In hindsight I can see that this was a heavy week. I didn’t realize earlier because none of the things in it were individually large. It was just one little thing after another until I was hunched over and exhausted from the weight of them all. Every time I finished a thing, there were three more things sitting and waiting. Or sometimes jumping up and down and screaming at me that I really ought to have done them last week. Then there were the things that lay in silent heaps making life feel cluttered. That last one is about laundry. I’ve felt quite a lot of laundry guilt this week. Laundry guilt is cumulative and I’ve accrued quite a lot of it.
I do want to get off of the “hope this works, nope, time to try something else” roller coaster that we’ve been on with Link’s homework and with Patch’s anxiety. Both are looking up today, like we may have actually identified solutions, but I’m a little afraid to believe in it yet. I’m also sad because my Kiki had a sad thing today and she called to talk to me about it. Now I wish I could hug her and make it all better. Sometimes there isn’t anything I can do except listen and that is hard.
On the happier side, Howard has finished drawing all the calendar pages. They’ll soon be colored and lettered. Then I’ll drop them into place and send the calendar off to print. That will be a nice piece to have complete.
Tomorrow is Halloween. I have an elementary school parade to attend in the morning. There are pumpkins to carve in the afternoon. And the evening will be Trick-or-Treating and answering the door. Hopefully in between those things, I’ll also be able to carve away at my list. It is shorter now than it was it the beginning of the week. I’m slowly making progress. Maybe I’ll finally have time to solve the laundry.
It used to be that the church Halloween carnival was the biggest event of the year for my kids. It was planned for and anticipated. This year Patch decided he didn’t care to go. Link has opted out for the last several years. Kiki is off at college. Howard is up against a deadline. That left Gleek and I. She dressed up and spent all her energy to run games for younger kids. This is Gleek in her element. It had been my intention to dress up. Last year I’d decided I was tired of being the boring Mom, so I acquired pieces to make a costume.
Yet when this week arrived, I didn’t have the energy to care about being boring. I spent all of my energy helping Patch troubleshoot his stress and Link troubleshoot his only marginally functional homework system. Both were problems this week. We think we’ve figured them out, but the solutions for Patch require ongoing work from me in the form of enforced bedtimes and additional meals. (He grew half an inch in the last two weeks. Four inches since February. He’s stressed because his body is using all of his resources to add height.) The solutions for Link may involve the acquisition of a cell phone for him. This requires much thinking and budget calculation. There was also the issue of replacement coats before the freeze which is due this weekend. Library materials needed to be returned. Packages needed to be mailed. Basically I spent half the day driving from place to place in my car and making decisions at every stop, until my brain ran out of decision-making energy.
I sometimes teach a class on structuring life to support creativity and one of the points I always make is that changes work best, and are most likely to stick, when they are made only one or two at a time. On one level I’m applying that. I’m only making one or two changes for each kid, but the cumulative effect for me is a pile of things that I have to remember and haven’t yet turned into habits. When I was a kid I remember life having long stretches of sameness and I longed for something different to arrive. These days I just wish that life would hold onto a pattern long enough for me to become accustomed to it.
I read a lot of articles online. Truthfully, most of them are a waste of my time. But every so often I find exactly the words I needed to read that day. When I do, I pin it to my Pinterest board. That way I’ll know where to find it if I need it again. More than once I’ve been able to send a link that I pinned to someone else who needed it.
Today started out a little bit raw, which is normal on the day after a crying day. Sleep restores much, but my eyes are still tired. I understand why lots of crying in a short span of time will make me thirsty, I’m less clear on why it makes my eyes feel tired and my face feel tender. The good news is that the tears were gone, the sadness processed. Today I can see that my challenges are not so bad. I could see it yesterday too, but the sadness had to finish flowing once the pocket had been pierced open. This morning it was gone and I was left with tired eyes and a day’s work to do. Fortunately one of the first things I read was an article, linked by a friend of mine, about how often we fail to realize that we are already in the middle of our life’s most important work. The work we are called to do. I was barely halfway through when I could see how all the things that I cry over are a worthy work. I wouldn’t cry over them if they were not. And they bring me joy far more often than they bring tears.
