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.

Episode 356, in which everyone swears, metaphors are tortured, and a bad story gets filed

subtitled, why my children swear… and why I’m not going to stop…

I.

Ender: Mom? You know what the difference between you and me is? You swear at people. I just swear for fun.

Go ahead. No, please, go ahead, indulge the judge within. There are so many things WRONG with that statement, I don’t even know where to start.

It’s only partially true.

I don’t really swear AT people. More at the THINGS they do.

More often yet: at my self. My brain. The things it refuses to do when I really need it to perform…

Still. I hereby resolve to swear less. In front of the sponge-like four-year-old, anyway.

II.

I have this deeply insightful point to make and I’m just trying to find the right way to lead up to it, and then…

Flora: Mom? Do we have any of that delicious bean mush left?

Jane: What? That? Yeah?

Flora: Can I have that for breakfast?

Yes, of course, but I have to help her heat it up—because it’s been left overnight in the pan and so requires some, um, resuscitation shall we say—and then, ok, a tortilla or two to go with it, and then by the time I come back to the laptop, I can’t remember where I was going, what I was thinking…

Yeah, gone. Forever. Here. Read this instead:

III.

Jane: Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, why is this piece so fucking bad? It’s easy. It’s simple. A goddamn chimpanzee at a typewriter could write it, so why… Jeezus—Keerist, why. Am. I. So. Fucking. Brain. Dead. Today? … hey, Cinder? I’m going to walk over to Vendome to get a coffee with whipped cream in it and clear my head, wanna come with?

Cinder: That depends. Are you going to talk to yourself and make weird hand gestures and roll your eyes and stop suddenly and shout, “YES!” or “Fuck, no, that won’t work,” because you’re stuck on that story?

Jane: Um… maybe…

Cinder: Then no. But can you bring back some of that good focaccia bread? And don’t eat it all on the way home!

OK, this stopping swearing in front of my children thing probably isn’t going to happen.

And also: seriously, a goddamn chimpanzee with a typewriter could have written it better than I had in that first draft form. Your writing tip for the day, boys and girls: an amateur despairs and gives up. A professional despairs, goes for a walk, downs a triple mocha, and redrafts.

IV.

The thing is, though, I’m feeling kind of lonely and really do want company.

Jane: Flora? Wanna go to Vendome with me?

Flora: Are you going to talk to me as we walk, or ignore me and just mumble to yourself and do that creepy thing with your eyes?

Jane: Um. I don’t know. Maybe?

Flora: Can I make a video of you and put it on Youtube?

Jane: No!

Flora: Can I make a video of you and show it to all my friends?

Jane: Why do you hate me?

Flora: We don’t hate you, Mom. We just like to mock you.

Awesome. I go for my walk alone.

IV.

I redraft. It still sucks. Woe is I. Or rather, woe is my editor, who will have to fix it.

Point: “Filed.” I’ve told you before, have I not? An amateur thinks it has to be good. A professional knows it just has to be done.

V.

This is the moment where I try to adapt the good/done, amateur/professional metaphor to parenting. It’s rather torturous, but it goes like this. The amateur/theoretical parent—i.e., your childless friend who is so full of theory and advice and knows exactly how he will raise his kids or even any first-time, first-year mom at that stage of the journey (do you remember that stage? I find it’s fading for me, too fast, thank goodness I write so I have proof of how insufferably arrogant and “right” I was)—thinks it has to be perfect. That it can be perfect. The professional parent—that is, anyone who’s done it in the real world for more than a year—knows it just has to… be. It just… is.

It gets done, every day.

Right?

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-Everyone Swears

On writing, reading about writing (just don’t), mothering and raging

I’m curled up in bed with Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King, and Pierre Berton, and they’re pissing me off.

I decided to do this thing tonight, this ridiculous thing, to give my time this night to reading about writing instead of… writing. I’ve been feeling restless, unfocused—my deadline-and-paycheque-tied work is getting done, as it always gets done, but my creative-passion work is kind of flailing, directionless, and I’m not sure what it needs at this precise moment, a restart button perhaps, a Eureka moment of inspiration, something? Or maybe just a different routine, a novel approach, I don’t know…

So instead of writing, I take Ernest, Stephen and Pierre to bed. I’ve been with them all before, with their fiction, anyway, word-slut that I am. And I’ve devoured Stephen King’s On Writing when it first came out—it was the first, sometimes I think only, useful piece of writing about writing I’ve ever read.

But today, all three of them are pissing me off. Especially Pierre.

And it’s because they’re men.

Well, to be more specific: it’s because they’re NOT mothers.

Writes Pierre:

“The Make-Believe Writer doesn’t really want to write; he simply wants the Aura. The real writer writes because he must.

He writes even when it is torture for him. He writes in despair, knowing how damnably difficult it is, feeling his own self-confidence drain away, realizing the goals he strives for can never be attained and yet he writes because he cannot stop. He will forsake the company of his friends to write. He will ostracize his wife or mistress, disregard his offispring, abandon his social relationships, neglect his meals and his bed, cancel all his engagements. But he will write.”

And I want to smack him. Because… guess who’s bringing him up his meals and feeding his children and making sure all the other shit that needs to get done gets done while he’s indulging in the self-torture of writing in despair because he must?

Sean: What are you doing?

Jane: I’m writing about how you’re a terrible wife.

It’s a little unfair. He tries. And I’ve got half-a-dozen, more, “wives” in the wings—my mother, my coven, all my women, the elitist crazy bitches I love who watch my back. I am not alone, I am never unsupported.

But “ostracizing” and “disregarding” my family, my “offspring” … not an option.

And so I think… Pierre. You selfish, selfish fucker.

