Breaking habits, keeping friends, looking for methadone

I.

I am drinking self-made almond milk, spiced with cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom, and heated into a marvellous froth. It is creamy, tingly, delicious… and all I can think about is how much better it would be with… coffee.

I’ve been trying to not drink coffee for somewhere between four and six months now.

I have never missed a lover, my children, or any experience, ever, as I now miss my black drug.

II.

Cinder: Anyone want lettuce? Only slightly used?

Jane: No, nobody wants your used lettuce.

Cinder: I didn’t bite it. I just took it off my burger.

Heaven forbid the teenager eat something green. Please don’t judge me if he gets scurvy. I keep the house stocked in limes.

And also vegetables.

But I don’t think most of them ever make it down to his stomach.

Still. He’s like six feet eighteen inches (I exaggerate only slightly) and he’s only fifteen. I guess he’s not that malnourished.

This has nothing to do with my coffee saga. He just happened to wander into the kitchen while I was writing this.

III.

So, this isn’t going to be a painful, TMI, self-confessional post about addictions. But I do want to tell you, I started drinking alcohol—mostly wine—dysfunctionally four years and four-five weeks ago, more or less to the day; I quit drinking dysfunctionally three years less four-five weeks ago today.

It was a rather interesting experience, my year of using alcohol as numbing-coping-we-will-get-through-this tool. Like so many of life’s most intense experiences,  its pathos, its impact… and its hidden (or not so hidden) lessons and consequences are visible only in retrospect. At the time, all I was doing was opening a bottle of wine every night. To have with dinner.

There was nothing weird about it. Everyone else around me was doing it too… (See: Running On Empty + A Lost Year)

But, I put the brakes on that quite quickly and, really, all things considered, easily, once I noticed what the hell I was doing. I like to think I’m either too self-aware or too contrary to really cultivate addictions and excessively self-destructive behaviours.

Or so I tell myself as I engage in my newest vice, lighting each cigar, reaching for each sheesha toke with a sick combination of clinical self-awareness and abandoned hedonism. I know the danger of letting the smoke swirl in my mouth, nose, lungs. But there is something about that experience… What am I chasing in that moment? What is it that I am craving? I dive into the crevices of the vice and craving—and, sometimes, surrender to it willingly… other times, fight it, win, feel self-righteous and powerful… sometimes, lose… feel shame, learn compassion.

IV.

Flora: Worst! Parents! Ever!

So what happened was, she dropped a pizza slice on her foot and got burned by the pizza sauce.

And we laughed.

Flora: Aren’t you going to help me?

Sean: Are you asking me to lick the pizza sauce off your foot and the floor? Cause that’s gross.

Jane: No. But I’m going to blog about it.

Flora: Worst. Parents. Ever.

She’s so lucky. Do you think she’ll ever realize how lucky she is, she was?

Maybe when she’s 40. Right now, she’s 12. And we suck.

Flora: Why don’t you blog about how you can’t stop whining about how much you miss coffee instead?

Worst. Child. Ever.

I’m kidding. ;P I know how lucky I am.

Jane: Threat fail. Already doing it.

V.

I am not, by the way, whining incessantly about how much I miss coffee. What I am doing is… I am exploring, and curbing, my coffee drinking habit.

I’m exploring (and curbing) it because the unadulterated joy it used to bring to me—I don’t think I can ever fully express to you just how much I loved every aspect of my morning (afternoon) (it’s not really evening yet) coffee, from the sound of the beans dropping into the grinder to its whirr (it was musical), the slowly released and changing smells, the visual pleasure of watching steam rise from the kettle, the sound the water made when I poured it over the ground beans in the Bodum (yessssss), the first sip—the last sip—every sip in-between, OMFG, I miss that experience so much, I WANT MY COFFEE NOW… but that unadulterated joy?

It’s gone.

It was gradual. A slight discomfort in the belly, a strange feeling in my throat. Bitterness on my tongue… the slow (I fought against it so hard) realization that something—metabolism, taste buds, lining of the gut, sensory perception, whatever—had changed, I wasn’t enjoying that first sip, the last sip, the in-between sips very much at all, and I was suffering after, and my coffee habit was just… a habit.

The joy of which was… problematic.

The indulgence of which was… possibly, probably a caffeine addiction.

VI.

Jane: Ender, put your dirty dishes into the sink. Into the sink. Into the… thank you.

So much of parenting, have you noticed, is helping children cultivate positive habits… and discourage negative ones. And so much parenting, good and bad, is… a habit.

You create a habit of… morning fights to rush out the door, for example. Bedtime struggles. Fights over tooth brushing.

Or, you create the habit of… slow mornings. Chill bedtimes. Etctera.

Flora: The habit of ignoring your children while you write.

Jane: I work very hard to cultivate that habit. Now stop looking over my shoulder and go make some art or something.

Flora: Can I watch a show?

Jane: It’s up to you which habit you choose to feed.

Flora: World’s. Most. Annoying. Mother.

Whatever. ;P

VII.

The spiced almond milk tastes good. It warms my throat and slides easily into my gut. It makes me feel good.

I am enjoying it.

I don’t… love it.

I fucking love my coffee.

VIII.

I’m sitting across a cafe table from you, as you drink your coffee, and OMFG, can you feel, smell my hunger? I am drinking you drinking. I want you to slow down and savour—really savour—every sip so that I can prolong the experience.

“How’s your tea?” you ask.

I grimace.

Tea-like.

Not coffee like.

Inferior.

Crappy methadone, and I miss my heroin.

IX.

Here is a fascinating video from Kurzesagt about what really causes addiction.

There are socially sanctioned addictions too. And so many of our habits, good and bad, are formed in community. My year of dysfunctional drinking was fully supported and fostered by my community (we were all suffering, coping, dysfunctionally drinking together). Coffee is what you and I used to meet for, remember?

I hate meeting you for tea.

Sometimes, breaking a habit means breaking a relationship. Losing a community.

Ugh, why did that get so heavy?

I don’t want to lose you along with coffee (the wine). I promise. But I need you to help me… break this habit. And become part of my new one.

X.

The almond milk is almost gone and its dregs, because it is homemade (so domestic goddess, so not me) and imperfectly strained (that’s more me), are pretty chewy. I drink them anyway. I like my coffee chewy.

In that last sip, my methadone is just a little more heroin like.

I swallow it, chew it with joy.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS I. Miss. Coffee.

PPS I make it. Or pour myself, a little, from a pot someone’s made. I remember… I remember how good it felt. How much I wanted it. I taste it. It fails me. And yet… I still miss it. Crave it. Intensely. The chemical caffeine addiction is long gone, I think. It must be. The rut of the habit, the memory of the ritual—my longing for that once-effective hit? God. It is yet to fade.

PPPS I had a cup this morning. With coconut milk, ginger, and cinnamon. I almost enjoyed it… with some additional, complicated feelings mixed in.

 

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Dharma, slowing down time, & beauty in the ordinary

I.

Ender and two of his friends have just finished beating the shit out of each other on our trampoline. Well. Play-wrestling. Apparently. But there was screaming and taunting and swearing, and I think possibly a bloody nose. I tossed a roll of toilet paper off the balcony—my nod to helicopter parenting.

Now, they’re sitting on the trampoline, pretending to meditate.

It’s fucking adorable.

Cross-legged. Hands on their knees in gyan mudra. Eyes closed. Except when they peek them open to see if the others are meditating as well.

II.

Today marks six solid months of meditation practice for me, the first time in my life that I have ever—well, so many, firsts, actually. Not just the first time I’ve meditated for a sustained period of time—the first time I’ve meditated, ever. Sure, there were the five minutes of “meditation” at the end of my martial arts classes way back in the day—but let’s be honest, all we did was close our eyes and pant and try to slow our breath down and stop our hearts from exploding out of our chests. Plus, we only did it because the instructor told us to do it.

Compulsory practices don’t count.

I think it’s also the first time I’ve ever consciously and conscientiously engaged in anything like spiritual practice. I don’t count the prayers and masses of my compulsory Catholic childhood: a child does not choose, consciously and conscientiously, her religious beliefs and practices. And, indeed, as soon as I could choose—I chose to not just step away, but to run away screaming.

I flirted with Neo-Paganism and Wicca for a while after that. It was my methadone before the heroin of full-on atheism.

And now I’m meditating.

It’s really weird.

And I keep on being told I’m doing it wrong.

But I’m doing it.

At least once a day, most days twice.

III.

I’m doing it, because, dharma.

Dharma is an annoying Sanskirt word that means, almost, whatever it is that you want it to mean at the moment you’re deploying it. For me, right now, it means, purpose. With a capital P, I suppose. Maybe in all caps to boot. PURPOSE. As in, “What the hell is my purpose in life?”

IV.

When Cinder was five or six, one of his aunties asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He gave her this withering look and said… “Me.”

Fuck.

Me too.

When I grow up, I want to be me.

So… I’m all grown up now, right? And I’m me. Is that it? Am I the me I’m supposed to be? What does “supposed to” mean, anyway? Who decides? Just me? Who am I?

OMFG, my head hurts…

And is the very fact that I’m engaging in all this obnoxious navel gazing just proof that my life is too easy and I have too much time on my hands?

V.

Wait. No. That is not possible. I feel a scarcity, a paucity of time. So much to do so much to do so much to do. Not enough… too much? What a thought. Is it possible?

I watch Ender and his gang fake meditate on the trampoline and I close my eyes to join them—invite enlightenment.

Her: You know that’s not how enlightenment works, right?

Jane: Nobody knows how enlightenment works. My ignorance is really not significantly greater than anyone else’s.

It doesn’t come—enlightenment—but I do decide that I’m definitely not bored. I’m meditating in part in pursuit of boredom—I mean, stillness. That’s the word. Stillness. I want stillness. Silence. To slow the world—time—down a little. So that I can pay attention to it more fully. Because it is precious and beautiful just because it is, and I want to… I want to live it, breathe it, experience it… document it.

That, I think, is my dharma.

I experience things, the world, life… and I write it all down so other people can share that experience too.

There. That. My dharma, my purpose, the driving force in my life since I was four years old.

The problem—you knew a problem was coming, right?—the problem is that it just doesn’t seem… big enough.

You know? Shouldn’t my Purpose be something bigger than writing very ordinary stories about very ordinary things?

VI.

Flora has spent much of the last three, four days working on this poster. It’s beautiful and amazing, but she said I couldn’t show it to you.

So just imagine something beautiful… right here:

 

[this space intentionally left blank]

 

I don’t ask her… why. To what purpose. She doesn’t ask herself, either. There is no need. It is blindingly obvious, to her.

I don’t think she cares if it’s not blindingly obvious to the rest of the world.

VII.

I would like to make it clear to you—if it’s not blindingly obvious, because, as I am a self-conscious grown-up and not a yet-unspoilt child, I care, a little—that I am not a Buddhist, nor attempting to be one.

I’m chasing dharma, but fuck, I love desire. Desire is the fuel of… well, everything.

One of the books that I’ve been using to obsess about dharma is called The Four Desires, by Rod Stryker. Its entire first section is called Life is Desire. I love it. Stryker frames desire and dharma in terms that resonate with my practical poet’s soul:

Your soul has four distinct desires… The first of these four desires is dharma, the desire to become who you were meant to be. It is the longing to thrive, and, in the process, to fulfill your unique purpose; it is the drive to fulfill your destiny.

Right? Purpose, with a capital P, and in all caps to boot. But, there’s more:

The second is artha, the desire for the means (such as money, security, health) to help you fulfill your dharma. The third desire is kama, the longing for pleasure in any and all forms. The fourth is moksha the desire for spiritual realization and ultimate freedom; it is the intrinsic desire to be free from the burdens of the world, even as you participate fully in it.

Rod Stryker, The Four Desires

Moksha and I have just the most passing, casual of relationships—I think it’s possible it will come on me in old age (religion often does). Right now, I’m all about dharma. Artha and kama matter only as they support it. It is fascinating, really. The intensity of the desire to live, to fulfill my… dharma.

VIII.

I feel goofy writing, owning that. Especially when I look at my children. Who seem to simply… embody and live their dharma. Not, you know… existentially angst over it. At all.

IX.

The boy meditation session on the trampoline below me has again deteriorated into a wrestling match. And this time, not bloody, but out of joint noses. Ender leaves his friends to come sit with me. He wants to do a puzzle. He asks for help he doesn’t really need: what he needs is my attention.

I put away my laptop and my existential angst, and give my undivided attention to the boy and the puzzle.

Time slows down.

I’m… to be honest, I’m a little bored.

I explore the feeling.

X.

Just in case you were waiting for some kind of mind-blowing, insightful wrap-up here… that’s not how enlightenment works.

But this is how serendipity works. I remember, that while I was listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons, during her conversation with Martha Beck, Beck said something along the lines of, “Living with my son is like living with a Zen master.” (One of Beck’s children, Adam, has Down Syndrome; Beck wrote about the life-changing experience of his diagnosis, birth and their ensuing life in Expecting Adam). I type “Martha Beck” and “living with a Zen master” into Google, looking for, what? I’m not sure—something to round out the story of Ender’s trampoline meditations and Flora’s art practice, maybe?

Instead, I get this:

Our culture has created two almost irreconcilable descriptions of a “good woman.” The first is the individual achiever; the second, the self-sacrificing domestic goddess. I found that women fell into one of four categories: those who’d chosen career (and were very conflicted); those who put family first (and were very conflicted); those who’d combined work and family (and were very, very conflicted); and mystics.

Mystics? Where the hell did that category come from? It was so unexpected that I did years of interviews without even noticing that the calmest, happiest women had all experienced a kind of satori: Faced with two mutually contradictory options, they had discovered and come to trust an intensely personal inner voice. Each had found some method of detaching utterly from social context, connecting deeply with inner peace, and carrying that peace with them back into their hectic lives.

Martha Beck, “Yes? No? Maybe? How to Make Decisions,” September 29, 2013

OK.

That helps.

That actually… really helps.

Me, anyway.

Does it help you?

xoxo

“Jane”

Time, Magic Lessons, Hitchhiking & Silence: an only slightly annoying meditation

For… um, I’m sorry, I never asked your name. Travel safe.

I.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life. How about yours?

How do you feel about me throwing that cliche at you? Are you embracing it joyously—are you filled with the desire to use PicMonkey or equivalent to turn it into an Insta-Graphic and send it into social media memeland?

Or do you want to throw a handful of mud at my smug face and tell me to go fuck myself and my empty platitudes?

II.

My kitchen sink is, miraculously, empty this morning. Flora put all the dishes away before she went to bed, and, as Cinder is 600 kilometres away, he did not spend the night eating and filling it up again. I stand in front of the empty sink in the morning and fill up with gratitude… and then immense sadness.

As I make the coffee I’m no longer really drinking, I cry and miss my son.

III.

(My face, by the way, is not smug.)

IV.

I drive 500 miles and 500 more to Kelowna most years since my Marie and her brood moved out there. I didn’t go last year, and we suffered. I mean, Marie and mine’s connection. There is only so much you can do by text, Facebook, the occasional phone call. Real relationships require real life, real time, person-to-person investment. Snotting on each other’s flesh and blood shoulders, not just cyber ones.

So this year, I drive Cinder and his friend to Kelowna, to visit their forever friends, and mine, over four days I wrench from a too-heavy schedule. I leave Calgary a few hours after attending a “can’t-miss-it-you-are-so-important-to-me” event; I come back a few hours before an important (yes, it really is) community planning meeting.

In-between, Marie and I squeeze in urgent together time. Precious but also exhausting: we do not have time on this visit for leisurely conversations that meander and unfold. We have very little time for each other, really: we are mostly ferrying six manic boys (and their bikes) around.

It’s all right, we tell each other.

It’s their time more than it is ours.

Our time will come… when?

V.

I am having an uncomfortable relationship with time right now. It feels like my most precious and most finite resource. I feel I don’t have enough of it—I hate feeling that way. After all, time is… time is time. We actually have all the time in the world, right? Sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day, seven days in a week, 365 days in a year…

Where the fuck have the last 365 days gone? Actually, the first half of them, I can account for rationally. The last half? These last six months?

I feel I have blinked and they have disappeared.

VI.

My time in Kelowna is both too short and too long. Too short, because, Marie, soul sister conversations, beauty, beaches—and the world’s best Value Village—I swear, people, the Kelowna Value Village is a fucking treasure trove. (Would that I had more time to explore it this time: I do find a pair of gorgeous yet practical and virtually unworn shoes.)

Too long, because… so much to do so much to do so much to do.

