“There’s a big white flower behind one of the stumps, Mom, I’ll show you.”
Dream: I am at a long conference table set up in my mother-in-law’s back porch. Two women sit at the other end of the table, conducting an interview about art for live national radio, but I’m just here because it’s a convenient place to work. Earlier in the dream I spent way too much time anxiously trying to figure out why my children missed the school bus; the children are everywhere, all around the house, when I know they should be in school. So I’m sitting here, trying not to be too obvious or interrupt the interview, trying to work. I think that my work is writing, but when I look down, it turns out that my work is chopping potatoes. End of dream.
Things I’ve done since 5:30AM yesterday: ran with a friend, helped children practice violin and piano, made supper in the crockpot, washed three loads of laundry, meditated twice, blogged, edited an essay, answered emails, texted with friends and family, picked up and dropped off kids for piano lessons, worked on novel while sitting in car between pick-ups/drop-offs, visited with a friend while at piano lessons, attended a soccer coaching clinic, had tea with husband (talking soccer, hockey, and Fun Things We Want To Do), read books and newspaper, listened to radio (news and songs), slept, did strength exercises. Waited. Hurried. Tried not to fight with time.
I think of time in blocks and chunks and sections. I think of myself as travelling between these blocks and chunks and sections and trying to negotiate the transitions as smoothly as possible, trying to settle in wherever I’m at and not resist what’s happening. But sometimes it feels like what I’m resisting is time itself. These chunks of time, this careful measuring of hours and minutes, calculating these small openings and anticipating these sudden slammings-shut gives me a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency is very helpful when working to complete a big project. But to enjoy being alive, to relish it, savour it, swim with it, you need to be flexible, you need to let go of the sense of urgency in the moments when urgency would only serve to make you anxious or frustrated.
Because life is full of many many tasks and events and rituals that are long slow dreamy, unrelenting, without obvious beginnings or endings, mundane, repetitive, completely necessary, or completely unnecessary, often lovely — not projects. Not artifacts. Just unmarked rivering moments in the flow of time. If there’s a balance I seek, perhaps it’s between these two states of being: the urgent efficient ambitious project-driven state of creating something new; and the flow of life as it unwinds through its time, through its here and now, and being here, present and without the need to make anything of it.
Yesterday on birthday eve: still 6 years old. Count ’em.
A big day here at our house: the baby of our family is seven years old! He requested a “soccer party,” so we’ve accommodated with indoor field time and friends invited this evening. It was one of his few requests. Last week, he tried to compile a birthday wish list. He carefully numbered a lined piece of paper with 1. 2. 3. 4. and so on all the way to about 20., then started to fill in the blanks. Sometime thereafter I discovered him moaning and groaning in the kitchen, staring at his wish list, stabbing at it with a pencil, tearing his hair out. “What’s happening here?” I asked. “I can’t think of anything else that I want!” he cried. He had written down one item at the top of the list. Soccer stickers. “Don’t worry about it,” I suggested. So he didn’t. And this morning he opened his very few, very modest, almost exclusively soccer-related gifts this morning (including stickers), and he appeared to be thrilled.
Also on birthday eve: CJ inexplicably poses with mini-stick and Suzi-dog, while balancing on one leg.
We’ve been reminiscing about the morning of his birth. He was born at home, but only Kevin and I were here. The other kids were away overnight with Grandma Linda and Grandma Alice. We called them to share the news. They had three questions: boy or girl? name? and does he have red hair? We said, yes, he has red hair. Ha! We continued to look for evidence of red hair for the next several months, until we finally realized that no, this one was different.
Fooey looks through photo albums: these were taken that summer when she and CJ went to dance camp together, and CJ was the only boy.
