I’m not a slob: I’m a radical revolutionary, or “Housework is unnatural”

For Cathy & Yvonne

I.

I am smoking my first cigar in weeks—but drinking tea, not coffee (although I did have a cup of the chewiest, most hedonistic-erotic-arousing-fullfilling Turkish coffee a few days ago, OMG, my black drug, you make me…)—and I want to write you a story.

II.

Flora: Mom, I had a nosebleed, and I tried to clean it up, but the bathroom looks like someone slaughtered a pig in it.

Jane: Um… can you clean it up more?

Flora: No, I have to go rescue a mouse.

The bathroom doesn’t really look like someone slaughtered a pig in it. But it could possibly be mistaken for a poorly cleaned up crime scene.

I give the blood streaks a half-hearted wipe.

III.

We are having a meeting in the Common and chewing out the challenges of community living (it ain’t always paradise; actually, it’s rarely paradise, but it’s the closest to heaven we can come), and my neighbour uses her in-family compromises as a metaphor for what we need to do as a community.

“I love having a clean, perfectly tidied house,” she says. “But when I have a perfectly clean, tidied house, my family suffers.”

My ears perk up, because that too has been part of my journey.

“When I get everything cleaned up just so, I’m happy—for about half an hour. And then my family tries to live in the house. And I nag them. And… they suffer.”

She says more… and you could argue with her, I suppose. You might. You like to keep your house very tidy too.

Me, I hear her perfectly. I remember the years of writing, over and over again:

“Five people live and learn and work and eat and create in this house. Five people mess in this house. Five people love this house—the way it is.”

The end result is a house that will cause Aunt Augusta (she’s a metaphor) pain and will make her judge me as an inadequate housekeeper and thus an inadequate human being.

The end result is a house that five people love to live in, that everyone considers their own.

IV.

Aunt August always calls it her house, her kitchen.

The pronoun always makes me… flinch. I wonder how her partner, her children feel about that.

I prefer to live in… our house.

I keep my space in our house the way I want it. Everything else? It’s theirs as much as it is mine—some places, so much more theirs than mine.

VI.

She texts me:

I just had this thought as I’m doing all the food and house related drudgery.  The reason “women’s” work isn’t appreciated but Dads doing “women’s” work are celebrated is because on some level it is assumed women just know how to do all things domestic so it’s no effort for them whereas it’s hard for Dads because they have to learn something unnatural to them.

I think this is brilliant.

I write back:

Housework is unnatural.

And then I decide I’m not a slob, but a radical revolutionary.

V.

It is of course much more complicated than this, and I know I’m over-simplifying, but let me leave you with this:

If you weren’t scrubbing your kitchen floor, counters, bathroom, whatever, today… what else could you be doing?

And don’t throw that “these things must be done” stuff at me. Let’s assume a minimum standard here. I’m not suggesting you—or I, for that matter—live in an unhygienic pig sty. Let’s assume… it’s good enough, it’s clean enough. Child Services won’t freak.

Aunt Augusta, though, will judge.

An idea: until you can just shake her judgement off… stop inviting her over.

VI.

When Sean brings the bathroom to a good-enough state a few days after the nose bleed, all the blood spots are gone. Why I love him—he doesn’t even mention that he had to scrub them. He just does it.

VII.

There’s this really, really brilliant comic about gender conflict and housework in heterosexual partnerships that I’d like to send you to: The Gender Wars of Household Chores: A Feminist Comic by Emma.

It makes some really brilliant points, and one that gave me pause:

So I’d like to offer you this life hack, which I think is the reason I am able to homeschool, work from home, chase my passions, and live the life I want.

When the thing you want is to clean off the table… just clean off the table. Leave the damn socks on the floor.

(I know I just gave Aunt Augusta an anxiety. Someone want to hand her a glass of water, please, perhaps doused with laudanum? Thank you.)

VIII.

Cinder and Flora take out the recycling, and Ender does not want to put away the cutlery.

I make him.

It takes less than five minutes.

We actually spent more time talking about putting away the cutlery than putting away the cutlery.

There is a sub-moral in there somewhere too, that possibly contradicts some of my thesis above. I don’t care. Sometimes, you just go and clear the table. But other times… Negotiating relationships and living as a family, community can be complicated, and sometimes, arguing—sorry, discussing—something for an hour instead of just doing the five or ten minutes task-at-hand is a necessary part of the process.

IX.

I’ve smoked my cigar. Written you a story.

I might now go tackle the dishes in the kitchen. Although I’m pretty sure it’s Flora’s turn to wash and Cinder’s turn to put away. I might just argue about that with them for a while instead, and then, while they do the dishes, write another story.

xoxo

“Jane”

A narcissist, a psychopath, and a hypocrite walk into a bar…

I.

Put in a position where I must act either like a social hypocrite or a ruthless bitch without feelings, I don’t even choose the latter—I am the latter because I can’t be the former—and by the way, this convention, this use of latter and former, is so fucking pretentious, I can’t believe I’m using it. Confession: when I encounter it when reading, I always have to scrunch up my forehead, and look carefully—ok, latter refers to… ok, got it… I think… or did I screw it up? Is former before? Former’s before, right? And latter is later? Why didn’t they just say first point, second point? Or parse the sentence differently?

Anyway. My point: I don’t choose to be the ruthless bitch without feelings. I just am one.

Except, of course I’m not. Well. I can be ruthless. But ruthlessness is a characteristic that’s rooted in pretty intense emotions. For me, anyway. And acting ruthless involves looking at the intensity of those emotions… and then cutting a straight ruthless path through them… to the right thing.

The right thing, being, of course, an entirely subjective thing, so let us qualify it as… the right thing for me, the right thing as perceived by me, the important thing in that moment.

The right thing, for short.

II.

Sometimes, I coach Flora on how to do the kind thing instead of the right thing. Because, you know, I want her to do better than me.

Flora: But don’t you think ruthless people are more efficient?

Fucking nailed it, baby. But I don’t think… efficiency… is the thing that’s supposed to make the world go round.

III.

I’m taking lessons in social hypocrisy from a psychopath.

No, seriously. He’s been tested. Not even a borderline psychopath. We’re talking, off-the-charts scores. But, he had a really good mother, who taught him how to… fake it.

Except he doesn’t call it that. He calls it analyzing a social situation and acting appropriately.

Jane: Ok, for the last time, I don’t have that gene.

Psychopath: Neither do I. It’s a socially learned behaviour. Let’s try again.

The lessons are not going well. I think, at least in part… because I’m proud of my INability to engage in that type of behaviour. You know?

Although I do know… white lies make the world go round.

IV.

Ender has that gene. In spades.

Cinder: He’s lying!

Ender: I’m not!

He is… except in his head, he’s just saying the thing everyone wants to hear. Well, not everyone. His parents.

Cinder: Stinking little liar!