I hate it. I hate that feeling. That feeling of time slipping through my fingers, of the pace of my days moving too fast, of never feeling on top of things, of never feeling done… or allowed to rest.

I hate it.

I watch the boys plan their days and all the things they want to do on this trip with a total disregard for the reality, the tyranny of time.

I love it.

I envy them.

I watch them with love—and envy—and maybe, I think, maybe I learn something.

VII.

I leave Cinder behind in Kelowna and I leave Marie’s house early in the morning on a Sunday for the near-eight hour drive back home.

I am…

(Don’t throw the mud pie at my face.)

I am aware that today is the first day of the rest of my life. As they all are.

And that I can think I don’t have time, I don’t have time, I don’t have time… or I can have all the time in the world.

I plug my phone into the AUX port and start playing Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons podcast.

She’s going to be my companion and the background to my silent meditations on this precious solo trip home.

Eight hours. Alone.

If you’re a parent, if you live amidst a web of obligations—no matter how willingly entered into—you know how precious each of those eight hours is.

VIII.

I pull over to pick up the hitchhiker just outside Revelstoke. It’s 10 a.m., and I feel the bone-tiredness and fuzzy-headedness that comes not so much from not enough sleep but not enough good sleep.

He’s in his 50s—maybe 40s. He has the weathered-withered look of a person who works outside, who works with his body. Also, the withered-weathered look of a person who’s suffered.

All his worldly possessions in a backpack about the same size as the backpack I took with me to Kelowna.

It’s sweltering hot already, and there is no shade where he is standing. I see car after car whiz by and I actually whiz by too… I want to be alone. With Liz Gilbert (who’s already annoying me, but I am learning things in-between), and with my thoughts and meditations. With myself.

I look in the rear view mirror, and I see his shoulders slump, and I think—fuck it. I can make one human being’s life easier today.

And I don’t actually have to make mine harder.

He runs to the truck. And looks startled when he opens the door. It’s interesting: I hear the thought as sharply as if he had spoken it, “Lady, you should not be picking up hitchhikers.”

“Where are you going?” I ask.

“Calgary,” he says.

I nod.

“I have a request,” I tell him. “I’m happy to give you a ride all the way to Calgary. But I don’t want to talk. About anything. Not where you’re from or where you’re going or the weather. Nothing. I’m going to be listening to these podcasts the whole ride and thinking and occasionally murmuring to myself. From you, I would like silence.”

“Works for me,” he says.

And we go.

IX.

Ferrying six teenage boys around Kelowna, from beach to park to waterfall to beach, one becomes hyper-aware how precious silence is. Ditto–living with three children, in a community full of children, in which gangs of seven-year-old boys alternate places with gangs of preteen-oh-no-they’re-teenagers-now! girls in my living room.

Their noise—especially when happy—is precious too.

But silence—fuck, silence is a gift from god.

The hitchhiker does not say a word for five hours.

Our ride is a prayer.

X.

Elizabeth Gilbert and her guests share a lot of insightful things in Magic Lessons. Although—did I tell you, I find Liz annoying? It’s because she’s… so fucking perky.

I guess that’s why I didn’t like Eat Pray Love, either.

I’m not perky.

But every once in a while, despite being annoyed by Gilbert’s perkiness, I do… perk up.

It’s a nice feeling.

interruptions

(this, by the way, is the point in the composition at which I was thrown off by life. Ender was hungry. Flora needed a hug. A bookstore owner pinged me in a panic, and I had to run to the print shop and then the post office. In-between there was also lunch, four attempts to set up interviews, and a phone call from the dentist. But, there was also a nap and meditation (interrupted by the phone call from the dentist). Still. With all of that, I am having a hard time picking up the thread. Platitudes. Time. Silence. Perky.

Busy.

Time

Today is the first day… Yes. Right there.)

XI.

Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

On Sunday, I shared five silent hours of my life with a stranger.

Grateful.

I came home to joy and hugs… and then was promptly abandoned by the children who “We missed you so much, Mommy!” but who wanted, in the moment, to be with their friends more.

I took the opportunity to fold into Sean’s arms, and he took the opportunity to take me down to the bedroom and take off my clothes.

Ender knocked on the bedroom door about three seconds post climax.

“What do you need, dude?”

“I need to hug Mommy!”

Grateful.

Also… you know. Other things.

I am not sure my mountain meditation to the soundtrack of Elizabeth Gilbert and the silence of my traveling companion solved anything for me. Or gave me clarity. Penetrating insight.

But I wasn’t really looking for that, anyway.

I was looking for… time.

And time… I got.

All the time in the world.

xoxo

“Jane”

interlude: a perfectly ordinary monday

Prologue

It was a Monday, and I want to tell you about that Monday on this Monday, because there was absolutely nothing special about it.

And it was marvelous.

I.

I woke up squeezed, the cement between Ender’s sticky stinky back—Christ, that child needs a bath and a reminder to change his shirt—and his father’s cool front, his hot breath on my neck. Stretched, opened eyes, closed them. It was a Monday, I knew, and I could wake up now, go make coffee, start writing… or wait, wait, stay tucked in-between the sheets and my loves, and Sean’s alarm would go off, and he’d get up, sigh, stretch—then meander up the stairs, make the coffee before heading up to the shower.

What do you think I did?

interlude-within-interlude

I love waking up to made coffee. I love making coffee too—my relationship with the black drug is both dysfunctional and erotic—but I love having it made for me more.

II.

The coffee was just ready to be pressed when I walked into the kitchen. I kissed Sean’s neck, then cheek. Poured that first cup, body taut with anticipation. Oh, yes. The smell.

Then—cinnamon. Cardamom. Liquid whipped cream—never, ever, love, offer me skim milk or diary substitute for my coffee. No, nor half-and-half—if we are to sin, let us sin fully, never in tepid, dietary half-measures.

Then I wrote.

Three pages of shit. Really. There were, in those three pages, two, three good sentences and one decent phrase—and three or four paragraphs that, down the line, may become a good chapter. But, generally… shit.

Three pages of it.

It happens like that sometimes.

III.

Sean needed me to drive him to work, but that’s not why he brought me a second cup of coffee—cinnamon, cardamom, whipped cream added, but of course—and when I drank it—pen scratching paper, one dull sentence after another—I felt so loved I think I managed to write a phrase that didn’t suck.

We left the house at 8:40, leaving the younger two eating cereal and chips and salsa in the living room while watching age inappropriate Netflix programming.

We drove in silence. I don’t like to talk in the morning—there are too many thoughts to speak. I was back at 9:04. Flora and Ender were still eating and consuming How I Met Your Mother. “Today’s our binge day, right?” Ender checked in. I nodded. Poured a third cup of coffee. Cardamom. Cinnamon.

Fuck, out of whipped cream.

life hack

Time is perhaps my most precious commodity—and it is not that I do not have enough time—I have as much of it as you, as everyone: twenty-four precious hours in every precious day, seven days in every week, and 30 to 31 days a month, except in February…

And I work very diligently at not being overscheduled or rushed, at not overscheduling or rushing my family.

I work, quite creatively, I think, at finding ways to make my time work for me, for them.

“Binge days” are one of my tools. On Mondays and Thursdays, I outsource parenting to the iPads and laptops. The kids can watch, play anything all day (the rest of the week, we are screen-free until after supper). I don’t make breakfast, lunch, snacks—I am effectively unavailable to the children until 4, 4:30 when I will make them supper… although it will probably be hot dogs or ramen noodles. Those are the days that I sink into my work… or leave the house, meet friends, occasionally roam the streets aimlessly for hours—that too is part of the process.

III.

I drank the coffee black while revising and rehearsing “If Nikita Krushchev had to wash a bra in Cuba.” The children were quiet so I thought I’d record it—but Sean had taken the laptop with Adobe Audition to work, so no, that wouldn’t work… what next? Another postcard, “Homesick,” yes, this one needed more work, a lot more work, and there was a piece missing—did I not write down a conversation I had with Lazaro—he asked me, “Do you miss home,” and I said… where is it?

Found it. Yes.

I don’t usually clean on binge days but on this Monday, the house looked the way Eastern Europe did when the Mongols rode through it on a thirteenth century Sunday, so on the way upstairs to pee, I swept the living room and asked the kids to pick up those things from the dust pile they did not want to end up in the garbage. After peeing, I cleaned the bathroom—because I was there, and because the Mongols had been there too.

explanation

Marie’s elder two boys were visiting Cinder the week prior (and the week that would follow). There was much joy. And really, comparatively controlled destruction. But having four boys (I absolve the man from blame) pee in one bathroom for however many days straight… no way was I going to have a shower or bath until I cleaned it thoroughly.

And also, lit some incense…

IV.

I read “Homesick” again, revised it a little, saw that you texted, decided to ignore you while I thought about what was wrong with “Homesick,” got hungry.

Made fava beans for myself and helped Ender make a cheese tortilla with salsa—washed dishes while the beans cooked—thought about a woman named Molly Jones and someone  currently represented in the manuscript as [S.C./X]—asked the kids if they needed anything—chopped parsley and cilantro, got it all over the floor but did not clean it up.

Ate while reading Gut: The Inside Story Of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders, and I think you might enjoy reading it too.

Texted you, then got a great idea for how to illustrate “Homesick,” and that entailed taking a photograph of… did I know where it was, I did, found it, did it.

Ate one more spoonful of my fava bean mush.

Remembered that while I was writing my shitty morning pages I was thinking that I was running out of clothes and that if I wanted to have socks to wear for tomorrow, I ought to put in a load of laundry, so I went upstairs to start the water running for my bath, and then ran downstairs to put in a load of my clothes.

Made it upstairs before the tub overflowed, and that made me so happy.

Bath, in the dark, incense. No candles today.

True story: no one interrupted me while I bathed. Not a single one of the children needed to pee, vomit or brush their teeth.

It was glorious.

I had an idea.

I didn’t write it down. But it stayed.

insight

I’ve been reading a little, again, about writers and writing—journaling and writing practice in particular, because, I don’t know, I’m stuck, bored? Something’s coming—I feel restless and unsettled, and I have these two, three projects in hand right now, but I think something else is coming, and I’m not sure I have the tools… where was I?

I’ve been reading a little, again, about writers and writing—which is procrastination disguised as professional development—and among the things the gurus are in agreement about is that you must write things down, have notebooks, pencils (phones with notepad apps) about you at all times to jot down ideas, inspiration. I don’t know, I guess it doesn’t hurt…

But the good ideas, they stay. In fact, they refuse to leave, the invasive, demanding, clamorous bastards.

Clamorous is a nice word. Try to use it today in a casual conversation; better yet, at a board room table.

V.

Took the neglected dog for a walk. Flora came with. The weather was blustery; we were happy.

I had a lot of thoughts.

The dog found some disgusting garbage to eat—a piece of meat tied around a string, what the fuck—and I had to ram my hand down her throat to pull it out, yuck, yuck, gross—so grateful Flora was with me so that she could open doors for me as I ran into the house to wash my disgusting hand.

“Don’t say you hate the dog,” Flora forestalled me.

“OK,” I agreed. But I thought it.

unsolicited advice

Dogs and children do not go together. This is a horrible myth perpetuated by Hollywood? 1950s children’s books? Something. I don’t know. Please, for the love of the dog you are going to neglect, listen to me: if you are pregnant, if you are planning to have children soon—if you have small children: DO NOT GET A DOG.

It’s fine. I know you’re not going to listen. When you do get your dog, and neglect it, and don’t particularly love it, come back and let me say, “I told you so.”

Marie, by the way, I totally blame you. You should have stopped me.

VI.

Sat down and wrote for 75 minutes straight. Fucking gold. Every word worth keeping.

Well. Ok, 25 per cent of them would be cut later. In the moment, though—I was 100 per cent satisfied.

As a result, I decided to make the children mashed potatoes and breaded chicken cutlets for dinner, instead of the Mr. Noodles Ramen they were probably expecting.

Thought about you, a little. Of course I did. Listened to Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking while peeling the potatoes and seasoning the chicken.

Finally cleaned the muffin in which I had made Eggs A La Janine last weekend, and ugh, it was disgusting.

a recipe: eggs a la Janine

If you ever want to feed six to twelve people piping hot bacon and eggs that are all ready at the same time, you will need a dozen (or two eggs), as many slices of bacon as you have eggs, and a muffin tin (or two).

Cut a bit off each bacon slice—just enough to fit in the bottom of each muffin hole. Put that bit in the bottom, then take the rest of the slice and put it inside the hole: yes, you’ve just made a muffin cup out of bacon. Repeat with all your bacon slices… and now break an egg into each cup.

Bake for 12-20 minutes (depending on how set you like your eggs) at 350 degrees. Yum.

VII.

When Sean came home, we ate very quickly, did a half-ass job of cleaning the kitchen, and ran to listen to some people talk about art.

When we came home, we talked about art some more. Read books to the still-awake kids—dammit, sometimes, when we go out at night, they put themselves to bed, but no, that Monday they waited for us.

Scratch that dammit. It was lovely.

Then, sex.

Sleep.

*

Epilogue

Later that week—it was on a Saturday—I would meet a woman named Karen Pheasant who came into my life solely to tell me that she lived a creative non-fiction life.

Me too, sister. Me too.

The artists talking about art didn’t talk about this, but another artist—also a zoologist—calls art making the extra-ordinary out of the ordinary.*

I like that definition. Mostly.

Except… if you really pay attention to things… is anything ever ordinary?

So then… is everything art?

So then, I thought about you and all the things I hadn’t told you since the last time I saw you.

Here you go. They are all contained in the story of this one monday.

Isn’t that extra-ordinary?

“Jane”

Cigar Smoke Selfie Modified

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #12

A conversation:

Ender: Oooh, one more chocolate croissant, yum!

Jane: Oh, yeah, one more. Do you want to share it with Flora and Cinder?

Ender: No. I want to share it by myself.

Ta-dum.

September 12, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

How To Do Nothing With Nobody All By Yourself by Robert Paul Smith

and if you cannot get a hold of that, read In Defense of Boredom: 200 Years of Ideas on the Virtues of Not-Doing from Some of Humanity’s Greatest Minds on (where else) BrainPickings.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of checking Facebook:

Pen. Notebook. Or, laptop. First four words: “I was bored, so…”

 

An explanation:

This is the final week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL! Actually, I’m back—home sweet home—but 12 seemed like a more… symmetrical? number than 11, and I thought I’d want a week to settle. The conversation + reading assignment + writing exercise + re-run wraps up today. Next week—something utterly new.

Until then…

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

Everyone Isn’t An Artist

first published March 25, 2012

There is a lovely quote attributed to Pablo Picasso along the lines that, “ “All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.” In Quest Theatre’s production of For Art’s Sake, the lovely children’s play that played last weekend at Y-Stage in Calgary, the playwright and authors draw attention a couple of times to another Picasso soundbyte on art: that the great master spend most of his adult life trying to paint (think?) like a child. The message of the play, delivered repeatedly by one of the characters and proudly parroted back at the actors at the end of the play by my own Flora? “Everyone is an artist.”

Except they’re not.

A caveat before I go any further: I enjoyed the play—the actors were terrific, the setting and its use of multi-media inspired, and the little people loved it. I love Quest Theatre. I support Y-Stage unreservedly and will be back for their offering next month (here’s a link to details about the show at FamilyFunCalgary).

But I disagree with its fundamental tenant. Everyone is not an artist… and I’m not sure why these days, artists are so darn determined to convince the rest of us that a) they’re not that special and b) if only we opened our minds / cleaned our chakras / freed our inner elves, we could do what they do.

I am a writer. I don’t think everyone is a writer. Nor that everyone should exert themselves to be a writer, to express themselves, fulfill themselves—earn a livelihood for themselves—in this particular way. If everyone is an artist, is everyone an engineer? A plumber? A mathematician?

My artist child is shining under the influence of the play. She’s an artist. And she loves the message that everyone is an artist. It’s reassuring to her fledgling confidence.

Her older brother? He laughed in all the funny spots. Clearly enjoyed himself. As we leave the theatre, however, he’s unforgiving. “It was kind of crappy,” he says. “Art this art that. I don’t like art. I don’t like drawing or painting very much. Or even looking at pictures. That’s just not my thing.”

He’s not an artist. Nor a thwarted artist—not an artist denied. Surrounded by paints, crayons, markers, pencils, chalks, in a house in which walls were prepped for painting and drawing on, he abandoned all that as soon as he grew into consciousness of choice. That is not how he expresses himself, fulfills himself, processes information, relaxes.

