Dharma, slowing down time, & beauty in the ordinary

I.

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

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

It’s fucking adorable.

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

II.

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

Compulsory practices don’t count.

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

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

And now I’m meditating.

It’s really weird.

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

But I’m doing it.

At least once a day, most days twice.

III.

I’m doing it, because, dharma.

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

IV.

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

Fuck.

Me too.

When I grow up, I want to be me.

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

OMFG, my head hurts…

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

V.

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

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

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

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

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

That, I think, is my dharma.

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

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

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

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

VI.

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

So just imagine something beautiful… right here:

 

[this space intentionally left blank]

 

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

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

VII.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rod Stryker, The Four Desires

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

VIII.

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

IX.

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

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

Time slows down.

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

I explore the feeling.

X.

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

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

Instead, I get this:

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

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

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

OK.

That helps.

That actually… really helps.

Me, anyway.

Does it help you?

xoxo

“Jane”

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)

American hell, the corpse pose & a murder in a yoga studio

I.

For a family of atheists, we spend a great deal of time discussing hell. I guess mostly as a rhetorical or literary device, a metaphor. But still.

So what happened is they said something and I said something and they said something, and then:

Jane: And that, children, is why you’re all going to American hell.

Flora: Wait—there’s an American hell? How is it different from regular hell?

Jane: It’s like regular hell, except the US flag is burning and Donald Trump is president.

Flora: Isn’t that real America?

Jane: Right. I still keep on hoping it’s all a very bad, bad dream.

Flora: So what’s Canadian hell like?

Cinder: Oh, it’s very chill. You get to go to heaven as soon as you say, ‘I’m sorry.’

Flora: What?

Cinder: Yeah, Canadian hell is reserved only for the people who don’t say ‘I’m sorry’ when they accidentally bump into someone. But once you’re in hell, as soon as you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ you get to go to Canadian heaven.

Flora: Cool.

Cinder: Not really. I mean, if you think Canadian hell is boring, imagine Canadian heaven.

I think the awful moral of that story might be that evil is… interesting.

Disturbed?

Me too.

nbtb-naked-man-cafe

II.

My least favourite part about EVERY yoga/meditation book I have ever read (which, ok, is a grand sample of… three or four. But still):

“While you can meditate anywhere, it is best to create a dedicated space for your practice…”

…followed by instructions on what to put in your beautiful ‘dedicated’ room after you first unclutter it (and then, I suppose, go shopping for all the sustainable-organic-fair-traded crap that should go on your mindfulness altar).

(Wow, I’m a judgemental bitch. I guess I need to meditate more.)

As I read these privileged pronouncements in the kitchen-that-doubles-as-dining-room-triples-as-office-and-is-also-a-pantry, and then pop into the living-room-that-is-also-the-playroom-computer-room-school-room-library-arts-and-crafts-cupboard, then navigate the stairway landing that is also the linen cupboard—and this is all before I go into the hallway-that-is-the walk-in-closet-that-morphs-into-my-writing-space, I don’t feel an awful lot of compassion and connection to these overly privileged Omming people who are solving their life’s problems by sitting on a designer meditation cushion ($425 on sale at Macy’s) on a newly installed hardware floor (tatami mats are nice too) in an empty room in their 5000 square foot weekend beach house.

(So. Judgemental.)

(Rich, privileged people deserve compassion too.)

(Really.)

(But, fuck, sweetheart. It’s really hard to feel your pain and suffering when the amount of money you saved refurbishing your kitchen exceeds my entire annual income.)

(Yes, fine, so fucking judgemental. I’m taking my judgemental, compassionless ass to another yoga class. Sigh. Coming?)

nbtb-do-fish-exist

III.