Jane: He’s not lying, sweetie, he’s just…

What? Protecting himself? Protecting me. Something like that. It’s not a bad thing, you know. As someone who doesn’t have that ability, I do appreciate it in others.

V.

Except when I don’t.

Jane: And for fuck’s sake, next time? Just tell me—‘I don’t want to—I just really need to be alone.’ Don’t come up with excuses. False excuses have no place between friends.

Her: You’re telling me you wouldn’t have been mad if I had told you the real reason?

Jane: I would have been fucking livid. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on.

Her: You are very scary when you are livid.

Truth.

Jane: I would have been livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: I would have tried to be livid in the privacy of my head.

Her: …

Jane: Ok, I would have probably freaked out at you. For five minutes. Then I would have moved on, and apologized.

Her: …

Jane: What? I am really good at apologizing.

I’m just not that good at social lying.

Which is actually hilarious, because I’m really good at story telling. And you’d think the two would be related.

But they’re not.

VI.

Something else that’s ironic: the psychopath occasionally calls me a hypocrite.

Jane: What the hell? Seriously?

Psychopath: You have completely different expectations of other people than you have of yourself.

Jane: That’s not hypocrisy. That’s common sense. I’m not like other people, so of course I have different expectations of myself.

Psychopath: You might also be a narcissist.

Note to self: when a psychopath calls you a narcissist, it’s even odds whether he’s being casually analytical or coolly manipulative.

In either case, there’s only one right response.

Psychopath: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you upset me!

See? I am not a ruthless bitch without feelings.

Just… ruthless.

xoxo

“Jane”

You: WTF?

Jane: I’m experimenting and practicing.

You: What? Incomprehensibility?

Jane: …

You: OMFG, why are you crying?

Jane: Because you just don’t understand me!

;P

PS New here? Catch up on the first three series of Postcards from Cuba. Or just browse.

Buddhists make bad artists or is it the other way around?

I.

Feeling out of sorts yet knowing what he should do, he texts me, partly to whine, partly to ask for advice he won’t take.

“I don’t do that anymore,” I tell him, and as I type the words, I decide it’s true. No more advice, gentle or forceful. No more suggestions. No more answers to questions either explicit or manifestly implied. Figure it out on your own.

Also, no more listening to anyone’s whining.

I make that explicit, too.

“In a mood?” he asks.

“Yes. And I like it. I hope it stays permanent.”

We end up talking about religions, gods, and faith—or lack thereof—will, mindfulness, and discipline—or lack thereof—and the relationship between art and suffering, also the connections between inner discipline, the ability to exist in a place of discomfort, and sex and its permutations.

Much better than him whining and me offering solutions and advice he doesn’t really want, won’t implement.

“So what happened?” he asks after a while. “Advice given gone horribly wrong?”

I’d tell you I shrugged, except we were texting, so, well, I couldn’t.

“I’m in a mood,” I say. Tell him a little more and we return to bigger, more interesting topics.

I won’t tell you what I told him about my mood because A. it’s a boring story and B. I’m done telling it now. Its summary and my take-away is that you can’t save people. I used to have a caveat on that—you can’t save people if they’re not willing to save themselves, but now I’ve struck it. You can’t save people. They have to save themselves.

The only help you (I) can offer… I suppose, really, it’s your (my) presence. I’ve quoted Thich Nhat Hanh’s Mantras of Loving Speech at you before, right? This is the most important one:

I’m here for you.

Except when I realize even that doesn’t help you—and it actually harms me—and then, I’m not.

I’m a terrible Buddhist.

It’s ok. I’m not trying to be a good one, or even an indifferent one.

“You’re a pagan,” he says.

I shake my head. (Well, we’re texting, so I actually write, “No, I don’t think so.”)

“I’m an artist,” I say.

Last week, I purposefully did not write about selfishness versus self-care (and, more importantly, versus self-actualization).

Today I will tell you this: a certain amount of selfishness is critical to physical survival and emotional stability… and to making art.

Not too much. An excess of selfishness makes your art meaningless and self-indulgent—unable to reach people, without resonance… and thus pointless.

Not enough selfishness makes your art… non-existent.

I told you, I’m a terrible Buddhist.

But I’m a practicing and producing artist.

II.

I’m still meditating, twice a day, and laying down in savasana most days.

I’m doing it wrong, because instead of infusing me with boundless compassion, it’s giving me cruel clarity.

And also ramping up my productivity… exponentially.

Like, holy fuck.

So… I don’t actually want to do it right, you know?

;P

xoxo

“Jane”

You might want to re-read this: Meditation for writers, “Mom! I need you!” and struggling to stay on that tightrope (but for fuck’s sake, don’t misconstrue it as advice)

Escape from the ashram (an entirely misleading title, but not really)

I.

This was last week:

This was two years ago:

This was seven years ago:

(And fourteen years ago, there was just one of them, and it was all harder, because it was new.)

You send me this:

and we laugh. But then I think… no. No, actually, that’s wrong. For me, anyway. See, without the children, I wouldn’t have written any of the work that really matters to me—the books, the best blog posts, the articles that captured the tension inherent in all aspects of business and life (especially for women, especially for mothers).

More—before children, I did not know how to love. I did not understand what suffering really was.

There’s a quote I’ve intermittently encountered (I haven’t been able to track it back to its source, my apologies) along the nasty lines that for a woman writer, every child is a lost book. It has always made me bridle, and today, I would like to officially say to that originator of the quote and everyone who has since repeated it, as an excuse it keep herself silent: So. Fucking. Wrong.

I do get why they say it, you know. Why they might even believe it. We live in a culture that hasn’t figured out how to value women, motherhood, or creativity—International Women’s Day, the still-enduring lip-service to the Victorian Cult of Motherhood, and adoration of WEALTHY and FAMOUS musicians, painters, and authors notwithstanding. Being a woman-mother-creator is much more difficult in a patriarchy (we’re still one) than being a man-father-creator. Our burden is bigger. And, we’re not supposed to—we’re terrified of being—selfish.

II.

Ender is playing a Lego.com video game on Sean’s laptop at the kitchen table while I sit beside him and work on mine. Flora comes in, to the soundtrack of a Harry Potter audio book. Groggy-eyed, she asks for a kiss and French toast; I ask for fifteen more minutes.

When Cinder trundles down the stairs before noon—well, probably after—I will thank him for doing the dishes before going to bed at 3 a.m. And stand on my tiptoes to kiss his chin, because I can no longer reach his forehead unless he stoops.

And then I will tell him I’ve found a way for him to earn the $50 that’s his heart desire right now.

III.

I don’t actually want to write about the difference between selfishness and self-care (and, more importantly, self-actualization). A. Everyone else is doing it and B. It’s not a paradigm I’m going to shift in that particular way (I have another plan, but it’s a secret, sssshhhh). Instead, I want to tell you how important it is for me that my work be rooted in this messy, crazy, unpredictable, demanding FULL life. In this kitchen. In this family. In this community that throws an extra obligation at me just as I need to hit a critical deadline. In… reality.