But it is what his sister turns to do all that. She draws when she’s overflowing with happiness. And when she’s sad. When she’s at a loss. It’s what she does when she listens to books on tape. Her handwriting practice sheets are works of art—an interplay of colour, patterns, creation. Will this love stay her lifelong passion, lead her to her livelihood, or remain a steadfast companion/form of release and expression throughout her life?

Maybe. And will she try to convince her brother that he’s an artist too? That everyone is an artist?

Frankly, I hope not. It’s a gift, a talent, a passion that not everyone shares or aspires to. And claiming that they do denigrates its meaning. Its value.

Everyone’s not an artist.

What do you think?

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A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #10

A conversation:

Jane: I don’t understand. I don’t understand how two people who love each other as much as I know you two do can fight so much!

Flora: Oh, Mom. Don’t worry. We’re just like Sadie and Carter. (Sadie and Carter Kane, from The Kane Chronicles.)

Cinder: Yeah, we fight all the time…

Flora: … but we cooperate when it matters.

Cinder: Yeah, we’d totally work together to save the world. Right, Flora?

Flora: Right… Ouch! Why’d you punch me?

Cinder: The world is not in peril right now.

June 15, 2012

A reading assignment that will change your life:

On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor.

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 7.08.45 PM

Preview the book’s insights on BrainPickings: How kindness became our guilty pleasure.

 

A writing exercise (that is also a secret discipline tool) to do instead of breaking up the latest fight between your kids:

Script the next fight between your kids. Then have them act it out. Present the play to your partner when s/he gets home.

Variant: the next time your kids are fighting, whip out your notebook or laptop and start transcribing

 

An explanation:

This is the tenth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

The 2 a.m. phone call: why sleeping through the night is irrelevant

First published July 30, 2013

It’s 2 a.m. The telephone rings. It’s dark and I’m groggy as I race through the house for the telephone. I don’t get there in a time and I’m in a brief moment of panic as I crouch beside it and wait for it to ring again. My Flora’s sleeping out of the house this night and this phone call can only be about her.

The phone rings again; I pick up; the panic subsides. Yes, it’s Flora. Sleep over fail. She woke up in a strange place, a strange bed and is frightened. Wants to come home.

Sean runs over to get her—and we’re both briefly grateful about the place we live, where sleepovers take place a couple of doors down instead of across the city—and a short two minutes later, she’s in my arms, face pressed against my chest. She’s whispering “the whole story”: how it was so fun, and they had a great time, and she had no trouble at all falling asleep, and then she woke up, and it was dark and strange and she didn’t want to stay…

I listen and then shush her, tell her to go back to sleep. She presses tight against me. Now that she feels perfectly safe and secure, she also feels embarrassed that she bailed. I reassure her in a sleepy voice… and shush her again. “Now sleep, Flora, sleep.”

She presses against me. On the other side of me, Ender flips over, rolls. But doesn’t wake. It’s doesn’t happen very often these days that I find myself squished between two little bodies and I take a sleepy minute to savour the moment.

And I think about how much parenting takes place in these dark hours—when, really, we’re at our worst. Exhausted. Unconscious. Still on duty, but too tired to perform.

None of that ends when the baby (toddler, preschooler, kindergartener!) “sleeps through the night.” Our Cinder actually reached that milestone relatively quickly—sometime around two years. And so what? A few weeks of blissfully uninterrupted sleep followed. Then came the night terrors. When the first wave of those subsided, he got out of diapers—and had to get up to pee in the night. Six times a night, it seemed (probably just once or twice). Then Flora arrived and being awake for Cinder became irrelevant because I was waking up for Flora. When she nightweaned, she started waking up at 3 a.m., raring to go for the day. When she’d sleep late (aka, until 5 a.m.), Cinder would have night terrors. Inevitably, on the nights both kids slept soundly, the dog would have diarrhea… Or, naturally, I would have insomnia.

As I’m cataloging the different stages of post-child sleep deprivation, Flora presses her closer against me. “I’m going to roll over; you can hug my back,” I whisper. “Can’t I roll over with you?” she whimpers. “No, stay there—Ender’s on the other side.” I readjust, so does she. “I like your soft side better,” she sighs. Her head is between my shoulder blades. But her breathing is winding down—sleep is almost there.

“Mom?”

“Sleep, Flora.”

“Does Monday come after Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, Flora.”

“Is tomorrow Sunday?”

“Yes. Sleep, baby.”

“And then Monday?”

“Mmmm.”

“Good. I have plans on Monday.”

And she’s asleep. Ender does another flip. But doesn’t wake up. I send a prayer to Morpheus—or should I be petitioning Ra?–that neither of them wakes up with the sunrise. It’ll probably be a four pot, not four cup, coffee day, tomorrow, I think as I feel my breathing reach the sleep rhythm. And I’m out.

I don’t  belittle or dismiss sleep deprivation. It’s tough. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is a form of torture. And each family needs to find its own unique solution to ensuring all members—especially the primary caretaker—gets enough sleep. But “sleeping through the night”? That’s irrelevant. Because kids keep on needing their parents at night, long after they wean. Sometimes just for a minute, for a quick squeeze and reassurance. Sometimes for longer. But if not exactly forever—for a long, long time.

Ender wakes up that morning, by the way, at 5:30 a.m. I curse Morpheus and tell off Ra. Then we tiptoe downstairs. I make coffee. Pull the electronic babysitter—aka Backyardiggans on Netflix—onto duty. Cuddle the Ender. Write most of this post.

Flora streaks downstairs at 7 a.m. “Hi, Mom, I’m going to Meghan’s!” she calls. “Hug? Kiss?” I holler. She backtracks. Hug. Kiss. And for Ender. And for Maggie the runt terrier. And she’s off.

I look at Ender. Hug. Kiss. Soon, I’ll roll off the couch and make the second pot of coffee. By the third pot, I’ll be ready to face the day.

Pot number four, I decide to save for the inevitable afternoon crash.

Koala sleeping on a tree top

 (N.B. For those concerned about my caffeine intake, I should clarify they’re pretty small coffee pots. It was a purchasing mistake. We thought the small press would make us drink less coffee. Nope. It just makes coffee drinking a more labour-intensive process. Live and learn. On the plus side, the cafe is always fresh.)

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #9

A conversation:

Cinder: I like being nine. Halfway to 18.

Jane: Excited about being able to vote?

Cinder: What? No–excited about being able to own a gun!

(I might have gone horribly wrong somewhere here…)

May 24, 2011

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Louise De Salvo’s The Art of Slow Writing.

It’s a slow read… not exciting… but. Useful.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of doing the laundry:

What are you wearing? What do you wish you were wearing? What does that sanctimonious woman standing behind you on the subway platform think about each outfit? Is she just thinking this… or is she one of those people who’s gonna tell you what she thinks, good or bad?

Use lots of mind-dialogue.

 

An explanation:

This is the ninth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

 Mittens

first published January 1, 2014

We come out of the warm YMCA building, the chlorine scent of the swimming pool still clinging to us. Ender, with the determination only a four-year-old possesses, drags his sled down the stairs. Clunk, clunk, clunk. Slam! It lands on the bottom. He looks over his shoulder. Scowls at me. He’s tired. Hungry. Probably, despite the snowpants, sleeping-bag-jacket, and over-the-face toque, cold, because it’s the coldest, snowiest December YYC has seen in 112 years.

He plops down on the sled in a Buddha pose.

“Mittens?”

I ask, kneeling down beside him.

“No! My hands are NOT cold!”

He’s tired. Hungry. Contrary. It’s at least -15 Celsius.

I shrug. Get up. Start pulling the sled.

It’s a beautiful, clear night. The air feels clean—sparkling—even as it hurts my lungs, bites at my exposed cheeks. I pull the sled on the cleared-of-snow-but-there’s-so-much-of-it-everywhere-I-kind-of-want-a-snowmobile paths. Look at the twinkling lights. The sleeping-bag-parka-engulfed people. Turn my head.

“Mittens?”

“No.”

I shrug. Start walking again, my hands warm in my mittens. I think of what 2013 was, and what 2014 might be. I think of milestones, real and artificial. I think of hope-despair-desire-acceptance-creation-destruction-reconstruction. A plot line emerges from all those thoughts, a fascinating one, and I hear a conversation in my head that sets it up, and I fall in love with it, but it doesn’t really fit into what I want to do, ultimately, with that piece of work, and then my thoughts leap to the unBloggers Manifesto I want to write for Nothing By The Book for January, a polemic that in its current form is not doing quite what I need it to do, and I know it’s because I’m pulling too much into it, going off on too many tangents, and for a piece of writing to work, it needs to be focused, and a polemic piece of writing needs to be brutally so, digressions and tangents only work if you pull them back, at just the right time, to the central idea, the theme… or the chorus…

I turn around.

“Mittens?”

“No. Not cold.”

Mittens Pin

I cross the bridge. The lights are beautiful and almost make me forgive Christmas its existence. And I think about… beauty, definitions of, abstraction of, and that thought takes me to my daughter-who’s-about-to-turn-nine, so beautiful in mind-soul-body that it makes me ache, so full of potential and wonder that it’s that thought, and not the cold air, that stops the breath in my throat for a second… and I think about all the ways that I think fail her as a mother, all the ways that I am not what she needs, and tears swirl in my eyes—but maybe I am what she needs? And, really, what a silly question, because I am what she has and she is what I must learn—and, tears still dancing in the corners of my eyes, I turn my head…

“Mittens?”

He shakes his head. I never imagined motherhood to be this—so full of such intense joy and such paralyzing pain. So full of summits and valleys. So glorious, so rewarding—so fucking heart-wrenching. And that thought takes me to twelve different places at once, and I’m not sure how much self-awareness I want to chase in this moment, so I choose to chase the idea that self-awareness, for all the pain it brings, is also a source of power and that takes me to such very, very interesting places…

“Mittens?”

His hands are folded in his lap, and he’s bent over them. Head bopping. Falling asleep. He bops up. Scowls at me.

“Mittens?” I repeat.

“No.”

I walk faster. Over another bridge. Through the steam rising from the cracks in the ice of the river. I look at the water, ice, snow, steam and feel a shot of resentment and fear. I try to see beauty… and not next year’s flood waters. And I grit my teeth and don’t chase that thought. Find another. Oh, this one I like… I smile—my nose runs, because it’s so cold—my mouth opens and I almost stop moving because all I want is that thought and, irreverently and irrelevantly, I also glory in the fact that it came to me in this moment when I am alone… except I am not, because I am MOTHER and I am never alone, even when I am.

I look over my shoulder…

“Mittens?”

“Not! Cold!”

I can’t really run in my boots and on the snow, but I walk as quickly as I can. Home, home. I cannot wait to be home, and not just because it’s cold, and I love that thought, that feeling. I want to get home.

“Mom? My hands are cold.”

I’m about… what? 200 meters away. Maybe less. I kneel down beside the four-year-old. His hands are pulled into the sleeves of his sleeping-bag coat. I blow on his fingers and slip on his mittens. Kiss the tip of his nose.

Do not lecture, and so, enjoy the brief victory of mind over impulse. Pull the sled the last 200 meters home.

I wish I could tell you that the next time we go out in the cold, he says “Yes” the first time I try to put on his mittens. But he won’t.

I wish I could tell you I will never again doubt that I am what my daughter needs or let my thoughts go to all those other unproductive, painful places.

I wish I could tell you that, somewhere between the YMCA and home, I found the answer to EVERYTHING. Because how awesome would that be?

But, I just want to tell you this: You can fight over the mittens. Cajole, badger, plead. Force.

Or you can wait for those little hands to get cold.

And when they do—put on the mittens. Silently. Without the “I told you so’s.” Or too many expectations for the next time.

Fuck, yeah, it’s a metaphor.

Jane

P.S. Happy New Year, beloveds. I am torn what to ask of 2014. In the closing weeks and months of 2013, I rather wanted a less eventful year. But now that it’s here… eventlessness is so boring. And unfulfilling. So, 2014—be eventful. Be FULL. I’ve got plans for you. And you’d better be prepared to rise to the occasion.

P.P.S. “Jane, why are you anthropomorphizing a calendar construct?”
“Because… Metaphors. So useful.”

Coming sometime this month: the unBlogger’s Manifesto. Minus all of its digressions. Or maybe not. Focus is key. But it is digressions that make life and thought interesting…

P.P.P.S. “I love this! I want more!”
“I am so pleased. Connect with Nothing By The Book on Twitter @nothingbythebook, Facebook, and Google+. Or, for a not-in-front-of-the-entire-Internet-please exchange, email  nothingbythebook@gmail.com.”

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #8

A conversation:

Flora to Cinder: Ex-boyfriend means your friend used to be a boy, but now he’s a girl.

December 16, 2010

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho Companion.

Also, Margaret Reynold’s The Sappho History and Willis Barnestone’s The Complete Sappho and Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap (the first three chapters; you can give up after that without guilt).

A writing exercise to do instead of washing the kitchen floor:

Sappho’s poems came down only in fragments—and they are still beautiful. These are two  of my favourites:

Sappho1

and…

Sappho2

 

So now. Write a handful of sentences. Ordinary sentences about the things you’ve done today, yesterday, this week. Rip each sentence into… words.

And play with them.

Maybe something beautiful will happen…

An explanation:

This is the eighth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um… or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

A re-run:

Cinder and Flora become Hellenic Pagans

first published October 25, 2011

It started in the Spring of 2011, and is still here. Ancient Greece. Now Ancient Rome. Cinder and Flora getting as thorough a grounding in Greek mythology and the foundation of Western civilization as the average first-year university Classics student. Here’s how it happened. Read the boring paragraph, please. You need it as a straw man to enjoy the rest of the piece.

D’Aulaires Greek Myths Study Guide (grade 3-6)

This program explores this classic of Greek mythology following the same in-depth approach used in other Memoria Press guides. Designed to be used for one year (although you may choose to go faster by combining days), each of the 30 lessons is broken down into five days. Students read the selected pages from D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths on the first day. On the second day, students familiarize themselves with the “Facts to Know”―key people, places, and objects. The goal is for students to memorize these items and retain them through the end of the year, although there is no final test in this program. The third section holds vocabulary words for students to discuss and define with their teacher and may also be used as spelling words. The fourth day holds comprehensive questions, written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers. The final section uses the fantastic illustrations found in D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths as a springboard for further discussion questions. Review lessons appear after every fifth lesson; all vocabulary and facts from the preceding lessons are tested and recurring activities encourage children to draw a picture of their favourite god or story and work on a list of things from today which borrow the names or symbols of Greek gods and goddesses. A pronunciation guide in the back breaks down al the tricky Greek names for smoother reading. The teacher’s guide is identical to the student book except the answers are filled in.”

The above summary/review―titillating, was it? Enjoy reading it? Or did you stifle a yawn or two?―comes from the Rainbow Resource Center’s Homeschool Catalogue, and you can buy the D’Aulaires book, student and teacher guide for $40.50.

D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths is a beautiful book. I have it on our bookshelf, in fact―a gift from my good friend Lisa, who passed it on to us after her kids were done grooving with the Greeks and mine were in full Greco mode. I was thrilled: we had just maxed the number of renewals on our library copy. Flora loved sitting down with the book and looking at the pictures, and we spent many evenings with it as our bedtime reading… or morning reading… or mid-day reading.

But we never did get the study guide. Because Cinder and Flora never studied Greek mythology―and I never taught it.

This is what we did instead.

It all started in the Texas Panhandle. That’s where Hank the Cowdog hails from. Hank the Cowdog is a wonderful series of books by John Ericsson about―who else―Hank the cowdog, his sidekick Drover, his enemy Pete the barn cat and an assortment of very fallible human characters. There are 50-plus books in the Hank series, and while extremely amusing and well-written, they do tend to be just a bit… repetitive. Formulaic. After months and months of reading and listening to Hank (the author’s produced a series of audio books as well, which accompanied us on every car ride and serenaded us pretty much anytime we were in the kitchen), I was very actively looking for another obsession with which to replace Hank. Harry Potter did it for a while―we read the first four books and watched (most of) the first four movies, but he didn’t have the repeatability of Hank: the kids didn’t want to read him again and again. Once―twice for book one―was enough. (They are pretty thick books for a six year old to listen to!)

Enter Percy Jackson. He was mentioned by another homeschooling family when we were swapping favourite book stories. I filed the name away to look into―and a few days later, Cinder and his friend K watched Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief on Netflix.

Usually, I’d have us read the book before watching the movie―but here, the Fates intervened. There’s nothing wrong with The Lightening Thief as a movie―it’s a perfectly good kids’ movie. “That guy playing Percy Jackson, he’s the best actor I’ve ever seen,” said a star-struck Flora. “Luke is an awesome villain!” said Cinder. But if we had come to the movie after the books, it would have sucked. As it was, the kids enjoyed it, and were eager to

read the Percy Jackson books.