The other article which I found very helpful today was linked on my Facebook timeline by my backyard neighbor. She knows me well. It is an article about doing the artistic work you feel divinely called to do. The ending of the article is a specific discussion of a project to help mother artists, which didn’t really apply to me. Yet the earlier words exactly matched what I’ve experienced in the last few weeks. I finally listened to all that prodding and hounding which I felt any time I opened my heart to inspiration. I finally bumped writing far enough up the priority list that it has been getting done. I can feel the difference in my heart and my life. I can feel a before and after difference in each individual day. Even while I’ve been spending my energy, and my tears, on my hearts work of raising my kids, I was also ignoring my other calling. In fact I was sometimes actively dodging it while trying to pretend to myself that I was not. No wonder I spent so much time feeling stressed and in pieces.
I have crying days in my future. They come to all of us. But between now and then I hope to have lots of days where I’ll do my heart’s work, both parenting and creating.
I was crying in the hallway at church. It wasn’t how I expected to spend Sunday when I got up this morning, but then a series of things happened. None of them were big things, they just all hit me in the exact same emotional spot, slicing me open and leaving me in tears.
Patch was too overwhelmed to participate in the annual children’s program at church. He’d had an overnight camp out on Friday where he didn’t sleep well, followed by a Saturday visit from an out of town friend, capped off with a late night Halloween party. On Sunday morning he was in a state where cutting up his waffle to eat it was cause for tears. The syrup wasn’t right and none of us, Patch included, could figure out how syrup could be wrong. But it was. I could not in good conscience put Patch up on the stand in front of the congregation with so few emotional resources and feeling unprepared. I once sat in an audience watching my child have an anxiety attack during a performance. It is not an experience I care to repeat. So I excused my boy to go back home, knowing that this decision meant I was letting down his teachers and church leaders who put so much work into creating the program and getting kids to practice for it. It did not help that this was Patch’s last year in the children’s program, his last chance to be part of it. I’m sad that this rite of passage has been impacted by anxiety and emotional limits, as have so many other important moments in our lives.
Patch came with me to the first portion of the meeting for sacrament, and we planned to let him quietly leave after that. As I was walking into the chapel I was caught by Gleek’s young women teacher, who wanted to let me know that Gleek’s habit of drawing in class was distracting the other girls and causing a problem. She asked if I could tell Gleek not to draw in class. It was such a small request, the sort of thing which should be simple to do. I was left standing there with no time to make clear why this small request actually needed to happen a week ago. In order to comply, I needed time to negotiate with Gleek. I needed to help her figure out alternate ways to manage in-class fidgeting. I needed to remind her how to take deep breaths and stay respectful to teachers even when she is angry with them. I needed to give Gleek her medicine on Sunday morning instead of letting it be an off day as we’ve been doing. I probably needed to create some sort of bargain with a reward so that Gleek was willing to make an effort to learn new skills instead of being resentful and angry at an imposed change. I can tell you that resentful and angry Gleek is the one most likely to make split-second unfortunate choices, particularly when she is unmedicated. My thoughts weren’t organized enough to say all of that, I agreed to talk to Gleek and see what I could do. Then I sat down on the bench with my family and tears began.
I’m sad that simple things—sitting through a meeting without drawing, sitting in a group on the stand to sing songs, attending class activities, organizing homework, speaking to non family members—are so hard for my kids sometimes. It takes significant behind-the-scenes effort for me to help my kids manage these things that the world expects to be simple. And I’m left feeling the unfairness of it. I’m also left wondering if the failing is in me. That perhaps these things would be simple if only I knew how to teach my kids better. Everything I’ve done has not been enough, and I don’t know if I’m capable of more. I get so tired.
Gleek and Patch (before he ducked out to go home) noticed my tears. They leaned over to ask what was wrong and I had to find words to whisper back. I hadn’t even had time to articulate my sadness to myself, so I whispered carefully selected truths to let them know what I was feeling, but to not make them feel responsible for it, nor to guilt them into doing the things. Even if they had spontaneously decided to sing in the program and to not draw in church, that would not have ended my tears. When the meeting was over, I wended my way out of the chapel, eyes firmly fixed on the feet of the people around me. I could feel that my face was red from tears. Anyone who looked me would see that I’d been crying. I looked at no one and took care to pass behind instead of in front of those people who were most likely to notice. I didn’t get away completely, several people stopped me in the hall and gave me hugs. Fortunately the words “Parenting is hard.” Tumbled out of my lips and no further explanations were necessary. They understood and didn’t ask more, which was good because the rest was all a jumble of incidents and emotions that I didn’t know how to sort into a comprehensible narrative until hours later.