Not in an ivory tower or the isolation of a writer’s retreat or an ashram.

Instead: in this child’s need to crawl into my lap at the precise moment that I need both hands to type and all my faculties focused on what it is I am trying to put into words.

Jane: Ender, I love you, but get out of my lap.

Ender: I love you more, and I need Mommy cuddles now.

On some level, I have been fighting this for the past three years. It was three—three-and-a-half, coming up on four!—years ago that I realized the nature of my work had to change. Before, it was enough to me that I was writing for a living. How lucky was I? Writing for a living, and able to be the primary caregiver for my children. Supporting my family, fulfilling my need to be a writer, and being the mother I needed, wanted to be. What more did I need?

Well, as it turns out… there was some stuff… but that’s probably a novel in itself, or even a hefty self-help book (that one of you can write; as I’ve said, I have other plans).

During that transitional time, I spent a lot of time dreaming of month-long writers’ retreats and week-long conferences and government-funded residencies… I substituted them with occasional weekends alone in hotel rooms (or friends’ apartments) and self-created 12-hour writing marathons in cafes and sheesha lounges. I was chasing “the time and space” to really do my work, to give to it the attention and care it deserved—to give it the sort of focused attention I like to give my family… without, of course, short-changing my family…

…but there was only so much time to go around, right?

And so… a fight…

In the last few weeks, something has shifted.

I have long been able to see the value in this tension between the demands of my kids and the demands of my work. Before 2013, though, the demands of my work were mostly externally created. You know? Editor. Client. Magazine deadline. For the past three years—they have been increasingly, and now almost completely, internal. The drive to create, to make, to write this stuff—it’s all mine. It’s nobody else’s fault, demand, responsibility. I want to—I need to do this.

And now I see the tension between my desires and my life’s demands is not just valuable—it’s also critical. Necessary. Essential—it’s who I am, it’s the reason I write what I write.

And what I want to do going forward is not to alleviate this tension, but to continue to grow how my work comes from my life—how I perform it in the middle of life.

Now—this does not mean that I will not make focused time and space for it. I need that 12-hour marathon at least twice a month. That occasional weekend away is part of an equation that then lets me work in hour-long, 15-minute increments the rest of the time. And the week-long writers’ conference—it’s a gift I will continue to give myself whenever I can.

But it’s what I do on the ordinary days, full of mess and chaos and conflicting demands and dentists’ appointments and children fighting and supper burning and “fuck, we’re out of groceries again, am I a bad mother if they eat cereal for supper? Wait—they can’t even do that, because there is no milk” that determines what I make, how I create it… why I write it… and who I am.

This is a good feeling.

I hope it lasts.

III.

This is today:

xoxo

“Jane”

PS This is a disclaimer to mothers of babies and toddlers: My children are aged fourteen, twelve, and seven. They can get their own breakfast. And lunch. The elder two routinely make supper. Everyone’s old enough to do their own laundry, run a vacuum cleaner, take out the garbage and the recycling. There are no little people sucking on my nipples or needing me to change their poopy diapers. The amount of time that I have to give to my work now compared with what I had seven years ago is exponentially bigger.

Like… I can’t even express how much bigger. When they were little, real work only occurred when another adult could tend to their needs, or when they were asleep.

And they so very rarely all slept at the same time.

But all that time—it was like compost, fertilizer, seeds. This time, this current place of—I don’t even know how to express where I am, because it’s not a place of tranquility at all… it’s a place of explosive creativity and drive and celebration of tension, it is so many things, but tranquil, yeah, not so much—this current place-space I’m in has been created by journeying through the demands and exhaustion and challenges of the baby years and the toddler years and all those “I thought it was supposed to get easier, when the fuck is that going to happen” years.

I am still, to be honest, not sure that it gets easier. Parenting, I mean. It’s gets… different. And we get… better (or, in some cases, worse, but that’s also another story).

PS2 POSTCARDS IN CUBA, the final leg, you won’t get to see until the fall or so. Because this final leg of the postcards is very, very different… and I want to deliver it properly. And that takes time. This, incidentally, another shift: I have all the time I need—and I refuse to give myself Internet/social-media induced FOMO/YOLO/DO IT RIGHT NOW! psychosis.

Because… priorities, baby.

PS3 Sometimes, I think Maria Popova and I share a brain: Hermann Hesse on Little Joys, Breaking the Trance of Busyness, and the Most Important Habit for Living with Presence 

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

Making the list, and Turkish coffee + an atheist’s prayer

I.

I’m making a cheese tortilla for one while brushing hay (don’t ask) out of the hair of the other while proofing a manuscript. The third starts making hot dogs, and soon there is mustard in the second’s hair and ketchup on my manuscript, and the first never gets his cheese tortilla because I burn it.

II.

I told you that story so you could find your own moral. Did you?

III.

We’re careening down Deerfoot, and traffic’s light, and I’m not swearing at anyone, and the kids are bubbly, and I’m totally rocking being mom, and not just because I’m about to drop the kids off with their auntie for an evening and a night and a morning, so I can just be writer for 18 hours (minus sleep), and then…

Flora: If you had to go to prison, what would you go for?

Jane: Homicide.

Damn straight I didn’t have to reflect. If I’m gonna do time, it’s going to be for the big one.

Silence does indeed speak volumes, by the way, and I become aware that the car is very, very silent. And Flora, who’s riding shotgun, is melting into the passenger side door. I peek into the rearview mirror. The boys haven’t climbed into the truck bed—but they look like the want to.

Jane: What?

Flora: We’re afraid.

Jane: Don’t worry. You’re not on my list.

IV.

I’m addicted, these days, to—

Sean: Shisha?

Jane: Um, that’ s not what I was going to write about…

—my own bastardized version of Turkish coffee and I want to tell you how I make it. Apparently, it’s all wrong—but if you don’t ask Google or the Turkish coffee purists, you’ll never know, and you’ll think it’s delicious. Ok, so: heat water in a pot. Add a heaping tablespoon of finely ground coffee (per cup) to the pot BEFORE it boils. Don’t stir—just let it sink. While waiting for it to sink, add a dried chile (experiment with a variety, I’m currently using mulato chiles), a few crushed cardamom pods, and cinnamon. (If you like it sweet, throw in a lump of sugar in there too).

Then stand over the stove and watch the pot come to an early boil—tiny tiny tiny bubbles, foam starting to rise—and lift it up off the burner. Hold it (smelling heaven) until the boiling-foaming action stops. Then repeat.

If you’re digging the process repeat again. And again. Especially the smelling heaven part…

Sean: I wish they could see the expression on your face.

Jane: Good thing you told them about it, then.

And that’s pretty much it. I strain it as I pour it into the cup, which is another bastardization, but, you know, I’m not much for rules. And then, I add cream with the highest fat content imaginable.

And then, I taste heaven…

You: Is it better than my homemade chai?

