I stayed up late last night reading a book till the end. And then I got up with my alarm, early, and ran before the cars could take over the streets. It was still and quiet and not all that slippery, with a fresh dusting of snow falling, and a huge full moon.
But then I was tired, and napped after the kids left for school, and I couldn’t wake up for ages. Not recommended. I was dreaming about parenting — and it was clearly an anxiety dream. There are lots of subjects I don’t touch on this blog, for reasons of privacy. I’m not the only “character” in the stories I tell, and my kids, as they grow and change, may have their own opinions about how things are going down — their own interpretations. I remember how annoying it was when I would overhear my mom telling another mom a story about me — I would jump in to proclaim that wasn’t what I said, or not what I’d meant, missing the point that she was embellishing for effect or humour; missing the point, too, that the primacy of my point of view was questionable.
So I’m trying to remember that, now. The primacy of my point of view is questionable. I’ve got in my possession the stories of my children. But they’re not mine, not really. So as we stumble into different territory, as they grow into the more opinionated, complicated, autonomous people they are destined to become, I’m taking care — trying to, that is — not to pin them down according to my view of who they are. I’m training myself to let go, at least a bit. Or maybe a lot, at times.
Right now I’m struggling with something that sounds really basic. I want a certain kid to pick the dirty clothes off the floor and throw them into the laundry hamper in the hallway. I’ve been at this certain kid to do this for, well, weeks. I’ve forced myself not to pick up the clothes myself, letting them fester for days, which bothers me greatly, and bothers the kid not at all. Not at all. When we chat, I find myself bringing the conversation around, relentlessly, to the clothes on the floor. The clothes that seem to say so many things: this kid is over-privileged, hasn’t been given enough responsibility, fails to appreciate the efforts that sustain the well-being of all in this household, refuses to participate in the simplest chores; but mostly, I’ve realized, the clothes seem to say: I don’t care. I don’t care about your rules. I don’t care about you.
In other words, I’ve successfully turned a pile of dirty laundry into a metaphorical mountain of mothering guilt.
More precisely, I’ve turned the dirty clothes on the floor into an indictment of my own parenting, because if the kids are poorly trained at household chores, it’s my doing, not theirs. My anxiety is the lens through which I see the scene: I haven’t taught them right, I’m not moulding them into respectful, hygienic, thoughtful human beings, I’ve spoiled them, and the proof is right there festering away on the floor! And … and … (here’s the greatest anxiety of all) … I’m running out time.
My kids are growing so quickly, changing before my very eyes, growing away from me. Am I doing enough? When they’re unleashed on the world, will they be the kind of people who notice what other people need, who care, who offer to do the dishes, who look out for friends in trouble, who look out for themselves, too, and treat themselves with kindness and compassion, and floss and do yoga? You know what I mean?
This was totally not what I sat down to write this morning.
But parenting. It’s such an enormous responsibility and yet ultimately I feel kind of helpless, so utterly human and fallible as I go about the daily tasks and interactions. I feel sometimes like maybe there’s an ideal parenting script out there in the ether, with perfect words that I’ll never quite manage to speak, at the right time, or in the right amounts.
The thing that keeps me hopeful is that I love my kids, and they know it.
This morning, upon waking from the nap and the anxiety dream, I decided I wouldn’t mention the dirty clothes to said kid again, at least for awhile. I’d like to talk about other things, together. I’d like to let go of what matters to me, just a little bit. Maybe if I can, I will understand better what matters to the kid. Let me listen. Let me listen.
I’m in a pre-holiday panic, characterized by a sense of paralysis as the lists in my head get jumbled and I can’t remember who needs what and when and where and why, and how it will all get done I do not know. At least I slept well last night. I woke looking like I’d swallowed a giant salt tablet, which I kind of did, given my new love of all things brined and fermented. Have you tried a real brined pickle, tangy from fermentation rather than vinegar? I’m now attempting to brine a rutabaga because it was the only brine-able vegetable I could find in the fridge last night. You might not think brining random root vegetables at 10:30PM the wisest use of my time, given the panic mode, but that is the truth of panic-mode. We’re not the wisest at 10:30PM.
Yesterday. Oh boy. Kettlebells and spin, and forgot my running shoes, so had to borrow a pair, which didn’t really fit, so I ended up going barefoot. Brief nap interrupted by dogs howling. Sleepy daughter needed a late breakfast, had to be forced to do her homework, had to be driven to school around lunchtime. I grudgingly ate lunch (it wastes so much time!). Before I knew it, it was meet-the-bus time. Walk home together time. Make an early supper time. Try to force sleepy swim daughter to do more homework time. Then we were off to swim lessons. Last one of the season for CJ, who didn’t pass, as I knew he would not, having observed his progress in the pool. He’s improved enormously, but he can’t figure out his kick, and lies there floating atop the water, legs churning with energetic futility, propelling him literally not an inch.
As we stood in the change room, me trying to towel off his wet legs, him howling that I was torturing him with the towelling of the wet legs, I thought, yup, this is torture alright. I’m crouched in a germ-ridden change room with a melodramatic five-year-old and my book is at home not getting written!