And I think… this is why women-writers, mother-writers should never take advice from men. Or childless women.

And I think… I never, ever want to resent my children, think of them as a reason that I didn’t do something I really, really wanted to, needed to do.

So what do I do about that?

Sean: I will try, very hard, my love, to be a better wife.

Except, he can’t. I mean—he can’t be all that I need that mythical, all-supportive wife to be. Because he needs to chase his own dreams and aspirations too: I would not love him as I do if he did not, just as he would not love me as he does if I were Mrs. Pierre Berton.

Virginia Woolf had no children and she longed for, praised the necessity of a room of her own (and, a private income!). I am surrounded, beloved, buried in children, their needs, noises, demands, lives. This is true for most of the women I know who write. They write on ironing boards, in corners, on beds, on stairs. In cars. Park benches. Coffee shops. Room of our own? Ha.

Disregard our offspring? Ha. They are always there, always first. (And the world is always there, ready to censure “mommy bloggers” for the fact that they find fulfillment in creating words and worlds on the screen and don’t find utter fulfillment in changing diapers, baking chocolate chip cookies, and cooing over their off-springs’ every burp, fart, and smile. You know what, world? Fuck you. I coo. I love. I change diapers. And I also Need. To. Write. So take your judgement and expectations and shove them up Pierre and Steve’s…)

Ender: Read books to me, Mama?

Jane: I can’t. I’m swearing at Pierre Berton. Give me 10 more minutes.

Sean: I’ll read to you.

Ender: No. I want Mama.

Jane: Then you have to wait. I’m still raging.

The almost-five year old curls up beside me with a stack of Magic School Bus and Dr. Seuss books. His dad sits on his other side, and picks up a book, starts reading. I breathe. Moan. I’m spent by swearing at Pierre. I’m thinking that Tabitha King is also a writer, completely eclipsed, of course, by the output and fame of her husband. Because he had more talent? Or because she had no wife? And why am I in this whiny mood today?

Ernie, help me.

“He always worked best when Helen was unwell. Just that much discontent and friction. Then there were times when you had to write. Not conscience. Just peristaltic action. Then you felt sometimes like you could never write but after a while you knew sooner or later you would write another good story.

It was really more fun than anything. That was really why you did it. He had never realized that before. It wasn’t conscience. It was simply that it was the greatest pleasure. It had more bite to it than anything else.” (Hemingway, The Nick Adams Stories)

I always write best when I’m… a little overwhelmed. Frustrated. Angry. Creation never seems to stem from happiness. Happiness makes me languid, lazy. When I am tranquil and grounded, I’m probably a good mother, friend, lover, wife… but I’m a dull, dull, unproductive writer. When I have time, I am lazy. When there are no other demands on me, but those of my “passion-love” creative work… I don’t carve out the time to really do it.

Ender is asleep and drooling on my pillow.

Sean: Wine? Chocolate? Coffee? Laptop cord?

Jane: No. Sex. Conversation. Then maybe more sex. And you need to make supper every day next week, because I’m going to write from 5 til 9 until I go fallow again.

Sean: I can totally do all those things. Especially the sex.

Jane: And, don’t forget, more sex.

(I know how to sell anything. Please, feel free to take notes.)

Tomorrow, before 5 p.m., Ernest, Stephen and Pierre are all going back to the library. And I’m going to write, not read about writing.

Wait. I’m going to keep Ernest. Because…

“Tell me first what are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?”…

“Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition,” I said profoundly. (Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa)

and

“When you first start writing stories in the first person if the stories are made so real that people believe them the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you were making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough you make the person who is reading them believe that the things happened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become a part of the reader’s experience and a part of his memory.”

Yes. That. Thank you, Papa H.

Xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-On writing and reading about writing

PS I was reading Stephen King’s On Writing, Pierre Berton’s The Joy of Writing: A Guide for Writers Disguised as a Literary Memoir, and Ernest Hemingway on Writing, edited by Larry W. Phillips.

PPS Looking for me? Find me here.

A “lost” year: on standing still, moving forward, stepping back

Come. Come in. I have something I want to show you. Here, over here: this box. That one. And that pile over there. Remember, I told you about them? My papers, my manuscripts, my letters. The record of my early creative life.

They’re all terribly, terribly bad. I mean—not just a little bad. God-awful. It’s hard to say what’s worse—the novel I wrote when I was 13 and the sheafs of heavy metal music-inspired poetry I churned out when I was 15 are probably absolutely the worst, although the novel I wrote when I was 16, and the one I started when I was 18 are pretty bad too.

There is no reason to save them, to hold on to them. They make me cringe, you know, when I look at them? They are so very, so very terribly, wonderfully bad.

They stink.

photo (1)

Flora: What are you doing, Mom?

Jane: I’m trying to write something that’s simultaneously truthful and not asshat pretentious, and failing miserably.

Flora: Oh. Are you going to be much longer? Because I need you to take me to the craft store to buy me more clay.

Jane: Yeah, ok. In a bit. Hold on. I’m trying to explain why I’ve spent an entire year tripping over boxes of molding, unreadable papers.

They actually do stink. I’m pretty sure they’re actively molding. Maybe, if I procrastinate long enough, the mold will finish what the flood started. Maybe, I’m waiting for a force of nature to take agency away from me again…

Cinder: Mom? What are you doing?

Flora: Ssssh. She’s writing about how she can’t throw out those stinky papers.

Cinder: Isn’t it because she’s lazy?