Jane: In the same class, my love. And it’s not a competition, ya’ goof.

Now, if you want to strip the above activity to its most minimalist brush strokes—I’m essentially watching water come to a boil. Again. And again. And again.

And then tasting heaven.

Even atheists find a way to pray, when they have to.

V.

Flora: You have a list?

Jane: What, don’t you?

VI.

I really, really, REALLY need to wash the kitchen and living room floor. And the stairs. And the bathroom.

I’m not gonna, not anytime soon.

But I’m starting to feel a little badly about their grubbiness.

Could you, would you come to my house and make my floors sparkle? I’ll make you soup—before you do the kitchen floor, I guess—and cover you with kisses, and write you a beautiful love letter.

Actually, I’m going to write you a beautiful love letter anyway. You don’t need to clean the kitchen floor.

Sean: Is this about me? Is that why I found a Pablo Neruda poem in my pocket yesterday?

Jane: Maybe…

Actually, it’s an open love letter. Can I do that?

Why not.

I can do anything. 😉

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-munchkin manuscript mustard

PS Yes, some hay does end up in the hot dogs. How did you know? But mentioning it in the first paragraph would have been overkill—you would have thought I was trying too hard.

PS2 They’re really not. On my list, I mean. And neither are you. We good? Okay.

Episode #405: Pre-holiday Smörgåsbord

I.

Ender is crying that his daddy is at work.

Flora: Daddy has to work a lot right now because we have to eat and Mommy’s writing another book, and books don’t pay nearly as well as corporate whoring.

It’s one of those moments when you (I) just don’t know when to laugh or cry, right?

I laugh.

Note to Self: deploy internal censor more often when speaking in front of the children. And instruct Flora to not use the term “corporate whoring” when talking to her friends. Better yet, perhaps, I should stop using the term in front of Flora. Children. People, period.

II.

Flora’s lost my car keys and is panicking. She can’t find them, and we can’t leave, and it’s all her fault, and tears, panic, self-hate, help mom… I find them, in five seconds, under her brother’s ice-skating helmet. Then deliver a lecture about how panicking is a useful response only if it gives you the adrenaline boost you need to run away from a predator but is absolutely useless when you need to strategize, i.e. retrace your steps and figure out…

Cinder: Not helping, Mom.

True. I know this. What am I doing? Never, ever deliver a lecture to a hysterical child. Instead:

Jane: Ok, everyone in the car. No, don’t turn the radio. We’re going to listen to Beethoven’s violin sonatas until Flora calms down.

Flora: I’m good.

Jane: I think you’re still upset.

Flora: Totally good. Perfect. In total control of self and over that whole car key incident. Radio?

I preen.

Cinder: Well played, Mom.

And when I really need to shut them up? Sufi meditation music. Oh-yes. I say, “I’m going to play The Passion of Rumi,” and the car falls COMPLETELY SILENT and they will DO ANYTHING I ask…

Caution for the beginners in the crowd: the secret to the efficacy of this technique is to NOT overuse it. Deploy sparingly.

(Apply the same rule to the use of obscenity, in writing and speaking. That’s a separate conversation I have with Cinder a few minutes later.)

III.

I’m trying very hard to practice loving communication, mindfulness, presence, compassion, and then, traffic…

Jane: Goddammit, bitch, get-the-hell-out-of-my-way-and-let-me-merge, what-da’-fuck-is-wrong-with-you?

Cinder: You’re kind of a terrible role model.

Sob.

I’d turn on The Passion of Rumi to punish myself but I’ve raised clever children; they won’t let me.

IV.

I’m burning supper, and the kids are pretending to be helping, and nobody’s doing the dishes, but there are enough clean plates left to set the table and Ender is really really hungry and getting really really annoying and…

Jane: Cinder, please, please, please do something to amuse your brother for five more minutes so I can get supper on the table?

Cinder: But of course. At your service, sir-yes-sir. Ender, come here. Come here ya’ little buttsack. Listen. ‘Roses are red, violets are blue, children turn dead if you hold them by the neck for a minute or two.’ Look, I’m a poet, just like Mom.

My proudest moment.

V.

Actually, maybe this was my proudest moment:

Cinder: Mom, Mom, Mom, you have to see this!

And he’s right. I HAD to see it. And so do you:

 
[youtube http://youtu.be/I776Ibj3iTs]

Word.

VI.

For the writers in the crowd: Famous Advice on Writing: The Collected Wisdom of Great Writers via BrainPickings.org

For you: “When I count my blessings, I count you twice.”

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-405 anatomy of a good day

tweet tweet @NothingBTBook / Instagram @NothingByTheBook

Priorities, baby, priorities—or, “I don’t” as an answer to “How do you do it all?”

I finally figured it out, and so I’m going to tell you. You see…

Ender: “Mom! Where are you?”

…you’ve been asking me for years, “How do you do it?” What I thought you were asking was “How do you work and take care of your babies; how do you write and homeschool” and variants on the above…

Flora: “Moooom! Where are you? Ender wants you!”

…and I would tell you, and you’d get this glazed and confused and frightened look in your eyes, and never actually—so it seemed to me—hear anything I said—certainly in no way heed my unadvice. But I had this immense epiphany the other day…

Cinder: “Mooooom! I want to make cookies; where the hell is the margarine?”

…that is was my fault—I wasn’t telling you what you needed to know, because I wasn’t hearing what you were asking. You see, while I thought you were asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender just stole my orange marker, tell him he has to give it back!”

Cinder: “Hey, Mom, can you wash the good cookie sheet? It’s covered with chicken grease.”

Ender: “It’s! Not! Fair!”

… while I thought you were asking, “How do you find the time to write and take care of the kids and take care of the house and exercise and have a life and, and, and,” what you were actually asking…

Flora: “Mom, Ender won’t leave me alone!”

Ender: “Mom, Cinder pinched me!”

Cinder: “Mom, the little bugger stole my Lego guys again!”

…what you were actually asking is…

Ender: “Maaaaaa…”

Jane: “Shut up, shut up, shut up! GET OUT OF HERE! Now! Outside! All of you! Give me 30 minutes, and then you can come talk to me. Now—out. OUT!”

Flora: “Mom, it’s like zero degrees out. And raining.”

Jane: “OUT!”

Cinder: “Maybe she just means out of the room.”

Jane: “OOOOOOUUUUUTTTTT!”

Ender: “But I’m hungry!”

Jane: “There are bananas and bagels in the kitchen. GET! OUT! AND STOP ASKING ME FOR SHIT! OUT! NOW!”

… what you were asking me was “How do I work (write) while interacting meaningfully with my children while making amazing dinners while keeping an immaculate house while pursuing my personal interests ALL AT THE SAME TIME.”

Yeah. So, the answer to that…

I DON’T.

YOU CAN’T.

YOU WON’T.