So I’m laying in savasana—the so-called corpse pose—at the end of my “I’m a little worried it’s a cult because they’re all dressed in white and the teachers wear fucking turbans!” Kundalini yoga class (I’m doing yoga in January instead of writing, which was probably a TERRIBLE idea but more on that anon)—and the teacher is giving us a gong bath (don’t ask), and I’ve got to tell you, I love savasana. The first time I lay in savasana, I came up with a brilliant three paragraph pitch and completely refined AND managed to hold it in my head all the way home until I got to the computer. The third time, I rehearsed in some detail how I was going to break someone’s heart (not real) and then realized I was going to have to break someone’s very real heart and that sucked, but I was okay with that, and while not quite sure whether it was okay to use the script from the not-real heartbreak in the real heartbreaking, I had a definite script for both.

The fifth time I had the best-ever nap and…

Sean: I’m pretty sure you’re doing savasana wrong.

Jane: Baby, I get to lay still with no one asking me for shit for 5, 10, 20 solid minutes? I am not wasting that time NOT thinking.

…after I woke up, I really wanted to write you a long, detailed letter about my bizarre dream, but that, I did not manage to hold in my head until I got home and to the computer. There was a Phoenix in it, though, and some very bizarre Harry Potter-imprinting. Also, at one point, you were the Phoenix, and you very badly wanted some ice cream. Raspberry cardamom ice cream.

(Actually, I don’t know about that. The raspberry cardamom ice cream, I mean. I had some raspberry cardamom ice cream yesterday, and I thought about you as I ate it, so I have now retroactively put it into the dream. Which reminds me, another time that I lay in savasana, I was thinking about retrocausality and how what we do in the present and want from the future actually changes the past, and… but that’s another story. Where was I going with this one?)

(You: You were laying in savasana

Jane: Right. Thank you!)

So I’m laying in savasana and the teacher is giving us a gong bath (ok, fine, since you’ve asked again, what’s happening is she’s beating the gong and it’s causing these fantastic reverberations that are supposed to quiet—stun?—your mind and thrust you deeper and deeper into relaxation and connection-communion with your true self—I’m paraphrasing—but for the record, I did choose the most cult-like yoga class I could possibly find, why the fuck did I do that?) and I’m laying there and I suddenly get this great idea for a murder mystery set in a yoga studio.

The murder itself, of course, takes place during savasana.

I think the murder has to be the teacher.

But… oh…. yes!

I can’t wait to get home to tell the kids.

nbtb-artist-at-work

IV.

Jane: So what do you think?

Flora: Ok, let me recap. Everyone is laying on the floor in corpse pose with their eyes closed. And this loud music…

Jane: Gong.

Flora: …this gong is going the whole time. And so the murderer gets up, and kills the victim, and then gets back into corpse pose.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: And no one sees or hears what happens—because they were all laying there with their eyes closed, and because of the gong.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: But the teacher is beating the gong the whole time.

Jane: Or is she?

Flora: What?

Jane: Ok, two options. One, the teacher is innocent, and she’s so focused on banging the gong that she doesn’t notice what happens. We could even have her with her back to the class. Or beating it with her eyes closed too. Or—the music is played off an iPad or something and the teacher lies down and does the savasana with all the students.

Flora: Or, two, the students think the teacher is beating the gong, but she’s actually playing a track off iTunes, and she murders the victim while everyone else thinks she’s beating the gong.

Jane: Exactly.

Flora: Too obvious.

Cinder: Are you going to put a police officer in the yoga class?

Ender: The police officer should be the victim.

Flora: No, the police officer should be the yoga teacher.

Jane: Oh, can you imagine how pissed… he? she?

Flora: He.

Jane: he is? Police officer. AND yoga teacher—all in tune and aware of people’s auras and intentions and energies—and one of his students kills another right behind his back.

This is the point in the conversation at which Sean joins us. And shakes his head.

Jane: Don’t tell me I’m not doing savasana properly.

Sean: I won’t. Just… when you go back to yoga tomorrow? Please remember you IMAGINED all this, and your yoga instructor is neither a murderer nor a police officer…

Jane: She’s… he’s the victim, the victim—the yoga instructor-police officer is the victim! And, on that day, his… partner? Or assistant? is in the class for the first time, and they’re both the crime solver, primary witness, and most likely culprit, and…

I wish I wrote murder mysteries. That one would fucking rock.

nbtb-boas-are-cool

V.