Jane: Silence, progeny. I’m wallowing in artistic existential angst here.

photo

There must be, I think, a part of me that enjoys the wallowing. That wants to stay here, looking at those boxes, looking at the curling edges, the black splotches, red splotches that used to be ink. There’s clearly a part of me that’s getting off on the drama of the destruction…

There’s also a part of me that’s really pleased that this early work is so fucking bad. You know? Wouldn’t it be terrible—it must be so terrible—to look at what you did 20, 30 years ago and say—that was my best work! Why can’t I write like that any more? What’s happened to me? Definitely not the issue here. Those boxes are not full of my best work.

But, but… they are this titillating record of potential. You know? That poem, the one you tried so hard not to read when separating the wet pages, but you did, and you laughed out loud at its pathos? It’s awful-bad, I know. But there’s that one phrase… you know? That one phrase… I like it still, and looking at it, I see the places it’s gone in the intervening 25 years, and I like that. And while I’m embarrassed by the overall badness of the piece… those four words in a row… they please me.

And I’m reluctant to let them go.

Ender: Moooooooooom! What are you doing? I need you!

Jane: I’m trying to explain why I’ve been stuck, unmoving, unproductive… why I’ve felt tethered, trapped by the past, unable to move into the future, paralyzed by what was, torn between denying it and embracing, obsessed with the idea and yet working really hard at not thinking about it, not dealing with it…

Ender: I’m hungry. And I need you to get my bike out of the shed. And I can’t find my shoes. And also, I think I pooped my pants.

Jane: Right. I should do something about all of those things. Just give me a few more minutes here…

Do I need to let them go? An impossible question. What would I have done, had the flood not rampaged through them? The most likely answer: nothing. They would have stayed in their boxes. Existing. Unexamined. For years, decades, a lifetime.

I don’t like being forced to examine them. Examine myself: who I was, what I thought, how I dreamed.

Flora: Mom? Are you still angsting?

Jane: Yes!

Cinder: Seriously? Do you want me to just go chuck them for you?

Jane: No!

Ender: Somebody! Needs! To! Clean! My! Bum!

I had this not-so-secret plan, after I failed to be able to deal with the remnants of the papers right after the flood (I burned my destroyed letters; I couldn’t touch the manuscripts), that I would mark the anniversary of the loss with a big, cleansing bonfire. I’d invite my writer friends, and we’d be all very solemn and supportive, and then get rip-roaring drunk, and we’d burn my past, and a new stage of uber-creativity would rise from the ashes…

photo 1

I know. Cliché. But, why not?

So here I am, a year later. And there they are, my boxes, my papers, my past. Still unexamined, unsalvaged. Neither discarded nor saved.

In limbo.

Me? I look back at this past year as, in many ways, a lost year. A year in which I both failed to move forward and didn’t have the ability to look back: a year in which I stood still. But maybe I had to. Maybe, for possibly the first time in my life, I just had to stand in place for a while…

Cinder: OMG, Mom, are you still writing about those stinky papers?

Flora: Hey! She’s a writer! That’s what she does! But could you please hurry up? We have things to do! Places to go!

Ender: I’m! Still! Poopy! And! Hungry!

Jane: Almost done. Almost done…

So. I’m not quite sure I’m done standing still. Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe I need to stand still a little longer. Digest-marinate-process all that I was a little longer.

Cinder: Moooom!

But not for too much longer. Not forever. Because I have things to do. Places to go. Stories to write. A life to live.

My terrible-no-good poems and novels—and hey, here’s a short story I wrote in my 20s, and this one actually doesn’t totally suck… it’s not good, but it’s not god-awful either—my papers, I think, will stay in their purgatory for a little longer. Just a little longer. And when I’m ready to get moving again, I will let them go.

But not today.

No bonfire this year.

But, there will be a hell of a party…

xoxo

“Jane”

NBTB-A lost year

P.S. An invitation: If you’re in Calgary, you should spend some part of your weekend celebrating the one-year anniversary of the flood and Neighbour Day in one of the communities you helped to save. If you worked in Sunnyhill, our big celebration is on Saturday, June 21, from 5 p.m. on; the greater Sunnyside celebration is on Sunday, June 22, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the site of the Crisis Café.

If you have no idea what I’m blathering on about, YYC Flood 101:

Where have you been, Jane?” June 27, 2013

“Everything back to normal, Jane?” July 4, 2013

unLessons from the flood: we are amazing  July 9, 2013

Running on empty: why “so are things back to normal?” is not the right question October 29, 2013

A love letter to my flood plain, June 11, 2014

A whisper of advice to an exhausted blogger, uninspired writer

Play.

That’s all.

Forget about niching, target audience, stats.

Play.

Write three sentences about one of your kids’ curls. A pea smashed into the carpet.

Or: walk away from motherhood, parenthood, cooking, IT–whatever it is that your “niche” is. Write about something beautiful. Irrelevant. Important. Or not. Take a picture: and make a list of the adjectives it inspires in you.

Pull a quote from a book you’re reading. Do things to it. Let it do things to you.

Spend some time on Brain Pickings. Maybe start with Famous Advice on Writing. Or, no, no, read this, Susan Sontag on Sex:

“If only I could feel about sex as I do about writing! That I’m the vehicle, the medium, the instrument of some force beyond myself.”

… and see where that takes you.

Read Stephen King’s On Writing.

Here, in this space, your space, there are no rules but the ones you make.

Play.

Watch the Words, words, words playlist from Ted Talks: a collection of 12 fabulous talks for people who love words.

Write.

NBTB-Exhausted Blogger

xoxo

“Jane”

PS Unless you’re getting paid for it and you’re on deadline. Then suck it up, grit your teeth and get it done (hopefully not while crying). But here? Writing for you?

Play.

You’re welcome.

40 is… self-absorbed. Criminally so. But that’s probably not just ok, but inevitable, necessary…

I.

