This morning, after breakfast, Albus practiced piano. He always checks with me before getting a sticker, to make sure he’s earned it. Which is awfully sweet. He’s a good kid. Except this morning I really didn’t think he’d earned it. He kept rushing the half-note, always the same mistake in the same place. So I asked him to play the song again, with that in mind. I suggested playing the difficult spot several times over, with the correct notes and timing. But all he wanted was to hack his way through the song and be done with it, regardless of notes and timing.
Then we looked over his dictee results. In French, his teacher had written: “You need to study.” Things is, he’d studied. A fair bit. He’d sat down several evenings last week and worked on his homework, including studying for this dictee. He’d shown me his worksheet. I knew it was true. But the proof wasn’t there in the final test results.
As we were having this conversation, and I was offering more advice re efficient piano practice, Fooey happened by with a question. Albus was extremely rude to her. I reprimanded him. He pushed her. ie. things went from bad to worse, and quickly. I sent him upstairs on a time-out.
Why does he need to act like this? the thought half formed as I raced around the kitchen and cleared the breakfast dishes and wrote a cheque for AppleApple’s sub order and helped Fooey ready her bag for school and tried to remember all the details that needed to get done in the next eight minutes before everyone would leave and the house would go suddenly quiet, and I would eat breakfast and pour a cup of coffee and greet this computer.
Why is he so angry?
And I found myself looking at this morning from his perspective, not mine. From his perspective, he got up and got dressed and ate breakfast and then he practiced piano. And even though he practiced, it wasn’t good enough, and he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated. And then his mother had to sign his dictee and he knew it wasn’t a great mark, and his teacher thought he hadn’t even studied. But he had studied. And he couldn’t make it better, and he felt frustrated.
I called him downstairs, and I said the above, an abbreviated version. He was quiet. Is that kind of how you feel? I asked, and he nodded.
I’m not sure how to make life better for him. Or easier. (Why do parents so often want to make life easier for their kids? But I do. Or not easier, exactly, just gentler.) What is the lesson, if hard work does not pay off in success? You know, it doesn’t always. Some people have to work much harder than others to achieve the very same level of success. I don’t want him to get frustrated, to give up, to not care.
I do want him to take responsibility for the choices he makes. I don’t particularly want to lower the bar.
But what if he’s trying, and it’s not working? Is the answer always: work harder? I’d feel frustrated, too.
He left first, for nursery school, walking with his dad. He has no need for a backpack, but everyone else has one, so he insisted. The temperature has dropped and we had to dash to the attic to dig for winter hats and fall jackets. The report from Dad was good: they enjoyed a “Star Wars” themed walk to nursery school and parted without tears. I will pick him up in two hours. Repeat every weekday. Our new fall schedule.
After I said goodbye to CJ, the big kids emerged for their annual back-to-school portrait. This was the best they could muster. And yet, they’re all reasonably excited about returning to school. No, really, they are.
It was just as I’d imagined. We always pose the back-to-school pictures on the porch. This year we have no porch (they’re scheduled to start rebuilding in a couple of weeks; please let it be so). And there’s something, um, dismal about the background. Albus doesn’t look so happy either. But he departed at 8:30 sharp in grand spirits, off to walk to school with his friends, all of whom will be in his class this year.
Nothing dismal about AppleApple’s chosen ensemble, despite the brown pants and black shoes; she’s even wearing electric blue socks. On the walk to school, she was extremely focused on getting there, and when we reached the grounds, she ran off without a backward glance, or even the semblance of goodbye. She’s proud to be the first child in our family to be in a portable (and it’s the new portable, which makes me think, off-gassing?).
Look at this glowing child. She’d glow anywhere, in any scene, against any setting. I’m a convert to the background, in this photo. She was so terrifically excited to be starting grade one; though “excited” isn’t quite the right word, because it doesn’t capture her confidence and pride about the big step to full-day, and French immersion, and being with the big kids — being “a big kid.”
Never have we all been so ready so early. Which meant a good deal of hanging around and waiting around on the grass. Finally, the teacher called for her students to line up, and Fooey clung to my hand — I was surprised. One last kiss goodbye, and she let go, and the kids slowly made their way through the doors, and off to their waiting classroom.
Another year begun.
(And I walked briskly home and entered a quiet house. Space to think. Silence. Cup of cooling coffee on the countertop. This feels good).
… of school, of course!
This is the latest that I remember the kids having to go: right until the last day of June. No wonder AppleApple threw her backpack aside and her arms in the air with a whoop of joy!
We said goodbye. Fooey has had the same teacher for her two kindergarten years, and what a loving and caring teacher she has been for my girl, watching her grow and nurturing her all the way along. “She’s half mine, you know,” her teacher said to me, as we said goodbye. AppleApple has also had the same teacher for two years. She wondered, a little bit teary-eyed: “Why is it so much harder saying goodbye to a wonderful teacher after two years than after just one?”
Well, then. Let’s get this summer started. As Albus would say (in truly the sweetest way possible, every morning to me): “Smell ya later, school!”
Because my heart, speaking literally, powers my body as I work toward the goal of completing a triathlon and/or half-marathon this year.
Because I live in my head. Because I want to allow myself to respond spontaneously, without checking in with my head. If the heart says do this, I want to. At least, most of the time. Okay, even some of the time. (I’m a little bit afraid of giving myself over to my heart; I sense that mistakes will be made; I sense also that mistakes must be made).
Because of love, compassion, empathy. Because in my efficiency, I am sometimes deficient in these most important gifts.
Because it’s a challenging word, filled with challenging ideas, for me.