This morning I observed that if I’d only had one child, I would have thought I was very good at training children to fall asleep. Albus was a champion napper and sleeper. Then AppleApple turned up and wrecked those illusions. And if I’d only had two children, I would have thought I was very good at giving birth on my due date. Both A & A were born exactly on time. But then Fooey arrived 15 days early (and CJ further blew the illusion of control and showed up 10 days late). And if I’d only had three children, I would have thought we could only produce red haired offspring. But then CJ arrived and proved that, basically, there can be no assumptions in parenthood.
They are who they are. And he really is who he is. Wonderfully so.
On birthday morning. Seven years old.
We all love him, just as he is. Seven years old. Isn’t that a great age!
PS He’s going to let me cut his hair on May 3rd. Why May 3rd, you may ask? Because, he will tell you, his outdoor soccer season starts on May 4th.
New games room/study/parent-free zone.
I think my body needed a holiday. From Wednesday, March 11 until Sunday, March 22, I slept in every morning. And with the exception of a very fun welcome-back-to-health family soccer game on Friday afternoon, I did not exercise. This morning, I’m back to the usual schedule, up early, etc. I was happy to be back this morning, but also happy to have taken time off. (Although next time, I should just take a holiday and skip the getting sick part.)
Games room. Kevin even painted! No more stripes.
My energy returned with a roar over the past few days, and we did a massive spring cleaning, rearranged rooms, and opened up new space for the kids to make their own. We’ve got six people in a four-bedroom house. Not everyone can have his or her own room. Them’s the facts. We also don’t have the money or the desire to renovate in order to add more space. People have to share. If we weren’t living a life of ridiculous North American privilege, we wouldn’t even question the sharing of the rooms. You suspect that you’re hearing a version of my lecture to the kids right now, aren’t you. Why, yes, yes you are.
Boys’ room. This is as tidy as it’s ever gonna get.
The main problem is that three of the four kids strongly want(ed) their own room. The fourth kid was like a refugee being moved from fiefdom to fiefdom, grudgingly granted space to pitch his tent, but essentially unwanted. But we’re not a household of kingdoms or mini-nations, we’re more like a socialist democracy. Okay, without the elections. Basically, we have to share the resources in a way that benefits everyone, and privileges no one.
Girls’ room. With bed sheet divider.
So the dictator’s solution (yeah, that’s me), was to make everyone share, and free up one bedroom as a communal games area/study/parent-free zone. Although I’d really prefer if they didn’t eat chips in there. Unless they want to clean it themselves. In that case, eat all the chips you want, kids. I’m not an unreasonable dictator.
Yeah, so I had to get back to my regular schedule, lest in my renewed energetic state, I move us right across the country or something. I’ve got the spring itch for adventure and change. This morning, I heard myself saying (mostly to myself), “Hey, a year ago at this time I was getting ready to go to London. I miss London! How can I miss London when I was only there for a week? Maybe I should go there again this spring! What’s stopping me? Nothing’s stopping me! I’ll go spend a week at the British Library …”
“Why would you want to go to a library, Mom?” (Okay, CJ was listening.)
Anyway. What’s stopping me?
I’m not sure. Maybe it’ll be the early mornings.
First of all, I have to tell you that I’m still sick! (This is because, when I’m sick, I have to tell everyone! It’s a sickness in and of itself.) Here’s where I’m hanging out (see photo above): on the couch by the fire, with crocheted blanket, tea, lozenges, laptop, book, cellphone, and dogs. The dogs look like they’re in heaven. That’s nice, dogs. Happy snoring to you. I, however, am remembering how grumpy being sick makes me. Which is very. I also tend to take a melodramatic outlook, announcing at intervals how awful I feel, how lazy I feel, how pitiful I feel, and generally presenting as a less-than-lovely human specimen. My family puts up with it rather kindly, I must say, even if their reaction is to basically ignore my general pitifulness. Or gently mock me for it. Thanks, family. I mean that sincerely.
