Productive artists

This week, I am pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy. I am all these conflicting, competing things and I am struggling to make my words perform the way they want to.

Flora: “I’m feeling so sad. I don’t know why!”

Me too, little flower,me too. I put an arm around her and suggest we go up to bed, watch an episode of Friends together—mind pap, not even brain candy, more like Pablum that used to be the marquee brand but has now been retired, gathering dust on a creaky shelf in an old warehouse. It’s well past its expiry date—no matter, today, we will eat it anyway, because it’s what we… well, not what we need. But what we want, right now.

We watch. But it’s not about the watching. It’s about the cuddling—the 22 minutes of togetherness and physical contact and presence. The show on the laptop ensures we can be together without words. Without me lecturing (or whining). Her justifying (trying to put into words what can be silence).

Flora’s little brother was evil today and I worry that I am raising a vandal, possibly, worse, the Anti-Christ, a destroyer of worlds. I’m probably not—but I worry. That’s what mothers do, you know. Worry, worry, worry.

Flora’s worried too. She’s going on a trip next week, to New York City! With her grandmother, without me. She’s excited.

But worried.

Why?

Flora: “I’m concerned it’s not going to be productive.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, whose sentiment is she echoing there? Not mine, or is it? (What she means, really, is “I’m worried I will miss you.” But she chooses those other words. They’re safer.) Her father strokes her hair and kisses the tip of her nose. “To an artist, every experience is productive, important,” he says. I smile. Idly wonder if I should interject, correct “to an artist” to “to a human.” We respect-recognize-value-nurture the artist within Flora so much, but maybe that’s as harmful as trying to squash it, suppose down the line, she decides she’s over this drawing thing and she wants to be a neurologist, shop keeper or construction worker? Are we limiting her with the label?

(mothers, worry, worry, worry, worry…)

Flora’s room, in its glorious messiness, artistic chaos is so beautiful to me. When I open the door and peek in there, I am flooded with joy and love—her room is evidence of her creativity, her freedom, her exploration of the world and of herself in an explosion of colour. It is her self, her soul made physical—the same way my the space-that-is-me-made-into-place is mine (or, I detour, the way my words are me? Are my words me? That’s another story to explore…)

We have been talking about rejigging the children’s rooms for some time now, doing, finally, the Canadian thing and giving them each a room. This week, trembling under the weight of deadlines, consumed with anxiety over “Why haven’t they gotten the mark up back to me yet!” (and also, “why haven’t they paid me, yet, again, oh, wait, they don’t do that anymore, it’s most cost-effective for them not to pay their writers, bastards, I really need to rethink my career NOW”), I channel the nervous energy into making that happen.

It’s a game of dominos—the old film production office on the flood plain transforms into a sanctuary for me and Sean (“But it’s so cold!” “Yeah, but it’s two stories away from the ears of the children!” “And the bathroom!” “Lover, it will be so good, you’ll see…”), Flora, taking over the big bedroom currently shared by the boys and their Lego, Cinder into the shoebox with the big window that’s currently Flora’s over-crowded room (“Roof access!” he proclaims gleefully. “If you abuse the roof access, I’m going to put bars on it,” I warn him. “No you won’t,” he retorts. “It’s our fire escape.” Busted, dammit, never make threats you can’t keep), and Ender inheriting the former family bedroom with the king size mattress he’s been peeing on since he’s been born.

(As we play the dominos necessary to effect the change, I am most excited that my future holds a mattress free of child urine. Yes, yes, yes, YES!)

“Why does Flora get the biggest room?” this from Ender, the third child who’s most sensitive to “not fair”—and says “not fair” even when things are perfectly equitable and reasonable; “not fair” means “I don’t like this.”

I want to say, first impulse, “Because she’s an artist,” but of course, he has an artist within too. So, instead, “Because she needs the space and the light. You and Daddy can use her studio sometimes to draw and paint in—that’s part of the deal.”

“Not fair,” the little vandal humphs and goes off in search of, what? Possibly a hammer, something to smash. To follow him, or to risk it? I follow. He goes to a bin of Lego, starts to create.

I sigh with relief, for the moment. Call for Cinder to help me move a dresser down two flights of stairs. He takes over the logistics of the operation. “As you’re still a little bigger, you’d better be at the bottom,” he instructs me. I look up at him–yeah, another inch, and he will be bigger than me, and I suspect he might already be stronger… “No, just one stair at a time at the top here, but at the third step, veer right and over…” We get the dresser—it’s actually an antique Chinese medicine cabinet, totally useless as a dresser, three pairs of socks fit in each drawer, and my bras barely, BUT I LOVE IT, it is so beautiful—down to the bottom floor without hammering any new holes in the wall. I feel very satisfied. Productive. Lifting heavy stuffy, moving shit from one room to another—when you’ve done it, you feel you’ve done something, accomplished something, right?

Changing three words in a perfectly good sentence to make it better… not quite the same oomph. Waiting for a response to your email, phone message? Utterly draining.

Pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy, I survey the chaos I’ve thrust my house into. The work’s not done yet, but my minions are exhausted. “Go play,” I command, and they scatter.

I text a witch to ask if she can come smudge, exorcise some of the 2013 anxiety from the flood plain-level ex-office, our new bedroom.

Do all the things. Then, drink wine with people I love. Sleep like the dead.

Wake up, still pensive and volatile, introspective and critical, vibrating with anxiety and full of energy. Which is good, because there’s still so much to do…

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-beakerhead 2015 intrude

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.

