy summer, everyone!
School ended a week ago, and I would like to report on our free-range plan for the summer of 2017, but I keep being interrupted by the free-range children. Kevin has been working from home in his new “office,” on the upper deck of the front porch, but this morning he had to go to his office-office, so it’s just me and the kids and dogs, with no buffer in between. Since sitting down, I’ve fielded the following questions/observations: a) how do you turn the hose off in the back yard? b) where is my swim suit? c) do we have the third book of Amulet? I already looked on the upstairs shelf. d) hey, the NDP is having a leadership race [from the child reading the newspaper at the dining-room table behind me].
Could be worse. And I’m just blogging. If I were trying to write, my response would be ARGHH!!!
In fact, Kevin has been home because I have been trying to write this week, trying to shape my months of handwritten, circling narrative into novel-form, and I’m at the point in the project where, frankly, it all falls apart. My current philosophy (and by current, I mean, as of yesterday afternoon), can be summed up thusly: just finish it, including all of your bad (wild, implausible) ideas, and see what happens. As I counselled a student yesterday in my office: the perfect story you’re holding in your head has to get out of your head in order for others to read and experience it—and in order for that to happen, you have to accept that your perfect story will be wrecked in the process, at least to some degree. You can’t take that perfect story out of your head and place it on the page intact. No one can. But there isn’t another way to be a writer. Let your perfect imaginary story become an imperfect real story.
I’m trying to take my own advice.
Here. I present to you something that brings me joy every time I see it. [insert little arrow pointing up] You could call it a chore board, but that’s a rather pedestrian title given the magic it has created in our house this past week. Every morning, I write down chores that need doing, and the children sign up for them; the later you sleep, the less appealing your chore. Today, the last one out of bed got: “clean upstairs bathroom.” We’ve also banned video games or shows between the hours of 9am – 4pm. (Exception: older kids use their cellphones; I’m not great at monitoring this.) It’s still early days, but the chores are getting done with minimal fuss, perhaps because the assignment comes from the board, not from a nagging parent.
Other summer observations: I’m not waking up very early. This is the natural consequence of staying up too late! In addition to the kids running riot over regular bedtime hours, and soccer practices lasting (unofficially) till sundown, I’ve also been staying up late to watch feminist movies. Must explain. I’ve gotten myself, somewhat unofficially (?), onto the board of a locally run feminist film festival and my inbox is now full of films to view and consider. (Anyone out there with ideas for must-see recent feminist films, give me a shout!) But the only time I have to spare for movie-watching is rather late at night, post-soccer practice. Ergo, not waking up early. Ergo, early morning exercise-rate, somewhat reduced.
Oh, I want to mention one more lovely addition to the routine: a shared journal with my eldest daughter. We write back and forth to each other, or draw back and forth, or quote poetry back and forth. I’ve devised a quick summarizing list that is easy to complete, if we’re writing late at night, when we’re too tired for originality. Filling out the list has become something I look forward to, every day. My answers are sometimes long and rambling, sometimes brief. (Want to try answering the list in the comments, below? I would love that.)
- Something that surprised you today.
- Something you’re proud of today.
- Something silly.
- Something happy.
- Something sad.
- Something you’re thankful for today.
I will return with deeper thoughts (or not) as the free-range summer permits.
This is a week of transition, of return to routine. Our evenings are relatively quiet for most of the month, thankfully, as the soccer season ends and gives us a respite of a few weeks. This is good, because the kids are tired. And grumpy. (Oh yeah, I’m tired too.) Meanwhile, I want to keep track of what’s working, what’s changed, and what habits we’ve carried over from summertime.
Music practice: This happened quite rarely over the summer, when everyone takes a break from lessons. Lessons started this week, and so did regular practicing. AppleApple makes her own schedule and sticks to it, mostly practicing immediately after school (piano and French horn; no cello this year, as orchestra has been removed from her class’s curriculum, sadly). Fooey and CJ practice before school (violin and piano, respectively). Fooey goes first, and I accompany her on piano when she requests it. CJ is in his second year of piano and needs me nearby to help with finger positioning, musical details, and, mostly, moral support … and the will to continue. Yesterday, I tried combining his practice time with some light exercise (for me) because, frankly, it’s quite tedious to hang around calling out “quarter note!” and “check your hand position” and “sounds like a sharp!” (I am my father, good grief). Anyway, that whole exercise/musical instruction combo didn’t really work. I kept having to drop the kettle bell mid-lift and those things don’t drop well. Tangent alert, post-tangent. Sorry.
Chores: I have a list on the chalkboard of the kids’ chore categories: Dogs; Laundry; Dishwasher; Garbage; Set and Clear Table. Let’s break it down.