Because I want to explore other aspects of myself, even if it means just pushing ever so slightly against the seeming-solidity of who I am, right now.
But I’m keeping spirit, last year’s word. I nominate it to be word of the decade, an umbrella under which I will develop different aspects of the spirit. What does spirit mean, to me? It means the life unseen, not of this world, and yet expressed within this world, through words and deeds. It means: there’s more to life than what can be seen. It means mystery. It means being moved. Being open. Being emptied out to make room for God, for the divine.
My poetry book club met for the third time on Saturday evening. We were unable to get copies of the book we’d planned on reading, a collection by Giller-winner Johanna Skibsrud (Gaspereau Press, we suspect, is even now hand-sewing the binding in readiment for shipment by ox-cart); so instead, we all brought favourite poems to share. We were giddy. It was ridiculously fun. We are getting to know each other that much better. And best of all, there’s poetry. I was deeply moved by a number of the poems, unexpectedly moved, caught off guard: ah, there’s my heart, opening.
Being moved by a poem. It feels of enormous significance to me, right now, as I struggle to balance my ambitions and my sense of self, to figure out what matters, and why.
To create something that moves someone else, it’s a strange talent. It might not even be a talent, but a gift, given and taken away on a whim. It’s also a strange thing to want to do: to express the mysterious, to give it shape and form, and to share the beauty, joy, grief, loneliness, ache with others. It’s not a profitable enterprise. It’s not of this world.
My new year’s anomie seems to be somewhat late-flowering; 2010 was a fine, fine year, and it seemed, at its end, that perhaps nothing needed changing, not a whit. Four weeks in, and it suddenly seems everything needs changing.
I’m conscious of my underlying desire to be independent, financially; not because my survival depends on it, but because, as Fran Lebowitz says in an interview in Bust magazine: “Here is the key to independence: earn your own money … This is true of life–people who are paying you, whether they are paying for you like parents who pay for children or paying like a boss pays an employee, they’re in charge of you. You don’t want someone to be in charge of you? Don’t take their money.”
Now, I am in a marriage I consider happy, in a partnership I consider equal; nevertheless, the fact that I earn next to nothing, that I rely on Kevin to support our family financially, bothers me, and it has for a long time. I read that Fran L. interview on Saturday and it went click in my brain: the key to independence. (I read it out to Kevin, too, and he understood). I wish I could say that writing were my key to independence; but it’s not. If my family relied on my earnings, I would have to do something else, use my current skill-set in a different way; and I can’t think of any job I’d want to do that would use my current skill-set. And so, I continue to return to the question: do I want to retrain? Do I want to gain a new skill-set? Do I want to equip myself for an entirely different job?
It’s not that I imagine myself never writing, were I to earn my money differently. It’s that I imagine myself writing the way most writers write: look around–most writers, even successful writers, have day-jobs. The most successful writers, those earning a reasonable living from their writing, work their tails off pitching stories, writing grant requests, and working freelance from job to job until they become Mordecai Richler and editors come to them with story-requests (and I happen to know that Mordecai Richler was an extremely hard-working and not at all precious writer).
I’m not much good at pitching stories. I work pretty slowly. My overall interest, when I write, is to make something lovely, not to earn money.
And that is why I come back to the idea of retraining and earning my living in another way. Earning my living, period. I’ve given myself the imaginary deadline of CJ entering school, which is in a year and a half, when he starts kindergarten. I will be thirty-seven, not too old, I think, to start something new.
I’m not sure that heart relates remotely to this dilemma. Or, maybe it does and I haven’t puzzled out how, yet.
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).
She started senior kindergarten today. She is returning to the same classroom with the same teacher as last year, and we could not be more thrilled. We walked to school together, just the two of us, and it felt very special. She is filled with pride about being one of the big kids in the class (last year she was one of the little kids; it’s a split class). All three children are in split classes this year, and all of them get to be the big kids in their classrooms, and I’m pleased with the potential for them in that equation: being more experienced, perhaps given more responsibility, and a sense of mentorship. (I don’t know whether that’s pie-in-the-sky fantasizing on my part, but it seems like a possibility).
One new thing for Fooey this year will be riding the bus. She starts that new routine on Monday, and every time a bus goes by our window, she gets very excited: could that be her school bus? The ride will take about six minutes, but will save me approximately forty. I will still pick them all up after school, on foot.
Speaking of on foot, I must report that my trail run last night was so fun! I did not sign up thinking it would be fun, so it was an unexpected surprise and a gift to feel such joy as I ran along the beautiful trail at twilight feeling confident and strong within my body. As I was falling off to sleep last night, I thought of how much I’ve changed in the past year–and how that has changed how our family operates, too. The change has everything to do with being post-pregnancy-and-infant-parenting. Here I thought it would be a time of mourning, of missing those joys that I experienced so fully and keenly: nursing my babies, pregnancy itself, the lull and focus of caring for small children. And while I may feel a twinge every now and again, what’s come of this after-time has been a bubbling of energy and creativity, with a very strong focus on achieving specific goals. I had no idea this was waiting for me on the other side. I just would never have guessed. It was hard, at first, to claim time for myself again, to stake it out and to remind my family that I could take time away from them to pursue my own interests. But we’ve adjusted. And the changes have been so worthwhile. Kevin spends more time with the children. The children themselves are more independent. I don’t feel guilty, and I don’t sense resentment from my family. We’re all moving into this new phase gently and naturally, staying flexible, tinkering with what’s working and what’s not. And my kids get to cheer on their mom as she runs toward the finish line. (And I get to hear them cheering).
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