Off Track

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We’ve had a hot, dry summer so far, and my pots are suffering for it. I’m great with houseplants, but I tend to let my outdoor plants languish in the sun. I see the flowers drop, the foliage hanging limp over the side of the pot, and I’m guilted into watering. I’m not sure why I can’t manage to pour a little water in each day, but that’s how it is. A few days ago, as I was watering two pots that I was pretty sure were past saving (they came back, though!) I realized this is an accurate metaphor for my writing practice.

As much as I want to make writing a daily practice, I neglect it. I go through regular periods of drought that are not so much writer’s block as they are my own refusal to just come to the page and write. These days, I’m caught between being too busy and feeling like I need dedicated time to draft or polish poems. Once again, I’ve forgotten the simplicity of journaling and freewriting, and I’m telling myself the same old story of “if I can’t have it just right, I won’t have it at all.” That is not how to build a daily writing practice.

Going too long between watering causes plants to go into distress. Most plants can’t thrive if they are constantly going through that kind of stress every few days. This is the same for my writing practice: the longer I go between writing, even writing just a few minutes a day, the harder it feels to come back to it. I start to doubt myself, even if it’s just been a few days. If I don’t keep up some kind of daily putting-words-on-page regimen, I go into survival mode. The new blooms of words in my mind close up in self-preservation and then when I finally tend to them, it’s too late.

A week ago, I was telling myself that this new job was the problem. I’ve started serving in a restaurant 2 or 3 nights a week, and though the kitchen closes at 10, it can be 11 before I’m on the road home. Tack on a 30 minute drive and some time to decompress before bed, and my nights are pretty late. The next day I’m trying to stay engaged with the kids while keeping myself going on a steady stream of caffeine and carbs (which I think cancel each other out but whatever, it gets me through). It can be hard to focus my brain on writing. Or that’s what I tell myself. I tell myself that maybe the job has to go.

But the job makes me feel good. Having work outside of the house is another piece of the puzzle that is my mental well-being. Since starting back to work, I find myself more patient with the kids. I don’t feel so trapped. I like working as part of a team, I enjoy getting feedback for the work I do, and I love food service. The job is not the problem.

The problem is my always waiting for conditions to be perfect before I can let myself write, which, at its heart, is just a load of self-sabotaging b.s.  Thankfully, I’m getting quicker and quicker at wising up to this fact, and maybe someday, I’ll just live it, without any slips.

The problem is also in my hands right now: my smartphone, on which I am finishing this post because the wifi in my office isn’t working. If I approached my writing practice with the same devotion I do stalking social media and news blogs, well, I would probably have a book length collection of poems ready to publish. Or, at the very least, a steady, thriving writing practice.

So here’s to getting back on track, and watering the damn pots before they all die.

 

Putting Myself in the Way

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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.

 

Daily Practice Revisited

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Yesterday, I was thinking about my word for 2017: Practice. I was thinking about how, like so many things in my life, I figured that I could just set it and forget it. Practice! I’m going to practice. Every day. Writing, being a writer, mindfulness. Poof! Done.

I feel like I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again because apparently I’m not getting it: it’s not that easy. It seems funny to me that I chose such an active word. The word itself exhorts me to do something, and yet, I don’t. I just sort of expect it to come, I’m just magically writing every day and it flows like water, easy. What I am coming to realize is that practice is hard (how embarrassing! I’m just coming to this realization?!) Developing any kind of daily practice takes a lot of effort. It feels really awful, in the beginning. Each day, I have to drag myself to the thing I want to do and basically force myself to do it. After the doing, I might feel better, but not usually. Often, I feel disappointed. Like, is that it? That’s what daily practice looks like?

This may be a function of social media and the sharing of carefully selected moments of life. I scroll through Instagram and see a lovely photo of someone doing a headstand, or sitting in a peaceful spot writing, or their running shoes on the ground. What these pictures don’t show is everything that led to that moment. I’m realizing that what goes into those moments is a lot of push, a lot of preparation. A lot of choosing to be there. That is the rub of it, for me. I have to choose to practice.

This week I have: gone for a run that was mostly a walk; gone to a yoga class; not purchased a big bag of chips to inhale; meditated once; sat down to write this blog post; gotten out of bed to work on a poem. All of these things took monumental effort. Took me getting outside of myself for a moment, acknowledging what I reflexively wanted, recalling what I wanted ideally, and taking a step in that direction. So much of my life is just reacting, reacting, reacting. Thinking “I want to eat a whole big bag of chips” happens in a fraction of a second, and in that sliver of time my hand reaches for the bag and puts it on the belt at the grocery store and then opens it in the truck and eats it on the drive home. If I don’t stop and check myself, before you know it, it’s gone.

I am realizing that I will take the path of least resistance, always and forever. If I don’t push myself a little, I’ll never make any changes. I’ll sit and stare at my phone and let my kids binge-watch The Wiggles until they’re ready to move out of the house. I’ll never write another poem, climb another mountain, or drink a glass of water if I don’t make myself do it. Practice is a series of choices, every single day. I choose and choose and choose again. Sometimes, I choose the easy thing: the whole bag of chips, the staying on the couch, the not-writing. And often, I think, “that’s it. This is me, forever and ever. I’ll never be different.” But that’s not true. The beauty is that there will always be another choice to make, right around the corner, and I can choose differently. The hard part is remembering that. The hard part is not listening to the nasty voice in my head that tells me no, never, not good enough, give up.

