Things I’m liking this week …
morning bike rides
outdoor swim lessons
kids helping to clean up
the sound of the vacuum cleaner running (and me not running it)
getting caught in a downpour
letting the four-year-old ride her bike, with training wheels, to the grocery store (bonus: more room in the bike stroller for groceries)
corn on the cob from Herrles
catching a cat-nap
bedtime reading: The Hobbit
Things I’m not liking this week …
feeling more tired, being back with the kids all day
the noise, the noise!
struggling to find time for EVERYTHING
complaints about the service around here
Tired. So tired, Kevin and I could have laid in bed with the curtains drawn till suppertime. As it was, we managed to sleep till after 9, with the children (those who were also not sleeping) playing video games on the computer. We’ve canceled the cable.
Writing week ended with a steady, sure march of writing. Wednesday, hump day, was the least productive outwardly, but led me to switch directions entirely with one story. Thursday and Friday were spent writing this new story from scratch. Monday and Tuesday also brought forth a brand new story. Neither were planned and plotted, but emerged. There is no other way to describe the process. I had planned and plotted two very different stories. Instead, the characters took me where they needed to go. In both, I felt as though I were merely observing and recording, rather than inventing. It allowed me to go places I would never ordinarily let myself go; the first story is deeply sad. Oddly, neither is remotely autobiographical; I say oddly because the early material that began these stories was rooted in autobiography. It’s gradually shifted so entirely away from autobiography that it’s given me a more confident appreciation for fiction, and for the way that the shape and haunt of fictitious characters can make sense of life in a way that’s not accessible to us in real life.
I don’t need to experience these things for myself in order to write about characters who do. I just need to be open, and to pay attention.
I have one more story to write. It may take weeks or months, with so much less time to give to it. This writing week made me question whether three hours at a stretch is enough; I do not think I could have written either of these stories in piecemeal fashion. To get there and to live there took going underground, and staying. I’ve decided that parenting and story-writing don’t fit together terribly well. Parenting requires being on the surface, available at any moment–go ahead and write a blog, while simultaneously being the on-call parent, but don’t try to dive for the story underneath. The focus itself is exhausting. I would find myself needing to take mini-breaks, not to plot ahead, but to breathe, to rest my mind. Very brief mini-breaks, I might add; just a couple of minutes. Maybe the way some people run/walk a marathon. And by suppertime each day, I felt spent of originality and syntax and emotion.
At the conclusion of writing week, we went directly to Hillside Festival, dragging the kids with us; an annual event for the past three years.
The best year was the first, when CJ was an infant, and I sat in the shade and nursed him and listened to music while Kevin wandered around with the three other kids. We didn’t stay long, just as long as the happiness lasted.
Last year, we went for two full days, and it rained almost non-stop, and there was a thunderstorm of epic proportions that shut the place down temporarily. We slogged through but it didn’t feel super-fun, and definitely wasn’t relaxing.
So this year we decided to go just for one day–Saturday–buying our tickets in advance (as one should; it’s a popular festival). As chance would have it, we picked the day that it rained–not dreadful stormy rain like last year, but rain that persisted into the evening. Albus complained that there was nothing to do, though he was free to walk around with a friend–a new independence. As I sat in a puddle and listened to Jason Collette with appreciation, and looked around at all the other parents with kids, I thought, what isn’t working about this for our family? And I concluded that none of our kids is remotely interested in sitting and listening to the music. And it is a music festival. Additionally, the festival has lost its novelty for us. It’s too familiar.
Well, and then something frightening happened, late in the day, during the last set for which we’d planned to stay–we lost Fooey. Not for long, but for long enough to send us into a frantic panic, our friends hunting the festival grounds, me sprinting in bare feet to the security booth with CJ in my arms and screaming at the security guard who seemed not to be paying attention–apparently, in a crisis I do not turn into a pleasant and patient person. I am mother-who-is-going-to-scream-for-help-until-her-child-is-found. She was found. She was not missing for more than fifteen minutes, at most, and had wandered off on her own (though we did not know that at the time). The crowds are so thick, it is easy to lose sight of one, especially when herding four. Kevin and I were both shaken.