Today, I am 40.

Thank you.

It’s kind of fabulous.

Frightening, too, because… promise not to tell anyone under 40? OK. Frightening, because… well, I thought that by 40, at 40, I’d have things more figured out. You know? I’d be… all grown up.

Oh, don’t press me; don’t make me be specific. I know I’ve done a bunch of all the things… children, marriage, career (sort of). I have no complaints and no regrets, very, very few “I wish I had” U-turns…

I just thought—when I was 10, 20, and even 30—that by the time I reached this particular number, four decades on this earth, I would be more… enlightened. More “done” this whole growing up thing.

That’s all.

Instead… here I am. So very, very flawed. And unfinished. And uncertain. And not sure what next, where next, how next…

And you draw me into yourself and hold me and ask me… do I know anyone who’s “done”? All grown-up, you mean? I ask… Yes, you say. Do I know anyone who’s… got it all figured out—or at least says/presents as if they do?

(Always, you and I, with the qualifiers.)

I think.

Yes. Yes, I do.

And what do you think of them, you ask…

And there is only one thing to say, isn’t there? They are either boring or insufferable, these rare people who’ve got it all figured out, who are “done.” More often: both.

There, you whisper into my self. And you’re neither. So. What next, where next, how next—that’s what’s so very exciting, yes?

Yes.

II.

Today, I am 40 and I am feeling very reflective, pensive and utterly, utterly self-absorbed. Perhaps even more so than in adolescence when SELF was emerging from CHILD. And now, SELF is emerging from/fighting with/playing with/contradicting/stretching/breaking/building SELF, and wow. What next, where next, how next?

I think… let’s go this way. This way—yeah, there, that-a way. For a while, anyway…

III.

And, because, 40 is so very, very self-absorbed—criminally so, ridiculously so, in a most frustrating “needs a hard slap upside the head and yo-princess-you-are-utterly-insignificant-in-the-grand-plan-of-the-universe-so-why-all-the-angst” kind of way—here is what my 40 looks like, is. In pictures and words. Because. Writer with an iPhone.* Lethal combination for the self-absorbed year. And, go:

 

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xoxo

“Jane”

PS “Jane,  so… self-absorbed?”

“Utterly. Pretty sure, my love, temporarily. But here, in my play-space, where I can do whatever I want.”

PS2 This, here? Naked? Not so much. It’s always, always a performance. Even when it’s an utterly self-absorbed one…

*Most of the “self” images are from the #365feministselfie project. Because. Power.

Filing, flooding, interviewing—or, “Confluence”

I.

“Filed!” You’re talking about your taxes; when I scream, “Filed!”—or, to be more accurate, type it as a Facebook status update, I’m talking about stories. Meeting deadlines. It’s a verb that determines timelines in my house: “I file on Thursday, so we can go to Banff on Friday”; “I need to file by Monday morning, so no, we can’t do that on the weekend”; “Mom? Have you filed yet? Because we really need to go grocery shopping?”

I filed this morning. Glory, relief, joy.

II.

Flora: I know my Mom’s a writer, but sometimes it seems like what she really does for work is talk on the telephone.

Cinder: Ha. Sometimes, I think what she does for work is swear at the computer.

Ender: Penis?

Sean: Would you guys get the hell out of the house now, so your Mom can do her interview in peace?

III.

photo (18)

Soon, so very soon, I will have a space-place of my own again. But these days, sometimes, too often, my car is my office.

IV.

So. There was this flood. And we are coming up on its one year anniversary… it’s one month and one week away. It’s going to be a hard, stressful June.

“Have you been by the river today?”

“The Bow is low… the Elbow is really running hard, already.”

“And the snow… there is so much snow in the mountains.”

I walk across a bridge with a friend and see, out of the corner of my eye, a piece of unreclaimed bank, still ravaged. I bend over the railing. Throw up.

I’m supposed to be “reclaiming” my lost living space. Instead, I’m anticipating losing it again.

And that’s all of us right now. So. What do we do? So many things… but the one I want to tell you about is the Sunnyside YYC Flood Scrapbook and Theatre Project,  a collaboration of Trickster Theatre, Sunnyside School, and the Hillhurst-Sunnyside Community Association. Community kids will be working together to capture the shared community experiences from the June 2013 Flood. It’s a massive project: the kids will be working with community volunteers to gather photos and video footage from residents and to capture stories of the flood and the recovery that followed. Their goal is to create a digital scrapbook and archive of the community’s flood experience, which will serve, in addition to its obvious and overt purpose, as inspiration for the creation of public performance pieces. These will be performed on June 20th and 21st, 2014… our anniversary.

Artistic guidance for the project comes from Trickster Theatre, and  support from the Sunnyside School Society and The Calgary Foundation, for which we are all so very grateful.

Sean and Falstaff Productions are providing video support for the project. To help get our kids rolling on the story-gathering task, he filmed me giving Flora interview tips—and Flora’s first interview with one of our neighbours.

Flora is brilliant, and I’m terribly earnest and long-winded. If you have 10 minutes to kill:


Link to FP video on Youtube: Tell Me Your Story: Interview Tips for Kids

V.

And… if you have a floodster or a dozen in your life… this is going to be a really hard month. Bear with us.

xoxo

“Jane”

How my four-year-old receptionist defies the uterus-less CEO… and why that’s going to change the world

The landline rings, but I don’t care. There was a time when I would leap out of the shower and race to the telephone naked, but these days, only telemarketers and wanna-be-politicians ever call on it. I’m in the kitchen (fully clothed) doing battle with the sink and a frozen chicken, and pondering whether I should say yes or no to a new project—and whether my tepid disinclination to say yes is rational and should perhaps be off-set by the disturbing state of the family bank account—and…

“Mom! Are you going to get the telephone?”

