Keeping up with basic chores is pretty much overwhelming me. I’ll admit it. I read in a Macleans article that a family needs two full days/week of domestic labour in order to keep the household running. With me working more, we’re not even coming close. The house is in a constant state of crumb & clutter disarray. So I’ve been trying to use at least a few hours every weekend to tackle some corner or manageable project. Last Sunday it was: everyone gets fresh bedding! (With five beds, three of them upper bunks, that is no pleasant undertaking.) Today it was: haul the vacuum upstairs!
We’re reasonably good at crisis cleaning, as in: someone’s coming over so let’s take the vacuum for a spin around the kitchen/dining-room/living-room, and forget the rest of the place because no one’s going to see it anyway. It may have been months since our upstairs had been visited by the vacuum. And of course in order to vacuum, first I had to pick all the crap up off the floor and put it somewhere, preferably where it belonged.
I realize this should have been a job assigned to my children. Their rooms were the problem. I know that. And they’ve “tidied” occasionally. A superficial tidy occurred last weekend in advance of their grandmother coming to stay. But today they were all off to friends’ houses. And it just needed to get done. So I did it. And here’s what I found: Little kids’ room: passable, and every toy has a place. Albus’s room: easy, mostly Lego and books on the floor. AppleApple’s room: UNMITIGATED DISASTER ZONE.
Not surprisingly, my most creative child has the most unbelievably messy room. I mean, honestly, there were pins, staples, hair bands, beads, fabric, ribbons, scissors, cardboard, cut paper, thread, Lego, paper scraps filled with tiny handwriting, glass bottles filled with unidentifiable liquids, and on and on and on. It was like a window into her wild mind. For example, I give you “FroggieWorld,” which looks to the uneducated eye to be a shelf cluttered with cardboard tubing, string and cloth swinging from chopsticks, scraps taped together, and vessels filled with water and rocks: a complete mess, right? I chose not to touch it. It was contained on a shelf, and besides, I knew it to be FroggieWorld because she’d given me the tour. She’s devoted many happy hours to its creation.
I devoted a rather unhappy hour to clearing her floor from end to end, before vacuuming could begin. And I love her to bits. But I’m wondering, will she ever be able to organize herself? How much of what we accomplish happens because we’re able to stay on task, to prioritize, to keep what we’re working on boxed into separate tidy containers — literally and figuratively? It got me wondering, again, how organized I really am. And how much more organized I need to be in order to compartmentalize different aspects of my writing work into different sections of the work day, so that I can, say, answer emails here, write blogs here, process photos here, and write books here. What to do with a head full of “good” ideas? How to pin down the ones that can realistically be pursued and completed? How to stay on track? How to make FroggieWorld, and sew Sock Puppies, and keep a regular journal, and a story-writing journal, and invent a Harry Potter game, and take notes on ancient Athenians, and read French books, and and and … voila, messy room! My version includes: The Big Fat Juicy Belly Worm; photo projects; Obscure CanLit Mama; recording more Juliet songs; an idea for a novel titled The Runner; an idea for another novel told from the viewpoint to four different characters; an idea for yet another novel about a spy … and, and, and … voila, messy room.
My brother Los at his studio
It’s only been a day, but I’ve missed tapping away at my blog. Yesterday, I had a sick kid home and was operating on interrupted sleep. In the afternoon, I looked after an extra child. There were piano lessons. Supper was prepped and eaten somewhere in there. I can’t recall having lunch.
This week at Tuesday evening gym-time soccer (remember that?) I only had one extra child, so I took along my notebook and desk calendar and got busy. Topic: TIME ALLOTMENT. A friend had sent me a useful article earlier in the day (skimmed on my BB during swim lessons) that made me ask: How am I choosing to spend my hours? What if this crazy squeezed schedule is not a blip, but the new norm? If that happens to be the case, I need to set some boundaries and get some organizational strategies in order. Case in point: zero time this week for The Big Fat Juicy Belly Worm. Which I happen to think is an exciting project on which I should be spending some significant proportion of my writing time.
Do I still have writing time? Or is it all getting lumped into “work,” with writing getting lost amidst the jumble.