Parenting is hard. Those words earned instant understanding and sympathy. I am not the only parent to end up crying in a public place because some small thing made all the worry overflow. Today will not be the last day it will happen to me. I left church early and took my emotions home where I had the space to sort them properly. They still aren’t entirely sorted, but I know what my next steps need to look like. They look remarkably like last week’s steps with only minor adjustments. In the quiet of my house where I could cry without having to explain, I also prayed and got quiet answers to help me know what adjustments to make. Everyone needs to sit down and cry sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong. It just means we needed a rest before carrying on with the work that needs to be done. So, that is what I’ll do.
About once per week I get an email from The Orchestra Mom. I don’t know if she single-handedly put together my son’s before school elementary orchestra program, but it feels that way. Her emails are long and detailed. They tell me exactly how orchestra went, how the director taught, and then there are the lesson instructions. I should have my son practice with a metronome set to exactly 60 beats per minute, but don’t worry if he doesn’t get it right away. My son should practice singing the scales and I should sing them with him, and I should persevere even if my child doesn’t want to, because learning the scales and note names is really important. The music should be memorized through bar twelve and practiced at least three times per day. But don’t worry too much if my kid is still struggling because orchestra is supposed to be fun. The instructions go on for paragraphs.
All of her emails are like that. They are a mix of very precise instructions on exactly how everything should be done with small reassurances at the end of each paragraph that perfection is not expected. I read these emails with bemusement and I know that this mother is coming to orchestra from a very different place than I am. All her communications assume that parents put their kids in orchestra because it is good for the kids and that the kids will naturally resist until they finally get good enough that they’re able to realize that maybe they enjoy music after all.
I didn’t pick cello for my son, he picked it for himself. Out of all the things he could do in his out of school hours, he chose music. The worst thing I could do is to take that interest and turn it into a chore. So, if he doesn’t feel like practicing, I don’t make him. If we have a string of days without practice then he and I have a conversation where we talk about whether he still wants to do music. He always does, and then we rearrange his schedule so the practices fit better. He has a solo lesson on Tuesdays before school and orchestra on Friday before school. Some weeks those morning sessions are the only times he touches his cello. I’m okay with that, because he comes home smiling. I want him to enjoy the process of learning music. It is the process that matters to me, not him arriving at some imagined proficiency goal.
I feel empathy for the orchestra mom, because in other times and areas of my life, I’ve been her. I’ve been the one who cares passionately about a project, who knows exactly how it should be done, but who has to rely on others to follow through. I’ve had to dial back my intensity so that I don’t drive others away from a project. I’ve been (and sometimes still am) the mom who requires my kids to do things because it is good for them, not because they enjoy it. Sometimes I push in the hope that someday my kids will see the value in what I required them to do. I know that for some things they may never thank me. This is why I am so glad to not have to push for my son’s music. Instead I quietly file the emails as they come in and let my son practice, or not, as he chooses. I also send a quiet, sympathetic thought to the orchestra mom. I’m learning, slowly, how to push less and trust more. I hope that she can too, because her emails make me feel tired for her.
Link got into the car smiling. “I haven’t felt like this in a long time.” He said.
These are the sorts of decisions I’ve been having to make with Link since the beginning of school. I’m playing the long game; trying to make sure he learns lessons that will help him be an adult even if those lessons sacrifice his grade point average. It is hard for me. My own schooling has ingrained the paramount importance of grades on a very deep level in my brain. I have had anxiety attacks over school work my son was not getting done. So I do battle with my anxiety to prevent it from driving me into badgering him until the work is done. That path would result in better grades, less anxiety for me, more arguments with my son, a deterioration in our relationship, and would prevent him from learning his own lessons about how he feels when he doesn’t do the work that is expected of him. Some days it took all my strength to give him the space to fail or succeed on his own choices. I’m very glad to know that we won’t be having to make up failed credits over the summer. Though I won’t feel completely relieved about that until I see the official grade reports.
“I’m stressed. I don’t want to be stressed.” Patch said as we sat snuggled together on the couch. The days are long gone when I can snuggle him in my lap. He’s almost as tall as me these days and his feet are bigger than mine. At eleven, he’s primed to shoot up tall. He’s also entering a rocky hormonal and emotional place where childhood things start to slip away leaving bewildered pre-teens adrift from who they were, but not yet sure who they will be going forward. It is an anxious place for anyone, but particularly for a child who is already prone to tie himself in little emotional knots. Patch’s expectations for himself are high and he never wants to make other people disappointed or upset.