“No!”

My elder two children are ignoring it too: they were reared in the pre-cell phone era when clients and editors called me on the landline, and answering the phone in the wrong way brought the Wrath of Psychotic-Bitch-Mom. The four-year-old lacks the training and the trauma. The phone is beguiling him. Plus, the ringtone is annoying.

“Mom! Please! Can I get it?”

Oh, why not? It’s probably a telemarketer, and it’s good practice for them to experience a four-year-old, isn’t it? I turn my head from the chicken for a minute, holler:

“OK!”

So… back to the inside of my head… will I say yes? Will I say no? I think I will say no, I’m pretty sure—I really don’t want to do it, and the part of it that’s intriguing isn’t sufficiently intriguing to make up for the part of it that a lobotomized chimpanzee could do, but, on the other hand, we need to eat. And go on exotic vacations…

From the other room, I hear,

“Hello?”

…and then…

“That is not how you say my mom’s name. Are you sure you know her?”

(There are so many, many different ways of mispronouncing “Jane.”)

“I’m Ender.”

“I’m not in school, ever! I’m four.”

“Mom! This guy really wants to talk to you!”

“Ma-baby—I’m busy killing a chicken. Hang up or tell him to call back.”

“My mom is killing a chicken. Well, not really. It’s already dead. But frozen. Also, I don’t think she finished her second cup of coffee this morning. And the dog peed in the basement, and I spilled cereal all over the couch, and the plumber hasn’t come so there’s no sink in the bathroom and she won’t play cars with me. She’s a big grouch, actually. Are you sure you really want to talk to her?”

“Mom? He says to tell you his name is… and it’s important.”

Oh, fuck.

Editor.

New editor.

Who has clearly not inherited the rolodex sticky-note that said “Do not call at home; communicate by email; in emergencies, email or text to schedule a time for a phone call.” (Digression: do people have rolodexes anymore? And do those of you under-28 know what that exotic word means?)

Goddammit.I wipe my icky hands on my clothes, and make my way to the phone…

“Hello, Jane here. … Hi. … So I’m not sure that I’ve had a chance to tell you this—but never, ever spontaneously call me at home. Now… give me five minutes to anaesthetize the children, and I’ll call you back on my cell from a locked, padded room…”

My real self has this column out right now, officially titled “Changing the status quo in the Canadian workplace”—more poetically self-titled “The CEO has a uterus—wait, the problem is that he doesn’t but half of his workforce does.” Here’s its key theme:

This is a story about why I don’t work for you.

Don’t roll your eyes. You should care, because I’m brilliant. …And it’s not just me. See her, over there? She’s even smarter than I am: she can see connections in trends, economic forecasts and people’s spending patterns that would make you rich beyond the dreams of avarice if you deployed her talents on the behalf of your corporation. And that one over there? You know that hole in your talent pipeline you’re looking to fill? She’d be perfect for it. …

We all left, because—hey, here’s something you’re not gonna hear a woman tell you very often, pay attention, darling—we all left because—eyes lower, lower, love, away from my face, lower, keep on going down… see this? We’ve all got this thing there called a uterus. Your wife’s got one, your daughter too. Your mother—that’s how you came to be, you know that, right? We’ve got these things, and that’s where new people incubate. And after they’re born, well, we’re kind of attached to them.

And even if we weren’t—the survival of the whole entire species depends on us, you know, taking care of them. Feeding them. Taking days off work when they’re sick or in high need… What? Nannies, day care? Not enough, dude, not enough—and you don’t get it, because, let me be politically incorrect here and blunt, you don’t get it, because you have a penis and a wife.

(Full unedited text of the Strategy Session, Alberta Venture column here)

It’s garnering fascinating responses from readers, varying from “Yes! Thank you for articulating this!” from many women readers-leaders to the ever-so-insightful “I wouldn’t have hired you anyway, bitch” from an alleged oil patch exec.* I end it with a call to arms—asking you to change the dominant culture of most workplaces by… well, by changing it. By acting like it’s already changed. Not by seeking accommodation—but by taking what you need. Whatever that means in your family-life reality.

And—and this, perhaps is even more important—by supporting those of your colleagues who are taking what they need. Not trying to pull them down to suffering through the unworkable status quo—just because you suffered through it. Just because you… weren’t able… didn’t have the courage… or weren’t sufficiently secure-privileged-arrogant-stubborn—I know I am all those things—to demand the change you needed.

A tentative knocking on my closed door. A whisper.

“Mom?”

Louder.

“Moooom? Are you done on the phone?”

“Yes, my baby. What do you need?”

“I just need you.”**

I let him in. Wrestle him on the bed for a while. Ponder if I’m going to say yes or no… where does the money-challenge-time-fulfillment-life matrix tell me to go right now? Remember there’s a raw chicken carcass waiting for me in the kitchen, and a client-of-a-client who needs some handholding. And, of course, the project that I really want and need to focus on that always get the short-shift… Skooch the four-year-old receptionist off the bed. Bribe his siblings to look after him.

And then—go do all the things that need to be done. My way.***

xoxo
“Jane”

Four-year-old receptionist.jpg

She likes footnotes:

* I generally don’t engage. I did that time. “You couldn’t afford my left foot, asswipe.”

** They need us so much, don’t they? Lest you think I advocate motherhood-martyrhood, please also read this: On the delicate art of running away… and always coming back.

*** It’s not supposed to be like that. The real secret to working at home with children is to get the children—or yourself—out of the house. More here: The naked truth about working from home, the real post. For more of my children’s encounters with clients and sources on the landline, see The naked truth about working from home, the teaser.