So I finally finished reading A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson, which is a book about scientific discoveries (and the scientists who laboured, sometimes futilely, to discover verifiable facts about our planet, our environment, the origins of life on Earth, the chemical makeup of the universe, etc.). Excellent book, easy to read, lots of great stories, plus I felt like I was getting reacquainted with the teenaged self who really wanted to study biology and chemistry in university, if only those subjects could have been coordinated with an arts degree. (I couldn’t figure out how to do it.)
I’ve been using the word “anyway” a lot these past few days, as a handy segue. I think it indicates how little energy I have to spare. My throat is so sore, people!
Bill Bryson’s book ends with a devastatingly sad chapter, titled “Goodbye,” detailing the efficiently destructive ruin that homo sapiens have inflicted on other species who come into contact with us. We seem to be unique in our ruthlessness, and pointless destruction. When we show up, species vanish. So much of what makes us different from all of the other species of life on Earth — our consciousness that allows us to plan and remember and create communities and construct stories and share information and move easily across vast distances — is also what makes us a force deadlier than any other species that has ever existed. It’s like we were made to destroy. Looking at humans from this perspective is deeply sad. To counter my sadness, I think of Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities, on the the front page of Wednesday’s Globe and Mail, saying, “We are in a world that is rather terrifying. People close ranks and hide behind their factions. There is great insecurity. … [And yet] it is possible for humans to live together as long as you let down the walls that separate you.”
Yes. I’m part of this species, of course. We all are. We’ve got this little window of time here on Earth to share with those around us. How to be more open, more vulnerable? How to do no harm?
I’m putting this couch-time time to good use! Reading a lot. Resting. Meditating (although this morning’s session turned into napping — dreaming). Writing a bit too. It’s not like I can’t do my job while lying on this couch. Well, this part of my job. This other part of my job, I can’t do while lying on the couch. See below.
terrible photo taken from current position on couch, using cellphone, which explains terribleness
This is just the first basket of two — clean laundry! — that look like this. I carried this one up to the dining-room table this morning in hopes that a) I would feel inspired to fold it and/or b) kids would arrive home from school and feel inspired to fold it. LOL. No, seriously. Do you think I can guilt them into folding it? It’s probably my parental duty to try. I realize that if I were a better parent, my children would already be trained to fold laundry themselves. Somehow, this hasn’t been the kind of parent I’ve turned out to be. Okay. I’m okay with it, actually. I can’t seem to fight against the tide of what matters to me, and what doesn’t.
Weekend! March break! Wishing all of you, all of us, everyone: Health!
PS After posting, I lay down and listened to a program that ran on Ideas this past fall, called “How To Do Ordinary Things.” You can hear Jean Vanier and others who work/live in L’Arche communities talk about freedom from fear, and being vulnerable not just in body (which I’m aware of right now), but also in relationships. Here’s a quote I wrote down while listening:
“Who will love me in my brokenness? …
To love someone is not to do things for people but to reveal to people who they are.” — Jean Vanier.
recorder concert, while we wait
Earlier this week, I walked the two little kids partway to school, the uphill part.
The tall snowbanks make the sidewalk narrow, so it’s hard to walk three abreast, which is what they want to do, each holding one of my hands. CJ tends to fall behind. He was hanging onto my hand, walking behind me, and I felt like I was pulling him along.
So I told them a story that I think is at least partially accurate. I’ll have to ask my dad, because it’s really his story. I remember him telling it to me when I was little. I loved horses and I loved stories about horses. In my memory of this story, Dad was living in Puerto Rico. He wasn’t very old, perhaps 7 or 8, and he had a little pony. Was the pony called Star? I could be making that up. I could be making all of this up, which is why I don’t trust myself to write a memoir. In the story, as I told it to my kids, my dad was riding his pony up a steep hill, and it got steeper and steeper as they got close to the top, so he got off and held onto the pony’s tail, and the pony pulled him up the rest of the way.
I told CJ that I felt like my dad’s little pony, pulling him up the hill.
Telling the story made our walk so much easier, not just for the kids, but for me too. It reminded me of my own power, as the adult in the situation, to change the tenor of an experience by introducing a creative element, such as a story.