There are five of them, written by author Rick Riordan, whose first career was an an adult thriller writer, and who―like most great children’s writers seem to―invented Percy Jackson as a character about whom he spun bedtime stories for his sons. As The Lightening Thief opens, Percy is a 12 year old kid with ADHD and dyslexia―a really good kid who somehow or other keeps on getting into trouble in school after school. Weird things happen to him and around him, and not an awful lot in his life makes sense, until one day, his substitute teacher turns into a Fury and tries to kill him, his best friend turns into a satyr and tries to save him, his Latin teacher turns into a Centaur, a Minotaur appears out of nowhere and kidnaps his mother… and Percy finds out he’s the son of Poseidon.

And the adventures begin. Percy finds himself in a world where the Greek gods are real and still peopling the earth with godlings―or half-bloods or demigods in the Riordan vernacular. Percy finds a sanctuary of sorts at Camp Half-Blood―the place where demigods go for combat training―then a quest… and in the end, of course, saves the world, and Olympus. And, in the last book, when he’s 16, gets the girl.

Cinder and Flora were swept away by the story. We read the hefty Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief in three nights, and then read it again while we waited for the library to deliver the second book in the series, Sea of Monsters. They couldn’t get enough of Sea of Monsters―I took out the audio book of it as well, and when I wasn’t reading it to them, they were listening to the audio book in the kitchen, in the car―not wanting to get out of the car because they wanted to keep on listening. Battle of the Labyrinth, The Titan’s Curse and finally, The Last Olympian followed. They fell in love with the heroes of the books―Percy, the son of Poseidon, Annabeth, the daughter of Athena, Niko, son of Hades. They met Zeus, Poseidon and Hades―the “Big Three”―as well as Hephasteus, Aphrodite, Hermes, Artemis, Hera and, of course, Dionysus―the god of wine who for his transgressions (he ticked off Zeus by going after the wrong nymph) was the cranky and totally inappropriate headmaster of Camp Half-blood. (“Maybe if you go on this quest, you’ll die and I’ll never have to deal with you again,” he tells Percy Jackson once.) They got to know all about the “real”

Perseus, Percy Jackson’s namesake, and Theseus, and Herakles, and Dadealus, and so many more.

When we’d go to the library for the new Percy book, we’d also come back with handfuls of other books on Greek myths. D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths was a quick first favourite, as was Atticus the Storytellers 100 Greek Myths. So was Michael Townsend’s amazing Greek myths of wonder and blunders : welcome to the wonderful world of Greek mythology, a pun-filled, blood-filled comic book introduction to the world of “Greek gods, dumb sheep and people who hated pants.” George O’Connor’s amazing graphic novel series retelling first the story of Zeus, then Athena―we’re still on hold for Hera!―offered different, modern reinterpretations of the myths. The kids learned about source material and the fluidity of oral tradition. We read Homer for Children, and they got to know the heroes of Troy and the Odyssey. Flora adored the story of Persephone, so I found her all the versions of the story, including one in which Demeter is an over-bearing mother who won’t let her daughter marry and move on with life! Cinder really liked Odysseus and the dangerous sea voyages: we watched Kirk Douglas’ Ulysseus, and talked about what happened to the Greek gods―and the world―when the power of Rome rose. We watched the History Channel/A&E documentary Clash of the Gods―and we watched a few episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess. I found them audio books of the various myths, including a BBC radio production of The Odyssey.

And we went back to the Percy Jackson books and read and re-read them, and re-listened to them.

Over… how long? Complete immersion lasted about two months―May and June of 2011 had them scorning anything and everything that didn’t have the taste of ancient Greece. It continued into the summer, capping with me organizing a Percy Jackson book club meeting, in which Cinder and Flora hosted a get-together for three other families also currently obsessed with Percy Jackson. They prepared a list of questions they wanted the kids to talk about (“If you were a demigod, who would you want your godly parent to be? What sort of weapon would you want? What monster would you most want to slay―and which one are you most afraid of?”). The kids all brought weapons to the meeting―and after the discussion, went out on our Common to sword fight. (“You know it’s a good book club if there’s a sword fight afterwards.”)

And then the obsession started to wane―just in time, because we were number 89 on the wait list at the library for Rick Riordan’s next book, Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero, and we had read pretty much every good book on Greek myths and Ancient Greece in the library by then―several times over. “I need something to get the Greek gods out of my mind,” Flora told me. But Percy Jackson set the bar high. For several weeks, everything I offered them was a dud. Chronicles of Narnia? Boring. Treasure Island? Nah. The Mysterious Benedict Society? All the other kids in our Percy Jackson book club had read it and loved? Boooooring. This really cool book about samurai? Warrior cats? Killer owls?

They were mythed-out… and it took me a while to figure out, also fictioned out. We went back to Horrible Science as bedtime reading. I got The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child out of the library as an audio book for in-car listening. Ancient Greece retreated into the background.

Until… last week, we finally got The Lost Hero. And devoured the 550 page book in about a week. The library doesn’t have a copy of the next one, Son of Neptune, in yet… but Costco did. We’re reading it now. We can’t stop. Something weird’s happening: Gaea’s waking up and preparing to make war on her Olympian children again. And her Olympian children are shifting between their Greek and Roman aspects. Zeus is Zeus one minute and then he’s Jupiter. Hera’s becoming Juno… and they’re not precisely the same in those two aspects. Because Greece and Rome, well, each as a culture valued and focused on different things…

By the most fortuitous of coincidences―or was it the Fates intervening again?―The Story of the World volume we just finished covers the rise and fall of Greece and Rome. I need to check in with the library to see what they have in stock―on DVD, I think―covering the transition period. And next time we’re at the grandparents’ house, I should pull out our photo albums from Italy―standing in front of the Coliseum.

So… have Cinder and Flora explored Greek myths in depth? Hell―sorry, Hades―yeah. But they didn’t read a myth a week. They didn’t memorize “Facts to Know” with the goal of demonstrating that memorization at a test. They didn’t review vocabulary words nor endure spelling tests of the Greek gods’ names. Comprehensive questions “written to capture the essence of the characters and the main idea of each story, which encourages students to think about the reading and provide meaningful answers”? Well―they talked at length about all the stories. They asked us questions, and of each other. We asked them. They offered interpretations and impressions to interested adults, and inflicted them on completely uninterested playmates. At one point Flora wanted to learn to speak Ancient Greek―so I got out a couple of books, and they looked at the Greek alphabet, and listened to the names of the letters―and memorized what Omega and Theta look like. Poseidon’s trident led to the triangle to geometry to Archimedes (“Hey, I know him―that’s from Mythbusters! The Archimedes’ Death Ray? Remember?”) to the Greek roots of English mathematical, and other, words. There was a brief segue into the planets even before Riordan started phasing the Greek gods into their Roman aspects (“I know why Pluto’s named Pluto! Because it’s dark and rocky and barren and kind of depressing, just like Hades!”).

Could I have asked for a more thorough exploration of Greek myths, as a teacher or as a learning facilitator? No way. Could I have designed this program? Nope, no way again. I’m willing to bet cold hard cash that if we had come to the Greek myths through the D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths study guide, brought to the children by me because I thought we should study Greek myths now, our experience would have been, well, vastly different. They probably would have enjoyed the stories: it’s hard not to. But would we have managed to work our way through the entire 30-week study guide before they thought the project mostly drudgery? Would they have been inspired to delve as deeply into them as they did because they loved the Percy Jackson books and wanted to experience them as fully as possible?

Maybe. The Greek myths are powerful; they resonate. But having watched Cinder and Flora immerse themselves fully in the world of the Greeks―and now discover Ancient Roman with the same joy―I’m again ridiculously grateful that we’re able to let them do this. Take six months to read and re-read Percy Jackson. Take three years to obsess about dinosaurs. Play with baking soda and vinegar every day for 40 weeks, and then spend three weeks obsessing about nothing but the periodic table. Take a break from everything that looks like “work” because there’s important internal digestion happening and just colour and listen to books on tape and play video games for a while.

Gotta go. Cinder just came downstairs holding Son of Neptune. Percy, Frank and Hazel are on this quest to Alaska, because the giant Alcyoneus has imprisoned Thanatos, the god of death… Read the book. Come to our book club meeting. There’ll be a sword fight after.

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #7

A conversation:

Cinder: Dad will come to the phone in a minute, Mom. He’s just washing his hands–he was cleaning up the blood in the bathroom.

September 16, 2011

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Lawrence Block’s The Liar’s Bible. It’s a collection of columns on writing fiction Block wrote for Writer’s Digest in the 1980s. And it’s down-to-earth brilliant. READ IT.

 

A writing exercise to do just before making supper:

A garlic and tomato are having a fight. And go.

(No, seriously. Go. It can’t possibly be a good piece. It’s just play. It’s just fun. PLAY, dammit.)

 

An explanation:

This is the seventh week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

When Toddlers Attack / That Hitting Thing

Toddlers hit. Not all toddlers. But a lot of toddlers. Like, almost all toddlers, at least some of the time. And some of them—not a few, either, a lot—go through phases when they hit all the time. Attachment parented toddlers hit. Breastfed toddlers hit. Bottle-fed toddlers hit. Babyworn toddlers hit. Toddlers of parents who never raise their voices hit. Really. It’s not just your little guy.

When my first little guy when through this hitting phase, I felt incredibly isolated. Alone. And judged up the wazoo. Here’s our story.

From Life’s Archives. “That Hitting Thing,” March 8, 2006. Cinder’s not quite four; Flora’s one and change.

2006. It happened today, in the playroom, and my head is still whirring. “Flora!” Cinder yells. “You wrecked my tower. That bothers me! Bothers me! I am so angry I want to hit you! But I don’t want to hit you! Grrr!” I poke my head in from the hallway. Cinder is standing closing and opening his fists and breathing. He sees me looking, looks at me. “I didn’t hit Flora,” he announces. “But I’m not proud of you!” he yells at her. She gurgles and hands him a Lego block. They start building the tower together.

I’ve been waiting for this day for… what, two years? Two years to the day, I think. And I know today isn’t the cure. It’s not the turn around, the end. He will hit his little sister again, probably later today. He will push her, pinch her. But he’s working through it—we’re muddling through it, he’s “getting” it. And the fact that this huge emotional break through—this discovery by himself that just because he wants to hit he doesn’t have to hit—has come on the heels of eight nights of peeing the bed puts all sorts of things into perspective for me. Makes me feel not quite so resentful as I wash the sheets and covers for the ninth day in a row…

I’ve been delaying posting this “hitting thing” exposition until I felt I could clearly articulate where we were, why, and how we got there. I don’t think that’s going to happen in the next few weeks or even months. But based on some conversations I’ve had with other mothers of closely spaced siblings—particularly when the older is a boy!—I think this is a story that must be told, in all of its messiness.

Continue reading

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #4

A conversation:

3:30 a.m.

“Mama, wake up, I have a booger!”

“Hmm?”

“Should I eat it?”

“No… ah… here, give it to me, I’ll put it on the wall…”

3:56 a.m.

“Mama, I have another booger. Should I put it on the wall?”

“Yes.”

(From Life’s Archives, July 9, 2005)

 

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Anything by Rumi. I recommend Coleman Barks’ The Essential Rumi, but you really can’t go wrong. Sample at The Poetry Chaikhana.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of asking “when do you find the time to write”:

Go to your bookshelf. Find a book you will never read again. Fill the front and end pages with first paragraphs of books you’d like to read, but nobody has written yet.

 

An explanation:

This is the fourth week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

How I got deprogrammed and learned to love video games

(first published on May 19, 2012)

Cinder’s just shy of 10, and the big passion of his life is Minecraft. Or Terraria. Or both, but usually just one or the other. He loves them so much, he’s convinced his Mac-using parents to get him a PC laptop so he can play them more effectively. He loves them so much that his show of choice is watching Minecraft or Terraria videos on Youtube. (A digression for a Cinder recommendation: for Terraria, nothing beats Total Biscuit and Jesse Cox; for Minecraft, Antvenom is King, and Cavemanfilms is pretty good too. Now you know where to go.)

My boy loves video games. And this is a wonderful thing.

I never thought I’d find myself saying this. Video games were never a part of my childhood, and my experience of them as an on-looker—sister, girlfriend, wife—was, well, blah. Wasn’t interested. Didn’t understand the appeal. Could tell you one thing for sure: no kid of mine was going to waste his childhood playing video games. Could rattle of spades of research about how detrimental to the proper development of a child excessive (any) video game playing could be.

Well. What changed?

Simply this: My boy loves video games, and I love my boy. He started getting drawn to them about age eight, I suppose, meeting them at this friend’s house or that, telling us about them with excitement, in vivid detail. His game-playing father entered into his interest; his game-ignorant mother started to agonize. What to do? For what reason? With what consequences?

I spare you my internal angst, as first one online game and then another (“It’s educational, Mom!” Supported by Dad’s: “Really, Jane, it’s educational.”) got introduced. Then the X-box (“It’s Kinect, Jane—they’ll be exercising and moving while they play—isn’t that good?”). Then an iPad and all the apps and games that enabled. Here’s what steered me through it, though: I love my boy. He loves these things; he’s drawn to them. What’s he getting out of it? Why? How?

I love my boy, and if I love my boy, I can’t be dismissive and contemptuous of something he loves.

So, I’d sit beside him and watch him play. Listen to him talk about the games afterwards. In-between. Eavesdrop while he talked about with his friends. Watch while they acted out game scenes on the trampoline or on the Common.

I might tell you about all the things I’ve seen him learn from gaming another time (for one example, check out this salon.com piece about Minecraft ). Rattle of spades of research about how playing video games actually makes kids smarter (Here’s Gabe Zichermann talking about this on Ted Talks). But it really comes down to this:

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. His reasons for loving them are complex—but no less valid than my love for Jane Austen novels, or John Fluevog shoes. I do not have to love them just because he loves them—I do not have to make myself play them or enjoy them as he does, just because I love him. But because I love him, I can’t say—or think and believe—that what he loves and enjoys is a waste of time. Of no value. Stupid.

Flip it. Think of something you love. Knitting? Film noir? Shiny cars? Collecting porcelain miniatures? Whatever. Doesn’t matter what. I’m thinking of my Jane Austen novels, which I reread probably half-a-dozen times a year. Now think of how you feel when someone who’s supposed to love you and care about you—your partner, your best friend, your mother—thinks that hobby or activity is of no value. And takes every opportunity to tell you so. Do those interactions build your relationship? Inspire you with love and trust for the person showing such open contempt for something that brings you joy?

I love my boy. My boy loves video games. And I love that he loves them. I love that they bring him joy.

As I finish writing this up, Ender’s having the tail-end of his nap in my arms, and Flora’s listening to The Titan’s Curse. Cinder grabs his lap top, and sits down beside me on the couch. He pulls up an Antvenom video on Youtube. “I need to get this mod,” he says. “Cool one?” I ask. “Too cool,” he says. I watch him watching for a while.

I love my boy.

“Love you, Mom,” he says. “What do you want to do when my video’s over?”

Minecraft Castle

Minecraft Castle (Photo credit: Mike_Cooke)

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #3

A conversation:

Sean: Hurry! I need to pee and the baby is grabbing the camera, the box of nails and my beer!
Jane: Where are you?
Sean: In the bathroom! Hurry!
Jane: Your camera, box of nails, and beer are in the bathroom?
Sean: Now is not the time to discuss the inappropriateness of me putting all these things in the bathroom sink. Just save my beer… and the camera. He can have the box of nails.

September 9, 2011

 A reading assignment that will change your life:

Vera Pavlova’s If There Is Something To Desire: 100 Poems.

for a shot of Vera to convince you to devour her beautiful book of poetry, check out this article she wrote for Poetry magazine: Heaven is not verbose: a Notebook.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of wishing you were writing:

This is my favourite Vera Pavlova poem:

I walk a tightrope,

a kid on each arm for balance.

This is all a poem can be, this is all a poem should be. Now. Write your own. Two lines. That’s all.