Next week… a surprise.

Looking for me?  Find “Jane”

The unBlogger’s Manifesto

I am a writer.

I am a mother. I am also wife-lover-partner-mate. Daughter-sister-aunt-neighbour-friend. Citizen-voter-kinda-wanna-be-an-activist-but-too-cynical-to-really-make-that-work-volunteer.

I am a deadline-meeting-craving-negotiating-not-really-your-employee-but-I-know-you-sign-my-cheques-and-I-will-deliver-what-you-need-when-you-need-it-professional.

I am so many, many things; I have so many roles, facets, hats. Some I carry always (mother-wife-friend-writer), some I put on and off (cyclist! Except, no, not this month). Sometimes I wear/am six at the same time. Sometimes, one swallows me entirely, eclipses all the others (and if you have children, you do not need to ask which one).

I am so many things, all these things.

What I am not…

I am not a blogger.

(I am not a lawyer-dentist-mechanic-nurse-gas-station-attendant-preschool-teacher either. Nor an eco-warrior-homesteader-radical-homemaker-stay-at-home-mom-academic-marathon-runner-yogi. Do not take what I say here as an attack of a role you embrace, cherish, an identity that defines you. Be who you are. This is not about you. This is about me.)

I am not a blogger.

But…

I have a blog.

I write a blog.

I play in this wonderful place I’ve created and keep on creating. I love my little Nothing By The Book platform. Writing here fills me, feeds me, pleases me. It is part of what I do.

It does not define who, what I am.

(But if it defines who you are, do not frown, get angry, throw nasty things-words at me. Wanna be a Mommy Blogger? Be that. Love that. Jane Austen was once dismissed as a “lady novelist”; does anyone remember the men who labeled and reduced her as such? Humour blogger, homeschool blogger, fashion blogger. If it fits you, wear it, flaunt it. This is not about you. This is about me.)

I blog-write chiefly for me: to create a record of what is; to play with what could be; to process what sucks; to celebrate what rocks. And also, to practice, fine-tune my craft, my skill. There is no other platform a writer writing today has that offers both the freedom and discipline a blog does:

  • The freedom to write on whatever impassions you—and to play with structure-voice-rhythm-delivery in a way no editor-client will ever, ever tolerate
  • The discipline of writing publicly, for an audience.

That means I also, inevitably, constantly, each time, write for you too.

Writers need readers.

(Short digression: Writing for self is completely different than writing for an audience: if you’ve kept a chaotic, self-indulgent, angst-filled diary as a teenager, you know this. Writing for self is—and perhaps should be—undisciplined. And it has its use, its purpose. But keeping a journal does not make you a better writer. Just a more self-aware one. Writing for an audience—regardless of whether it is an audience of one or an audience of hundreds, thousands, millions—is about sharing something, evoking an effect, a response, a reaction. It requires discipline. Thought. Skill. Craft. Blogging hones that.)

But…

I am a writer.

Not a blogger.

unBloggersManifesto

That means my energy in this place goes into—writing. Creating. Re-writing, re-crafting, letting things simmer-marinate-develop-change. Loving what I’ve written. All that other stuff—commenting, Tweeting, sharing, hopping, you-read-me-and-scratch-my-blogging-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours? Meh. I don’t care. I’ll play, every once in a while, if I want to. I’ll read you, religiously or sporadically, if I love you. And sometimes, I won’t. Often, actually, I won’t. Because being mother-writer-partner-provider-community-member-human takes up a lot of time.

And that’s the way it should be.

I have been telling my cyber-tribes for about six weeks, more, that I’m penning The unBlogger’s Manifesto. I’m worried I’ve oversold and undelivered, because, you see, this is not about you. It’s about me. My priorities, my goals, my clarity. Of what I am. Of what I am not, and do not wish to be.

But, beloved… make it about you. What are you? What are you not?

Clarity’s a rather glorious, if elusive, thing.

For ink-casters-and-word-players, blogging-parents-and-not of all genders, citizens-and-tourists-of-the-blogosphere, and “real” readers everywhere, but most of all for my “Bloggy Sisters.” You know who you are.

xoxo

“Jane”

P.S. “Jeezus, Jane, you’re not gonna go all navel-gazing and self-referential on me going forward, are you? Because I do not come here to read about the ‘to-be-or-not-to-be’ of blogging.”

“No, beloved, never again. Just this once. But I might inflict some writing about writing on you. Because that’s a rather important hat-role-identity. That cool?”

“Maybe. Just don’t bore me.”

“Never, my beloved. Never. I promise.”

“Mittens?”

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

He plops down on the sled in a Buddha pose.

“Mittens?”

I ask, kneeling down beside him.

“No! My hands are NOT cold!”

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

I shrug. Get up. Start pulling the sled.

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

“Mittens?”

“No.”

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

I turn around.

“Mittens?”

“No. Not cold.”

Mittens Pin

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

“Mittens?”

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

“Mittens?”

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

“Mittens?” I repeat.

“No.”

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

I look over my shoulder…

“Mittens?”

“Not! Cold!”

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

“Mom? My hands are cold.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, yeah, it’s a metaphor.

Jane

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

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

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

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

On getting kids to do their own laundry, slime molds and deadlines

I.

So it goes like this:

Cinder: Mooooom! I’m out of pajamas! And pants! And socks! And…

Jane: Cindeeeer! The washing machine is, I believe, empty and fully functional. Do a load, or go scavenge in your dirty clothes pile! I’m writing!

Cinder: I’ve already worn everything twice… Will you show me how you do the laundry again?