If you have this picture in your head of your laptop computer on the kitchen table, and you writing a novel—or, fuck, even a 1500 word article—while washing the dishes, peeling potatoes and teaching your children math and having a meaningful conversation with your lover…

Cinder: “Are you done yet? About that baking tray…”

Jane: “Clean it yourself or make chicken-flavoured cookies, I don’t care, leave me alone!”

Flora: “Is she done?”

Cinder: “No, she’s still pissy.”

Jane: “Writing! I’m still writing!”

Cinder: “Writing, pissy. It’s kind of the same thing.”

Jane: “Only when you interrupt me. NOW GO AWAY!”

…you are dooming yourself to failure, because all those “while’s” are impossible.

You know this intellectually, right? You can’t, oh—have a shower WHILE typing on your laptop. Make risotto WHILE scrubbing the kitchen floor. Paint a bedroom wall WHILE having sex.

So. You can’t write (work) WHILE interacting meaningfully with your children (or cleaning house or making supper or buying groceries or doing yoga or…)

Now, you CAN—I do—do most of these things sequentially, at different parts of the day-week-month.

But…

You will do some better than others.

And choosing to give time to some things will mean less time for others.

Priorities, baby.

Again, you know this, intellectually, right? But practically… you never seem to hear me. You know, like when I tell you what a crappy housekeeper I am, or that my children eat cucumbers and mustard as snacks when I’m on deadline? And you think I’m being funny?

The truth: say, I have two hours. In those two hours—I can write a story—edit a chapter—craft a rough draft of a pitch.

Or. I can make risotto.

(I don’t, by the way, know how to make risotto. But I understand it involves standing at a stove for an eternity, stirring a pot of rice. Fuck. That.)

Or. I can scrub the kitchen floor and the stairs. Or, do laundry or make the beds or declutter.

Or, read a chapter or two of Harry Potter or Hank the Cow Dog or Wow! Canada to the kids, teach Ender to read, help Cinder with his math…

These are all things that I should do, and do do at some point in a week (month… year… except that risotto thing, that’s just NEVER going to happen).

But if what I need to do—want to do—with those two hours is write a story… then I have to use those two hours to write the damn story.

And that may mean ensuring other-adult child care for my children.

Jane: “Moooom! I’m on deadline, can you please come and take the monsters AWAY for a while BECAUSE THEY WILL NOT LEAVE ME ALONE!”

Or, leaving the house for two hours for an adjacent coffee shop, so that the house—“The fridge really needs cleaning today, Jane, it does, it does, clean me!”—doesn’t make its passive-aggressive demands on me.

And, picking up a roast chicken or frozen pizza from the grocery store on the way home instead of making the perfect, healthier pizza crust from scratch (this, by the way, I can do and I do do… just not on deadline days, y’know?).

I have become much better at this over the years. Accepting that my time and energy are limited—as are yours—and becoming better and better at channeling that time and energy into the things that are really important to me.

So. I write. Every day. (Really. Sometimes, utter crap. But. Every. Day.)

Read with my kids. Take them on amazing adventures. (Most days.)

Exercise religiously, no matter how urgent the deadline, because, health.

Make guilt-free time for my friends and loves and just for myself, too—but not so much for organizing the Tupperware drawer (or for people who drain me).

Scrub the kitchen floor only when it gets to THAT level of filthy—or I desperately need to procrastinate (sometimes, that happens).

Never, ever make risotto.

Cinder: “You done yet?”

Jane: “Two minutes.”

(I think, by the way, that if making risotto is an essential part of who you are and need to be, you will find a way to make risotto and write/work and take care of your kids and all those other things. You will maybe let something else slide more than I do. Read less, stir more. Stay home more—the stirring demands it—and skin your knees in the wild less.)

Priorities, baby.

Cinder: “Hurry. I didn’t scrub the tray that well, the chicken fat caught fire and I can’t turn off the smoke alarm.”

Jane: “Coming.”

Priorities.

You’re welcome.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-priorities

P.S. Speaking of priorities—I’m taking a sabbatical in October and November from Nothing By The Book while I pursue other priorities. Stay in touch via Instagram (@NothingByTheBook), and come back in December, will you? I promise I will be back.

Oh, and babes—I want to take my brood to Cuba, Mexico or some other hot-and-beachy place for (ready for this?) January, February, March 2016. If you’ve got a lead on affordable and cockroach-light accommodation (so long as we’re walking distance to a swimmable beach, we are not picky, and will co-habit even with pestilent insects), email me at nothingbythebook@gmail.com.

“Jane” out.

A Meditation on Purgatory, Stories and Memory

For Tirzah, The Ink Caster

I.

“On a very basic level, you are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall.

“[E]motional memory [is] when we relive how we felt at moments in the past — elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves.

“And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer’s patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.”

Richard Restak,
The Art of Doing: How Superachievers
Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well

II.

I remember. Do you?

Although sometimes, I think people with crappy, short-term memories must be happier.

My Flora is losing that sharp, endless, flawless memory that exists during childhood. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Your four-year-old remembering exactly what he ate on the day of his third birthday. The two-year-old recognizing the street you visited only once before.

Ender still remembers everything. It’s so annoying.

Adults are always so amazed at the vividity of children’s memories.

Silly adults. All children remember. Most adults forget.

Worse, they overwrite. Reinvent. Remember what never was.

What a tragedy.

(Except, when it’s a blessing…)

III.

“The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.”

Sarah Manguso,
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

I contaminate, by remembering. I change, by re-experiencing.

And then, when I am ready to craft my version of how it really happened: I write it down.

And because you didn’t write it down, I win. My record stands. Your memory, I say, is faulty. Look. I wrote it all down. That’s how it happened.

(Thank you, Winston Churchill.)

The bitch of it is—I know what I’m doing, no one better. And so then, when you ooh-and-aah-and-coo and tell me, “So real, so brave, so authentic” (how I hate that word: Faking Authenticity), I am ashamed, because I know it’s not, it’s always, always performance, interpretation. Every word written, every word withheld: a choice.

The narrative is crafted, controlled.

IV.

In an average year, I write 30-40,000 words on Nothing By The Book. Moments captured, memories reinterpreted. Flora now reads and “remembers” her past in what I write. The responsibility paralyzes me.

“I’m writing me, not you,” I want to tell her. But I’m not sure she will understand.

“Don’t let how I write you affect who you are,” I want to tell her, but is that even possible?

“Don’t let me trap you, bind you, trick you, script a story that isn’t true for you even though it felt at the time true, necessary for me.”

“Are you telling me not to read your blog, your books?” maybe she will ask me.

And I will say… what? I suppose, this: “No. Read if you want to. But remember… it’s all just story.”

V.

“Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.”

Philipa Perry,
How to Stay Sane

VI.

My stories are, sometimes, my purgatory: a path to expiation, forgiveness, through suffering, atonement (a Catholic upbringing, however lukewarm, runs deep).

Sometimes–often–they are pure joy.