 

 

An explanation:

This is the third week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

In defence of routines

 (first published on September 21, 2011)

I wrote this essay in response to a long and heated thread called “Discipline for Young Children” on one of the yahoo groups I belong to. I’m not as active a participant in those discussions as I was when Cinder and Flora were little―partly because I no longer have napping kids, partly because I’ve become much more reluctant to offer advice, even when nominally asked for (because I’ve learnt most people don’t want advice and solutions: they just want to whinge, and get unconditional support for their whinging… but that’s food for another post), but mostly because I work and write for money so much more now than I did in those first years… and I’m kind of written out at the end of the day. But every once in a while, against my better judgement, I just can’t resist…
…I would like to offer a defence of―or the case for―rhythms and routines in an unschooled life, with young children and older ones too. [Another poster] wrote in one of her earlier posts “Whenever someone reaches for some additional form of external or arbitrary ‘structure’ I wonder, usually in my head, what is making them feel insecure this week and why they feel that will solve the problem…”

And I would like to answer that with, yes, actually, it can.

The stuff that you have a predictable routine/rhythm for―so long as it works for you in a positive way―is stuff you don’t have to expand energy thinking about and reacting to. (I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory episode in which Sheldon uses gaming dice to make all non-essential decisions to leave his precious brain cells free to do the important work of “the mind.”)

My partner and I are both self-employed, random-deadline driven people engaged in creative, chaotic work. That injects a great deal of surprise, unpredictability and “must make this decision Now!” and “must upset any and all plans made to date and respond to this Crisis Now!” into our professional―and because we are self-employed and work from home and see our lives as intertwined etc.―personal lives.

The counterbalance or anchor if you prefer that word to that chaos is predictability and simplicity wherever it makes sense. And we didn’t arrive at that conclusion/practice overnight: it slowly evolved as we kept on adding children and responsibilities to the chaos.

So we have a morning routine, for example, that I stick to even when there’s a deadline fire burning under me and what I want to do the second I wake up is start pounding away at the keyboard. It’s a routine that honours the fact that 3/5 of the members of this family suck at mornings, and 2/5 are ridiculous early birds, and it includes things like me sitting on the couch with a book ignoring the kids while I drink my first―and hopefully second―cup of coffee and my eldest not speaking or looking at anyone for 45 minutes or so after he wakes up and playing his X-box or just lying on the couch with a blanket over his head. (A routine, see, doesn’t have to be about “doing” stuff. It can also be about safeguarding time to just “be.”) It also includes things like getting dressed, brushing hair, recorder practice, tossing a load of laundry in, making the big bed, and culminates with a morning walk with the dog. But its most important thing is―the time for three of us to just wake up and hang for a bit. (Two of us starting playing and doing stuff as soon as they wake up. The bums.)
This is what we do 9 out of 10 mornings. And it’s not something that anyone complains about as rigid, boring, limiting―it’s a guarded part of our day that, on that 1 out of 10 mornings where we have to miss it―where we have to get into the car first thing in the morning for example―makes us appreciate it all the more on the morrow when we return to it.

There are other anchors like that throughout the day and the week―I’m pretty protective of the last part of our evenings and bedtime, for example, so even though there’s no magic time by which everyone’s in bed or sleep, there sure is a rhythm to the last part of each evening. I have a built-in 3 p.m. tea break for me―that’s the magic time when I run out of steam and get cranky, so I plan for it: tea for me, snack for the kids, something to do (if just flopping on the couch to watch a DVD) so that I don’t become Evil Exhausted Mom (it took me six years to realize I consistently lost it at 3 p.m. Super-observant, I am.) We go swimming each Monday and Thursday―unless something else comes up, but that’s the “default” setting on each week, just as our girl’s music class mid-week is. But there was a time―when my eldest was four to six in particular―when the routines had to be perfectly predictable and inviolate, because that was what he needed at that time.

This last year, I’ve outsourced dinner to routines, a la Taco Tuesday, Slow Cooker Wednesday, Pizza Friday. (Also “What the Fuck’s for Dinner Thursday,” the day that reminds me to stick to the boring predictability of the rest of the week.) This is not my default setting: my default setting is―I’m getting hungry, what should we make for dinner, oh no, the fridge is empty, let’s go out―but this Taco Tuesday setting, although it makes me sound like the most boring person in the world, is better. It means we eat even when I’m on deadline, when my default setting is to not eat at all until the project is done―oh, crap, you mean you kids need to eat?

There are personalities, families, life cycles and individuals who don’t need any of this and don’t thrive on it. For sure. But there are very unschooled families who do. And hyper-organized people who need strict routines to have something to deviate from. And hyper-unorganized people who need some kind of even aspirational guideline to be fly-by-the-seat of-their-pants with.

I’m not sure which one I am, or my family is: we’re five individuals with very different personalities. But I do know that routines/rhythms/anchors―whatever you want to call them if the word schedule gives you the willies―make our family life more peaceful, our work life possible. Most of our days have plenty of spontaneity, go with the flow, live in the moment kinda stuff―too much, I would argue, on the days when work throws me a really unexpected curveball.

Does Slow Cooker Wednesday and 3 p.m. tea mean the baby getting sick, the washing machine flooding the basement, the 9 y o breaking an arm doesn’t throw us into chaos? Of course it doesn’t. But Slow Cooker Wednesday does mean we eat a good supper on Wednesday even if we spent most of the day at the ER (unless of course the broken arm happened before the chicken went into the slow cooker) or mopping up the basement and calling plumbers (see previous caveat).

Making my and my eldest’s morning incapacitation part of our morning routine respects our biological clocks and sets the stage for a good day―and it keeps me from unproductive feelings of guilt over being unproductive in the mornings. And that 3 p.m. tea break I give myself? I don’t like being Evil Exhausted Mommy. And it takes such a small act and such a small amount of planning to keep that from happening.

End of pro-routine pontification.

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #2

A conversation:

Cinder [precariously balanced on you-don’t-want-to-know-what]: “Everything’s within reach. You just have to figure out how to reach it without getting killed.”

December 26, 2010

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Ella Luna’s The Crossroads of Should and Must:

Should is how other people want us to live our lives. It’s all of the expectations that others layer upon us.

Must is different. Must is who we are, what we believe, and what we do when we are alone with our truest, most authentic self. It’s that which calls to us most deeply. It’s our convictions, our passions, our deepest held urges and desires — unavoidable, undeniable, and inexplicable. Unlike Should, Must doesn’t accept compromises.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of saying “but I have nothing to write about”:

Write about why you have nothing to write about. Write for 10 minutes. Then another 10. Then another 10.

There. You’ve written for half an hour. Well done, sweetums.

 

An explanation:

This is the second week of my 12-week unplugged AWOL (don’t tell my clients… um or too many of my friends 😉 ). No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

Moving from guilt to gratitude

(first published February 24, 2014)

I am sick, so sick, achy, feverish, exhausted, so-tired-I-don’t-think-I’ll-even-make-it-to-the-bathroom-even-to’-I-really-need-to-puke-tired…

(Digression-justification: I am obscenely healthy. I hardly ever get sick. And so, when I do, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. Your husband’s man-flu, for which you mock him mercilessly? Forget it. I’m worse.)

I’m so sick, so-tired-barely-conscious, my rational-disciplined self is incapacitated, and the rest of me chooses this moment of physical vulnerability to assault me emotionally and mentally with… GUILT.

I feel guilty… oh, where do I begin? I feel guilty that I’m sick. That I’m not working-billing. Working-family-raising. That I didn’t get up with the kids. Actually I don’t even know where they are. Are they awake? Are they home? Are they alive?

I feel guilty that I’m too sick-exhausted-I-think-I’m-dying to really care…

I  need to get myself to the bathroom—but I can’t move, I can’t move—and the door opens and my beloved comes in with a puke bucket.

As I retch—I’m pretty sure this isn’t just the flu or the latest reiteration of whatever gastro-intestinal bug is floating around, it’s the plague and tomorrow I will be dead—he tells me he’s cancelled my appointments for the day and his, and the kids are fine, and is there anything else I need? Ginger tea?

I moan something incomprehensible and don’t hear his response. I’m too busy feeling guilty. Not just guilty that he’s taking care of me and the kids. No, that wouldn’t be self-flagellating enough: I’m guilty over our entire lifestyle. Guilty that our work allows my husband to be there for me and the kids on a day like this. We’re so stupid-lucky, elitist-privileged, bubble-wrapped.

So guilty.

I even start to feel guilty about this: if he had a shoot or a client commitment today that couldn’t be rescheduled—there are a dozen people he could call on to help. And they would be there for me, for us. In a heart beat.

As I start to inch my way across the bed to get away from the smell of the barf bucket, I realize that I’m  feeling fully and acutely guilty over being supported, connected. Loved.

That’s when my rational-disciplined self, however close to death it feels, snaps. Can’t take it anymore. And wallops its whiney-guilty counterpart upside the head.

“What’d you do that for? I’m sick! I’m dying! And I feel so GUILTY because…”

SLAP!

My rational-discipline self plays hard ball when roused. IT is on the brink of either slapping the rest of me again or, worse, delivering the mother of all lectures on…

…the door creaks open. “Ginger tea?” my beloved says. And… I am flooded with gratitude.

Gratitude for the tea. For the love that brings it. For the support behind it. For my entire life and everyone in it.

Why is guilt so much easier to indulge in than gratitude is to feel and practice?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s because guilt is selfish and self-focused… while gratitude requires humility and awareness of our interdependence, our vulnerability.

I drink my ginger tea. Puke it up almost immediately… then drift off into a feverish-restless sleep-coma-no-not-death.

But I slip into unconsciousness bubble-wrapped in gratitude.

xoxo
“Jane”

P.S. A. Deathbed experiences make me sappy. Sorry. How do they affect you? B. Clearly, I lived. Thank you for asking. But just barely… I’m pretty sure it was the plague. C. For the last few weeks, Cinder, Flora, Ender and I have been constructing a “Things That Went Right” wall. It’s a simple, fun project inspired by Martin Seligman’s gratitude journal exercise in Flourish: every day, each of us thinks of and writes down three things that went right that day. Three good things. Three exciting things. Or three ordinary things. The week of my plague, “I didn’t puke” was THE good thing each of the kids flagged. It’s all about perspective, right?

What Went Right

P.P.S. Tirzah Duncan aka The Inkcaster wrote a marvellous post about her freeing and beautiful take on beauty last week, and I’d love for you to read it: Beauty is far from skin deep.

For those of you deep in the toddler trenches, pop over to Stephanie Sprenger at Mommy Is For Real for a refresher on the concept of disequilibrium… and a tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) proposition of the massing of transitionin-disequibiriumiated (fine, it’s not a word, but you know exactly what I mean…) toddlers in a toddler “Red Tent.”

Looking for me? I’ve revamped the for-stalkers-and-bloggers-and-no-I’m-a-real-sane-fan! section: Find “Jane”

A conversation, a reading assignment, a writing exercise, and a re-run #1

A conversation:

Welcome to my time machine. It’s 2005. Flora is brand-new, and Cinder is not quite two and a half, and trying to figure out what babies are for. So many many things.

Babies are for wrestling:

Jane: Why is Flora crying?

Cinder: Because I wrestled her.

Jane: Did she like it?

Cinder: No, that’s why she’s crying. She’s too little. I’ll try again tomorrow when she’s bigger.

Babies are for jumping on:

Jane: Cinder, what are you doing?

Cinder: I’m going to build a mountain and jump on Flora.

Jane: I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Cinder: It is a good idea. Flora said she wants to play with me like that.

Babies love to play leap frog:

Jane: Stop!

Cinder: What, mama?

Jane: You’re stepping on Flora.

Cinder: No, I’m not. I’m playing leap frog, like Franklin and Rabbit.

Babies are for poking:

Cinder: Mama, can I poke Flora in the eye?

Jane: That’s not a good idea. We have to be very careful about eyes.

Cinder: Mama, can I poke Flora in the ear?[etc. Etc.]

Jane: How about we don’t poke Flora at all?

Cinder: But I like poking Flora.

From Life’s Archives, April 5, 2005.

A reading assignment that will change your life:

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Take 12 weeks to read through it. Do the exercises. Even the hokey ones.

 

A writing exercise to do instead of asking “when do you find the time to write”:

Notebook. Pen. Cup of Coffee. Start writing Morning Pages. Now. If you’re reading this at 2 p.m.—don’t wait until tomorrow morning. Write your first three morning pages now.

Get a grip on the Morning Pages without reading the first chapter of The Artist’s Way (although don’t you wanna?): Morning Pages write up & video.

 

An explanation:

I’m going AWOL for 12 weeks. No phones, no wifi… also, no winter! I’m going to be documenting things old school via journals and postcards (if you want a postcard from… well, that place where I’m hiding… email your snail mail address to nothingbythebook@gmail.com).

The blog’s on auto-pilot with a conversation from the archives, a reading recommendation, a writing assignment (cause I can’t nag any of you in person), and unsolicited advice… er, that is, a re-run post of the kind I don’t write very often anymore.

Enjoy.

 

A re-run:

The Ultimate Secret Behind Parenting

(originally published May 7, 2012)

A friend expecting his first baby actually asked me for parenting advice. After I picked myself up off the floor (most of us, before we have children, know everything about parenting. Everything. Sigh. I miss that time), I gave him a big email smooch and hug. Even when childless, he thought our kids were super-cool and all the whacky stuff we were doing with them made total sense for him. He wanted me to spell it out for him in anticipation of his own journey. Here’s what I wrote. (Language warning for the sensitive of eye and ear: we’re university friends, he and I, and the way we talked about politics, education and philosophy back in the day contained a lot of four letter words. When it came to talking to babies and being a parent… well, old habits and all that.)

2008… As for baby advice, one day I plan to write a book, and in the meantime, my short-hand advice is this: no child should be raised by the book (not even my book). We’ve consciously parented off the beaten path, centering our practices and behaviours around the self-evident truth that children are human beings and should be treated and respected as such. Many of the things we’ve done are “attachment parenting” (watered down mainstream guru of approach is one Dr. William Sears, widely published) principles—baby wearing, sleep sharing, extended breastfeeding—but really it’s not what you do that’s important, it’s who you are as a parent. As a person, really. Now that our kids are older, I absolutely think the most critical part of the parenting journey is maintaining that focus on fostering attachment and bonding between parents and children and siblings, and casting anything other people call “discipline” within that context.

That means, among other things, that we don’t punish our children. Not by withdrawing privileges, not by disguising punishment by consequences, not by trading negative stuff for excessive positive reinforcement and rewards. Doesn’t mean we don’t periodically get angry, frustrated and yell. It doesn’t mean we don’t correct undesirable behaviour—but we don’t time out, send to room, cancel plans etc. But I’m jumping ahead: we can talk about all that when you have a toddler or preschooler.

First, you’re going to have a baby, and that means your focus for the next year is going to be all about keeping that teeny weeny creature alive, healthy and happy, and you’ll find a way to do it. You want to know what the real secret of parenting is? Ready? Here it is: humans have done it for fucking millennia. It’s not that hard. Actually, it’s not hard at all. One of the things that makes it hardest is the legion of self-proclaimed experts preying on the insecurities on new parents in order to sell books of dubious value.

What makes it hard, also, is that so many of the structures and rhythms of life today don’t fit children or families. That’s the biggest adjustment, I think, of post-baby life. We don’t socialize or live as families—we do so as age-segregated units of peers. Why are parents so focused on getting babies to sleep through the night? Two reasons: 1) because the parents need a good night’s sleep wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning and go to work for 10 hours. But even before that, 2) because they want “their life”—time to do adult only things.

Well, surprise: once you have a child, you transform from a couple into a family, and the predominant mode of life should be family life. I believe that’s one of the self-inflicted stresses of post-partum, people wailing “When do I get my life back?” You don’t. You’ve got a brand new life now, with a brand new person in it—and you can move forward and create patterns that work for the three of you, or wail and rant and make all three of you unhappy and estranged.

Everyone wails a little bit.

When that adjustment stage gets tough for you, meditate on this secret: humans have had families and found a way to make things work for fucking millennia. You’ll find a way. (Ours is dramatically different from that of our peers—we’re both working from home, for example, and we take our children with us to virtually everything. Flora’s thrown up on many a Bay Street suit, and there is Cinder pee on the carpet of most of my editors/clients. But I don’t advocate that as the only way—it’s our way and right for us, right? You’ll find your own—but do think in terms of creating new patterns and rhythms, instead of biding time until you can go back to the old ones.)

When revisiting the past, it’s always interesting to see how one’s perspective has changed. I cringed throughout my re-read of that infamous “Why isn’t it natural” post. In this case, no cringing. I would still give the same advice again. The secret of parenthood: humans have done it for millennia. Addendum: no child should be raised by the book.

A Nepalese woman and her infant child.

Dear un-Valentine: How you speak to your partner tells me more about you than the way you kiss

It’s Flora’s fault.

