How to Make a Summer

IMG_7341.JPG

Each morning, my husband and I sit in our favoured places in the living room, sipping our respective cups of coffee with cream and green tea, the kids fully immersed in intense dragon battles. He’ll look at me through blasts of dragon fire and when there is a lull in the roar, he’ll ask “when does school start up again?”

It’s a hopeful question, and a useless one. They’re here, all three of them, every day. How will we get through the summer? Just by getting through. One day at a time. Tuesdays and Thursdays we go to the pool. Every morning we walk to the pond near our house and throw rocks. There may be more rock throwing later in the day at the river. There are car naps, and french fries, and mosquito bitten ankles. Yesterday, there were wild strawberries.

At work the other night, someone tipped me off to a strawberry patch accessible from town, so on Wednesday after our lunch, we loaded into the truck and drove to town, drove all the way to the end of Front street and parked under the slide, where every August the mud bog is held. As we got out of the truck, I could see the strawberry plants spread out in a mat over the hillside, amoung soapberry bushes, golden rod, plantain and the odd raspberry cane. The kids ranged over the patch, grazing. Colm, who wouldn’t eat fruit if I paid him, brought the berries to me one at a time to drop into the container I’d brought. We’re late in the season or this particular patch has already been picked clean, because the berries were sparse. I let Charlie eat what we’d collected, gone in two fistfuls.

I want to be the person who fills her freezer with wild berries each summer, lines her pantry with jewel-toned jars of preserves.  But truthfully, I find gathering wild berries to be tedious. They are so small: a good sized wild strawberry isn’t even as big as the tip of my pinky finger. Whenever I do pick wild berries, I can’t help but think of the Han people who have lived here and gathered here for thousands of years. Of the devotion they must have had to picking wild produce as it ripened. It’s not for me. I’m content to graze and to let the kids do the same. The berries are a tart burst of flavour, best enjoyed in the sun that brings them to fullness.

The kids went to bed last night with their mouths and fingers still berry-stained. Today is a pool day, maybe a rocks-in-river day. Now that we know what it’s like to have a kid in school, having three at home seems impossible, like filling a pail with tiny berries. But we get through it, one day at a time, and I try to make them about more than just “another one down”, if that makes any sense.

I’m not writing much, I am working more and the days are busy in other ways. It feels like I can’t fit it all in without letting something slip. It’s always the writing that slips. I have notes and half-poems started in my journal. I think about poems. I’ve been trying to read some poetry every day (to do that I’ve let slip the Trump-Russia fiasco and I gotta tell ya, it feels really good). I imagine that some day I’ll have it all figured out: work, family, writing, myself, so delicately balanced that even the seasons changing can’t throw it off. More likely, life will continue to be one day at a time, dragon fights and berry stained fingers and poems jotted down in between it all, each day never quite the same.

Putting Myself in the Way

binoculars-995779_960_720

When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.

 

Taking Myself Seriously

fullsizerender
A serious writer.

I find and place three pairs of socks. Brush three sets of teeth. Pack snacks in two different bags. (Also, spend an inordinate amount of time finding containers with lids for said snacks. Finally give up and just pack an entire sleeve of crackers.) I physically dress or coach the dressing of the kids.

Together, my husband and I buckle them into three car seats. I drop the husband at the hotel. Drop the oldest at kindergarten. Try to keep him focused on undressing and writing his name on the sign in sheet. Kiss goodbye. I take the other two to a friend with whom I’ve worked out a childcare exchange. Undress kids, chat for a moment, say goodbye, and run.

I am here, in my cold little office. The electric kettle is boiling and I’ll make a cup of tea. I light a stick of incense because I like doing something to mark the shift from my mundane to my sacred time. My writing time.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

It’s not enough.

I’ve come to realize that in the past week or so. There are two projects jumping for attention in my brain. Two projects that are languishing right now because all I can afford is an hour here, two hours there, of sporadic time. It’s hard to take myself seriously as a writer when time for research and writing comes second. Comes third.

I’ve decided that it can’t be something I fit into the spaces that may or may not open up in my day. I’ve decided that writing has to come first. That I have to look at this as a business that I am starting myself. As it stands, writing feels like a hobby. I want it to be my vocation.

I am the one who keeps myself from this. I am the one who is afraid to take the risk of finding more permanent, regular childcare and sitting down and researching and writing and maybe publishing my words. I tell myself that because I didn’t have “a Career” before having kids, that I have to be a stay at home mom. Talking to my husband about this, he answers: “Why? Says who?”

I feel like some kind of monster for not wanting to spend all of my time (literally, all of it) with my kids. But then, upon further reflection, I realize that many women don’t want to do this. They had jobs that they loved, or that they needed, before having kids. After having kids, they go back to them. I certainly don’t think they’re monsters. So why am I one?

The answer lies in the risk I’m taking. In diving into my writing like it’s a real, live thing that I want to spend a big chunk of my time doing, I’m taking a huge risk. It is essentially a business endeavor that may very well fail. I might never get published. Or I might choose to become my own publisher, and then suck at marketing myself.

Or, I might become my own publisher, market the shit out of my books, and become a successful author-entrepreneur.

But I won’t ever know if I don’t try. And I want to try NOW. I don’t want to wait three more years until the last baby finally goes off to kindergarten. Those three years will be miserable. I want to get started. I want to take the risk.

I am worthy of my dreams.

I am worthy of the risk.

And I am worthy of some form of childcare!

Distant Horizons

16215629161_b05e358d2e_o

A few days ago, my mom and I sat across from each other in her living room, having a rare direct conversation about some big things going on in my life. The kids played around us; there might have been a kid’s show on t.v. At a natural pause in the conversation, I asked: “Is there anything else you want to talk about, while we’re being honest?”