I did not want to write a blog post today. I do not want to work on some poems. I don’t want to read a book, or go for a walk. Today, I am mentally and emotionally exhausted. But I will do some or all of these things, because I know that this is how I build a practice. I just fucking do it.

What will you do today?

Adjustments

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It’s so easy to type out “I’m going to take myself seriously as a writer”, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. I’ve filled out the forms for daycare, and today I’ll drop them off. There is a wait list. It could be months before I’ve got even those eight hours child free per week. And already, those eight hours don’t feel like enough.

So what’s a gal to do in the mean time? It’s limbo, but I can’t sit on my hands while I wait. I have to continue to make things happen, in little ways.

My word for 2017 is “practice”. I’d intended to write every day, and for almost two months, I did. Sometimes it was only a few sentences, or journalling. Sometimes a poem or a blog post. It felt largely aimless, but I was doing it. And then I fell off the wagon. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written daily, but I’m trying to find my way back. This is what my writing life looks like. This is what being a writing mother looks like. You get into some kind of routine, and then everyone gets sick and it’s all you can do to make it to a seven pm bedtime and you pass out wedged between two stuffed up, coughing babies.

This morning, when the ache in my lower back became unbearable, I determined to get up and write morning pages. Charlotte turned towards me, wanting to nurse, so I nursed her, willing myself to stay awake. It took me four attempts. Four times I made my way out of bed in increments, stepping lightly down the stairs, getting to the bottom and hearing her cry for me. Once I got all they way to the kitchen, began to write in the bright light glaring off the glass table top. I’m doing it, I thought.

Then I heard her creaky voice over the baby monitor: “Mama, are you? Mama, are you? Mama!” Heard Paul try to shush her. Heard her insistence for me. I slammed my journal shut, my feet heavy on the stairs. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, determined not to nurse her.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I whispered, patting her back with a firm hand. And she did. And she stayed asleep, and I wrote two more pages and then I turned on my computer and I fiddled with two poems. And when they all woke up I felt so accomplished. This. This is what I’ll do. I’ll be the mom who wakes up an hour, two hours before her kids in order to write. I’ll do this for years, until they don’t need me so intensely anymore. Or at least, I’ll do it for the rest of the week.

And what of the rest of the time, when I can’t be writing? I’ve been thinking of this, too. I read as a writer, closely, with more curiosity. I don’t read just to finish a book, which is how I used to do it. I glean little bits as I go, about form and style and also just ideas, information that I squirrel away for the future.

In her essay “Upstream”, Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. I’ve been turning this over in my mind for weeks. She writes of attention to the natural world. Of giving our children and ourselves the freedom to inhabit wild places and to notice every detail, to fall in love and cherish the world.

And then yesterday, this blog post from Shawna Lemay on how to live more poetically. She writes:

How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.

There it is again: attention. I’m well aware that attention to my daily life is not my strong suit. If I could be wandering green fields and forest streams all day long, I’m sure I could be a little more attentive. But my job now, as a writer and a mother, is to find a way to bring attention to the runny noses, the toy battles, the endless chatter about dragons, the complaints over dinner. The sweet moments, too, but they aren’t as common as I’d like. Or maybe I’m missing them. This, too, is a practice. It’s all practice, and I must come back to it again and again, a thousand times, until it’s like breathing.

Little tweaks, little changes here and there. Adjustments to my day, my outlook. Just as I’m getting discouraged, I have to remind myself: come back. See what can give, apply a little pressure until it clicks. Make space and see what happens.

Balance Point

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In a recent personal rejection from The New Quarterly, the editors noted that while they often publish work “engaged with the dark side of the human condition and family” those works typically have a “point of balance.”  It got me thinking about my tendency to gravitate towards that darkness, to the exclusion of the light. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember; there was a time where I was sure I wouldn’t have kids because how could I raise kids in a world I had no hope for? These feelings have been exaggerated lately, to the point where I actually feel paralyzed to write anything at all (I do, though, continue to write daily).

I feel like it’s disingenuous to write pretty things, all light and air, when the world is dark and getting darker. Even in the microcosm of family life, I feel like it’s a disservice to the truth if I don’t talk about my struggles. Parenting is hard. Marriage is hard. If we don’t talk about it, everyone continues to suffer in silence, alone in the dark. But it seems like my devotion to the hard truths of life has become an unhealthy obsession: if I’m not writing about hard, sad things, I’m not writing. I can remember this being a part of my writing life as early as my teens. I wrote in my journal most often when I was going through heartbreak, either romantically or with friends. Writing through the darkness was how I made, how I continue to make, sense of things. That is a part of my depressive nature, I suppose. So maybe a part of my practice must be to continually choose to turn towards the light. To document the neutral times, the happy times. To learn the language of levity.

In the days since Trump’s election, I’ve seen it suggested by a few different artists that to continue to make beautiful things is, in fact, a radical act. I feel this responsibility to the truth; to not look away from all of the horrific things happening in the world. I feel like, as artists, we must witness and document. But people need to rest, too. I write so often about self-care, and for me, self-care is sometimes turning away from the endless feed of news and towards something so beautiful it takes my breath away: a favourite poem, the light on the hillside at sunset, my kids holding hands as they play. This leads me to wonder if my power as a writer might be in creating things of beauty. Safe places to rest the mind for a while. Because we can’t afford to look away. We have to stay engaged in order to fight what is coming, what is already here and has been here beneath our notice for decades. But to look for the beauty in each day, to turn towards the light, is the balance point I need right now. It’s a gift I can offer, first to myself, and then to my kids, and then to the rest of the world.