So I sat in the noisy gym and made a list. Partly, I attempted to understand how much time I’m spending on Facebook, Twitter and email, and how much these are interrupting my work versus being useful tools. I also attempted to get a grasp on my projects currently underway, and which are one-offs versus those that are ongoing. I consider my blog ongoing. I don’t write it because I have to write it. I write it because I want to write it, and it’s now part of my writing life. Ergo, time for blogging/photos-related-to-blogging ideally happens every day.
Same with the long-term book projects, like The Big Fat Juicy Belly Worm. Every day work. If not every day, then two full days a week set aside to work on it.
That’s a lot of time. Yesterday slipped away without doing either of the above long-term projects. Instead, I played and sang in preparation for this morning’s studio session, and I ticked items off my to-do list. One-off items, you might say. Useful, but there was no time for anything else.
Today feels much the same, if for different reasons. Necessary errands. And studio time. And now school is almost out and children will be coming home, and supper needs to be made, plus several phone calls, and there’s soccer tonight, and I’ve got an event to attend this evening at which I will attempt to look professional and not in the least bit scrambled. Good luck, Mama. Or, more like it: breathe, Mama. Breathe. Breathe.
I got this advent calendar several years ago from Ten Thousand Villages.
I wanted to mark the days of advent without the excess of, say, the Star Wars Lego advent calendar. (Not all of my children agree, and in fact last year we had both this calendar and the Lego calendar, which is the most secular calendar you can hope to find: last year’s version had Santa in what looked to be a Speedo taking a shower. Not even kidding. This year’s, according to those in the know, ie. my ten-year-old, features some kind of car chase or bank robbery. Just the thing to get you into the seasonal spirit.) However, who am I to talk? The advent calendar pictured above has been, for the past couple of years, nothing more than a repository for a daily dose of candy. Something small and sweet. I didn’t have the energy to fill the little pockets with thoughtful activities, despite having greater intentions. I just didn’t. So, candy it was. And Speedo Lego Santa.
This year I discovered a new cache of energy and resolve. And I started early, BEFORE advent season (ie. last week). I think the energy comes from this new office, and from having every weekday morning to myself. Have I mentioned how lovely these quiet mornings are? Five mornings a week! Sometimes I write, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I dream up advent calendar activities for my children. It feels decadent.
And it may be decadent; but then again, maybe not. This is a larger question for a very different blog. In any case, this year, with these quiet peaceful spacious mornings to myself, yes, those little pockets pictured above are filled with activities. One per day. I have extra ideas stashed. I didn’t want to overload my every day with a mandatory activity that I would be unable to pull off. So right now a few of those pockets have “hot chocolate for breakfast” as my fall-back option. That I can manage; if it turns out I can manage more, I’ll make a swap.
My activities spring from a larger theme of celebration and anticipation, and not so much (I’m afraid) from a theme of giving and community. Visit my friend Rebecca’s blog for more community-minded advent activities: she has some terrific ideas.
Here are mine:
– Hot chocolate for breakfast!
– Bring down Christmas books and CDs from the attic (Which we did today! Hurray!)
– Candy canes!
– Put up the Christmas tree!!!!
– Set up the creche
– Celebrate last swim lessons with ice cream
– Make snowflakes for front window
– Write Christmas letters to Santa
– Pizza and movie night (Christmas-themed movie)
– Write family Christmas letter to send
– Plan and make homemade gifts for each other
– Everyone wear green and red
– Look at old photo albums
– Christmas concert/singalong (at home)
– Make Christmas cookies + gifts for aunts, uncles, grandparents
– Deliver Christmas treats to friends and neighbours
– Pick up Christmas turkey and plan menu for special Christmas meals: everyone choose a favourite food!
– Christmas cookies for breakfast!
– Read The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
– Celebrate winter solstice: eat supper by candlelight!
– Grandpa Arnold’s Christmas party
– Hang stockings + Christmas eve party
(Why the random exclamation points, Carrie? Your copy editor would not stand for this!)
Extra ideas, not currently in pockets
– Volunteer (ideas, anyone?)
– Decorate a tree for the birds
– Make popcorn and cranberry strings
– Skating at the rink uptown
– Make decorations for the tree
– Night hike with hot chocolate
– Sledding (oh, let it snow, please!)
– Family games night
– Bowling (we’ve never tried this, but who knows?)
– Family art night
– Dance party
Am I organized?