She’s sensitive, empathetic, and ruled by her heart. And she’s only 10, so her heart makes black and white rules. Wait. I’m telling this story wrong. I should have begun… never mind. Let’s start with Flora. And what Flora says is,

“But how can you like someone if you hate the way they treat their husband or wife?”

I’m not sure how to respond to that—I’m never sure how to respond to anything she says, really. And she goes on:

“I mean, how can someone be a good person if they treat the people they’re supposed to love badly?”

And I still say nothing, but I don’t need to, Flora is following her own train of thought, and she finishes:

“If you’re mean to your own wife or your kids or your husband—and these are the most important people in the world to you, the people you love the most—how will you treat me? If I’m a stranger, and you don’t know me at all, and don’t love me?

I would want nothing to do with such a person.”

And then she takes a carton of green tea ice cream from the freezer, and moves on to other things.

Meanwhile, her mother stands in the middle of the kitchen, phone in one hand, spatula in the other (I was making tacos—not that it’s important, but, you know, if you’re trying to assemble a full picture of the moment), and stares off into space, and ponders…

…that what Flora said should be true. Right? I mean—to flip it a little—that the way we treat the people we love the most should be the best we’re capable of.

Except it’s not, is it?

So often, the people we love best… they’re the ones who get the worst of us. Get treated the worst by us. Day after day after day…

Why?

There are three reasons for this ass-backward behaviour, I think.

First—when we love unconditionally and fully (or just a hell-of-a-lot, because most love is conditional, but we’ll talk about that another day) and are loved in return, we trust that love will be there no matter what. And so, when we trust, we let ourselves go. We snap, snip. We let our loves see us at our worst—and they still love us—and so we do it again… and again…

Second—husbands, wives, children, lovers, families—we’re together all the time, in each other’s faces. We rub against each other in the stress of hurried everyone-get-out-the-door mornings. We’re in each other’s faces in the I’m-too-exhausted-to-give-a-fuck evenings. We’re out of energy for politeness, manners. We snip. Snap. Again… and again… and again…

Third—we do it again… and again… and again… and then it’s a habit, and the majority of human behaviour and interaction is, simply… habit. And so… we do the nasty thing, say the mean thing again. And again. And again…

We say things to the people we love the most that we would never, ever say to more casual friends—to strangers—because, Christ, how unthinkably rude, cruel. Nasty.

We accept hearing/receiving these unacceptable behaviours from people who love us, because…

Actually, so here’s the thing, because—why, exactly?

Because they love us? And so it’s ok for them to treat us disrespectfully?

Because I love you, it’s okay for me to mock you? It’s ok for me to knock you down, undermine you, speak to you in a tone so disrespectful I would never, ever use it on a co-worker (not even that really, really annoying one)?

When Sean comes into the kitchen, I’m sitting in the middle of the kitchen, phone and spatula on the dirty floor, taco meat burning.

“What’s wrong?”

he asks, and I love him. I can’t put it into adequate words, so I put it into bad ones. And then, add:

“Do I ever speak to you like that? Ever?”

I don’t think I do, gods above and below, I hope I don’t, but does one ever hear oneself? Does she realize what comes out of her mouth? Does he know what he’s really saying when he says something so…

“Never. God, never, ever.”

(He’s lying. Because he loves me. I know that sometimes, when something he’s said or done triggers me, I react much less… kindly, tolerantly, lovingly… than I would had a less intimate-to-me person said or done the same thing. But I let him lie, in that moment, and I try to believe it.)

“If I ever do… stop me. Hard. The first time.”

Habit.

As Valentine’s Day comes up—my third least-favourite faux holiday—lovers all through North America will be exchanging flowers, chocolates, and Hallmark-sanctioned expression of love and affection.

I refuse to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

I prefer to show that I love—and to be shown that I’m loved—every day. Mostly, in little things, you know what I mean, the tiny stuff: “thank you for doing the dishes, my love” and “I’m so sorry you had a lousy day” and “I missed you, come sit with me” and “will you do this for me, it’s driving me crazy” and “this poem made me think of you” and “I’m so happy you picked up cream on the way home” and also “god you look good today, I want to devour you” (delivered when I feel spent, exhausted, and so unsexy, and I’m pretty sure you’re lying, but oh-it’s-so-good-to-hear).

I choose to show that I love by how I talk to you. To him, to her, to them. The people I love best? They deserve me at my best—or at least… trying, conscious, aware, fostering, building.

And when I slip up? Call me on it. The first time. Hard.

Don’t let me treating you disrespectfully—because you love me, and I love you, and so it’s all ok—become a habit.

Because it isn’t ok to treat the people you love the most the worst.

Flora said so.

And she knows.

Happy un-Valentine’s Day.

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Dear un-Valentine

PS I have some un-Valetine’s Day presents for you. First, 15 Compliments for Your Valentine, Courtesy of  Erotic Artist Dorothy Iannone. Kind of awesome.

Second, 3 Misconceptions that Ruin Great Relationships by Kelly Flanagan from The Good Man Project. It’s essentially an essay AGAINST the grand gesture and for… habit.

Third, my friends and I have been debating for the last god knows how many weeks whether love is what you feel or what you do, and we’ve been reading and arguing about, among others, these:

You’ve probably seen one or both pieces already. If you haven’t, they’re worth a read.

Fourth, Good Daddies Are Hot.

Fifth—the original title of this post was, “Dear un-Valentine: How you speak to your partner tells me everything about the type of friend you’ll be. And it tells me you’re a jerk, and I want nothing to do with you.” But I decided it was a little… wordy. Jane out xx

Risk

Making the first mark on a blank page, typing the first word—letter—on a blank screen. Beginning, commitment. Do you know, the place before that first stroke, be it with pen or fingertip, how seductive that place is? It is BEFORE. It is potential. Everything is possible. Nothing is chosen. Nothing is wrong.

Nothing is risked.

It is intoxicating-frustrating. It’s… it’s like that moment, when you’re falling in love, pheromones teasing—but before the first kiss. Will you dare? Will she? How will he respond? What will I feel? What will happen next? Will there be fireworks? Or rejection?

The place of “nothing risked, all potential, I took no wrong steps, I made no mistakes” —oh, that place is so seductive…

I have ways of breaking through it in my work. I type: Client Name-Project Title. My byline. I type the names and titles of the people I interviewed. The page is no longer blank. I haven’t really risked anything yet—but I’ve started. It’s like… oh, cautious physical contact before that first kiss, you know? A hand on the shoulder, brushing oh-so-casually against a hip-but-not-lower as you leave the table: “I’ll be right back.”

But then, the choices, risks have to start. The words have to come. In an ideal scenario, they just come: the piece is written long before I sit down to let it out. It writes itself in my head while I walk. Drive. Scrub the kitchen floor, reorganize the books I’ll never read but must own. I know this—this is why, often, I’m so reluctant to sit down at the computer until I know exactly how it begins and how it ends.

(The middle, generally, just takes care of itself.)

But “ideally” is… aspirational. It does not always happen—it does not happen often enough. There is no time for a walk that settles everything, there is no space for it all to plan itself out as it would like to. Because, deadline.

And so, I sit down with the laptop. Blank screen, blank page. I type. Client Name. Mock Up Headline (usually bad). Names and titles of people I interviewed. Key idea. Fuck. I have no key idea. I have no idea what I want to say.

The clock ticks, the deadline looms, and I stare at the screen and I’m pretty sure that no matter what I write, it will be pure and utter crap, and so… I don’t. I don’t want to.

I want to stay in this safe space of nothing risked…

I look at the time and it’s later, the deadline’s closer, and the kids will be home soon, and dinner, and…

I should probably go for a walk—a fifteen minute walk, a five minute walk, it would be more productive than this I am so stupid so lazy why have people not realized this and why do they keep on giving me work and why do I say yes to stories I can’t write, projects I’m too flakey-flighty-dopey-right-brained to comprehend?

I open another window. I type:

“Making the first mark on a blank page, typing the first word—letter—on a blank screen. …”

NBTB-Risk

I write. I make choices. I warm up. And, mid-sentence, starting to run, I switch windows.

“My key message, what I need to nail down in this column is how the gut feeling that comes from the limbic fight and flight response that entrepreneurs get during a crisis, a downturn: what your gut tells you to do is wrong. That’s the limbic brain telling you sabre-tooth tiger over there, wants to eat you, stay very, very still. Paralysis. And you know? A moment of paralysis, of standing still? Do it. Don’t react too quickly, stupidly. But take that moment of frozen-still-scared… to think. Analyze. Evaluate. And look for opportunity. Because it is in crisis, when all the rules of the game are out the window, that innovation thrives, that you make that bet-the-farm play…”

It’s not good. It’s not at all what I want to say. It’s not a fireworks-producing kiss, a bold declaration of love that could be unrequited. It hardly ever is.

But it’s a beginning. A first step. Something risked. A sense of where I need to go. Where to next?

Choices. I keep on writing—the clock, relentless, keeps time—we keep on kissing and that first awkward “I’m not sure-is this ok?” kiss is now forgotten. I think there might be a firework coming—and, oh, yes…

“Mom! Where are you, Mom?”

“I’m writing! Hush! Almost done!”

“Mom! We’re home!”

“Five minutes, and I’m yours… Maybe ten… hold on… just one more sentence… ok, one more after that… and… I’m…”

…done. Fireworks? Not always. Not this time. The earth did not move, and it won’t when you read the final product—although, maybe, you’ll smile, a little, and remember that one line when I almost managed to bring it over the top? Will you? Doesn’t matter. It’s done. The clock doesn’t mock me anymore, time is not a terror, the page is not blank.

I put the laptop away. Choices made. Risks taken.

Story filed.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

“It takes a village”—and that village ain’t paradise. What most “community seekers” don’t understand about building community

I.

First, a text vignette:

Villager: Hey—do you know where the nearest registry is? Just realized our car is still unregistered!

Me: Just up the hill, by the library.

Villager: Ok, thanks.

Me: Do you need a ride?

Villager: Nah, what’s one more trip?

Me: K. Call me if you need bail money.

Villager: K. Thanks. Altho’ I might just stay in jail and get some rest. Will send the kids to you in a cab tho’. With a house key so you can feed the dogs.

Me: K.

II.

Now, a child-care vignette:

On Mondays, I pack my two littles (the near-teen is still sleeping!) into the truck first thing in the morning and drive them over to a friend’s house. Then gym (self-care, first!) and then work. Sometimes, I rush back to pick up my crew to get back home as another friend’s kids get off school and need to be looked after while their mom goes and earns some moolah.

On Tuesdays, a villager (the same one I might need to bail out of jail if the cops pull her over driving sans registration) brings her duo over as she leaves for her sanity break. I’m “gap” care until their dad gets off work and can come hang with them at their mom’s house until she comes back. Another friend’s partner swings by to pick up one of mine to take her to extra-curricular activities.

On Wednesdays, she takes mine for a couple of hours in the afternoons, so I can run downtown and schmooze clients. When Sean comes home that night, I might tell him, as I run out the door laptop in hand, that there is one-two-three extra children upstairs, because something’s come up for Jan…

(…or, I might forget to tell him, and he’ll just find out when one of the extra kids wanders downstairs and say, “I’m hungry. When’s supper?”)

On Thursdays, I take the littles (“I am not little!” protests Flora) to your house for the day. Gym. Time out for lunch with a friend. Work. Focused time with the near-teen. Kid pick-up.

On Fridays, I take your child. And, I’m childcare for anyone who needs it. I don’t attempt to squeeze any real work in—although every once in a while now, as they’re all getting older, I can manage a phone call or return email.

On Saturdays, Flora usually lives at other people’s houses. “I’ll be at Moxie’s!” “I’m going to Mimi’s!” “Can we go to the mall with Nelly’s mom’s friends?” “Rory’s going swimming, can I go?” I’m usually gone for most of the morning and early afternoon, writing in coffee shops. When I come back… “Where are the boys?” A neighbour took them sledding, skating. “You mean we’re alone?” We go for a walk. Other things.

I’m on deadline, and so my mom offers to take the kids on Tuesday. “I have two extra in the afternoon,” I say. “What’s two more?” she asks.

True.

 

III.

These are the ties that bind:

A phone call, a neighbour: “We have extra tickets to…” Yes!

A knock on the door: “I just got a call from T., and she’s stuck on top of the hill—the battery died. I’m home alone with the kids—can you or Sean go?” Yes.

A text: “What are you doing for dinner? Potluck? I have chicken and not a single vegetable in the house.” Awesome. I have no meat, but a sack-o-carrots and a bag of frozen peas…

Facebook post: “We need ALL YOUR TOWELS and MOPS at #6 RIGHT NOW.”

IV.

There’s also this:

Far-away friend: So we hit yyc on the 27th . Can we night over at your place?

Me: Shoot. We’re away until the 30th. But everyone on the lane has keys. What time do you get in? I’ll make sure someone can let you in.

V.

The moral:

Here’s the thing you either get or don’t—at this moment, I’m at the point of thinking that if you don’t GET it, there is nothing I can say to make you get it, and yet, here I am, again, trying.

I don’t live in paradise.

These supportive-connective relationships I have, they’re not effortless. They’re not some magic thing that just happens.

This web of give-and-take in which no one keeps score but everyone gets what they need? All this takes FOREVER to create. Like… decades. Years at the least. And it takes effort. It takes investment. It takes WORK.

It takes… oh, what’s the word? Realism, I think. Not all the people you help, who help you, whom you need, who need you—not all of these people are people you love. Some of them you spark with immediately, and others it takes two, five years to really get to know. Some of them annoy the shit out of you when you first meet—and that doesn’t change much five years later.

You’re not a love affair, you’re not a romance, you’re not eternally-bound kindred spirits who read each other’s minds and fulfill each other’s dreams.

You’re a village. A community. A tribe.

Sometimes you work really well… and sometimes you piss each other off.

You come together in a crisis… and then descend into immature internecine warfare over lame, don’t-matter-anything-in-the-big-picture (“What do you mean! Of course they do!”) details.

VI.

Villager: Which one am I?

Me: You annoy the shit out of me about 30 per cent of the time.

Villager: That’s pretty good.

Me: I think so.

 ****

So very grateful for my village. Absolutely dogmatic about the fact that if you don’t have one—you need to start building it. Today.

xoxo

“Jane”

 Post-Script: “Easy for you to say, Jane. How the hell do I start?”

Small steps. Small steps. Get a neighbour’s phone number. Then text them. Invite them for coffee. Regift a fruitcake. That woman you’ve been passing in the stairway for the past six years? Say, “Hi. I’m just going to the grocery store—do you need anything?” And keep. On. Doing. It.

For years.

“But the thing is, Jane… right now? I can’t really give. I just need… and I don’t want to be a mooch. You know?”

Christ. Do I ever, beloved. Both my geographic-village—my physically near neighbours—and my heart-village—my intentional tribe, my creative coven—have been hammered by life’s caprices in the last couple of years. And we’ve often found ourselves looking at each other in helplessness and exhaustion, and saying, “I want to help you. I really want to help you. But I can barely breathe myself, I can barely keep my head above the water.” It’s a terrible feeling, isn’t it? Dual helplessness. I can’t help you… you can’t help me… what the hell is going to happen to us?

What I’ve learned: when I can’t help myself, I can usually still see a way to help you. And when you think you’re totally stretched to the limit… it’s easier to help me than to “fix” yourself. So. The chaos-mess-stress of my life is overwhelming me… but I can get your groceries for you. Drop in for a coffee and listen to you cry. Watch your kids, even though I feel I’m rarely sufficiently present for mine. You’re sick, exhausted and going not-a-little-mad from the pressures of THAT… but when you see a way to offer me relief, you give yourself relief. Cleaning my kitchen floor is easier and more fulfilling than cleaning yours.

One of the most profound memories I have from that flood thing is coming back, dirty and tired, to my dirty and messy house… to find two of my neighbours washing my dishes (two weeks old) and scrubbing my mud-covered kitchen floor. On which I then collapsed (mud-covered) and wept. Gods know they had enough to do in their own houses…

Go clean someone’s kitchen floor today. It’s a start.

NBTB-it takes a village

Solitude and the creative mother

NBTB-Inside My Head

(That, btw, is a brilliant title for a book, and one of you should write it. Me? No, I’ve got another passion I’m chasing right now. Go on, it’s a gift. Just dedicate it to me, and we’ll be square.)

I.

I’m careening down Bow Trail, engaged in a complicated kid-care-drop-off (morning at a friend’s while I work; afternoon at my mom’s while I run errands). Transitions suck, and the kinder are unimpressed.