Dogs: AppleApple is supposed to feed the dogs. But they’re eating fancy food after a (let’s not talk about) bout of stomach woes, so Kevin has been doing that. She is also supposed to walk them from time to time, which happens occasionally. Fooey is supposed to keep their water bowls full. That happens only when I notice and remind her. She does clean the fish bowls regularly, however.
Laundry: I wash and dry a load or two (or three!) of laundry every day. Each of us have a labelled basket in the basement into which our clean laundry can be sorted. It’s each individual’s job to carry his or her basket upstairs and fold and put the laundry into drawers. Sorting the laundry into the baskets is the kids’ job. CJ is too small to sort effectively, so he is in charge of folding and putting away the leftovers that don’t have individual baskets: dishtowels, napkins, etc. A penalty is applied if the laundry is very poorly sorted: this requires oversight and judgement on my part. After all, even I have trouble figuring out whose underwear is whose. (The penalty is to have to sort the laundry again the next day, rather than it moving on to whoever is next in the line-up.) I also don’t pick up dirty laundry from the kids’ bedroom floors: if it gets in the hamper, it gets cleaned. This takes a great deal of restraint on my part. I hate seeing dirty clothes piling up! But I’m doing it for the team.
Dishwasher: Each kid has a designated quadrant of the dishwasher to empty. In summer, the rule was the dishwasher had to be emptied by 11AM; if you forgot, you emptied the whole dishwasher yourself the next day. I must say this method of setting child v child was enormously effective. Fooey in particular would gleefully announce at 11:01 that so-and-s0 had forgotten. On week days during the school year, the dishwasher has to be emptied before school.
Set and Clear Table: We’d meant for this chore to be shared equally, with the boys setting the table and the girls clearing every evening. But that never happened. Instead, what’s happened is that I ask whichever child happens to be around to set the table, hang the unfairness and griping. And everyone carries his or her plate to the kitchen after eating. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s better than nothing.
Garbage: Albus is supposed to sort the recycling, and carry the bins in from the curb on garbage day. That did not happen much over the summer, and I forgot to remind him about the bins when he got home from school yesterday. Yes, the thing about chores is, people need reminders until it becomes habit.
Breakfasts: We’re aiming for high protein breakfasts to get everyone off to a good start. Kevin is making a giant pitcher of smoothie in the morning: fruit, yogurt, kefir, almond milk. I’m also keeping boiled eggs in the fridge for breakfasts, lunches, or snacks.
Lunches: Albus and AppleApple have been packing their lunches for awhile now — it’s habit. Fooey decided to start this year too. She has been working on her “knife skills,” and can now slice up an apple like a pro. (On day one, the apple looked like it had been hacked apart with a hatchet.) I get the kids to write food requests on our grocery list, posted on the fridge. Anyone know where to find seaweed snacks for cheap? Everyone loves them!
Suppers: Our current routine involves me and Kevin texting back and forth around 3:30/4PM with meal ideas. Kevin can pick up ingredients on his way home. Obviously, these last-minute meals tend to be quick and easy. Last night we made pad thai with shrimp and tofu; it took us under an hour, and that was all we served, literally a vat of pad thai. Side note: Albus is excellent at making meal suggestions (that’s the hardest part of meal planning, IMO: trying to think up something different/healthy/appealing to feed everyone every single gosh-darn day). I also really like the Cookstr website for recipes, and I sign up for their weekly email newsletter, which is frequently inspiring.
Homework: This applies less to the younger kids, but Albus started high school this week, which comes with more homework and tests. He also gets home from school relatively early. I’m encouraging him to take the opportunity to do homework immediately on arriving home: grab a snack, sit at the dining room table, enjoy the quiet house. AppleApple sets her own daily/weekly/monthly homework schedule, and is diligent about making plans and sticking to them.
Exercise: I plan to continue running two mornings a week with friends, and doing one early morning boot camp, and one kundalini yoga class. I would love to swim one morning a week with AppleApple, but I’m not sure either of us can manage the early hour. I’d also like to run on the weekends and do a hot yoga class once a week. AND I’d like to start a mini running club with my kids (and any friends who would want to join), after school, running around our block in a 1-kilometre loop, so kids could decide individually how far they wanted to go. For this to happen, I will need to schedule times and dates.
In fact, for anything to happen, it must be scheduled. Inertia is a powerful force in our daily lives. Advance scheduling is the antidote. (I’m not against spontaneity, you understand; but the truth is that I’m far more likely to spontaneously watch a show on Netflix or scroll through my Twitter feed than I am to, say, go on a nature hike with my kids after school, or catch up on work-related emails, or grab two hours for myself to do yoga. You know? You know.)
And I’ve now spent well more than 15 minutes blogging … a spontaneous blogging spree. This will have to last a few days.
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