Always, the crafting of memory, disguised as preservation.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-purgatory stories memory

Five exercises and a metaphor

Exercise 1

I start with your name, and then add hers and hers and hers and his and theirs and hers and his and hers and hers and I keep on writing until the page is full and I start another one. I stop to take a sip of coffee—it’s the one you gave me the last time I saw you, because you know it’s a blend I like and it’s not your favourite—and I bite into sea salt caramel dark chocolate—she put it in my freezer when she came by to give love and get love—and I keep on writing—in the notebook he gave me, because he knows it’s a luxury I’d begrudge myself. By page three, I know I’m loved and supported, that I do not have to do all the things alone (this is my favourite lie, by the way—“I’m alone and unsupported and have to do ALL THE THINGS by myself, because no one will help me” —sound familiar?).

When I stop writing… I might even pick up the phone, shoot a text.

“Help.”

Or at least, you know… seriously think about it. ;P

Sometimes, that’s enough.

Exercise 2

Three good things. All is chaos, but I write down three things that went well today, three things I’m grateful for. Little, big. Whatever. The water boiled for coffee. The grinder worked, and I didn’t drop the broken part that falls off behind the stove. The Vietnamese cinnamon titillated my senses; its texture on my fingertips as I took a pinch and dropped it in my coffee felt sublime.

I dip my finger in the cinnamon jar to re-experience that moment.

Yes.

(This is an adaptation of the Gratitude Exercise from Martin Seligman’s Flourish. A variant: The Gratitude Wall. Write all these things down on your wall. A door. Someplace prominent. Write beautifully or sloppily. Turn it into art.)

Exercise 3

“Let’s go get ice-cream. On the way, we’ll stop at Beadworks and the New Age and look at shiny things.”

“I thought you were avoiding dairy.”

“Meh. Not on a day like today.”

“OK, let’s go smell candles and bath bombs at the Beehive too.”

(A combination of Ice Cream Discipline (mine) & Julia Cameron’s the Artist Date, from The Artist’s Way—adapted for mothers. Who need to take littles along on most of their dates.)

Exercise 4

Art on an index card. A Zentangle. One photograph of—the sink full of dirty dishes, the art that life creates every day on the kitchen table. Today I have made something, created something, started something, finished something.

(For inspiration: Index card challenge on Daisy Yellow Art  and The Zentangle Method.)

nbtb-kitchentable

Exercise 5

A walk in the rain. If the sky is sunny, provide own raindrops with tears. Or just enjoy the sun.

I sunburn my nose; relish the sensation.

(Read this: Henry David Thoreau on Walking)

Metaphor

Ender brings me a tangled ball of yarn that he calls his puppy. He wants me to untangle it. Forbids me from using scissors. “This might take a while,” I warn him. “I’ve got no other plans,” he says. We set to work.

I know it’s a metaphor, but I’m not quite sure for what.

And it would work better, probably, if after 20 minutes, cursing under my breath and not-so-much-under-my-breath, I didn’t toss the yarn aside and say,

“Hey, love. Wanna go get a freezie? And then look at shiny things?”

xoxo

“Jane”

“The child weaned from mother’s milk…”

I.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round
in another form. The child weaned from mother’s milk
now drinks wine and honey mixed.”

Rumi

Rumi’s translator, Coleman Barks, calls the poem that begins with these lines “Unmarked Boxes.” It resonates.

II.

Confession: I’ve just read my first parenting book in near a decade (see The Day I Stopped Reading Parenting Books): Anthony Wolf’s I’d Listen to My Parents If Only They’d Shut Up: What To Say And What Not To Say When Parenting Teens.

This is not, incidentally, a book review, but if it was, it would say, “It has good parts. It has bad parts. Read with a critical filter, take what’s useful, discard the rest.”

III.

I have a teenager now. I am still as much in love with him as I was with the newborn who woke me up every two hours. I will be more frustrated with him than I was with the toddler who pummeled everyone in sight… but that’s fine. That’s part of the package (It doesn’t get easier). My love for him has redefined how I understand, feel, experience love. Myself. The universe. I love him, unconditionally, and I will love him, unconditionally, until my experience of the universe ends.

Here’s something most parents don’t want to hear: he doesn’t love me unconditionally. No child loves a parent unconditionally. Meditate on that.

IV.

Whenever you tell me you love me. I think about what you might possibly feel for me, and what I think I feel for you, and compare it against what I feel for this child, for his siblings, and… if that is love, this is not.

You: Semantics. Always, with the fucking semantics.

Me: Words are important.

You: “What language does so spectacularly is lie, that silver-tongued projector of illusions.” That’s Coleman Barks, so you know it’s true.

Me: Fucking poets. Always telling the truth with their lies.

V.

That Rumi poem, the next line, it goes,

“God’s joy moves from unmarked box to unmarked box…”

(I was going to be a petty atheist and replace the first words with an ellipsis. But, I didn’t.)

I’m not sure about the metaphor. Is my son an unmarked box? Am I? Mostly, I am very literal—and there are still three unmarked boxes of loss in the space where I create.

VI.

I make my nocturnal teenager crepes and carry them up to his bedroom two hours short of his preferred waking time of noon.

Cinder: Best! Mother! Ever!

Jane: I know. Now wake up and get your sibs out of the house so I can work!

xoxo

“Jane”

photo (14)

P.S. Rumi, same poem: “I don’t want to make anyone fearful / Hear what’s behind what I say.”

“There is no such thing as reproduction” + “Our children are not us”

I’ve just started reading this: Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon (2012), and I think you will enjoy it. Listen, this is how it opens:

 There is no such thing as reproduction. When two people decide to have a baby, they engage in an act of production, and the widespread use of the word reproduction for this activity, with its implication that two people are but braiding themselves together, is at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads.

In the subconscious fantasies that make conception look so alluring, it is often ourselves that we would like to see live forever, not someone with a personality of his own. Having anticipated the onward march of our selfish genes, many of us are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs.

Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger...

We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates that fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not of the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do.

Loving our children is an exercise for the imagination.

Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right from the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children: the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis.

The book examines horizontal identities and… love. Ruminate.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-Ender running by river

P.S. This is what I will be reading next: This is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. Because, this:

“The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living. My short stories and novels have always filled my life with meaning, but, at least in the first decade of my career, they were no more capable of supporting me than my dog was. But part of what I love about both novels and dogs is that they are so beautifully oblivious to economic concerns. We serve them, and in return they thrive. It isn’t their responsibility to figure out where the rent is coming from.”

and, this:

In my mind, fiction and nonfiction stayed so far away from each other that for years I would have maintained they had no more a relationship than fiction and waitressing. … But I’ve come to realize that while all those years of writing fiction had improved my craft as a writer across the board, all those years of writing articles … had made me a workhorse, and that, in turn, was a skill I brought back to my novels.

and, fuck, this:

“For me it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head (there will be more about this later). This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling… This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing — all the color, the light and movement — is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.”