“Why can’t I go to the stores with you?” Flora whines. “You’re going to all my favourite places.” True. I’m hitting a book store (books!), and London Drugs (shiny things!), and Winners (more shiny things!). And Flora could, theoretically, go with me. She’s near-10. She won’t “slow” me down with a tantrum, a toilet-training regression, a refusal to leave the toy aisle. I can accomplish everything I need to with her in tow in about the same amount of time… And she’s smart enough to know this. She knows why I don’t want to take Ender. But surely—she could go?

No.

“Why not?” she whines-pleads.

And I sigh, and I look at her, and decide this is not a moment for evasion.

“Because, beloved, we are about to go on a family vacation, and this is my last chance to be alone for 12 days, and if I don’t take it, I will go insane. I might go insane anyway.”

She looks at me with giant, giant eyes. And ponders.

I worry I’ve hurt her, because, in this culture, when you say “I want to be alone,” most people (husbands, friends, lovers) hear “I don’t want to be with you”—and what will a child hear? But this is a very special child. This is a child who also needs to be alone, a lot. And she’s lucky enough to have a mother who has that same need and recognizes it… and goes to considerable lengths to ensure that, in a family of five crammed into a <1000 square foot house, Flora gets as much solitude as she needs.

I will do this for her during the holiday too, and for her brother. Of my three children, two need swaths of time away from other humans—including each other. The third, alas, does not. So—I take him, away from them. They get what they need. Me? No matter how self-aware I try to be, my solitude is the first thing I give up.

But. I have a Flora.

“Oh, Mom,” she sighs. “Listen. Every day, when we’re on the beach, and then we decide it’s time to go to the pool—you just stay on the beach for 15, 20 minutes. An hour, maybe, even? By yourself. OK? And then come join us.”

Oh, my love. My little insightful fairy.

(Is it enough, 15, 20 minutes? No. Not even close. But it’s better than zero minutes, right?)

II.

I need to be alone to think. To be able to think, really think, I need to NOT pay attention to the needs, the very existence of others. I need to be alone for drafts to drift into their proper form in my head. For things to settle. Not for long. Not for months or weeks—I’d get lonely, so lonely. But, you know. A couple of hours? A day, here or there? A 5-minute runaway, a 15-minute moment to be separate. An evening, a night.

A weekend.

And when I don’t get it, yes, I go a little mad.

Sometimes, I confuse this need with the need for adult company: I think I’m feeling frustrated and overwhelmed by little people, and that I need the company and stimulation of big people. And I call you, and we go out, and I stare at you resentfully. I love you, but you’re not what I need right now. Right now, I need to walk the beach, the hill, the riverbank all by myself. I have a thought to think, an idea to chase, tumult to experience. Demons to taunt.

When I fill my “alone” quota sufficiently… then I love and need and want people.

When it’s wrested away from me, when I don’t get it? I hate you all.

Sorry.

III.

As Ender, who has spent part of the night squished up against me, entwined, whispering stories into my ear, begins the day in my lap, squished up against me, entwined, whispering stories into my ear, I suddenly have a blinding flash of insight as to why he’s been so much more challenging for me to parent. You’d think, really, the third—you’d have it down, right? You’d have enough tips and tricks, strategies and distractions, to dial it in at least some of the time? I mean, sure, every kid is different, but there’s enough “the same” that the third time around should not be the most difficult…

I have thought, often, that it’s me. I am different now: he has had the bad fortune to still be small-and-demanding at a time when I am demanding-of-and-for-myself, and so his need for me to be his 24/7 and my need to be me and write and do all the things I really NEED to do clash more than Cinder and Flora’s needs ever clashed with mine.

Some of that is true. I need more now. But also, this child, this third child of mine? He’s the first one of my threesome who doesn’t need great swaths of solitude. He needs people. A person. He needs an audience, a companion. His alone fixes are very short—and he needs to check in with others while he engages in them. As a result: he never gives me respite. He never gives me enough time alone… that I recharge sufficiently that I want to be with him, focused, happy, unresentful.

I stare at him and at myself in shock as I realize this. Because no wonder neither one of us ever feels we’re getting enough! He never gets enough mom. I never get enough solitude. With his siblings, breaks and respite occurred pretty naturally. They’d become immersed in their thing… I could float away, be alone while nominally present with them. Ender does not let me do this, ever. He grabs my hand, my face. Forces my attention into him…

IV.

The solution, of course, is obvious. It’s not that he needs ME. He needs people while I need solitude. And so, yes. I “outsource” this child more than I did/do the others. But I also need to work with him, to teach him something that his siblings just learned and shared with me intuitively.

I need to teach him that “I want to be alone” does not mean “I don’t want to be with you.” It doesn’t mean, “I don’t love you, I don’t want you.”

It just means… “I want to be alone. I need to be alone. I need to be just with me, right now. And then, when I have enough of that, I will come be with you.”

It’ll happen. (And what a gift to his future friends and lovers that will be, if he learns that now…)

I get to do my morning #meditationforwriters unmolested most mornings now. In fact, the other day, that’s how he got me out of bed at 5 a.m.

“Mom! It’s time to do your morning pages!”

Kee-rist. Be careful what you ask for.

xoxo

“Jane”

Meditation for #writers, “Mom! I need you!” and struggling to stay on that tightrope

For Deb, who wanted more naked. For Jen, who cannot ever stop writing. For Katia, who’s about to start a new job… because life was not intense enough as it was, was it, darling? For Cathy, who feels guilty about thinking—and who needs to start writing. For my Nicole, whose tightrope is harder than mine. For Nan, who understands too well—and, of course, for the introduction.

And for you. Because that tightrope I walk? Nothing unique about it, is there?

CAVEAT: This is a 3000+ word post and thus a ridiculous on-line time commitment. And it’s not the type of piece you skim for the funny bits. So. Go get yourself a glass of wine (Some University of Alberta professors have just discovered that drinking wine has the same health benefits as going to the gym—finally! Good news!). Put on some hot shoes (you don’t need to, but it will make me happy. What? You think this should be about you, not about me? Fine. Sit there in your slouchy, holey socks. I wrote this in knee-high gladiator sandals—black, leather, strappy—just to make you happy. But whatever. You’re the reader. Do what you like. Oh, sweetness. Thank you. Thank you.). Get the children watching James and The Giant Peach on Netflix. And let’s get naked.

Yeah, again. I know. It’s becoming a habit. So much of life is…

I.

Today, I am writing sitting criss-cross apple sauce on the couch, wearing a jacket that smells of camp fire smoke, two hairy blankets wrapped around my bare, chilled (and also hairy) legs. Next to me is the almost five-year-old, with soy chocolate milk stains on his pants and joy in his heart, because he just ate four mandarin oranges for breakfast.

He’s watching Blue’s Clues.

I’m meditating.

(Yes. I lied about the hot shoes I was writing the post in just to get you to start reading. I’d apologize… but here you are, all dressed up. And don’t you feel good?)

Which means, I am writing the long-hand version of this post—perverting the instructions of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, subverting the wisdom of Naomi Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and making Sarah Selecky’s daily writing prompts entirely my own…

You’re confused. It’s all right. I’m confused and confusing. Walk with me a little, and let’s confuse each other some more.

For the last two, near-three months, I’ve been starting my days with Sarah Selecky. Selecky is a Canadian writer, author of This Cake is for the Party, and creator of The Story is A State of Mind and The Story Intensive courses, which she promotes, inter alia, through a free daily writing prompt. I was introduced to her work the first time I met a new crush. Have you ever witnessed two writers getting to know each other? Only two questions seem to really matter: who are you reading? And… what are you writing?

But I wasn’t writing anything—not anything that mattered. I was… stalled? Stalled. Paused. It was at the tail-end of that awful-no-good post-flood Lost Year. I was so tired… and also, so tired of not moving. Of the brilliant (or was it? No, it just sucked, that’s why it wasn’t going anywhere…) idea I had for my second novel—oh-yes, what a perfect way to further subvert convention-expectation-story—remaining a chaotic, one-page mind map and a 1500 word teaser that was NOT. GOING. ANYWHERE. It was never going to go anywhere, because I was too-stupid-lazy-talentless to do anything with it, the idea was too ambitious—no, it was too trite, to cliché, so not worth writing about—too hard to write about… except I could not write about anything else because all that swirled in my head was this…

NBTB-Methadone Dec 30

“Sarah Selecky’s writing prompts,” she said, for perhaps the sixth time, the sixth time (or sixtieth?) that we had the same conversation.

“What?”

“Sarah. Selecky.”

She didn’t say, “Try it.” Or—what anyone else would have said, what I would have said had the situation been reversed, “Stop your whining and try this…”

I finally heard her that day because I had just met the yyc artist Amy Dryer, and I fell in love with her work, her process, her courage—and oh, her studio, her studio! (A piece on that love affair, “An afternoon with Amy Dryer,” coming soon on CalgaryBusinessWriter.com; also,  watch for my alter-ego’s sketch of Dryer in an upcoming issue of Avenue. All you need to know for this story is this:)

Because of my encounter with Dryer, I was, very briefly, open to thinking about myself as an artist who needs to create. It’s a state I resist, because… well, pretentious, right? I am so not an artist. Part of my amateur-professional dichotomy—and I’ve internalized that too well—is also artist-professional. And I am a professional—the definition of professional being showing up and doing the work even when you don’t want to, and doing it so well, even when you don’t care, don’t want to, that no one can tell the difference.

I don’t wait for inspiration. I PERFORM on demand.

Except, I wasn’t. Instead: flailing. Wailing. Not doing the work I really wanted to be doing. And sick of being a wanker.

So.

Amy. Artist, for sure. Me? Maybe? Sometimes? Open, opening. Inspired. And the rivers crested but stayed in their banks, and I had, while not a room of my own, once again a space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place and it was time to unpause. To move. To write the thing I needed to write.

But. Inertia. Stalled. Help.

Phone. Where is my phone?

Text: “What is the name of that writer you keep on telling me about? The one who has those creative writing prompts?”

“Sarah Selecky, at sarahselecky.com.”

I love her, because she doesn’t say—about time.

I do the thing. Sing up for the writing prompts. Tell myself—tomorrow morning, when I wake up, I will write.

Morning: I check my email. And there it is.

“Write about mica. Write by hand, in your notebook, for 10 minutes.”

And… panic. By hand? On paper? With—really—ink?

I used to write by hand a lot. Journals. Sketches. Vignettes. Documentation of my children’s earliest years. Outlines of my first, terrible-no-good novels. First drafts of short stories. And letters. Letters to you—did you keep them? Everything you ever wrote to me is gone. It looks like this:

Ruined papers 3

…and, really? By hand? In 2014?

I don’t even have a notebook.

What an excuse, what a perfect excuse, not to start.

No excuses.

I find one of my kids’ unfinished composition books. Find a blank page. A pencil.

Mica.

No.

I don’t want to write about mica. What’s mica, even?

I want to write my novel.

I want to write about cold Elizabeth, connecting Annie, crazy Zia and angsting Destiny—why did Zia give her daughter such a terrible name? Right, there was a reason… I had a reason for that… Oh. Right…

Write.

I put Elizabeth and Annie on a rocky Alberta beach where the water shimmers with mica. And Annie bursts in tears, and Elizabeth is appalled, and I write two awkward, stilted, AWFUL pages.

Done.

(and at this moment, during that day’s writing meditation, Ender is done too, and demands I read him Ten Apples Up On Top, and I do, and I write no more, about anything, that day. The next day, I pick up, here…)

II.

The next day, I “describe the smell of coconut sun tan lotion without using the word sweet” in three terrible (AWFUL, UNUSABLE) pages that show how much Elizabeth resents Annie’s attempts to have a relationship with her daughter. The day after, four scenes about walnuts—Elizabeth and Brian’s biggest fight, Annie’s most generous gift, a hint at Elizabeth’s secret life…

The writing gets easier. And my days get easier. Even on the ones when life’s demands prevent me from sitting down at the computer ever—or limit my writing sessions to urgent professional transactions (prose for cash, propaganda for cheques, what story do you need me to sell to your clients today, client of mine?), I feel like I have written. And to purpose, my bigger purpose.

I have written, I have been a writer—now I can be all the other things. Perform on demand…

I know I’ve established a sustainable habit when, on a day we all have to get up at 5 a.m. in order to get three kids and two adults into a car by 6 a.m. for an eight-hour car trip—the first thing I do when I wake up is take 10 minutes to sit and write.

Two months later, I have, in two and a half notebooks, and on a few assorted scraps of paper torn out of other people’s notebooks (“Seriously, Mom?” “I’m sorry! I couldn’t find my notebook.” “Again?”) a rough—chaotic, messy, non-linear, and oh-with-so-many holes—draft of a novel. It needs so much more work…

But it’s just pulsating with potential.

NBTB-Mind Map2

I am pulsating with gratitude. For Sarah and her prompts. Amy the artist and the permission she gave me, for a few hours at least, to think of myself as such. The writer-who-introduced-us, for her persistence and gentleness of suggestion.

I pervert-subvert-harness Selecky’s process. I turn the prompts into kickstarts to get me writing about something I already know I want-to-need-to write about. When she tells me to make lists, I write dialogues between Elizabeth and Annie. When the writing prompt is to “Write about a character named Wire,” I create a lover for Sasha (that’s Destiny’s new name; she aggressively rechristened herself when the prompt was “Write a scene set under a hanging pendant lamp,” and what a surprise that was). He’s awful. He appalls her mother. Amuses her stepmother. She dumps him the day Elizabeth tells her she thinks he’s “quite attractive. Reminds me of your father.”

Elizabeth is a bitch. Actually, more. Another word is much more appropriate… (My publisher raises his eyebrows. “Again? We have to talk about THAT word again?” Maybe. We’ll see…)

I love her.

When Selecky tells me to describe my mother from the point of view of my father, I, for once, do what I’m told. I follow instructions, precisely. How can I resist?

By mid-September, I don’t need the writing prompts. Most days, I sit down and just write. Sometimes, bits for the book. Occasionally, like now, skeletons or blueprints for posts or essays. More often, I just sketch with words. Sometimes, it flows. Sometimes, it hurts. Sometimes, I dive into my email for the writing prompt, because I am stuck, don’t know quite how to begin that day. Other times, I ask my kids to throw random words at me to get me started.

It’s not easy.

I don’t mean the writing. Writing is sometimes easy and sometimes not, like everything in life. I mean—it’s not easy DOING it. Finding, having, maintaining the space-and-time to do it.

That’s the tightrope I walk… Do you walk it too?

III.

A month—less—into my new writing routine, Sean has a mini-breakdown about it. Me, at the kitchen table, with my notebook. Writing. Every morning, no matter what else is happening. What does that mean?

I don’t understand.

He unravels. What is he supposed to do during this time? With himself? With the kids? Is he not supposed to start work until I finish? Is he…

Interrupted in my flow, I am rage and anger and so-not-Zen.

“I don’t give a fuck what you do. Just let me write. Don’t talk to me until I finish.”

“But… the children…”

The children are 12, 9 and almost 5.

“They can tend to themselves while I write for 10, 15—hell, 30 minutes. Why are we even talking about this? It is not a big deal. Nobody is affected!”

Except… they are.

I have been typing-writing, in spurts, bits, wrested minutes of time, negotiated, blocked-off hours of time, computer in lap, on table, all of my children’s lives—all of our marriage.

My writing has been, is my work; it helps pay for our house, our food, our life.

My pre-write-by-hand-in-your-notebook-for-10-minutes morning routine involved having my computer in my lap. Facebook, email, blogging maintenance-and-business. Reading online news.

Why is this—me, notebook, kitchen table—different? Why is it a big deal?

Sean can’t tell me, in that moment. But we figure it out, as we talk about it, and when I realize—that I’m not just writing. That this time in the morning, bent over my notebook—this is my meditation. Prayer. And it really works. It is perfectly effective for me—even when it’s hard, slogging.

What that means: I am completely in the work. I am fully present there. And so—fully absent elsewhere.

I don’t notice Sean when he comes into the kitchen and asks me if I want a cup of coffee.

I don’t say hi to Flora when she wanders in to get her bowl of cereal. I don’t even see her.

Ender climbs onto my shoulders, seeking attention and affection… and I shrug him off and keep on writing.

And I do all this not in the space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place—the place where I’m supposed to write… but in the kitchen. The place where they think I should be theirs.