“I don’t think I can do this again,” said Kevin, as we slogged out in the dark through thick mud to our vehicle. That part went pretty well, all things considered; I’d expected the kids to be beside themselves, and they were quite humourous and in good and willing spirits. In retrospect, it might have been my favourite part of the whole day. CJ walked the entire distance from the festival grounds to the parking area–a good kilometre or more through grass and mud. In the dark. By the time we found our vehicle (it was foggy as well as dark, and there were no lights), we were disgusting. We did not care; isn’t that the beauty of spending the day outside, no matter the weather? We found a tap and washed ourselves, climbed into the vehicle and prayed that we’d find a way out of the mud-field.
My first response to Kevin was: well, we could come back next year with no kids. But the terror and shock of losing Fooey, even for such a brief amount of time, is now forefront in my memory of this year’s Hillside, and I’m not sure I want to go back next year either.
I’ll sit with it.
Today, I’ve done piles of laundry (the sun is shining). I’m attempting to make kimchi–get a girl fermenting and she won’t be stopped. And AppleApple helped me make cheese bread, which will be baking in the oven for supper any minute now. Evening menu: cheese bread, red beets, green salad with fruit, and steak (we grill just one; everyone gets a bit, and no one wants more than that).
After watching Fooey and CJ scrub the garage floor with rags this morning, Kevin concluded that our kids are happy with very little; perhaps even happier with little than more, or much, or too much. Just give them a “job,” or let them rearrange the living-room, and the day is a success.
I’m back at full-time parenting tomorrow. Wish me luck.
Fooey (to me): Were you alive 89 years ago? … Oh right, 89 years ago was when there was dinosaurs.
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?
I want to capture the flavour of our summer holiday so far. It’s been busy, but relaxing. We started with a camping trip, and the beach, experienced a couple nights of overnight camp (and for Kevin and me, experienced only having two children around–it was quieter, but the workload was not noticeably different, except that the younger ones missed the entertainment of the older ones). I enjoyed doing a long drive with the kids, and could imagine attempting something like that again–destination as yet unknown. Though it does go against my no-driving summer. Confession: We have done extremely poorly with that plan. Drove to camp, to beach, to camp, to home, to camp, all the while enjoying the air conditioning. For our Friday outing, we walked, but it’s not a huge accomplishment–the movie theatre is uptown. We saw Shrek Forever After, which was more entertaining than I anticipated–and the kids were awesome the entire time. Five kids, one parent, and no bathroom breaks, spilled drinks, or even excessive whining. Thank heavens, because I’d had a writing morning, and I am finding the transition between writing and parenting particularly challenging; translation: Mama’s been grumpy.
AppleApple had her soccer tournament this past week. We dragged out the whole family (some of them kicking and screaming) to the Saturday matches. I felt like a terrible parent, because honestly, folks, I squirmed the whole time she was playing. It’s a peculiar pain–mental anguish. Shouldn’t I be enjoying this, as a loving caring parent? Or maybe it’s that I care too much? In the second game, the ref called back a penalty kick on which AppleApple had just scored an amazing goal (he apparently had called an indirect penalty kick, but gave the children no direction or explanation about what that meant; he, of course, was just a kid himself, and looked pretty nervous; but it was a sad moment to see her beautiful goal called back). And I muttered to Kevin, I just can’t take this, and walked down to where my other three children were wrestling in the grass; but I couldn’t go far. I knew if something happened I’d want to be there for it. And sure enough, after a few deep breaths, I returned to the sidelines–and watched my red-haired fleet-footed daughter on a breakaway–and she scored. The only goal of the entire game, for either side. Now that was a moment worth being tortured for. (And it was a merciful high to end an otherwise losing tournament.) AppleApple cannot wait to go to skills camp this fall, and wants to play indoor soccer over the winter–she’s seen her own potential, and she’s excited to play more.