When the older kids were little, we used to pretend things all the time when we were walking places–and we walked a lot of places, and we walked really slowly. So it took patience, and in all honesty, I am not a patient person by nature. It could have been really boring. But instead, we were in the arctic or the desert, we were explorers, the cars were polar bears, the streets were rivers of ice, we were going up mountains, we were looking for our home, it was really cold, or really hot. The story would expand, mostly just describing what we were doing; sometimes we were hiding or hurrying from an imaginary threat. It turned our walks to the library or school or on errands into little adventures. We had to be doing these things, and yet we were enjoying doing them—the errands became bigger than what they appeared to be, on the surface. It’s something I’ve tried to pass along to my kids, to give them the tools to recognize and experiment with creative solutions to momentary problems: creative ways to overcome boredom, to soothe the self, to interact with others. (Whether it’s worked, I don’t know; my kids nevertheless seem to like best to self-soothe and fight boredom with a variety of glowing screens ….)
But this little uphill climb got me thinking about the power of a story. And the power of a storyteller. It’s also the power of play and imagination, two things I get to tap into regularly in my writing life as well as in my parenting life. I recognize that it’s a luxury–that play is a luxury and imagination is a luxury–because you have to have the patience and energy to locate and use your creative self. You have to know it’s there, in the first place. You have to trust yourself. But it’s a luxury anyone can afford, which is the only kind of luxury that really interests me, access to which I would love to somehow spread out into the world.
icicles on Aggie
Daily meditation, in slightly increasing increments of time, has given me plenty to think about … even while I’m practicing standing a small distance away from my thoughts, trying to observe rather than control or judge them.
The thinking never really stops.
Here’s an observation applicable throughout the day, and in parenting situations too. The physical state of the body greatly affects the mind’s ability to focus. Obvious? Yeah, I know. I spend a lot of time discovering the obvious. Or, more accurately, rediscovering the obvious. You’d think you’d remember all the wise and useful things you’ve learned, at great cost, over years of experience, right? Well, I don’t seem to. I need reminders.
Yesterday, I struggled to sit quietly for the full twenty minutes, and not only because I could hear my kids rolling around wrestling and mock-arguing in the next room. I struggled because it had been a morning without much activity. I’d snuggled a grumpy kid in bed, read the paper, eaten breakfast, sipped a coffee. All was ease and leisure. And then I sat down to meditate and my body, it turned out, was flaring with unshed energy. I hadn’t noticed! If I’d noticed anything, I would have said I was feeling a bit grumpy or anxious—I would have interpreted my physical state as being a state of mind, as if the two were quite separate.
Those twenty minutes felt endless. I was crawling out of my skin with wanting to get up and move.
This morning’s meditation, by contrast, felt easy. I was alert, steady, and twenty minutes flew by, so quickly that I couldn’t believe it was already over. The difference being quite simple, I think: this morning I got up early, and exercised. My body, by the time I sat down to meditate, had shed plenty of energy and was prepared for quiet and stillness, and therefore my mind was capable to quiet stillness too. This is more than enough reason to get up early and exercise, in my opinion. (I set my alarm for 5-ishAM, five mornings a week, and for that habit to stick, I need a good reason, frankly.)
I applied my new-found/re-found observation yesterday when the kids were practicing their instruments. The six-year-old was getting frustrated and impatient, so I sent him running a loop around the house—once, and then twice—pretending to time him. (Side note: funny how much he loves being timed for activities; maybe the opportunity to lay down a “best time,” no matter how arbitrary, is endlessly exciting.) Anyway, after setting a new course record, he sat back down at the keys, panting a bit, but with a much happier spirit. Same for the nine-year-old violinist. (She didn’t need to be timed, however.)
It made me appreciate that three out of four kids walk to school every morning, and the fourth kid usually gets up to do some exercise before breakfast.
Makes me ask, too: How often is our physical state affecting our mental state, and we’re completely unaware?