The next time I lay in savasana, I write this post.

But I’m still not writing. Still not writing. This doesn’t count, this never counts.

Why is that?

Hmmm.

VI.

Somewhere, in the space between American hell and Canadian heaven, there is…

Flora: Limbo?

Cinder: Purgatory?

…ordinary, everyday life.

Ommmm.

To end this post, lay down in corpse pose and treat yourself to a gong bath:

xoxo

“Jane”

Magic, yoga, meditation and being the centre of the universe (a 50% deceptive title)

I.

Monday was my father’s birthday, and he was very far away and I could not hug him and love him and thank him. I have loved him with a particular vehemence this week, for all sorts of complicated reasons. Among them, this: I was, I am the center of his universe. Completely. The most important thing ever. And he taught me to expect to be… the most important thing in everyone’s universe.

OK, this has occasionally made me a challenging lover-wife-friend (uhm, employee).

But on the whole, you know what? I’ll take it over the alternatives.

II.

mjc-cinder-with-maggie

True story:

Jane: Cindeeeer! Can you give me my little purse? The pink one? I left it on the table and I don’t want to come into the kitchen in my muddy boots.

Cinder: What’s in it for me?

Jane: My eternal gratitude.

Cinder: I’m sending it by express dog.

Jane: Do. Not. Fucking. Tie. My. Purse. Around… Christ. Why? Why? Why did you tie my purse around the dog?

Cinder: Because it was funny?

Jane: Because you like to antagonize me?

Cinder: That too. Also, with all this yoga and meditation you’ve been doing lately, I believe you need more daily challenges. And that’s MY job.

[insert bad word here]

[delete it, because it’s wrong to call your eldest son an asshole]

[even when he sorta is]

[sigh]

[a loveable, amazing asshole]

[just annoying]

[god, i love him… i love him so much]

III.

Am Reading:

Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert—YES! And yes, you should read it too. All of you, any of you. Even if you hated Eat Pray Love—me, I couldn’t make it though that book… first chapter, I wanted to slap Liz upside the face and say, “Stop your fucking whining, privileged white woman. Jeezus, even I’ve suffered more than you.” Um… digression. Point: I did not like Eat Pray Love. I LOVED Big Magic. I ripped through it in a day and a half despite a hundred and one other projects and obligations.

My favourite part:

“Fierce trust demands that you put forth the work anyhow, because fierce trusts knows that the outcome does not matter.

The outcome CANNOT matter.”

The outcome cannot matter.

Fuck. That. Is. So. Hard.

But so necessary.

The most important lesson:

“When I finished that novel, it was not a perfect novel, but I still felt it was the best work I’d ever done, and I believed I was a far better writer than I’d been before I began it. I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.

But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new—something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.

Because that is the anthem of my people.

That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.”

My song, too. More or less.

IV.

Am also reading:

Yoga For Real Life by Maya Fiennes, Kundalini Meditation: The Path to Personal Transformation and Creativity by Kathryn McCusker, and A Woman’s Book of Meditation: Discovering the Power of a  Peaceful Mind by Hari Kaur Khalsa

Am re-reading: A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & lively Muse for the Writing Life by Judith Reeves, which is quite fun and useful and playfully inspiring… and also, unintentionally (and it’s clearly me and not the author) depressing (I’m not going to tell you why) (yet).


I am not writing.

This is mostly on purpose…

You: And this blog post is what?

Me: Have we not covered this before? A blog post I can shoot off in 15 minutes while simul-texting with three people is not writing. It’s therapy.

…mostly on purpose. I am trying to reflect, regroup, refocus. Try to listen to that screaming inner child.

BTW, if you think it’s easy to listen to a screaming inner child, you are clearly childless. Those of you who have survived colic, toddler tantrums, and teenage angst know exactly what I mean.

She’s so fucking loud, she’s splitting my eardrums, and I know I’m supposed to love her, but right now? I hate her and I wish she’d move out.

V.

