Tag Archives: Parent

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.

Paying attention and honoring what we see …

My eldest son plays hard, Image by Jeannine Eddleton

I’m writing this as my older son sleeps, hopefully deeply enough to restore his depleted energy after yesterday’s intense soccer matches.  What a range of soccer parents schlep their kids to these games! There are of course the win-at-all-costs parents – and it’s not only dads who scream at players – but that is a stereotype, just as “the people” that are referred to during election seasons don’t fit into the stereotype of the shorthand labels we bandy about like Truth. When it comes down to it, most Tea Partiers, moderate Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats, in checkout lines and over a cup of coffee, would manage to find commonalities. Everyone has red blood.

And we all support our kids. No matter how we support them in their passions, most of us make an effort because we love our children and want to honor the spark of life manifest in their desires. Best as we can, we notice, nurture, and navigate the world to facilitate setting their ever-growing-and-when-they’re-teenage-soccer-players-STINKY feet on paths that in our (necessarily limited) experience will help them discover whether or not their passion is vocation, avocation or occasional hobby.

typewriter.detail5

ye Olde Typewriter, Image by jcbonbon via Flickr

My parents were among the first to show me the path I’m on now. They read to me, gave me books from their childhood – and when I happily scrawled my own stories in kindergarten, they hied me to the library weekly, pointed out books about writers, outfitted an old desk with an equally old (manual!) typewriter and all the scrap paper I wanted. I wasn’t sent to any special camps, but they certainly honored what they witnessed in me.

Nonetheless: when I see a van full of kids being chauffeured down the interstate to soccer tournaments, or youth orchestra, or juggling classes, an echo of an interview rings in my head.

A female author was sharing her story of achieving success in her forties after a twenty-year hiatus (cannot for the life of me remember who it was, my apologies). She’d achieved a modicum of publishing success immediately after college, then fell in love and had a child. And a second. Not surprisingly, her creative output trickled and ceased. She’d found a mentor before she’d begun childrearing, and when she and her partner were debating adding a third child to their family, the mentor opined: every child you have is another novel you will not write.

I heard this while driving to work, pregnant with the boy who is now snoring quietly in the adjacent room (yes, I am drafting this in the hotel room’s bathroom, so the lights don’t wake him up, my forty-something butt cushioned by hotel towels).

The mentor was correct. I certainly have three or four collections of ideas and plot outlines and free writes that, given time enough, could well be novels, but probably won’t be. Because I am raising children as well as writing.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf: proof positive that great art is unrelated to one's parental status.

The mentor was also incorrect.  Despite the real and metaphorical headaches of bringing up my boys, and the incredible amount of time they consume, I could not possibly write as I do if I were not a parent. I imagine my writing would be different (not better or worse, different) if Engineer Hubby and I had remained child-free. This is certainly NOT to say those who aren’t parents don’t create complex, rich, and marvelous art. Arguably, since historically men have comprised the majority of the artist class and, also historically, they were very minimally involved in the grind of parenting, it’s hardly a requirement for great art. Or lousy art.

However, bottom line, one needs extended periods of solitude to make *anything* (nine months gestations for humans plus 18 years for ripening … no wonder Donna Tartt takes a decade per novel!), so hands-on parenting necessarily compromises those of us with artistic bents.  “Oh, but it’s worth it,” we say, after griping about our finicky eaters or the history teacher who doesn’t understand our precious progeny.

Actually, it’s not worth it, financially, for many of us. Nor is it even metaphorically worth it on the days consumed by the thrust-and-parry around their so-called “needs.” (I NEED an Xbox. Uh, no, you don’t. You need to get your ass outside and run a couple miles so you’re too tired to whine about material goods. Then you need to take out the compost so your mother doesn’t use words no former English major should unleash on her children before they’re twenty-one.)