I could claim to be. I don’t drop the ball on too many things. Library books are almost always renewed or returned on time. I check the kids’ backpacks and agendas every night before bed. Each child has a file folder for projects that are keepers. I know where my chequebook is. I write down reminders on my desk datebook, on the big calendar by the telephone, in the google calendar I share with Kevin, and the weekly family schedule you see on the chalkboard above is currently accurate.
I also keep several stacks of paper on the kitchen counter. The one beside the toaster is current-and-important. It contains information like this: “On Wednesday, your child needs to bring in materials for a science project. The list of materials is written in your child’s agenda. Please inform the teacher if you need help finding any of these materials.” Message sent home well in advance to assist parents in finding materials and asking for help. Great. Thanks, school. I’ll just put the message into my current-and-important messages pile. And then I’ll forget its existence. And then I’ll find it, when looking for something else, on Tuesday night. “What? You need six jagged rocks? For tomorrow??” Child puts on coat: “I’ll just go look in the back yard.” “It’s two degress and pitch black. How are you going to find anything?” Etc. There goes half an hour and bedtime is deferred and the dishes still aren’t done.
On the same stretch of counter, I have a second pile of papers stacked beside the radio. Because one pile is not enough. This is my to-be-filed pile. When it gets so tall that it blocks the electrical outlet things get filed. Some stuff goes into a shoebox in which I store my special keepsakes. I have five shoeboxes in the basement, stacked on top of a filing cabinet. I never look in those shoeboxes, or that filing cabinet. But they’re full of special keepsake memories.
In my office, stored out of sight, I have a plastic container to keep Juliet-related papers and documents. So far, so good. I have another container in which to keep copies of articles I’ve published. Not bad. But it occurs to me that no articles published online are in there. I never print them for my records. Should I? Additionally, my current-projects-and-ideas add up to yet another stack. I want to keep it visible because otherwise it gets forgotten. But it looks messy.
How to keep the minutiae contained yet accessible?
In our front hall stands an Ikea unit with bins for seasonal accessories. This is an example of good organization, if only I could convince the kids to return their seasonal accessories — yes, I’m talking about you, mittens! — to their bins. The unit also has file folders screwed to the side, and a key basket on top. The file folders have over the years organized themselves thusly: Top file is Kevin’s papers. He periodically empties his folder into another folder. Middle folder is take-out menus and letters from charities I intend to donate to. Bottom folder is info on upcoming school trips. Except I’ve started hanging that info on the fridge using a handy clip magnet. So the papers remaining in that folder are completely out of date. I should empty it.
Just think what it could hold.
I am swimming in a sea of papers and dates and out-of-dates.
In my head, I am calmly and steadily working my way through each section of the house, each pile, each shelf, each drawer, each box in the attic, and I am making sense of it all. I am throwing out and giving away and cleaning and recycling and we only have what we need. Only that.
In reality, I can barely get the dishes done before bed, and my kid is hunting for jagged rocks in the dark back yard. You know?
Yesterday, I got a taste of summer. A whiff. A tingle of this is summer. (See above).
Today, I am getting prepared. There are four more days of school, and then we shall hurtle headlong into the beach, overnight camp, strawberry picking, food preservation, swimming, and a multitude of mini-adventures … such is the hope.
So, I started today in the kitchen (can I return happily to the kitchen after losing all interest this past month? Well, I can try). I baked a batch of bread; didn’t take long, actually. I did dishes. The living-room is moderately tidy. Piles of papers have been sorted and recycled (more remain; and more are on their way home from school, no doubt).
AppleApple helped me make a giant (messy) poster of ideas for summer activities: our categories are Plans (dates for things we’ve already signed up for); Away (ie. zoo, beach, Children’s Museum); and At Home (ie. canning and freezing, making magazines/comics, playing with friends).
Kevin is in the middle of painting us a chalkboard wall: for messages, reminders, planning, and scribbles. Photos to come. (Inspired by this friend).
I am defrosting the freezers. One down, two to go.
And the kids have spent hours together in the backyard, even though it isn’t particularly warm or sunny out. The sidewalk is being chalked. A rung on the climber has been broken. The potatoes are thriving. Wouldn’t it be great to have a treehouse? A trampoline? Another tier of garden beds? Chickens? A dog? I’m looking around and seeing lots of potential.
Sometimes it’s the smallest of changes that make room for a happier daily life; it’s also easy to forget the small changes, and assume that life has always been just like this. But as I puttered around my kitchen this morning, in the pre-dawn, I realized, no, life has not always been just like this. This would have seemed unthinkable a year ago. What’s changed?