I must steel myself. How do other parents cope? I imagined being a family member of those young men playing in the World Cup final yesterday–standing on the sidelines, pacing, or unable to look.
That was Saturday. We ended with a marshmallow roast over the fire pit. This was a classic family event, following the classic arc, rising slowly to pleasant heights, and crashing steeply to the depths. That would be the classic tragic arc, but our event did not end in tragedy, just bathtime (which for some of us might just be considered a tragedy). We set up the fire pit, gathered drinks and stools and chairs, and sat around, fooled around, then out came the marshmallows and pointy roasting sticks, and the guitars (that was Albus’s idea). Kevin and I tried to coordinate our chording. I have rhythm, and he does not; he can play chords, and I cannot. We make a swell team. The neighbours must have been thrilled. But for a brief spell it felt like such a holiday, such a time away from ordinary: the smell of the campfire, the mellow sound of guitars, making up funny verses to songs. (“CJ is sticky,” was a popular line.)
And then CJ wanted to play “Dragon Warrior” and Albus had an itchy back, and the two of them were rolling around the grass, when calamity struck–or more accurately, CJ struck. With two mini-hockey-sticks. Two-year-olds. They don’t get boundaries. So that was that. I put down the guitar, plucked up the sticky two-year-old, confiscated the mini-sticks, and headed for the bath. Soon, everyone was in the bath/shower, watering can was applied to the fire, and it was bedtime. But Kevin and I stayed up late after the kids were asleep.
That’s been the story of our summer holiday so far. Kevin and I have been staying up late. The kids have been staying up late. We’ve had some fun; and we’ve had some abrupt end to the fun; we’ve been sticky, and we’ve gotten clean.
Help! I can’t write. I can’t think. It’s too hot. My butt is sticking to this giant exercise ball that I use as a desk chair. There are four (4) children in the house (Albus came home from camp along with AppleApple, but they both had a great time and are thinking about going back in August). There is also one (1) babysitter here, and one (1) neighbour girl who is reading and/or writing with Fooey and/or Albus. And I am upstairs sweating and unable to think clearly and having the smallest of panic attacks that I may never finish these three stories, that I am without talent or ambition; and then I take a deep breath and think, ‘k, but it’s hot. All I want to do is sip a shandy and lie under a palm tree and have somebody fan me (Kevin, honey, are you busy?).
Good thing all three of these stories are set in tropical locales. You’d think that would inspire me. Two hours remain. I can do this, right? Small goals: perhaps one paragraph and an outline? Perhaps one small scene? On a beach? By an ocean? With yoga? I want to put yoga into a story. This may be the day that I try.
Speaking of small goals, I must report that last week I did not quite fulfill my goal of two yoga classes and two runs/week; but I did manage two yoga classes on back-to-back days, plus one run, and felt good and fit. Started this week with one yoga class on Monday (it was packed, despite the heat), and went for one ripping good run yesterday evening after spending most of the day in the truck driving to and from camp, with children in tow. It was a long solo trip–the longest I’ve ever attempted, actually–and we had fun. Video players are wonderful inventions. But, man, did I need to run when I got home; it was like medicine. I had the words “Unbearable Lightness of Being” looping through my mind. I jogged slowly for the first half, then wondered what it would feel like to push myself faster and faster on the way home, and by the end I was burning it up. It reminded me of being a kid and running heedlessly, experimentally, for fun. It’s rare to take that opportunity as an adult. I realized that my usual runs are very light and gentle, pleasantly paced, and my breathing isn’t the least bit challenged; and that it feels very different to run hard and breathe hard. I wonder how long I could keep that pace up? (I’d estimate I ran hard for a little over 1 km). People run marathons in a kind of a sprint, don’t they? I can’t imagine how one would train for such a challenge.
Onto my own private marathon. It’s been a very very slow race. Patiently paced. Maybe what I need is a good hard sprint here at the end.