Kids! Image by the awesome Anne Jacobsen

But our lives, with all the warts, whining, and wasted moments, are what we have to work with. The consequences of our choices, be they nights of passion or carefully plotted and sought-after goals, are with us. Here. Now. Though they won’t always be (we have fewer years with our kids at home before us than we have behind us).

These moments, on these days, the choices I make to write or not write, even if only for five minutes, is all that is. Annie Dillard is credited with the succinct, truthful observation that “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

She’s right. If I want to write, even if it’s only for my eyes only, even if I aim for publication and fail, then I have to do it. Writers write. Period.

My parents noticed and honored the writer they saw in their little girl. Surely, even as I pass the gift of honor on to my sons, and chauffeur them hither and yon, I can continue to honor my own girl. Reading stories and making up my own, scrap paper at the ready.

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

No Ruler for One Month*

I have a dear friend with whom I share most of the details of my life. A looong time ago, after a good therapist helped me realize I have an unusually ginormous not-in-the-middle-of the-bell-curve need for solitude (hard to come by at the time, with two preschoolers at home), I shared this revelation with my pal.

Image via Wikipedia

Mothers don't get a lot of alone time ...

She chuckled, and asked how on earth I was going to get more alone time than I already did: in her view, the Saturday mornings the Engineer Husband gave me to meet with my writer’s group, plus the hours I hermit-ed while the kids were napping, was a Big Allotment of Alone Time for a Mother. I spent the next two months in a journaling frenzy, trying to figure out if I was nuts for wanting more solitude than what all the other mommies seemed to need, want – and survive on.

Luckily, somewhere in there, I stumbled upon the notebook in which my mom had recorded her observations of me as a young child – an extension of her Montessori training – and one of them relates the first time my parents left me alone in the house. I was about six, and my parents walked with my younger brother to the park. She writes that when they returned, “Lesley twinkled up at us from her seat on the couch, where she was reading, and said, ‘You could have stayed away longer, you know.’”

I still feel like that almost every day. Everyone I know and care for could stay away just a little bit longer. But I love my sons, my husband, my friends, my neighbors. Balance, wherefore art thou?

Our community woods in early spring

In my experience, balance hides out in the woods for 360 days of the year, emerging only under the least-expected of circumstances, eg, when even tho’ the kids are home sick, they both sleep quietly all day and your neighbor’s freezer is too full to hold the extra soup she made and would your family like it?, thereby freeing pretty much the entire day up for whatever your heart desires, plus a wee nap.

So on those 360 days of non-balance, of course it all comes down to butt-in-the-chair-hands-on-keyboard, right? Yes. I believe in this, and I swear by it and … I’ve been using the end-of-the-school-year glut of final projects, potlucks, and parties as an excuse to slack off on my writing practice. The excuses are, good, solid, legitimate ones (the car needs major repairs, the dog needs a heartworm test, the 13 y.o. has outgrown ALL his clothes and we must cover his sweet butt with Something lest social services stop by). I’ve been anticipating how during the summers, I enjoy, at most, only 90 consecutive minutes to myself on any given day – given days that will dwindle from five to two or three, so why bother, anyway? And yes, I’ve been enjoying release from walkthedogcleanthelitterboxesshowerdressmakelunchesandhustleoutthedoor.

But this past weekend our family had a crazy-INSANE argument, and I realize that when I downgrade the importance of my daily practice everything else goes to hell. Fast, and not in some pretty little handbasket, either.

I drank a gin-and-tonic, and re-inspired myself with this great TED video by Elizabeth Gilbert on creative process and transcendence through art, another once-a-year occurrence.

Image by quinn.anya via Flickr

Pit of despair with evacuation plan

Then I approached this particular Pit of Despair by asking myself a “deeply curious question.” The concept of a deeply curious question was introduced to me by Vicki Creed during a grassroots leadership training series. It’s a question that only the person you’re asking knows the answer to: in other words, it has to be something unique to them. Not, “did you try that diet? Did you read that book?” but “has this happened to you before? What did you do then? If not, have you ever known this to happen to anyone else? What did you think about it?” etcetera.