Jane: As soon as I… just ask Flora to show you.

Cinder: Flora knows how to do laundry?

Jane: She ran out of underwear on Sunday.

Interlude for the aspiring writers in the crowd: Once or twice a week, I get an email from a “I want to be a freelance writer!” asking me if I have any advice to impart. It boils down to this: Pitch. Query. Write. And when you get assignments, MEET YOUR DEADLINES (and if you break them, you’d better have a really good excuse, like… FLOOD! And even then, your editors will say, “So… if you get power back on Thursday, does that mean you might be able to file on Friday?”). MEET YOUR DEADLINES. And did I mention… MEET YOUR DEADLINES.

Awesome Dryerase Board
II.

And then it goes like this:

Flora: Mooooom! What’s wrong with our sink?

Jane: Keee-rist, did Ender clog the drain with Lego again?

Flora: No, come look.

Jane: Sweetie, I really need to finish…

Cinder: Gah, Mom, you need to come see this.

Jane: This better be… Kee-rist. What the hell is that?

Flora: I think it’s a slime mold.

Jane: Is that moving?

Cinder: Sometimes, slime molds move.

Jane: That is not a slime mold. I doused the entire bathroom in cleaners and alcohol after we had the plague. I’ve only been neglecting the house for two weeks. Not enough time for a slime mold to..

Flora: Oh-my-god, it totally moved.

How you know we’re all a little whack:

Cinder: Should we take a picture?

Flora: Can I keep it for my museum?

Jane: I think if we leave it until Daddy gets home, he’ll deal with it.*

Interlude for the aspiring writers in the crowd: MEET YOUR DEADLINES. Deal with the slime mold later–or delegate.

xoxo

“Jane”

PS I’m not reading anything not directly related to my billable work right now, my apologies to the blogosphere. Um, well, except for this. Have you read Jessica Olien’s Salon piece, Inside the Box: people don’t actually like creativity. Brilliant. Painfully true.

*He did. Cause he’s the best Daddy-husband-to-writer ever. And, if you’re wondering: it was just a blob of shampoo-toothpaste mixture, carefully sculpted by the Ender. Of course. Obvious, you’d think. But we sort of liked going with the whole moving slime mold thing…

On wanting to eat cake, magic pee, fairies, adult temper tantrums, and sub-performing grey matter

I.

Flora: Blow out your candles, Ender, blow them out and make a wish! … And what did you wish for?

Ender: I wished that I could eat some cake!

See? Wishes do come true. And I suppose this is the point at which I should make the obvious sappy comment about how maybe happiness is just about … wanting what you can get.

Maybe. But how incredibly boring and safe would such a life be? If all you ever wanted was the cake that was put, that moment, in front of you?

II.

“To ensure peak performance, your mom needs eight hours of peaceful, uninterrupted sleep each night. This will never happen, but it’s important to set goals.”

“Remarkably, despite their size, moms can sleep on as little as three inches of bed. Science has no explanation of this.”

from M.O.M.* (Mom Operating Manual),
written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Laura Cornell
*batteries not included

III.

Flora: I really hate the people who think science explains everything.

Jane: Really? Why?

Flora: What about all the things science can’t explain? Like unicorns? And fairies?

Jane: Um… well…

Flora: Don’t you dare give me another evolution lecture. I WILL believe in fairies.

All right, my beloved. Believe. Believe.

IV.

My brain is slow. The hamster that operates the wheel is lazy. The machinery is worn out. I’m grasping for words, simple words, all elusive, out of reach. Clumsy sentences. Awkward paragraphs. Lack of motivation, desire, ability to finish, to start. Nothing is working. Nothing is right. I’m stupid. Incompetent. I poke at the keyboard. Stare at the screen. Howl.

Cinder: See, and this is why I don’t think it’s fair when you lecture me about getting mad at the computer when I play Minecraft.

Jane: I want you to be better disciplined and better behaved than I am.

Cinder: Probably not going to happen.

Probably not. But. We always hope, don’t we. We always want them to be better than their imperfect parents.

V.

“Should your mother be experiencing a minor malfunction, your best option is simply avoidance. Tiptoe quietly to another part of the house until the coast is clear.”

“If you cannot leave the room, camouflage can be very effective during minor malfunctions. Silence is key. … Take your surroundings into account. If you are behind the sofa, a tall leafy branch is probably not a great idea.”

from M.O.M.* (Mom Operating Manual),
written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Laura Cornell
*batteries not included

VI.

Ender: Mama, I did it! I peed in the potty!

Jane: Oh, Ender, that’s… there’s nothing here.

Ender: It’s imaginary pee. Flora can see it.

Of course.

VII.

I do all the things that need to be done. Always. I force that goddamn hamster in my brain to perform, no matter how lazy he’s feeling. Meet every deadline. Then, do all the things that didn’t get done while I was doing all the things that had to be done. Well, maybe not all of them. But—a few.

And now, I’m trying to get hamster to get this post across the finish line—even as he tries to convince me that his higher purpose right now is to have a nap. And that while he naps, someone—the fairies, maybe?—will come and oil his wheel and the rest of my machinery, and everything will magically work better soon.

I scowl at him. Eat cake. But then—choose to want more. Always.

Because life is supposed to be full. Interesting. Hard.

xoxo

“Jane”

photo (11)

P.S. M.O.M.* (Mom Operating Manual), written by Doreen Cronin and illustrated by Laura Cornell is a brilliant picture book, targeted I would say at four to six-year-olds, but my entire crew howled as we read it. Check it out. If you’re in YYC, we’ll be returning our copy to the library shortly. But you probably don’t want to wait for that. It’s $14 and change at Chapters-Indigo.