At home, we ate the soup I’d made earlier. Too many veggies, according to one child. Too spicy, according to another.
Then the soccer lad and I walked to the library to pick up the carshare car, and headed to his last house league game of the season. They won! And he scored! It was a fun game. I enjoyed the conversation that accompanied our outing, too. I was so grumpy as we walked to library, growling at every little thing that wasn’t just perfect in the world around me (lousy drivers nearly running us over in the crosswalk, lousy fellow sidewalk walkers cruising two abreast as if expecting us to jump into the snowbank in deference to their passage, etc.) I suddenly heard myself, bitching about everything, and wondered out loud whether really good people (like Nelson Mandela, I said) did this. Were they grumpy out loud? Did they complain about other people in such a petty terms? Surely not. Albus figured that really good people kept it to themselves. Maybe they let off steam in private. But they didn’t say mean things in public.
How do you let off steam, I wondered? Albus figured it was different for everyone. He wasn’t sure how he let off steam. Come to think of it, neither was I, only that on certain days, due to certain circumstances, I was more likely to be grumpy and intolerant and judgemental. Like yesterday. Stretched too thin, to pull my word of the year into the conversation.
After soccer, we parked the carshare car at the library and walked, shivering in the Arctic breeze, to the grocery store to check the last to-do of the day off the list (brining rutabagas wasn’t actually on the list, in fact). We had fun dashing down the aisles, as we always seem to, and were the second-to-last customers in the whole store. Albus has discovered my weak spot, which is anything with a bargain sticker on it: therefore, he talked me into getting him a tray of sushi for a bedtime snack, half-price. I texted Kev, who drove over to pick us up. What did we do before texting? Psychic means weren’t nearly so reliable. And then I ate the last pickle and brined the rutabaga and ate two more bowls of soup, plus a grapefruit, plus had a cup of tea with Kev, then tried to read in bed, until I discovered myself reading with my eyes closed, which never works. I try it every night, and it never ever works.
And now I’m sitting here wondering about presents un-bought, and when to schedule in time to go seek them out, and food-ordering, and how it will all fit together, and how I can leave the book behind for a few days, so as not to torment myself with the fact that I’m not working on it, and instead enjoy the holidays, and family, because the holidays don’t come often, and occasions for togetherness don’t come often either.
How can I set aside this unfinished work? I’m breathing its air.
Alice Munro was recently quoted in an interview saying this: When you’re a writer, you’re never quite like other people — you’re doing a job that other people don’t know you’re doing and you can’t talk about it, really, and you’re just always finding your way in the secret world and then you’re doing something else in the “normal” world.
It’s true. You can’t talk about it. It’s not that people aren’t willing to listen, it’s that it’s impossible to talk about. The secret world is paper-thin, full of holes, peopled with shadows and questions and puzzles and blazing pictures. It doesn’t all fit together, and this is impossible to explain too. That the work carries from project to project, never finished, never solved. It’s the never-ending-ness that causes enormous anxiety, which in turn fuels the work. You’re always trying to pull it together, as a writer, and failing, and it’s the failure that keeps you at it. To fail is to recognize what yet could be. How to talk about that?
Dark. Fresh snow. 6:30 in the morning.
Ready to go! Lists made, lists checked and double-checked. Bags packed.
Parking lot. Big bus. Forty swim kids waiting to board. Excitement. Frigid wind.
Headed for Ottawa for the big meet. Without me.
Excited for her. Really, deeply, truly excited for her.
But a bit bereft.
the box, in its early stages
I made a mistake last night.
AppleApple’s completed project on “the history of women in the Olympics” sat on our dining-room table, ready to be hauled in to school today. I saw an empty spot on the box (she designed the visual project using a large cardboard box with doors that open to reveal photos of athletes, with blurbs about their accomplishments). I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be the perfect tribute to fill that empty spot with a photo of the project’s author, on the soccer field, with a little blurb in the style of the blurbs she’d written about the other athletes? So I took it upon myself to do this, even though it was really late at night, and I was really tired, and in no way had the child herself asked me to.
This was my blurb: “AppleApple’s name, b. 2002. Swimmer, soccer player, runner. Aspiring Olympic athlete. Dreaming of representing Team Canada at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.”
She walked in from swimming this morning, 7:30AM, saw her box in the dim light of day, and freaked out. “What did you do to my project?” she wailed. To say that she didn’t like my addition would be a serious understatement. She was in tears. She couldn’t explain why. (Was it because I was putting undue pressure on her to become an Olympic athlete — not my intention? No! It wasn’t that! she told me in a very irritated tone.) Carefully, I peeled off the photo and blurb, apologizing sincerely, and sincerely wondering at myself for trying so hard and getting it so wrong.
“Realism and kindness are your hallmarks,” my mom texted me this morning, on a separate subject altogether. I appreciate her encouragement.
It seems not to apply in this instance at all. That probably makes me doubly appreciative.
I would like to think that some of the time it’s true to my character.
This morning, I was re-reading blog posts from this time last year. Much sounds the same: swim meets, soccer, busy, busy, busy. But there’s one main difference. I was writing. I was writing a draft of Girl Runner, in fact. Happiness shone out of my words. This is what those blog posts told me: I am happiest when I’m writing.