Interlude: May Sarton on fallowness

“I always forget how important the empty days are, how important it may be sometimes not to expect to produce anything, even a few lines in a journal. I am till pursued by a neurosis about work inherited from my father. A day where one has not pushed oneself to the limit seems a damaged, damaging day. Not so. The most valuable thing we can do for the psyche, occasionally is to let it rest, wander, live in the changing light of a room.”

May Sarton, Journal of Solitude

It’s not negligent parenting. It’s sanity parenting

NBTB-Sanity Parenting

I.

Meet Stella. She’s six, and, for a few more weeks, an only child.

Stella: Eeeeeeender! You never share! You do not understand what sharing is! Sharing is when I want something, you GIVE IT TO ME!

So I pee myself laughing and text Stella’s mom. She ROLFs. “Is that my fault?” she asks. “Probably,” I tell her, because I’m a bitch.

II.

Stella: Ender wants to build a fort, but I don’t want to build a fort. I want to play Minecraft and Ender wants to watch Good Mythical Morning. We can’t agree on anything!

Jane: You guys are together for four hours today. I think you’ll have more fun if you find something you can agree on.

Stella: I’m not going to agree on anything TODAY!

Jane: Then I guess you’ll have a miserable day.

Stella: I! Will!

So here comes Flora, who can’t bear if anyone is determined to have a miserable day:

Flora: How about if you two…

And here comes the intercept by an un-helicopter mother:

Jane: Baby? This is so not your job or responsibility. You have things to do. If the littles do not want to play together, it is not your job to make them.

Flora: Is it yours?

Jane: Fuck, no. I have things to do too.

(20 minutes later, they’ve figured it out. Yes, there was screaming. But no blood. This time.)

III.

Stella: My mom is way nicer than you.

Jane: I know.

Stella: But you’re a way better cooker.

Ha. By the way, beloved, that’s because I feed them lemon meringue pie for lunch.

IV.

Today’s story does have a moral.

Do you see it?

If not, go meet he who became my new favourite love in the summer of 2014—and then come back, and read this piece again.

xoxo

“Jane”

Some parts of this gig just really suck…

It’s 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I’m making pancakes for Ender. Because I love him. Even though he got me up at 4:47 a.m.

And somewhere out there in cyberspace is an old crone—er, I mean post-menopausal matriarch—actually, I very specifically mean my Aunt Augusta, and maybe yours too?—who’s tutting at my complaint about my bleary eyes and fuzzy head and saying,

“Treasure EVERY second. One day you will miss those precious moments.”

Well, Aunt Augusta. I now have a teenager whom I can’t rouse out of bed before noon.

And it’s THE BEST THING EVER.

Sure, there are lots of precious moments from Cinder’s earlier and earliest years that I miss acutely and will treasure forever.

Experiencing his wakefulness in a state of comatose-ness at 5 a.m.? Not so much.

Not at all, actually.

Changing diapers, wiping bums? Not one little bit.

I didn’t enjoy, cherish and relish every moment.

And neither will you. (And neither did you, Aunt Augusta, you goddamn hypocrite; your memories are rewritten and you LIE).

And that’s totally ok.

I cherish him. Them.

In sickness and in health. In joy and in “OMFG-are-you-trying-to-drive-me-into-a-madhouse” moments. (Well, not in those moments. But shortly thereafter.)

But some moments, many of them occurring before sunrise, in washrooms, or at meltdown hour just blow goats. And that’s ok. You don’t have to cherish them. You just have to get through them.

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Some parts suck

P.S. This post brought to you by purveyors of fine coffee beans everywhere.

“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”

“My children are my best friends.” “Really? What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“My children are my best friends,” she says to me. And looks at me, intently, for approval.

I don’t know what to say. I’m horrified.

Actually, I do know what I want to say:

“Really? Jesus. What the hell’s wrong with you?”

But that’s not going to help her, at all, or build—preserve—our fledgling relationship. So:

“Really?” I say. “Hmmm. Mine are not. Not. At. All.”

And as she processes that with this preconception she has of me as an attachment parenting-homeschooling-fully-immersed-in-motherhood-24/7-and-loving-it guru (Ha! She does not know—I run awayI resentI live so very firmly in reality and not theory), I try to figure out how to give her the context. How to explain.

Here’s the thing, my little one, maybe I’ll say. (Little one, because in that moment, looking to me for approval and guidance, she wrecks the dynamic of our nascent relationship, and we are not friends, we cannot be, we are not equals, and that’s the thing about friends, is it not?) Here’s the thing, my little one, I love my children. Madly, unconditionally. I love spending time with them. I have rewritten almost all the spoken and unspoken rules of life, career, marriage to be their primary caregiver.

But they are not everything. They are not enough. And they should not be everything—enough—to any sentient adult.

(Forgive the use of “should.” You know I try not to tell you what to do. But in this case, little one, you should have adult friends and not burden your children with being everything to you. Burden. That’s the word… Let’s talk about it some more in a couple of paragraphs, but first, another “b” word…)

The thing about children—oh, dare I tell you this? OK, here goes—when they are little, little, peeing-pooping-eating-burping messes—the thing about that stage, that amazing-exhausting stage that takes so much out of you and in which you give so much to them, and in which they are utterly and completely your world—it is so… boring. I mean… Christ. Changing diapers? Necessary, yes. Exciting? No. Reading Margaret Wiseman Brown’s The Big Red Barn for the eleventh time that hour—a wonderful, sharing experience with your little one. No doubt. Intellectually stimulating for you?

For me, not so much. Not at all. And playing cars on the floor with your motor-skill-finding toddler? Fun for the first 10 minutes. After that… the excitement pales. Just a little…

There are whole swaths of parenthood, of the work you do as mother-father, that are mind-numbingly boring. That’s ok; it’s just the way it is—life is not supposed to be a Disneyland theme ride. We find fulfillment and joy in doing the boring for them: we find joy in their joy as they… discover gravity.

And we get exhausted and exasperated, too: how many stones do you need to throw into the goddamn river before we move on? Oh. Infinity. Right… and we learn to love some of those experiences, because we love them and see the world through their eyes. And we learn to use some of that time for ourselves (book in pocket, game on phone, an opportunity to text with an also-trapped-at-a-different-playground-why-didn’t-we-coordinate-this friend).

And we find things to do together that excite us both on some level (for me and mine, it’s always been water. Pools, lakes, rivers, puddles).

But… so much of what little kids do and want to do and need to do is… boring.

(It’s not for you? Really? I don’t, honestly, believe you. But if it really is—if every last aspect fascinates you—good on you. Open a daycare, preschool, playplace. But also—get yourself some adult friends, pronto. Because, boring is only the secondary “B” word. Remember the first one? It’s burden.)

My children are older now. The 12-year-old and I sometimes read the same books and watch the same movies and Netflix shows. He explains mind-blowing scientific developments to me (most of the time, I don’t understand them). We argue about the theories about the past and the future of universe. Being with him, talking with him is definitely not boring.

