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.
At the end of the day the shed was complete. Though the last bits of painting were done in near dark, so daylight will probably show them to be less neat than we would have preferred. I’ll have to go get a picture of the finished shed when daylight returns. For now this is what I have.
I’m too tired to feel triumphant. Instead my brain is helpfully supplying a list of all the people we need to thank and all the tools we need to return. Fatigue can do that, make even triumphs feel like failures. For now we just need to rest.
I bargain with God. I know I’m not really supposed to. I’m supposed to exercise great faith, put things into his hands, and follow the instructions I’m given through inspiration. I try to do that. Sometimes I succeed and for a while my life is far more peaceful even if the events and emotions are all about turmoil. But sometimes when I get an instruction, an auto-bargaining circuit kicks in. In essence I turn to God and say “Well if you want me to do that, then I need help with this.” Sometimes I get immediate help with this and the pathway is cleared for that. Other times my bargain only gains me a sense that God is amused when I bargain. He certainly doesn’t always join me in bargaining. In fact I suspect our bargains are rather like the bargains I used to make with my toddler kids where I conceded one small point that was no loss to me so that a far more important purpose could move forward. Yes honey you can bring the toy, its time to get in the car now.
A few months ago I got an unexpected, whip-fast response to a bargain. I had an essay book project in mind. I wanted to push it through in a hurry. So I shot a bargaining prayer heaven-ward. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to help me.” The response was clear. You know which book I want you to write. Encapsulated with those words were the knowledge that it was House in the Hollow, not an essay book and that if I continued to push on the essay book it would only be with my own strength. No assist. My strength is not strong enough to carry all the things in my life. I certainly don’t have enough force of will to push through and market an essay book by myself. All of my writing projects have felt important as I wrote them. I did the necessary work, knowing that the end result was something with a larger purpose. In some cases that larger purpose was to teach something to me. This is not the purpose I hope for when I write a book. I want it to go out into the world and touch other people. Yet in God’s eyes, me writing a book that changes me is every bit as valuable as me writing a book that changes someone else. It is hard for me to remember that and believe it. But the critical part is that I did not write alone. I was supported and led throughout each project. I can’t imagine trying to write a book without that.
So I know which book I’m supposed to be writing, yet somehow I’ve been dragging my feet on getting it done. I don’t know why. It probably has to do with fear of not being good enough or some other flavor of self doubt. Logically I know I just need to write the words and worry about making them be good words later. Yet I find a hundred other things to do. Many of them are important things which my family needs. Only I know it is not just the press of important tasks, because I’ve been filling spaces with things that are far less important than writing. On the days I do work on HitH, suddenly everything else goes much more smoothly. The contrast is stark. It is not that my other paths are being blocked, but this one path is definitely being made as attractive as possible. Which, of course, led me to using it as a bargaining tool. “Okay God. I’ll write on HitH first, but I need you to help me with the parenting stuff that has been driving me crazy.”
I haven’t gotten a clear answer on that one yet, but it feels like a worthwhile bargain to attempt for a time. Now I just need to stick to my part.
I can’t always tell when I’m stressed. The physical and emotional consequences of being stressed interfere with my self awareness. Usually I figure out the extent of my stress when I come out from under it. Usually this manifests in my house becoming more organized and clean because I’m able to notice small tasks and accomplish them instead of filtering them out of my attention because I’m focused elsewhere. My house is cleaner today than it was this time last week.
It is possible that canning creates a sense of well being, or maybe I only make time to preserve food when I’m feeling calm enough. I suspect the answer is a bit of both. Either way, I’ve been cooking batches of grapes so that I can make Jelly. Pears are picked and sitting on my porch to ripen. Walnuts are beginning to fall from the tree and in a week or two I’ll send kids outside to gather them.
This is not to say that the past few days have been stress free. Quite the contrary. There were several anxiety spikes, particularly on Thursday. I can see all the causes of them. Some of them earned every bit of that anxiety. Others are far less rational and I wish I could explain to my body that they are undeserving of massive adrenaline surges. At least I have practice in recognizing when I’m being irrational and trying to make sure my irrationality does not impose on others.
The best part of today is that Howard has returned from the Writing Excuses Retreat. That makes many things better.