“I know, buddy.” I say and put my arm around his shoulders. Touch is a stress reliever. I’m hugging him a lot these days. We’ve also begun a three part list: Things that stress him, Things that relieve stress, and things that pause stress. Being stressed and not knowing why is in itself stressful. So the list is helping Patch practice identifying stresses. He is beginning to be able to examine his own thought processes and figure out when the emotional reaction is out of proportion to what is going on. Most of the time when he becomes anxious it is because there is an insoluble conflict in his head. It may have a simple solution in the real world, but it requires that he readjust one of the constants in his head. For example: I have to remind him that he is allowed to inconvenience other people to ask for things that he wants. In fact the very act of being alive requires us all to do this.
Some surprising things are ending up on the de-stressor list. Seeing the accumulation is sparking new ideas about how Patch can help himself feel less stressed on a daily basis. The trickiest bit for me is trying to set up de-stressing systems that don’t require regular maintenance from me. In the next eight weeks I’m going to be stressed and I’m going to accidentally drop some of my responsibilities. Patch is already going to pick up some of my radiated stress because he’s naturally empathetic. He needs systems that won’t fall apart when I do. Haven’t figured it out yet, but we’re working on it.
I called Link my oldest the other day. The words sat there on my screen, staring at me until I realized why they were bugging me. Link is not my oldest child. I have Kiki, who is away at college. But Link is my oldest child at home. He is my oldest child for whom I am still performing active parenting. Somehow my subconscious has graduated Kiki into adulthood, thus leaving Link with the title of “oldest.” Or so I must infer from the fact that the word has slipped out in reference to him on at least two occasions.
I told Kiki about this mental promotion as I drove her back to college. She’d come home for fall break to spend four days doing nothing much except playing video games and watching movies. Kiki laughed out loud at the story. I was glad she laughed because I never want her to feel evicted from the family just because she is the first child to venture out into adulthood.
“Do you believe in Ouija boards?” Gleek asked me as we were unloading groceries from the car. My brain had been planning where to put food, what to cook for dinner, and when to haul kids in for homework time, so it took a moment for me to switch gears into a conversation about the occult.
In the end Gleek’s fascination was no more deep than the average kid who has watched a few ghost-related videos on YouTube or who has checked out a book about Spooky Encounters from the library. There wasn’t really anything for me to worry about and in the course of our discussion I was able to acknowledge that I do worry. She accepted my worry, just as I accepted her interest. It was a good conversation to have.
I’d forgotten what pre-orders do to my brain. On the surface it looks simple. We open ordering and quietly collect orders until the time comes to ship books. Except I have to track and double check those orders. I have to print invoices and make sure that I pull out the regular orders so they don’t get stuck in limbo with the pre-orders. There is also customer support email for people who need help with their orders in some way. And the influx of income brings with it some accounting tasks. We’ve had bills piling up in the expectation of having that income and now is the time to pay those bills. The result is an influx of dozens of small tasks which flood into my brain and fill up all the available spaces.
Since last Monday I’ve barely had time to take breaks. Sometimes my brain would give out and I would end up watching a show for a while, but even then I was aware of the press of Things Which Need to be Done, but Which are Not Getting Done Right Now. I flow from business task to parenting task to household management task. It does not help that the household tasks have sprouted a bunch of fall deadlines. If I want flowers next spring, I have to plant bulbs before the weather gets too cold. If we want pear butter to eat over the next year, I have to cook those pears on the back porch before they rot. There is a tree branch that scrapes our roof in storms, we need to get out and trim it off before the weather gets cold. My mind catalogs and tracks all of these things. Some parenting things also have deadlines this week. The term ends on Friday and Link has some scrambling to do in order to make sure that he passes a couple of his classes. He is discovering the consequences of letting things slide earlier in the semester. I’m biting my tongue on “I told you so.” Even though I did. Repeatedly. Experience is a better teacher for this than any lecture I can give.
Some time on Saturday I realized that I’d passed a threshold. I started being actively resentful when I had to remind a kid of a chore more than once. I also resented any additional requests which I’d not already slotted into a space in my brain. Fortunately I recognized these resentments as a sign of overload. I went to Howard and let him know that I’d hit the overload point. This means it is time to adjust. In the next weeks I’ll be knocking things off my schedule. I’ll be bowing out of some responsibilities and warning people that between now and the end of December I become flaky. I have so many things going on that I will inevitably forget some of them. I feel less guilty about that if I warn people in advance that it will happen.
The good news is that some of this will settle out by the end of this week. The new term will reduce parenting and homework pressure. I processed several batches of pears over the weekend, eventually I’ll run out of pears to cook. Once the fall gardening tasks are complete I can ignore gardening until pruning season in March. So, hopefully I’ll have a brain-busy week followed by some lull time, followed by the crazy-busy of shipping in the early holiday season.