This fall has been hard because I’ve been missing my writing. It’s as simple as that. I’ll get back to it soon. It’s as simple as that, too.
Picture this guy, minus the helmet, in pajamas, tucked into my bed to read stories, which we’ve just finished. Here is the conversation that follows.
“What can we talk about now, Mommy?”
“How about bedtime?”
“Let’s talk about your face.”
“My face? It’s a pretty ordinary face. It’s got two eyes, a nose, a mouth, a chin …”
“And! It has stripes.”
“Here, on your forehead. And here, on your neck.”
“Stripes, huh.”(Can’t stop laughing.)
“Now let’s talk about your head.”
“Do we have to?”
“You have a very fat head.”
“I don’t think that’s accurate.”
“I mean, it’s round.”
“Now let’s talk about your pillow.”
“Let’s talk about your pillow. Your pillow is soft, and cozy, and warm, and you can lay your head down and go right to sleep.”
“Carry me.” (Arms out.)
It’s a pattern. Every Friday morning this fall, I sleep in (ie. not up at 5AM), yet can barely drag myself out of bed. I eat breakfast, start the laundry, see the children out the door, and struggle to be otherwise productive at anything. The cup of coffee doesn’t seem to help.
Thursday evenings I teach. Friday mornings I’m drained. I think it might be as simple as that. But frustrating, too, because there is so much about teaching that I’ve enjoyed this fall. It’s gone how I’d hoped it would go. I’m accomplishing what I’d hoped to accomplish. So how to explain my body’s reponse to the job?
I’m going to go out on a limb and self-diagnose as introvert.
A long day of writing leaves me pop-eyed and twitching. Manic, you might say. Or, energized. Three hours of teaching leaves me jelly-noodled, spine sunken like a comma. Bloodless, you might say. Glazed. Is this how other teachers feel?
This sounds like an extended complaint. I’m not meaning to complain, only to observe.
I don’t think teaching naturally drains everyone. I’m sure of it. Kevin comes home from teaching buzzing with good energy. I wish that were me. My students are terrific, interesting, thoughtful, hard-working, open-minded, and a pleasure to share ideas with.
So, yes. I do feel frustrated by myself. It’s not that I’m shy. It’s not hard for me to talk to people. But it may be that I’m introverted, and draw my energy from being alone. Any thoughts on this, from introverts or extroverts alike?
Two more things. Okay, could be more than two, but I’ll keep it to two in this section of the post. We’ll call this the newsy section.
1. I did an interview about style for BLUEPRINT, a student-run magazine at Wilfrid Laurier. I liked the questions, and I liked thinking of myself as actually having and even cultivating style. (Long-time friends, please don’t laugh.) You can read the interview here.
2. I’m hearing rumour that the latest QUILL & QUIRE magazine has a blurb about the success of Girl Runner at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Kevin’s promised to pick me up a copy on the way home. (Quill & Quire is Canada’s publishing industry magazine.) Couldn’t find a link.
Final section of Friday’s blog post. This will be the philosophical section wherein I write about an idea that is only half-formed, as bloggers are wont to do. The idea is about work.
Work is a word that I’m beginning to realize has enormous value in my mind. But I define it in very narrow terms. Work is writing. Period. Everything else gets filed under other categories, somehow. This happens unconsciously, and I’ve only just realized that I do it.
Here are some of my (unconciously formed) categories, which all go into the big filing cabinet of LIFE.
Parenting/pleasure. Family. Marriage. Hobbies. Recreation. Obligation. Chores. Cooking and baking. Reading. Friends. And, of course, Work.
Parenting/pleasure encompasses all the things I do for and with my kids. Of course these things have to be done, but they don’t feel like obligations. That’s why I add the word pleasure to the file.
Family is a broader category and includes my wider family systems.
Hobbies. I think that’s exercise, for me. It seems to occupy the space that a hobby would. It’s quite time-consuming, and I’m devoted to it for no reason other than I love doing it. Photography fits in here. Blogging, too.
Recreation is anything done in the spirit of pure play.
Obligation is job-jobs. Things I do to earn money. There’s a bit of cross-over here between other categories, and it includes promotional work for my writing life. It isn’t all a grind, and I don’t mind doing it, but nevertheless these are jobs that must be done rather than jobs I would choose to do. These jobs don’t seem to count in my mind as work, no matter the financial value attached to them.
Chores. Also obvious. That overflowing laundry basket on the table behind me right now, for instance.
Cooking and baking. I enjoy doing this too much to call it a chore, and yet it isn’t a hobby either, seeing as feeding everyone is a daily necessity.
Reading. This gets a category all to itself. It comes close to work, in my mind, obviously in a good way.
Friends. Maintaining relationships, trying to keep them fed and nurtured, far and near, in-person and via social media.
And finally, work. As I type out this half-formed idea, I realize that work is a constant, even if I’m not at my desk. I’m feeding my working life, and my writing, by being in the world, by parenting, by playing, by running and reading, by all of it. So work is both a precious and guarded particular part of my life (writing), and work is all of it, all the time, always.
End of idea.
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