The near-10-year is reaching the beginning of that ever-so-challenging age for girls; the metamorphosis begins, and most bedtimes, she will crawl into bed beside me, and alternate between being a child and being a budding woman in the space of a sentence.

She asks me the most difficult questions. She stretches my capacity to think-reason-love to the utmost. “What is truth?” “Why don’t you believe in God?” “When would I be old enough to date a boy five years older than me?” “How do people know if they’re straight or gay?” “Why do people do drugs, and have you ever?” “What would you do if you had a friend who…” Never, ever boring.

Listen, little one, this is the most important thing: I am there for her. I listen. I do my best to answer… or to point her to another question. To reassure (I’m terrible at that, frankly), to support (getting better at that).

But she is not there for me. She cannot be there for me. I am her mother, and it is her right to burden me with whatever she needs to unload, share, explore, question.

She is my daughter, she is my child, she is my little one—and it is my responsibility to NOT dump my dark on her.

Not hers to carry. She is… little. And she is my daughter. Not my friend. My responsibility. Not my equal.

So. All this, I want to say. Can I? Will I? I chicken out:

“You know what? I’ll write you a post instead. And we can talk about it, argue about it, take it to pieces. You can tell me about the dark from which your arguments come from: why it is that you feel you want to be their best friend. Why are you putting them in the awful position of being yours? Do you resist making connections with equals, adults? What’s the story you tell yourself around that? Why are you, from our first encounter, making yourself smaller than me, and looking for my approval? Why do you want to give me that power? Who the hell am I that you should defer to me?

“I’ll make you angry, and you’ll respond, and call me on my tactics. And demand I tell you where my dark comes from. Why my connections with adults are what they are… what drives me, what scares, why and where I connect and why I run—and how that fits with how I define myself as a mother-person-writer-other. And maybe I’ll tell you so much, you will tell me, ‘OMG-Jane, I think you need a therapist.’ And maybe, I will say, ‘Probably more than one. ‘”

You can do that with a friend.

xoxo

“Jane“

NBTB-Best Friends

Life hacks for work-at-home moms and other crazy people: always have a Plan Z (and, be a Timelord)

NBTB-Life Hacks1

My day goes horribly wrong at 10:08 a.m., when the planned child hand-off misfires, and, instead of starting my working day with a child-free and care-free work-out session, I show up at the gym with a crying five-year-old in tow. You know how there are moments when… oh, what? Essentially, you need to make a conscious decision:

“This day will not go as planned. Attempting to fulfill the agenda I set for it yesterday is suicide.”

And then, you need to take a five minute—five second, even—pause to weep. Then breathe.

Then, you need to do physically exhausting, difficult things for a while. No, really. Take a page from my active children: when the world’s just not right, and you want to punch someone… run. Hang upside down from the ceiling. Do push ups until you puke. (That’s 14 for me…)

And then… you look at the day and think. OK. So. No six-hour block of time during which I was going to do all the things. AND write the next great novel. OK. So. What can I do instead? What bits and pieces can I pick off the agenda instead?

And maybe the answer is… none of them. Today, none of them is going to get done. Today needs to be a kid day, a sick day, a play day, a no-earn day, a no-set-goals day.

But often, the answer is… Well, fine. No way can I write today, that won’t happen. But. I can send THAT long overdue email. And I can book THAT interview. And I can follow up with THAT client about THAT no-show payment. (Excuse me… I’m going to go do just that…)

And maybe, with the five-year-old in tow, today is the day that I prep suppers for the next two days… because that buys me an hour, two on each of those days, during which I can do, if not ALL THE THINGS, then at least some of the things.

Or maybe, today’s the day I have a mid-day bath. Or hey, today’s the day I call the client who knows and loves my kids… and interject family reality into the life of Corporate Canada.

“Want to grab a coffee with me and this gorgeous redhead I know?”

And so, some of that happens, and also this: I meet a friend who’s going to a play matinee, and she takes my progeny into the play, and I sit outside the theatre and I write…

Not the six hours I planned to have. But one hour, two hours—hell, 20 minutes—is better than zero.

When I talk with work-at-home parents and parents who’d like to… but can’t imagine how the hell to do it, I find the difference between the two groups is pretty simple. Those of us who work-at-home have two skills.

First, we know how to turn on a dime. To reposition. To recognize that Plan A just went out the window, Plan B is impossible, but maybe, maybe we can take some elements of Plan F and Plan X and graft a zombie that will see us through the day. (Also, we have Plans A through Z, and their variations, in the back of our minds at all times. Because Plan A pretty much never happens…)

Second, we’re Timelords. We know how to grab every last minute of productivity out of those 20 minutes when we have to.

If I had had my six hours, as planned, some of my time would have gone to… making coffee. Drinking coffee. Going for a walk. Checking Facebook. Maybe popping in a load of laundry….

In the 90 minutes that my son is watching Y-Stage’s Pinocchio, I work for 88 minutes. (I have to take a pee break at the 67 minute mark.)*

I leave you today with the most useful productivity-sanity strategy I’ve acquired over the past decade. Turn reading – writing – sending email messages… into three separate tasks.

Mind-blowing, I know. Bear with me. Consider:

  1. It takes no time at all to read email messages. And you can do it during periods of distraction, with children turning summersaults in the background.
  2. It takes no time at all to send an email message. And, ditto.
  3. It takes time, concentration and attention to write email messages. And nothing worth reading (over 144 characters, anyway) was ever typed with thumbs on a phone.

So. Read your messages on the fly if you must. Why not (actually… so many reasons to why not. But more on that another day). But don’t respond. Think. Then think some more. And then, when you have that 20 minute-1 hour block of time… think about it, that’s really quite a lot of time, and yet not enough time to write a draft of the next great Canadian novel or even a barely coherent-but-fileable feature… write out your thoughtful e-mail drafts… that actually answer the question your clients / sources / grandmothers raised in their email.

And then… you can send them out when you’ve got a minute or two here or there. And you will never think, “Oh, crap, why did I hit send!” on anything again.

You’re welcome. You may not realize what I’ve done, but I’ve just completely changed your life.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. For about 10 minutes last week, I changed the world. Read about it here: Women in Leadership: Opportunities lost, and not because our bosses are misogynist pricks.

10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment by Friday

photo (22)

  1. Don’t click on, and for goddsake, don’t READ, anything called “10 Surefire Ways to Achieve World Peace, Eternal Happiness and Total Creative Fulfillment by Friday.”

Yeah, I got nothing else.

But I’m pretty sure I just gave you an immense gift of time. What are you going to go do with it?

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. “That’s it?”

“That’s it. Hey, I threw 3000 words—written in strappy knee-high, gladiator sandals, did I mention?—at you last week. This week—I give you the gift of time. Don’t squander it. Or, you know, do. It’s yours to do with as you will.”