I become a Timelord, and tell you why when you say “I’m too busy,” I think you’re handing me a lame excuse

It happens like this: Sean buys me a Dalek dress and…

…actually, no, it happens like this: I’m trying to get together with a friend, and we’re comparing schedules, and arrive at a date 18 days out.

“Seriously?” I say. “This is the first time that works for both of us?”

She shrugs. “We’re amazing people with full, busy lives. You’re in deadline hell until the 8th. I’ve got this, that and the other until the 13th. Then you’re on a new story. Then…”

Then… I become a Timelord. I bend the laws of time and space, and we get together the next day. I’m still in deadline hell. She’s still got this, that and the other. We take a break for a slushy walk and a glass of wine.

Deadline hell is there when I come back. So is laundry, and a living room that looks like it’s been ransacked by very unskilled terrorists. And an eternal construction zone on the bottom floor of my house. And… oh, so many tasks, duties, obligations that can contribute to making me feel “too busy.”

And, ok. I’m busy. Stuff to do, always. But I’m not “too busy.” I’m not too busy to do the important, fulfilling. Or just the… fun. I’m not too busy to live. And neither should you be.

Want to know the secret to being a Timelord? It’s three-fold.

First, to steal shamelessly from United States Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum: “Prioritize A, B and C. Discard C.”

You know this. You probably do this. But you know what? You’re probably discarding the wrong C. See, getting together with my friend for a glass of wine—that’s an A. Right up there with reading to my kids at bedtime, meeting my deadlines, and NOT skipping a single work-out session.

Second—ready? This is the big one—realize that amidst your “I’m too busy,” you’re going to piss away a lot of time. OK, let’s not make it about you: in the middle of my “I’m so busy! Waaah!” I’m going to piss away a lot of time. I’m going to feel burnt out and spent, and will need to recharge and get refreshed before I can slog through another 12-hour “must produce” day. I can spend that inevitable piss away time unproductively, feeling like I should be working-doing-something, wallowing in guilt and ick… or I can plan to spend it in a re-energizing way: taking two hours away from deadline hell to go sledding with my kids. Recognizing that by Wednesday night, there is no way I will be capable of working into the night, and so, that’s a really good night to go to the theatre, yes, babe, let me arrange for a babysitter.

Third—and this is what separates the Companions from the Timelords, beloveds—I say yes to 20 minute commitments. It goes like this:

“Mom? Can we go sledding?”

And I look at the clock, and it’s 11:20, and Sean and I are doing a kid-and-car switch off in 30 minutes; his workday over and mine beginning. And my “too busy” instinct is to say “No.” Right? By the time the snowsuits are on… You know what? Screw it. I say yes.

We’re out the door in 5 minutes, on the hill in 10. Sean meets us there; I effect a snowpants- into-“suitable for client clothes” change in the truck. I make my meeting, cheeks frostbitten, a little sweaty—but happy. I spent 20 minutes outside engaged with my kids doing something, instead of inside, marking time until the switch-off, listening to bored kids whine.

It also goes like this:

“Hey, I’m five minutes away from your office and with a 35 minute gap until my next interview. Time for a coffee?”

And like this:

“I’m heading down south to Costco this afternoon with all three kids. Meet at the River for a sanity walk before or after?”

That’s all:

1. Prioritize—but make sure “A” includes the things you really need to do. Yoga, if that’s your thing. Poker night if that feeds your soul. Chocolate. Wine. Sex.

2. Plan for piss away time—and turn it into time for stuff you want to do that feeds your mind-soul-body.

3. Say yes to doing something for a very short time—use your “in-between” and “waiting” time instead of just filling it. A walk can be a 20-minute commitment. Less. As can getting naked with your lover. Or writing a blog post, pitch or long-overdue email letter (remember those?) to a forever friend—or at least the first draft of one.

So… Timelord with me, will you? And don’t tell me you’re too busy. I know you’re busy. Me too. Kids, family, money-tied work and love-tied work. Volunteer commitments. Dishes that won’t do themselves, and a bathroom that refuses to self-clean (is there a warranty for that?). And also: books I want to read, plays I want to see, events I want to experience. Friends I need to see. Places I need to  be.

And yeah, sometimes, deadline hell, work hell, this-that-or-the-other (the newborn, the un-potty-training toddler, the sick parent, the near-death experience, the divorce, the massive natural disaster, the nothing-else-matters event) takes over everything. Of course. Sometimes, you can’t bend the laws of time and space.

But most of the time… I can.

xoxo,

Jane

NBTB Timelord

P.S. In a totally coincidental unplanned, event, my Strategy Session column this month is about Sweating The Big Stuff:  stop putting out the fires and start strategizing. And it opens with Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, whom I met in Martin Seligman’s Flourish.

P.P.S. For the bloggers in the audience: When I am in deadline hell, blogging—in particular, that aspect of blogging that involves interacting within the blogosphere and doing all those social media things, becomes “C.” And gets discarded, without a second thought, without guilt. Writing for the blog(s)* becomes “B” (when I’m truly a Timelord, it is “A”).

*If you can’t get enough of me, and having out-of-box ideas about education, I also write about unschooling and my kids’ learning journey at Undogmatic Unschoolers. My real self’s business writing portfolio is hangs out at Calgary Business Writer. Looking to connect in the SM (social media, get yer mind out of the gutter) universe? Go to Find “Jane” … or just follow @nothingbtbook on Twitter. Easiest, lowest effort, highest ROI act.