This seems straightforward, doesn’t it? It’s surprisingly not … try it when someone comes to you with a dilemma. Or invite practice by working with a trusted friend or family member; you can each (confidentially) share a dilemma you’re having, and ask each other deep curious questions.

I have found this to be very helpful in dealing with the insanity my family falls victim to. By asking what they think rather than telling them what I think, not only do I learn what’s going on, I’m better able to provide appropriate guidance (for my sons) or support (for my spouse) … and last weekend’s blow-out fight when I didn’t practice this is proof enough of its effectiveness.

But nevermind doing it for others, test it on yourself. What’s your dilemma? Not enough consecutive “free” time? OK. Have you ever confronted this before? What did you about it then? How did that work out? Did you like the result? If so, can you recreate some of those elements? If not, what didn’t work about it for you? Can you imagine another way to have it play out? What do you need to make that difference?

These actions can sound hokey, or like a waste of time, and they might be, But! If we don’t try them, we won’t know. Just like with vegetables when we’re kids (tho’ my children remain unconvinced). A friend of mine was flailing in the reedy pond mid-life can occasionally be (had been fired from a job, wasn’t sure where she was going to live, what church to join) and I said, well, here’s a resource that helped me during a bad year (Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach). She returned it to me, and said, well, that author advised things like bubble baths, and that’s just not me so it didn’t work. I asked if she’d taken a bubble bath? No, was her answer. “I just know that’s not me.”

Why dismiss, out of hand, the possibility? Even if you’re forty-seven and bubble baths don’t appeal to you, get in the water anyway. Pay attention, and see if there’s anything to be gained, or if you’re right, and you loathe baths. So you’ve always written in Word. Try Scrivener (if you have a Mac) and see if its features benefit your writing at all. Or sit down with that notebook of gorgeous paper and a pen that flows and fits your hand just right, and see if different words emerge.

This summer I’m shooting for a thousand words a day tho’ I won’t beat myself up if I don’t generate all new words; I’ll also count toward my thousand reworking the short story I’m wrestling with. But no exceptions. I’m going to write first thing after rising, and the boys will get their own summertime breakfasts.

White chocolate is marketed by confectioners a...

Chocolate ... nothing more need be said

Summer breakfasts should always, IMO, include a chocolate croissant and a coffee drink, iced or not, your choice. Thus we finally arrive at the chocolate! Because I am, at heart, a lazy animal who’d prefer to sit around and read all day while someone scratched behind my ears, I give myself “encouragement” throughout my writing practice time in the form of … chocolate. Good chocolate. Fair Trade chocolate because the human and environmental degradation that occurs to sate the world’s craving for this fabulous serotonin-enhancing food nauseates me. Supplemented-with-flavors chocolate. Chocolate without soy lecithin because even tho’ it’s more expensive, it melts in my mouth more velvetly than those with soy lecithin. And little teeny tiny meltaway mints, the kind shaped like chocolate chips and with white crunchy round things on them. While I’m working on individual sentences, each improved string of words = one mint to dissolve under my tongue while I dance on to the next one. Ridiculous? Yes. But one of the beauties of solitude is that no one can see me, or make disparaging tho’ perhaps accurate remarks about the absurd turns my writing practice takes.

After the writing and the chocolate, I’ll do my chores and make a big ole lunch, since realistically my kids will have barreled out the door without eating quite enough protein to give them sufficient energy.  The noon meal will, however, be PB&J or cheese sandwiches. Nothing too fancy. ‘cuz after they fuel up, I’m pretty sure they’ll need to go outside again. So I can be alone … for just a little bit longer.

*I saw these words in a painter’s studio, a reminder to try a new approach to their art. You don’t have to do anything forever. But to make informed choices that will be most helpful to manifesting your intentions, you do have to try new things!

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What are your strategies for those times when life chops up your hours into smaller-than-you’d-like bits?

 

No more promises about what the next post will include! Winging it is more effective for me at this point!