Flora captures their perception of what’s happening too aptly one day on a beach on the Haida Gwaii. The psychic who lives next door and who is our cicerone on that trip to the edge of the world and beyond comments what a wonderful, involved, loving and physically engaged mother I am. (She’s like that, my psychic-neighbour-beloved-friend-of-many-lifetimes, so good at handing out compliments, just when they’re needed—were only more of us like her.) “Very unusual for a Gemini,” she adds. “They tend to be more detached. More in their heads.”

I flush with pleasure. And my Flora wraps her arms around me from the back, and kisses my cheek.

“Mommy loves us so much and she loves hugging and being hugged and kissing and playing,”

she says, squeezing me hard. She pauses.

“Except when she’s writing. Then she wishes we’d all go away and die.”

She laughs.

I burst into tears.

Because it’s true.

Not the “and die” part. Gods, not that, never. But this “go away and leave me alone I’m writing!” part?

Yes.

IV.

My friend L.A. is working on a paper about post-modern feminist discourse on domestic violence and from within this research, throws this quote into my newsfeed:

“It is important to place ambivalence at the heart of mothers’ relationships with their children. In this analysis, mothers both love and hate their children and this ambivalence can contribute to creative, thoughtful mothering.”

I ponder. I don’t think I am ambivalent about my children. I love them ferociously, desperately. Life without them is untenable; I no longer have any conception of myself without this exhilarating-exhausting-never-ending—childhood may be a stage; motherhood is forever—role. I would do it all again, more or less the same way (I would have had Ender sooner) a hundred, a thousand times.

But there is no doubt that what they want and need is often in conflict with what I want and need.

The more so as I get older.

“Mother” is NOT my all-encompassing identity.

Neither is “wife.”

(And housekeeper-housewife-homemaker don’t even come into play…)

And I will be neither a martyr nor a negligent parent. So…

I am struggling—do you see that? Because I don’t want to pretend, through pretty words, that I have the answers to anything here—I am struggling, as never before, to fulfill-discharge my obligations to my children and my family AND my obligations to myself. And maybe you are too. You know how they tell you it gets easier? They lie. In so many ways, it gets harder.

(What? No, no, don’t take off your shoes. You’re almost at the end. And you look sooo good. Come on, love. If you’re going to do this, do it properly. It’s not like you’re dancing or standing in them, right? Just lounging on the couch. Put your perfectly shod feet up—there, you can admire them and yourself better thus—and… let’s continue…)

There was a time, not that long ago, when my meditation was baby-at-breast… or walking a stroller around the block, and writing in my head, and that was… not perfect, but enough. Because, the smell of the baby’s head, the curl of those tiny fingers around my thumb fed me as nothing else.

And also… because what the baby needed from me… was so very simple. So very physical…

When they need me now, they don’t need just the breast, the arms, my body. For Ender, that’s still key, but it’s shifting even there, and for the older two—they either don’t need me at all (but, inevitably, that is when Ender needs me most) or they need me so fully-completely, letting my mind wander-and-write-as-it-wants-to isn’t an option.

And I need me, in the moments I write, fully-completely too. The work and writing I want to do now is more difficult (rewarding), challenging (ambitious). It requires more of me. I want to give more to it.

So. There we are. Ambivalent? No, not ambivalent.

But on a tightrope, for sure.

And it so hard.

My morning writing meditation both helps me walk that tightrope… and underscores how very, very taut it is.

How easily I can fall off.

(…and that’s how it ends that day. But what a downer. No. Let’s not finish yet. Let’s walk on… Re-adjust the straps on your shoes, beloved. Suffer with me, for me, just a little longer.)

V.

It’s another day of writing on the couch, my near-five-year-old tucked into my armpit, Blue’s Clues in the background again, and an intermittent plea “You said you’d make jellyroll today!” impinging on my flow.

I am negotiating, compromising, walking the tightrope. I do not write in the kitchen, where I am theirs to access. I get that. I have that space-that-is-me-my-heart-mind-made-into-place, the place where I work and draft… That is also where I would like to write-meditate in the mornings.

But…

“Mommy? Could you please, please sit with me on the couch? I need you to be near me!”

And so, I give him my physical self.

My mind writes. It is absent from him.

It is… an imperfect practice. My elder children (I hope) understand what I am doing and why it is so important to me (if they don’t quite understand, they accept). The little one does not. He knows-sees that I’m not fully there for him, and his ability to deal is varied. Sometimes, he will settle for being just near me. And sometimes, he desperately wants more.

“Jellyroll? When are we going to make the jelly roll? Mom? Move your arm! Mom! Help me! I’m stuck in the crack!”

There’s an edge of resentment to my flow. And also—urgency. I write, sketch, chase ideas, nail down phrases, developments as quickly as possible. Because, at any point, any of those,

“Mooom! Help me!”

…might be the last.

Meditation? Ha. Maybe that’s not what most people understand by meditation. But it’s the best I can do right now.

VI.

I commit in this piece the biggest blogging sin: I’m writing about me, it’s all about me, instead of telling you the “10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment By Friday.”

Next week, I’ll make it all about you. I promise.

But right now? I’ve just wrenched a four-hour block of time from life, and I’m going to go use it.

Don’t you dare interrupt me.

I love you and I can’t imagine life without you. Except when I’m writing. Then I just need you to go away—and let me write.

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Meditation for writers

PS Next week, “10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment By Friday.” Or something like that.

PS2 You can slip those shoes off now. But put them back on if you decide to re-read the post. Trust me. It’s a totally different experience in bare feet.

Summer rerun6: The ultimate secret to parenting: it’s evolution, baby

A friend expecting his first baby actually asked me for parenting advice. After I picked myself up off the floor (most of us, before we have children, know everything about parenting. Everything. Sigh. I miss that time), I gave him a big email smooch and hug. Even when childless, he thought our kids were super-cool and all the whacky stuff we were doing with them made total sense for him. He wanted me to spell it out for him in anticipation of his own journey. Here’s what I wrote. 

2008… As for baby advice, one day I plan to write a book, and in the meantime, my short-hand advice is this: no child should be raised by the book (not even my book). We’ve consciously parented off the beaten path, centering our practices and behaviours around the self-evident truth that children are human beings and should be treated and respected as such. Many of the things we’ve done are “attachment parenting” (watered down mainstream guru of approach is one Dr. William Sears, widely published) principles—baby wearing, sleep sharing, extended breastfeeding—but really it’s not what you do that’s important, it’s who you are as a parent. As a person, really. Now that our kids are older, I absolutely think the most critical part of the parenting journey is maintaining that focus on fostering attachment and bonding between parents and children and siblings, and casting anything other people call “discipline” within that context.

That means, among other things, that we don’t punish our children. Not by withdrawing privileges, not by disguising punishment by consequences, not by trading negative stuff for excessive positive reinforcement and rewards. Doesn’t mean we don’t periodically get angry, frustrated and yell. It doesn’t mean we don’t correct undesirable behaviour—but we don’t time out, send to room, cancel plans etc. But I’m jumping ahead: we can talk about all that when you have a toddler or preschooler.

First, you’re going to have a baby, and that means your focus for the next year is going to be all about keeping that teeny weeny creature alive, healthy and happy, and you’ll find a way to do it. You want to know what the real secret of parenting is? Ready? Here it is: humans have done it for fucking millennia. It’s not that hard. Actually, it’s not hard at all. One of the things that makes it hardest is the legion of self-proclaimed experts preying on the insecurities on new parents in order to sell books of dubious value.

What makes it hard, also, is that so many of the structures and rhythms of life today don’t fit children or families. That’s the biggest adjustment, I think, of post-baby life. We don’t socialize or live as families—we do so as age-segregated units of peers. Why are parents so focused on getting babies to sleep through the night? Two reasons: 1) because the parents need a good night’s sleep wake up at 7 a.m. in the morning and go to work for 10 hours. But even before that, 2) because they want “their life”—time to do adult only things.

Well, surprise: once you have a child, you transform from a couple into a family, and the predominant mode of life should be family life. I believe that’s one of the self-inflicted stresses of post-partum, people wailing “When do I get my life back?” You don’t. You’ve got a brand new life now, with a brand new person in it—and you can move forward and create patterns that work for the three of you, or wail and rant and make all three of you unhappy and estranged.

Everyone wails a little bit.

When that adjustment stage gets tough for you, meditate on this secret: humans have had families and found a way to make things work for fucking millennia. You’ll find a way. (Ours is dramatically different from that of our peers—we’re both working from home, for example, and we take our children with us to virtually everything. Flora’s thrown up on many a Bay Street suit, and there is Cinder pee on the carpet of most of my editors/clients. But I don’t advocate that as the only way—it’s our way and right for us, right? You’ll find your own—but do think in terms of creating new patterns and rhythms, instead of biding time until you can go back to the old ones.)

When revisiting the past, it’s always interesting to see how one’s perspective has changed. I cringed throughout my re-read of that infamous “Why isn’t it natural” post. In this case, no cringing. I would still give the same advice again (maybe skip the Dr. Sears plug, though). The secret of parenthood: humans have done it for millennia. Addendum: no child should be raised by the book.

NBTB-its-evolution-baby

 

2014. So. That post was written in 2008, and then published originally on May 7, 2012. It still doesn’t make me cringe. Except for this: I’m no longer arrogant enough to think I should-could-want-to write a book about parenting. Christ. Last thing the world needs. And also, I would add this: once you figure out how to be a family together… you need to refigure out how to be a couple-dyad-lovers-of-whatever-configuration within the family. But more on that in a bit. There are yellow leaves on my Common and Nothing By The Book‘s Rerun Summer is almost over. And what a summer. If you want to have a peek at its public-publishable moments, stroll through my  Instagram (NothingByTheBook) because I won’t be recycling summer memories in the fall.  September has its own delicious and terrifying agenda.

Be good. Or at least, interesting.

xoxo

“Jane”

Summer rerun5: Tongues off my Facebook

2014: I’ve got  two new social media pieces in the works right now, one a serious, business-reader audience focus think piece on how to filter what your public relations/social media “expert” people are trying to feed you and one a more candid and personal look at how social media experts are ruining my experience of social media–probably for here, for the fall. In the interm, Nothing By The Book continues its old school un-social media-style rerun summer, please enjoy this oldie, originally published in May 2013.

 

 

English: This is a tongue

I’ve been filling an unusual role the last few days: holder of the Facebook password for a friend who needed a bit of a detox/distance from the social media platform… but neither want to complete total Facebook seppuku nor felt she had the self-discipline required to just stay off—if she knew she could go on.

I give her access back today, and we’ll debrief afterwards to see what she learned from the experience… if anything. Thus far, all she’s learned is that I’m a “fucking hard-ass bitch,” who won’t give her access early, no matter how much she joneses for it. Ha. I’m mildly shocked she didn’t know that about me before. But. The experiment wasn’t supposed to be about the strength of our relationship—I’m pretty much it will survive the name-calling of the last few days—but about her bumpy relationship with Facebook.

Ironically, as my friend has been struggling to figure out how to make that relationship functional, I’ve been crafting a post about how much I love Facebook. Because I really do. And it massively ticks me off when people dis it—and the social connections people make, have, and preserve on it. It particularly ticks me off when people are contemptuous about how stay-at-home moms and parents of young children use Facebook—and how much time they spend on Facebook.

Time that the detractors believe would be more productively spent—oh, any other way. Cleaning, cooking. Hyper-focused on the children. Knitting. Reading. Canning. Blogging? Maybe not so much blogging…

Now, I won’t deny that some folks run into trouble with the role social media in general, and Facebook in particular, plays in their lives. Others have documented that up the wazoo; my friend’s recent decision to detox is a specific example from my own bubble.

But I find it quite disturbing that much of the dialogue and criticism around mothers and women on Facebook—in the blog world—in social media and cyber-space generally—has this undercurrent:

Be alone. Be isolated. Don’t talk to others.

It’s there. Ponder it the next time some expert, Luddite or just run-of-the-mill jack ass takes you—or someone else—to task for Facebooking, texting, tweeting or blogging.

This, really is the subtext, almost always:

Be alone. Be isolated. Don’t connect with others.

Oh, they might fake it by saying “Instead of Facebooking, foster real life relationships.” They don’t mean it.

See, they—you know who ‘they’ are, right? ‘They’; it’s always ‘them’ who do this sort of stuff—have always done this to women, to mothers.

Before Facebook et al.—they took exception to the amount of time women spent on the telephone. Flip through any cartoon collection from the 1940s-1980s, and you’ll see images of women gabbing on the telephone—wasting time—neglecting their duties.

Not connecting, communicating, building community.

No. Always negatively depicted. (Think Sybil on Fawlty Towers. “Oh, I know…”)

Before the telephone… women wrote too many letters. ‘tis true. The novels of the 18th and 19th century—many of them epistolary novels, which is such a beautiful irony—are filled with slags at lady letter writers. Even my beloved Jane Austen, letter writer extraordinaire, engages in this slag-fest (I hope, unconsciously), mocking Lady Bertram’s letters in Mansfield Park even as she describes what a critical lifeline to the people she loves these letters are for Portsmouth-stuck Fanny Price.

Before letters—gossiping in the town square, the market. Getting together to wash clothes in the river—and talking, sharing. Talking while gathering nuts, roots, berries together.

‘They’ have always come down on women talking. Sharing. Communicating.

Think about it.

Be alone. Be isolated. Don’t connect with others.

A medium without its problems it isn’t, for sure. And because it’s so new—as is so much that we have deal with these days in the communication world—many people will struggle with it, abuse it, suffer as a result. And we have to figure out how to control it and make it work for us, instead of having it control us and make us miserable.

And we ought to be critical of it, absolutely, if we think its effect on our lives and the lives of those we love is negative.

But for me, as the primary care giver for my children and someone who works from home, Facebook is, very often, a critical antidote to this:

Be alone. Be isolated. Don’t connect with others.

It keeps me connected to people I love who are in different cities, different countries, different continents.

It continues to nurture important friendships when people get busy, get into incompatible phases that make getting together difficult.

It lets me answer an SOS when a friend needs—a meal delivered, a child chauffeured, a pair of size 7 rain boots. Or, just a brief sanity break or a cyber-hug.

It lets me send out an SOS when I’m out of eggs, milk or salt, and stuck at home with a sick toddler. Invariably, there’s neighbour who’s en route to the grocery store who can help.

It means I get to see and share my nephews and nieces’ milestones as soon as they happen.

It allows me to get a hit of sociability when circumstances force me to, physically, be trapped at home alone.

It helps me build community.

It helps me break isolation—be connected. It’s a tool. It’s powerful.

It helps me ask for help when I need it. Be it a real, physical “do this for me” need–or a more intangible “I’m going crazy here and I need to vent!” kind of crisis.

And it ticks me off when ‘they’ dis it—because I think they dis it because they want me—us, women, mothers, parents—to be alone. Isolated. Disconnected.

They always do that, you know. They always have.

Don’t let them.

I’m tempted to end with a list of 10 ways to make Facebook (and social media generally) be a positive and not soul-sucking experience. But I’m sure scores of these already exist out there. So let’s just end on this note:

Washing clothes on the riverbank together. Chatting in the market. Telephone conversations. Facebook exchanges.

All examples of women—mothers—striving to make connections, build and maintain community. Break out of solitary confinement.

Which these days, too often, is a perfectly comfortable, beautiful suburban home.

“Wow, what’s with the heavy? I come here to laugh!” OK, babe. Then go read House Rule #713, or why we don’t hold a lot of dinner parties or He’s not evil, he’s a toddler. Or last Friday’s post about penises.

I supported my friend during her detox by staying off Facebook, Twitter and Gmail and Google+ through the long weekend, so I have no idea what cool and fascinating things the blogosphere put forth this weekend. But I’d like to introduce you to my blogging friend Deb at the Urban Moo Cow (awesome blog name, awesome mama, awesome writer) whose last post, The Asshole Brigade Coming Soon, is sort of about building community. The challenges of building and maintaining community. Anyway, that’s the spin I’m putting on it to make it fit with my Facebook rant.

P.S. Was it hard staying off social media for a mere 72 hours? Yes and no. No pain, no shakes, no jonesing… but it made a few things harder. Had to walk around the neighbourhood looking for someone for the three-year-old to play with on Sunday, with not much success, instead of posting a Facebook SOS/play invite… Couldn’t invite random people to share a meal with us Monday night… couldn’t share this awesome link from BrainPickings.org on Good Writing versus Talented Writing even though I really wanted to… didn’t find out that my neighbour had a washing machine meltdown and needed to use someone else’s washing machine in time to help her… and I’m sure there’s a new puking cat video out there that I need to see to make my life complete.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. Miss me? I am keeping up with Instagram—NothingByTheBook—and occasionally throwing stuff up on Twitter—  or/and .