School started. Link had an eagle scout project. Patch needed school support. We scrambled to send a book off to print. We had Salt Lake Comic Con. Howard had the Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat. Then we had to scramble and fix something in the book that had already gone to print. All of this meant that some of my important projects kept getting pushed back. This was particularly true of the projects which are emotionally important but which don’t contribute to daily work or family maintenance. This was the fate of my gardening projects. Kiki and I did a marvelous job of working in the garden during May and June. After that… not so much. Yet today I fulfilled a promise to myself. I planted flowers.
This is what the patch looked like this morning, though from a different angle than the photo above.
Being writer has a specific set of joys and challenges. One of the biggest challenges is finding out how writing can fit with all the other things in life. I’m quite familiar with this, as my writing is often victim to parental priorities. I know I’m prioritizing correctly, or at least sometimes I do. Other times I feel a strange dual guilt that I’m insufficiently devoted to writing because of the other things in my life and that I’m neglecting everything else because of the writing I do. It is a Gordian Knot; a tangle that seems to have no solution. I’ve come at it a dozen different ways and I’ve tried to share those with others in various presentations and private conversations over the years. I’m thrilled to announce that I’m going to get to do so again. This time I’ll be teaching at a venue that is perfectly selected to both ease, and bring to the fore, the challenges of blending a creative life with a family life.
I’ve been asked to teach at the 2015 Out of Excuses Workshop and Retreat put on by the Writing Excuses podcast team. I’ll be talking to writers and their families about ways they can survive and support the act of creation. The venue for my presentation will be Independence of the Seas, a cruise ship which makes stops around the Caribbean. Why is a cruise ship an ideal venue for this discussion? It is the only workshop I know that actively encourages attendees to bring their families along for the event. This is because cruise ships are designed to house and entertain diverse groups of people. There is childcare and child activities available right there on the boat. The ship is huge with plenty of room for everyone. There will also be attendee-only workshop classes and writing time, spaces that are child-free. This means that it will be a glorious mix of learning, focused creative time, and splendid distractions. It will be a microcosm of how demands for attention must be balanced in regular life. We’ll get to talk about all of that. We’ll have daily examples of how children impact creative work and how the needs of significant others must be weighed against creative time. Then we’ll have opposing examples of how those kids, families, and significant others also make sacrifices to allow for creation. I’m really excited to meet these fellow journeyers, these people who will be with me on the ship, but who are also traveling similar life paths.
I’ve never been on a cruise before. I’m kind of nervous about it. I’ve never thought of myself as a cruise-taking person. Yet the more I’ve heard Mary, Brandon, Dan, and Howard talk about this workshop, the more excited I become for it. For the exact same cost per attendee, this cruise will offer much more than the retreats they’ve been doing at Woodthrush Woods. It will offer more than a hotel offers for small conventions. Instead of having to say “Attendees only” they can say “Sure, bring your kids, bring your boyfriend, bring your mom.” I love that, because the one thing that is most likely to make me skip a professional writing event is if it causes a problem for my family life. The event is still a long way off, not until next September, but I’m already excited to get there. Hopefully some of you can be there too.
Sorry for the radio silence. Pre-orders for Massively Parallel opened for the Schlock Patreon supporters on Monday. Which meant I was answering a lot of email and doing a lot of accounting. That slowed down just in time for the full pre-order to open on Wednesday which meant even more email, accounting, and prepping for shipping. As things stand right now, we’ve paid for the print run. That is a good place to be on day 2 of pre-ordering. It is a huge relief for us, because this was the most expensive print run we have ever done. It cost as much as a new car.
I’ve also spent some time wandering around in my warehouse and trying to picture how everything will fit. Because this is the largest shipment we’ve ever received for volume. We’re expecting 32 pallets of books and slipcases. We’ll have to immediately re-stack things tall. In fact this shipment is so big that the shipping company called us to make sure that we had space enough to take delivery. Ultimately it will have to arrive in two trucks and I hope that we can have a couple hours between trucks so that we can do the stacking. I’m pretty sure the trucking company will cooperate with that.
Mixed in with all of those business things, I’ve also been trying to catch up with home things. I’ve got pears which will rot unless I preserve them, so I’ve been cooking pear butter. There are also grapes and walnuts. So my kitchen is a place of many projects. We’re coming up on the end of the term and I’ve got a kid who is scrambling to raise some grades before it is too late. I get to assist with that. Basically I’ve been running full-tilt all week long. It’s been a good week though.