“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

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.