1. Sunday night scheduling. Sounds dull. But how incredibly helpful it is to sit down with Kevin and discuss what’s on the menu (literally and figuratively) for the week ahead. I jot down meal ideas for each day. We plot out car use, and any blips in the routine. No longer am I stuck for meal ideas. And we find or make extra time.
2. Exercise. Guess what I do with my extra time? Some of it is spent going to yoga, or running. I am currently holding steady at two 90-minute yoga classes each week, and two 6-8km runs. This would be unthinkable were it not for advance planning. And because it’s scheduled out, I’m much less likely to skip the chance to go, knowing what I’d be sacrificing.
3. Date night. Part of our problem, typical of partners working and raising young children, is that we are often like two ships passing in the night (is that the phrase?). Kevin plays hockey and soccer, both fairly late at night. My yoga classes are over the supper hour, so on those days, he runs in the door, and I run out. I also schedule evening outings, occasionally, with my siblings, and, about once a week, with friends. So when do we get together to be ourselves and not just to talk about schedules and kids? Earlier this fall, we began booking a regular sitter, and committed to taking one evening a week just for the two of us. Marriage is for the long-haul. We need to stay connected beyond schedules and kids, because before we know it, it will just be the two of us rattling around our house, reminiscing about these crazy busy days.
4. Getting out of the house. This could have come first, actually. It’s a huge change for me, not really a small one. During my early years of motherhood, I was a hard-core stay-at-home mama. I could go months without leaving the kids for an evening (and, no, that is not an exaggeration). I wanted to do it all myself. I loved that time with them and did not resent it. But this new stage is good, too. I think the rule of thumb is: to thine own self be true. And know that part of being true is recognizing shifts and changes within one’s own self, as they happen. The kids have become so accustomed to me getting out of the house, without them, that it’s old hat. I kiss them goodbye, and they know and trust that I will come back. No drama. No fuss. (And no, it wasn’t always like that; and all the fuss and crying and drama made it so much harder to get out).
5. Nursery school. As a hard-core-stay-at-homer, I didn’t even consider nursery school for my oldest kids. I provided them with crafts, puzzles, baking projects, singing, playdates, regular trips to the library, park, Children’s museum, and swimming at the rec centre. But after eight years, or so, I was growing weary. I realized my interest and enthusiasm were flagging. Those two youngest were not getting the enriched childhood they deserved. Almost exactly a year ago, I landed on the idea of nursery school. It was a HUGE leap for me. CJ started a year ago in January, one morning a week, which by April I’d upped to two mornings. And this September, I cheerfully threw him into three mornings a week. I would consider sending him daily next September when Fooey heads off to first grade. (She’s also gotten to tag along to the nursery school experience, going every other Friday when she’s not at kindergarten). And here’s the thing: CJ loves it. I’m not saying the older kids were deprived. But I would be the last to judge or criticize either version of early childhood: either/both can work.
6. Spirit. My word for this year. Bless that word. I don’t know whether I would have necessarily turned down experiences were it not for that word (turning down experiences is not in my nature), but I may not have sought out so many experiences related to the spirit. I don’t know why I need permission or nudging to move me in certain directions. Maybe I don’t. But I like having projects. Especially projects that spread over a long period of time, and require regular attention. The 365-project falls into that category. As I approach this solstice season, and Christmas, and my birthday, and the coming new year, I want to take time to reflect on the projects ahead: small and big, new and old. What word will come to define this year?
7. Confidence. As I walked past my own reflection in storefront windows yesterday evening, I realized my self looked unfamiliar to me: older, probably. I looked like a grownup woman, occupied, on her way somewhere. And I thought to myself, how interesting that as I grow older, I am becoming more and more known to myself on the inside, while on the outside, I know myself less and less. Maybe that isn’t entirely true, given the 365-project. Or maybe it’s just this: the outside seems to matter less. I’d like to believe that who I am shines through, and always will, no matter how much I change on the outside.
8. Portfolios. One last small change. This brilliant, brilliant, brilliant idea, which I may have mentioned before, came from friends of ours, who split up the household tasks, and call them “portfolios.” Bathroom cleaning would be an example of a portfolio. Dentist. School lunches. Kevin has taken over those last two portfolios, and what a difference it’s made in my life (and maybe in his, too).
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