*batteries not included

“Want to see how my mom writes?”

Ruined papers 3

I’m standing at the kitchen sink working my way through the dishes. Forks, knives, spoons—Kee-rist, how many spoons? For what? When was the last time I made soup or bought ice cream? What the hell are they eating with the spoons? I pick one up and look at it hyper-critically. Peanut butter? No… chocolate syrup? Chocolate syrup!?!*

And the sunlight manages to come in through the greasy kitchen window and reflects off the surface of the spoon, and there’s a very pretty pattern, and suddenly I start to think about the Strategy Session I have to write for tomorrow, and the interviews play back in my head as I play with quotes and structure and look for the perfect opening sentence and…

CRASH!

The cast iron pan gets dislodged from the mountain of dishes and makes another crater in the soft wood floor.

I’m still swearing when I hear the pitter-patter of footsteps up the stairs. Flora and her friend Moxie poke their heads into the kitchen; then pitter-patter into the living room. I hear whispering, giggling. Turn my attention back to the sink. Attack the cast iron pan with a stainless steel scrub pad. Back and forth, back and forth—and I start to think… the quarter’s almost over, and I will have to weave a story for a client on what the capital markets have done this quarter, I have a conference call on that very topic scheduled for the day after, actually, and what have they done? Back and forth I scrub, and I think about this deal and that, and I see an idea, a thread… will that work? I chase it, follow it… it dead-ends, no, fallacious, weak. What about… another dead-end… but maybe…

Pitter-patter, pitter-patter. Giggle.

“Want to see something weird?” I hear Flora whisper. And I smile. Our house is full of weird, and I wonder what she will want to show her friend. The pronghorn antelope skull wrapped in wire she found on our last beach outing? The snakeskin she found in Whiteshell? Maybe one of Cinder’s disgusting science experiments? Sean’s dead cat?**

I rinse. Make new suds. Stare at them as they grow and pop. Actually, the thing about the capital markets this quarter—oh, yes. I grab a plate and scrub it. Stop. Yeah, that will work. And I lose interest, immediately, the problem is solved and it will just play in the back of my head and refine itself for a while, and meanwhile, I go back to the Strategy Session, which can’t open the way I was going to open it, because… and oh, actually, now, THAT’s a great idea for a post for Nothing By The Book, and—oh, fuck, yes, that is exactly how I’m going to frame that pitch, yes, why didn’t I think of that before, and I stop, and the dish rag goes flying and I spin around and stare, glass-eyed, at Flora and Moxie.

Giggle, giggle, giggle.

Flora’s holding a piece of paper and a marker and offers them to me. I grab them with my wet hands and lunge for the table. Water drips as I write down the bullet points, one, two, three, quick, quick, before they disappear, before Ender needs something, before anyone says anything, before life distracts me—there’s stuff that will stay in my head forever, ever, ever, and then there are those sentences, phrases, moments of perfection, insight, that come only once, and you have to get them down NOW or they will be gone, all that will remain is a memory, ever-fainter, and I will only find pale, unsatisfying imitations that mock me, remind me of the way it was supposed to be, but fail, utterly fail…

And—done. The marker stops. My hands smear the writing, they’re wet. I blow on the paper.
Legible enough. And now it doesn’t even matter: I wrote it down, I turned the idea into an artifact and activity, and now I will remember. Not all of it—but that perfect phrase, the punchline around which I’ll build the rest of the pitch, and it will work, oh, it already works. I smile. Sigh with toe-curling satisfaction. Go back to the sink. Grab another plate.

Giggle, giggle.

I turn my head. Moxie is laughing behind her hand, and Flora’s bent over her ear.

“And that’s how my mom writes,” she says.
“Weird, hey?”

xoxo

“Jane”

Three beautiful things from the Interwebs ya’ might want to read:

1. Apparently, Dutch kids are the happiest kids in the world. Want to know why? Check out this piece on Finding Dutchland

2. Most insightful thing about the meaning of three (years old that is) I’ve read in a long time: I help you Mummy on Secrets of the Sandpit

3. Eight of my favourite bloggers collaborated on this fun post on What we didn’t expect when we were expecting. Read. Laugh. Commiserate. If you’re expecting, be mildly terrified… 

…wait, one more: if you don’t follow my Undogmatic Unschoolers blog (and there’s no reason you should, unless you’re an unschooling family too, in which case, why not? Get your clicking fingers over there now!), last week’s “I could never do what you do!” post is a) very short and b) has some really fun photographs from the chaos that is life with Cinder, Flora and Ender, if you want a peek.

* They don’t eat cereal. Good guess, though.

** Dead cat. It’s a technical term for a piece of absolutely valid and non-gross filming equipment. Honest. Google it.

Photo: That’s one of my manuscripts, not ruined by kitchen dishwater, but a victim of the flood. And unsalvageable. I think it was a short story I wrote when I was in a Korea. Possibly a short-story-love-letter-fusion. Or a page of a journal. Yeah, it still hurts. Yeah, I still mourn.

It’ll be ok. I’m making more…

##

Death By Flatulence (A Sad Story)

…or, unschooling reading and writing with a boy-boy

Austen and I were typing dorky notes to each other in Word. I typed a sentence and he read–then he changed the sentence and I read it. For example, I wrote, “Austen is not a gas bag.” And he changed it to (what else?), “Mom is a gas bag.” And on it went until we wrote this story. Austen’s debut in literature, world take note.

A SAD STORY

by austen and Mom

One day, a boy did a bad thing. He made a big fart. It blew his head off.

His head was not big. His head was not small. His head was gone.

He was sad.

Actually, he was dead.

All because of a big fart.

The end.