Tag Archives: Family

PRACTICE!

A colleague is battling cancer, a neighbor’s mother the same, a friend’s mother passed this last week: we are in the midst of the messy business of life … and I confess to feeling during the nadir of these bleak moments that sustaining writerly momentum is “not worthy.”

Tortoise 04

Slow and steady ... Image via Wikipedia

I have invited these feelings to reside in a pleasant, albeit windowless, room at the top of an imaginary house and locked the door on them. I have plugged my ears to their cries with metaphorical earplugs and returned to my creative kitchen (again, an imaginary space: my family can attest I have pretty well nigh given up any pretense of Real Cooking since the new year). In that cozy space writerly momentum simmers on the stove: I have a short story nearing completion, an essay out for critique, and I’ve honored my resolution to have three submissions out at all times. My search for an agent progresses tortoise-like but the verb weighs more than the metaphor.

And. But. The real and imagined kitchen is a space of continual traffic: hubby, children, dog, cats, friends. The messy, dare I say unhygienic?, cookie-making of writing and parenting continues to be an endeavor that consists of equal part flour dust, spilled sugar, butter underfoot and fragrant, edible product.

Belle Boggs, author of the lovely short story collection Mattaponi Queen, has an essay, “The Art of Waiting” in Orion where she checks out her assumptions about how children change your life by asking her dad, “Do kids really kill all your dreams?” He pauses before replying, “Yup. And they take all your money, too.”

English: Christiaan Tonnis ~ Virginia Woolf / ...

by Christiaan Tonnis, oil on canvas, 1998, Image via Wikipedia

She also cites Virginia Woolf (a child-free woman) as noting, in her journal after a good writing day: “children can’t touch this” – this being the feeling of euphoria, of satisfaction. Today we’d call Woolf’s feeling the state of flow. It arrived for Woolf, and does for me, too, during and after a day spent in the company of words, sentences, paragraphs. If we’re lucky, we all have one or two activities in which time stops for us, and we simply are.

Since Woolf’s journal entry, brain science has demonstrated that the experience of “flow” is based on brain chemicals that give us a natural high. Most relevant to my writing/creative practice is: we’re learning that it’s possible to train ourselves into habits that give us that high AND support creative, functional practices across a range of our lives: exercise, diet, writing …  See this intriguing New York Times Sunday Magazine article by Charles Duhigg about how our shopping habits reveal us to companies.

Deutsch: Blauschimmelkäse,

Smelly cheese ... of course it can also taste fabulous, which is part of the problem when one is wrestling with demons ... Image via Wikipedia

This probably also explains why the DTs arrive with all their relatives and stinky cheese when I don’t put pen to paper.

And. But. Much of my no-time-to-write this past week has been on account of my role as Support System for the 14 y.o.’s preparing for, participating in, and subsequently recovering from, a cello competition at the Tennessee Cello Workshop. This as Engineer Hubby travels for three of the last four weeks, and the 11 y.o. needing, per teacher conference, “additional strategies to focus,” and the male cat peeing in every room, presumably to prevent the other two felines from usurping his sunny spots (this strategy also works on humans: I don’t like to sit near that smell, either).

The 14 y.o. prepared well (with his teacher’s help and some parental nagging), and then: he performed well (with himself and the fabulous pianist Erica Sipes). Last year at this same competition he Flubbed Big Time: forgot the music, had to come to full stop. And find his place again, in front of an audience. So this is a Major Victory.

He sought and won this victory on his own; I avoid all high-pressure situations requiring live performance on a stringed instrument. He continues to leave behind the child that was “my” little boy: he is too tall, his voice too deep and his feet too smelly for that. He possesses himself. And as I watched him perform in the final round of the competition, in front of a goodly-sized audience of strangers, peers, parents and judges, I was struck by his resemblance to my brother and my mother. Because of his dark hair, I think, and his (temporarily) serious face.

As those who have read my earlier blog know, my mother’s side of the family was dysfunctional in ways I’ll certainly exploit in a memoir when everyone has died off.* And what struck me as I watched him was: this happens when energy is well-directed. When it has a place to go, and be, besides drinkinggunsfighting.

English: Medford Square, Medford Massachusetts...

Medford Square, Medford Mass.
Image via Wikipedia

My mom, despite being raised around drinkinggunsfighting got me off that path (with my father’s steadfast presence), tho’ not without collateral damage. I lamented to Engineer Hubby, during a bus ride on a rainy night in Medford Massachusetts, about my challenge of integrating critique comments, not realizing at the time that my struggles were connected to that collateral damage. He said, well, maybe your son will be a better writer than you because you’re doing all this work now and can share it with him from the time he’s little.