Have tried to read:

Prince Hafiz’s Only Vice by Susanne Carr. I read page one. Then skipped to the last chapter. Spoiler: they got together. True Thing: I really, really, really WISH I had been able to read through the damn thing. How hard could it be? I asked myself. Fucking read it. Enjoy. Relax. Chill.

But I just can’t. Prince Hafiz and his one true vice do NOTHING for me.

On my kitchen table:

Gap Of Time: the Winter’s Tale Retold by Jeanette Winterson. I’m not going to read it. I have opened it and flipped through it half-heartedly. I love Jeanette… I love Shakespeare… but if you’re going to try to one-up Shakespeare, you’ve got to be fucking brilliant. And Jeanette is often brilliant. But this time, she is just… good.

Good enough.

Just not good enough for me to sink into right now. I’m sorry. Jeanette, I’m so sorry. I’m going to try to get Sean to read it, and tell me about it, ok?

Also on my kitchen table:

G.K. Chesterton’s Complete Father Brown. Which I’m re-reading in bits and pieces intermittently to distract myself from the screaming.

(Inner child.)

(In my head.)

(Because listening is hard work.)

VI.

nbtb-notebook-in-red

I’m having a staring contest with something that’s either an idea or a deep-seated neurosis and…

Ender: Mom, can you peel this orange for me?

Jane: I’m busy right now, love, in a bit.

Ender: You’re sitting there staring at the wall!

Jane: I’m thinking!

Ender: Can’t you think while peeling my orange?

It seems like a fair request, right?

It makes me livid.

I peel the orange anyway.

VII.

Sometimes, words—shy words, trite words, words so true they sound clichéd because they have been said in that precise way so often because they are so true (I know exactly I did there, so give your high school English grammar textbook some Fentanyl and don’t resuscitate it until I’m finished)—sometimes, words like to come out only when it’s very dark and very quiet.

Like these words:

My smallest son, tucked
into my right arm pit, a whisper,
“You will never know.”
“Never know what?”
“Never know how much I love you.”
“I know.”
“No. You will never know.”
A kiss. My whisper,
“I love you more.”
“No. I love you more.”
A dark night.
“Impossible.”
“True.”
A heartbeat, rapid,
rhythm of a hummingbird,
breath steady, gentler than a whisper.
A sleep.
Asleep, my smallest son,
In my right arm pit,
I whisper,
“You will never know,”
He answers
with a hummingbird’s snore.

I capture them with my iPhone, left-thumb typing (the right thumb imprisoned under the body of my son).

I think it’s a poem; I call it, “Good Night.”

xoxo

“Jane”

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

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

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

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

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

I.

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

He’s watching Blue’s Clues.

I’m meditating.

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

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

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

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

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

NBTB-Methadone Dec 30

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

“What?”

“Sarah. Selecky.”

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

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

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

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

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

So.

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

But. Inertia. Stalled. Help.

Phone. Where is my phone?

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

“Sarah Selecky, at sarahselecky.com.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruined papers 3

…and, really? By hand? In 2014?

I don’t even have a notebook.

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

No excuses.

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

Mica.

No.

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

I want to write my novel.

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

Write.

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

Done.

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

But it’s just pulsating with potential.

NBTB-Mind Map2

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

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

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

I love her.

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

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

It’s not easy.

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

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

III.

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

I don’t understand.

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

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

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

“But… the children…”

The children are 12, 9 and almost 5.

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

Except… they are.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

she says, squeezing me hard. She pauses.

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

She laughs.

I burst into tears.

Because it’s true.

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

Yes.

IV.

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

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

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

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

The more so as I get older.

“Mother” is NOT my all-encompassing identity.

Neither is “wife.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But on a tightrope, for sure.

And it so hard.

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

How easily I can fall off.

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

V.

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

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

But…

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

And so, I give him my physical self.

My mind writes. It is absent from him.

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

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

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

“Mooom! Help me!”

…might be the last.

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

VI.

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

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

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

Don’t you dare interrupt me.

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

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Meditation for writers

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

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