“Yes,” she answered. “Sometimes your blog really worries me. Like I think you’re in a deep depression. And it sounds like you–” she lowered her voice. “Hate being a parent.”

I thought about it for a second. “I’m ok. But I do hate being a parent.”

It was hard for her to hear, and looking at those words now, and turning them over in my mind as I have been since our conversation, they do seem pretty ugly. And I wonder: if my mom thinks that, others probably do, too.

Honesty seems kind of rare in conversations about motherhood. Or, if we are being honest and talking about how it’s sometimes hard and thankless, it is always buffered by the “but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Being a stay at home mom to three little kids is fucking hard. I am constantly overwhelmed, overstimulated, overtired. Even as I’m typing this Aedan is telling me about some movie about whales even though I asked him to quietly watch Finding Dory while I write. I have been giving him my attention all morning. But it’s never enough. They are always hungry. As I clean up one mess, they are trashing the house behind me. I feel like I have little relief. Little support. Maybe that’s what I hate.

Yesterday, I bundled the kids up and we walked down the street I grew up on to visit an old friend and coworker of mine. She is a bright, shining soul. She is peace and light and love. She is a talented ventriloquist, artist and writer. She also has two grown sons, with jobs and passions and girlfriends, and her perspectives on parenting are always so refreshing for me. They bring me back down to earth, show me that there is life after this life. She reassures me, as my own mother does, that I’m doing a great job. But as a fellow creative person, she also is careful to remind me, every time we get together, how important my creative work is. How necessary it is to my own wellbeing, and to the wellbeing of my kids, and in the world. She always encourages me to make time, if I can, for my work.

As we talked, I felt the dark cloud lifting a little. As she told me about spending time with her kids, now adults, sharing things they love, I saw glimpses of a time when my grown children, with their own independant lives, would visit me. How they might one day celebrate the creative work I did and continue to do. These years are a slog, absolutely. And I am, at best, ambivalent to them. I love my kids to the point of heartbreak. I inhale the scent of Colm’s scalp as often as I can, and I notice that I no longer have the opportunity to do that with Aedan. And when Charlotte nurses a million times a day, though I am irritated by it, weary of it after almost 6 years, I watch her pat my breast as she does it and I know there will be a day soon when they’re mine again. But the only way to those distant horizons is through all of this.

I’m realizing that I might be a better parent not just with a “little relief,” a yoga class or a mindful cup of tea sprinkled throughout the week like favours. I think I would be a better parent if I worked outside of the home. After Aedan was born and my year of mat leave was up, I thought “why would I go back to bartending? It’s not like I have an important ‘career.'”

How wrong I was. How I underestimated the sense of independance and freedom and agency my service job gave me. I can’t rewind and change my years as a stay at home mom, but I can rewrite the script going forward.

We leave for Dawson tomorrow morning. When we get back, I’ll be picking up another shift in the bar. And I’m going to find childcare for two mornings a week. And I’m going to take a private office space for myself, and I am going to sit in my office space two mornings a week, and maybe for an hour before each of my two bar shifts, and I am going to write. I am going to put words on paper like my life depends on it, I am going to “write like a motherfucker” as Cheryl Strayed puts it, and I’m going to see where it takes me.

And for my readers who are also struggling with these early years of parenting: it’s okay that it’s really hard. It’s okay that you don’t like it all the time. You don’t have to. We are doing this thing in a bubble, and we’re not meant to do this thing in a bubble. The system is rigged, and not in our favour. So be kind to yourselves, and ask for help as often as you can.

Have Kids, Will Travel

image

I do a lot of traveling with the kids. I suppose it’s a function of having my heart in two places, of straddling the country to make my family feel whole. So here we are in Ontario again, and this time I made the cross-country trip alone with the kids. It was my first time traveling alone with all three, and it went way better than I expected; even though I generally dislike the upset of travel, once we’re through security I tend to take a “que sera, sera” approach. Flight delayed? Oh well, not much I can do. Kids walking at a snail’s pace? People can go around. I wish I was better at applying this to the rest of my life. There’s something about being trapped in an airport that invites surrender, at least it does for me.

Something that really struck me on this trip, and maybe it’s because I was the crazy lady traveling alone with three small children, is the way parents look out for other parents in this situation more than in any other. On our flight from Whitehorse to Vancouver, a woman pacing the aisle trying to settle her baby stopped to offer her husband’s help to me if I needed it. In the Vancouver airport, when all three kids fell asleep just 20 minutes before boarding our (delayed) 11pm flight (can’t blame them) a business woman traveling alone offered to help me any way she could. It’s my way to turn down help at every chance, of course, because people obviously don’t actually want to help (haha) but I literally could not get all three sleeping children onto the plane alone. So she wheeled Aedan in the umbrella stroller while I carried the other two, and then when we had to check the stroller, she carried Aedan to our seat. As we wove our way together down the narrow aisle, she told me that her youngest two were twins, so she understood what it was to have too few hands for a task. I thanked her and she disappeared into business class. As I sat between my sleeping boys, Charlotte asleep in my lap, a man stopped by our row. “How are yours? My kids are still awake! It’s so late! Where’s the Ativan when you need it?” We laughed together and I wished him luck. At every stop, it seemed there was a sympathetic parent ready to help. It warmed my heart, and I know that if I’m every a business lady traveling alone, I’ll go out of my way to help any and every frazzled, struggling parent I can.

Parenting littles is hard. Traveling with them is harder. Let’s look out for each other!

Image via Flickr user Yuichi Yasuda