First I had to correct him: I was the eldest daughter of an eldest daughter of an eldest daughter. MY first child would be a girl. (My first lesson in how everything you think you know about children is wrong: I have no daughters.)

Second, I was miffed. Why would my CHILD get to be a better writer than me? Wasn’t I working hard enough? Didn’t I care enough? Wasn’t I good enough?

But the fact of the matter is, whether or not my children will be better writers, they are already reaping the benefit of our understanding of habits, of practice, of motivation – and all the information our civilization has gained, and is gaining daily, about our brains, our Selves, how we work, how we are put together and why some things work in manner X and others Y, etcetera.

And even as I am, most days, grateful to know why it’s worth fighting the battle of regular music practice with my sons, I am also oh-so-hopeful that this old dog can learn some of those new tricks. Here’s a quick run-down of some I’m trying with varying levels of success:

>> Specify the next day’s intention at the end of the current work day. Not, “rewrite short story” but “rewrite first paragraph of short story to convey protagonist’s emotional state.”
>> Work hard with full intention for 45 minutes, then take a break for 10-15 (my thanks to Ellen Sussman for articulating this so helpfully in a Poets & Writers essay).
>> Meditate, even if for only 15 minutes.
>> Put on your walking shoes (or running shoes or basketball shoes) at least five times a week … and then get outside to walk run or shoot hoops. Or sit on the porch and stare at the weeds I mean flowers.
>> Drink plenty of water and nourish your body with good food.
>> Read, read, read.
>> Keep a journal or log of how your practice actually went. Review this bi-weekly and tweak your intention-setting based on how the writing is really going.
>> Take one day a week off of “hands-on” practice – read a new journal, do the crossword, listen to an interview with a writer.
>> Attend a master class-type event at least twice a year.

When I’m able to implement a few of these strategies, I find my real and imaginary kitchens are much more cheerful places for all involved. Even the peeing cat seems a tad less inclined to micturate on the furniture.

Baking my famous chocolate chip cookies. Can y...

Cookies-in-process Image via Wikipedia

And those feelings of unworthiness? Becalmed by the state of flow wafting up the stairs, they have made their prison a playroom, and are ready for some cookies.

* I know, I know, all the memoirist/creative nonfiction writers out there admonish us to write our truth, anyway, and let the familial chips fall where they may. I have begun jottings for a memoir, but I’ll wrestle the Extended Family only if (and when) I feel called to share those stories.

Shakespeare said it better, so why bother?

In the very early weeks of motherhood, when I flipped through the photos of my hugely pregnant self, I didn’t recognize that woman. That  wasn’t me! Certainly her body was different, being an additional fifty pounds (yes, fifty. 5.0.) pounds heavier – much of which was “water weight,” hah! But what was most alien was the expression on her face. She looked happy, completely and comfortably certain that she had everything under control.

This despite plenty of contrary evidence. I’d suffered three miscarriages, and subsequent diagnosis and treatment of “luteal phase defect.” At 28 weeks, early labor arrived, requiring hospitalization and two weeks of bed rest.

Nonetheless, for whatever reason – mother’s intuition? sixth sense? – I’d remained certain this pregnancy would result in a healthy birth.  I was proven right when son #1 arrived right on time, all fingers and toes present and in the right spots. As my midwife stitched me up, she casually joked “now the hard work begins.” I needed a fair number of stitches. I’ll spare you the labor story, but it was, as so many of them are, a lesson in pain, humility, faith and miracles. There would be nothing harder than what my body had just endured. I thought my midwife was making a bad joke.

My midwife was not making a bad joke.

shower head

Shower: so wondrous and fair, so unattainable when kids are little

Unfortunately, I did not recognize this due to my complete and utter immaturity and egoism. I flat-out disbelieved what others told me about parenting. Those who said it was impossible to get out the door with a baby in under an hour? They had no idea how to organize, that was all! Haggard mothers who claimed no more than an hour’s sleep per night, for six weeks? Surely their parenting partners weren’t as good as mine! Parents who lamented that showering was nigh unto impossible? Please. It only takes ten minutes, how hard can that be? [Best book on this: Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.]

Everyone who’s had a child, lived with a child, interacted with a child: join me in laughing heartily at my younger self. Because it is exactly that hard and frankly, the physical demands of childbirth and infant-baby-toddler childcare melt to nothingness relative to the labor of explaining injustice, cruelty, famine, death, loss and heartbreak as your child grows up.

I’m a fast learner and it only took me, oh, about two years, to discover that everything everyone had told me was true.

I’ve had now fourteen years to practice hanging onto the person I am regardless of being a mother. I’ve been practicing a lot, first, because my kids won’t be at home forever and I’m a big believer in steady maintenance: if we don’t tend to things, they fall apart. True of physical structures, true of our bodies, true of our souls, true of our hearts and minds.

