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.

 

How to Make a Summer

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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.

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.

Daily Practice, again

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I didn’t write anything yesterday that I feel like sharing here, and so I’ve missed my second day of posting this month. I’m a little more than halfway through my commitment to post daily, and I’ve been thinking a lot about daily practice and what I’d like it to be, for me.

This daily writing practice taunts my inner critic and causes me to challenge that nasty voice constantly. Right now, even, it whispers “delete, delete, delete. Nobody cares.” But here I am, showing up anyway and it’s like pulling teeth, as the cliche goes.

The 4:30 am wake up calls since the clocks went back are sapping me. It feels as though I’m trying to dredge these thoughts and words up from a great depth through some viscous sludge. All I can do is hope this passes. Keep showing up anyway. Because this will pass, and all that will remain will be the habit. The words will flow again and I’ll be grateful. Am grateful right now, to the sleepy baby, the quietly playing 3 year old, the kindergarten teacher. To myself, I suppose, if I have to, for being here.

I contemplate a daily poetry practice. As it coalesces in my mind, it would be writing something new, even a few lines, each day. For a year. Without trying to pin down when I would actually do that. Just doing it. And I also think about not submitting my poems anywhere for that year. I want to see where that steady, single-pointed practice might take me. Like being in school: an immersion in poetry, my own and others’. In craft books, in taking in interviews and podcasts with poets, about poetry and process. I wonder if I could do it, really. Through travel and ever-changing schedules, through moves and work and summer vacation, could I find the time every day for 365 in a row?

I want to find out.

Image via Flickr user Dafne Cholet

Clear Skies

It wasn’t so long ago that I began to claim “writer” and “poet” as my identity. I put it on like a well-tailored piece of clothing: something made just for me, something that sets me apart and makes me separate from my identity of “mama”–because that particular identity is one that exhausts me. I don’t want to be solely defined by “mama”, in large part because it feels reductive. It feels like a threat to my perception of myself. But more than that, if I’m only “mama”, if I come to exist only for my children, if I am seen only in my relationship to my children, what happens when they grow up and move out? What happens when they don’t need me anymore, what happens if they move across the country or across the world? What happens if they die? Who am I then? If I hang all of my self on who I am in relation to other people, then when those people are gone, as they inevitably will be one day, I’m left groundless. So I decided that in addition to, or perhaps more than just “mother”, I am “writer.” I am “poet.” I’m more than mom. It gets me through the hard days, and it will carry me forward when the kids are gone.

But what about the times when I’m not writing? It happens frequently. It’s happening right now. As much as I’d like to establish a regular, daily writing practice, it just doesn’t seem to be a reality for me at this point in life. I’ve written about it before: as soon as I carve out a time for myself and my writing practice, someone drops a nap, or my partner goes back to work, or someone else needs me more. I haven’t written a poem in months. I torture myself, wondering if I’m still a poet, if I ever was a poet to begin with. How do I define myself now? What is my identity? Am I still just/only/forever mom?

In her book Love Warrior, and in speaking on several different podcasts, Glennon Doyle Melton, of the blog Momastery, says that we have an identity problem. She talks about how we (specifically, women) define ourselves by our relationships to others or perhaps by what we do for a living or as a passion. And when we inevitably lose those things, we’re left reeling. She has arrived at a place where she only defines herself as “a child of God.” She says that this is how she came into the world, and it’s how she’ll go out of it. That no one can take that away from her. That’s her truth.

And while “child of God” doesn’t ring true for me personally, I think I understand what she’s getting at. I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist literature lately, and in some Buddhist traditions, it’s believed that we all possess an inner Buddha-nature, our true selves that become lost in the identities we put on and the thoughts and emotions we’re constantly reacting to. A common metaphor used to explain this is that of a clouded sky. The sky may be obscured by clouds for days or even weeks, but we know that beyond those clouds is a clear sky. We catch glimpses of it as the clouds drift by. We are born with that clear-sky nature, and we’ll die with it. This really resonates with me. In the last few days, I’ve been turning this idea over in my mind, along with Glennon’s ideas about identity.

When I first encountered the idea of non-attachment, I felt immediate resistance. If I’m not a writer and a poet, I’m no one. And that’s scary. I clung to those for dear life. I did not want to let them go. But now, I can feel that resistance loosen its hold. I’m realizing that there is a great freedom in releasing myself from my many titles. If I don’t cling to “writer” or “poet” or even “mama”, then I can’t lose those things. I can still write: there’s no denying the fact that it fills me up and connects me to some greater creative energy. And I can still mother my children, respond to their needs, move through life with them for a time. I can even still grieve those things when I lose them. But it’s not who I am. I am the clear sky above the clouds. That’s my peace, my truth right now.

On difficult days, and there are many, I try to catch a glimpse of that clear blue sky. I try to take comfort in knowing it’s there. With practice, maybe there will be longer periods of cloudlessness. Sometimes, the sky will be dark and I’ll likely forget that there was ever a clear moment. But it’s there. It can’t be taken away from me. I feel more free in my writing since coming to this truth; instead of trying to fit myself into that well-tailored piece of clothing that now feels too tight, I clothe myself in the expansive sky. I write when I can. I let it go when I can’t. I know that the intensity of parenting will lessen with time, and space to write more will open.

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