Image by Dave McLean via Flickr

Mount Laundry.

Second, because when I don’t hang on to the now-wiser remnant of that young, water-weighted, utterly certain young pregnant woman, I’m lost. The days when I only tend to others from the moment my slippered feet shuffle into the bathroom ‘til they plod upstairs at day’s end are days that deplete me, gobble my joy, my patience, my sense of humor. I am not satisfied by days with nothing but carpooling, volunteering, shopping, paying bills, chauffering kids to cello, soccer, cub scouts, cleaning up the cat puke, folding laundry, preparing some semblance of an edible meal, and walking the stir-crazy dog.

Don’t misunderstand: I enjoy each of those things for its own unique pleasures (eavesdropping during carpool, chatting while volunteering, finding a yummy new ice cream, watching my kids enjoy sports and music, folding sheets hung in a sunny breeze, savoring the results of my kitchen labors, the obvious delight of the dog in the cool evening air).

Probable photograph of William Shakespeare, ci...

Shakespeare via Wikipedia ... still going strong

It’s the cumulative effect of the duties layered with the simple fact that I freak out in a cluttered and/or dirty environment that does me in. The swirl of life with three other people in a smallish house distracts and distresses me on the bad days, and I dive into fixing all the details and then I look up and … I’m exhausted and find the muse is already snoring and I am faced with a metaphorical and often literal blank page and a serious case of the what-the-hell-do-I-have-to-say-anyway-and-even-if-I-figured-it-out-why–bother-Shakespeare-said-it-better-four-hundred-years-ago-anyway-quit-whining-your-life-is-amazing-look-at-the-people-starving-in-Somalia.

And then I compare myself to other parents who don’t, apparently, shove their kids out the door with breakfast in a “to go” bowl, admonishing them to “Hurry up! Because if mommy doesn’t write today her head will explode!” Do they?

In my clearer moments I realize 1. Maybe their heads don’t explode for the same reasons mine does. 2. Maybe their heads don’t explode at all! 3. Maybe my hard-wiring is as defective as my uterus was and I should still be on the antidepressants.

Image via Wikipedia

Moonlight ...

And perhaps if the pills’ effectiveness hadn’t waned and if writing didn’t wax a big golden moon that illuminates my life, I would be. But pen on paper is how I find out who I am, and why I am, at least for a moment. It helps me figure stuff out and then it helps me figure out how to deal with it.

If we’re on the Titanic, and we know we’re going sinking and we also happen to be in first class, why not drink the champagne? What are we saving it for? What’s the point in self-inflicted, unnecessary miserliness with our souls? *

While the confident, certain young woman I was before motherhood’s cloak wrapped me up was foolish and arrogant, she was also beaming from ear to ear, full of life and stories yet untold. On the other side, here with the doubt, exhaustion, heartbreak, wisdom, and humility of wearing that cloak , I need her confidence, her certainty, her fecundity, because “… it hurts when buds burst. There is pain when something grows.”

Guess who? Not Shakespeare. Karin Boye.

Source: Wikipedia

Pop it open. Life's short.

Guess what? If I can hang onto her, my arrogant self will suppress my Shakespeare inferiority complex, guide me to the table, set me down and put me to scribbling.

She knows we need to drink whatever champagne we are lucky enough to find.

Cheers.

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* Credit for the Titanic metaphor goes to Dr. John Cairns

My momma done me wrong, but taught me right . . .

Those of you who already know me have most likely heard the sorrowful story of my mom’s early years (abusive, alcoholic father & corresponding Dysfunctional Family; frequent, violent, dead-of-night moves one step ahead of the debt collectors; inadequate nutrition or education; etcetera etcetera etcetera). Her response to that childhood was to become an intellectual woman with bucketfuls of discipline – enough to keep her conscious mind free of memories of molestation for fifty-plus years. This level of control also rendered her frequently unable to respond appropriately to my emotional needs.

image by Anne Pepelko Jacobsen

Delicate flower (passion flower) image by the awesome Anne Pepelko Jacobsen

As I tend to be on the “delicate flower”
end of the emotional spectrum, it took me ‘til I was about thirty-five to see my way clear to peace with my mother’s legacy (complicated by her death when I was 31), and ten years since then to pick out the bits of my Self from the rubble (thanks to the engineer husband and some remarkably sane and forgiving friends. And those therapists and antidepressants and Julia Cameron I referred to in the first post!).

A big part of the rubble- sieving occurred when I became a parent myself and witnessed, to my horror, my (unintentional) mistakes flowing forth freely and profusely every day I interacted with my kids. I witness evidence of those errors every time my older son yells at his brother for a minor infraction, or my younger son storms out of the room in frustration (yep, we are an intense household. Nuclear power plants got nothing on us when we really get going).

My errors have slowed to a (steady) trickle now that I’m not wiping butts and supplying milk 24-7  for small, irrational humans (observed a friend: “watching three year olds play is liking watching tiny inhabitants of an insane asylum.”) But. Mistakes were made and apparently will continue to be made into the foreseeable future. Forgiveness all ‘round is in order.

Now, my mom’s intellectual rigor was not in sync with my uhm, flowery nature. But! One thing she told me has changed my life, and perhaps the world, if I may be so bold.

Farrah Fawcett 1947-2009 RIP

Image by Dallas1200am via Flickr

When I was a shy fifth grader with wretchedly frizzy hair (during the Farrah

Fawcett era!) struggling in math, she said, “Lesley, if you have a question, ask it. Someone else probably has the same question and will be glad you did.”

I have no idea if I asked the multiplication question that troubled me then, but her words echoed in my head during discussions at college (Earlham College, can’t sing its praises loudly enough). I  s l o w l y  gained confidence in asking the questions in my heart and head, the ones that others weren’t voicing. When I was thirtyish, my confidence had grown to the point that I inquired of The Powers That Be in the local land use planning community if anyone ever considered conserving land rather than developing it. The answer (nope) led me to ask if anyone else was horrified by this response. Yes, others were aghast — and we organized ourselves and founded the New River Land Trust. Acres protected with Conservation Easements since then: thirty-three thousand! My mom taught me how to change the world!

So. The point today is … amidst all the crap our literal and figurative “mothers” visit upon us, there are plenty enough precious stones. Whatever your art is, whatever question you wrestle with through intentional practice: Claim it. Ask it. Ain’t none of us mind-readers and the only way we’re gonna figure out our next steps forward —  individually and collectively — is if we speak up. If shy or uncertain, practice in your diary first. When you’re ready to utter it aloud, listen to the answers. Extend forgiveness to yourself and others when you fail to be honest, or clear, or whatever else your personal failing is; or when others fail to listen carefully.

Ah. Let’s all bask in the light of our higher selves for a moment.

OK. Lovely words. Putting them into action? What exactly does that look like? No, no, don’t tell me, I’m too busy. Right?

Right. I’m too busy too.

Here’s what unstuck me: (years ago) I had an odd sensation in my abdomen. I described it to my physician as similar to when a baby does backflips during the seventh month of pregnancy, before said baby becomes too large for anyone to be comfortable. The doctor replied: I’m scheduling a CAT scan for you. Tomorrow.

Turned out there was nothing wrong with me, no ominous lumps or bumps. But the first, and I do mean the FIRST thing that flew through my head when he responded was: dammit, I haven’t finished my short stories.

Not, I haven’t published my stories, but I haven’t finished my stories. I was afire! I read books about how to get organized for writing, I got organized, I practiced writing with a vengeance. Still haven’t gotten published … but I’m a lot closer to finishing my stories.

Big Lesson distilled into soundbite: It takes habit. Habits are small, daily manifestations of our intentions. Most of us manage some form of hygiene every day, right? We brush our teeth, wash our face, take a shower. Some of us even manage a little fancy sumpin’-sumpin on a regular basis: a spritz of perfume, earrings to match our pants, splattered though they may become with garden dirt and little-kid snot by day’s end.

Creative work, be it ever so small, is just as important to our health as clean teeth. Seriously! Who doesn’t have fifteen minutes to read a bit of a book, or write 500 words, or sketch an idea for a painting? Again, seriously! We allow our time be nibbled away by nonessentials, because it is easy, because it provides instant gratification (“I won the third level of Angry Birds!”). We suppress the certain knowledge that there is one, exactly one, conclusion to all our stories. But most of us have a little sumpin’-sumpin’ we hope to have done before our  books’ last pages.

I realize this observation is little more than a variation on the “bucket list,” or the “wear the fancy dress” essay that makes the rounds on the internet every couple of years. Well, there’s a reason so many of us are probably familiar with those references: they’re RIGHT.

Image by CarynNL via Flickr

make a list . . .

Get whatever list-making tools you need, paper and pencil, iPad, cell phone, doesn’t matter. Make your list! Apply some of my mother’s intellectual rigor to the habits of daily life. You will change the world.

Seriously.

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Comin’ up: Reflections on the double-edged sword of habitual creativity for its own sake, and that required for parenting. Plus resources that have helped me sustain the habit of “intellectual rigor” required for the long haul. This will include my opinion of chocolate.