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Robin: Teaching My Mind

I came across this poem written by Wendel Berry analyzing the work done on a farm:

“I am trying to teach my mind

to bear the long, slow growth

of the fields, and to sing

of its passing while it waits…”

This poem describes perfectly what motherhood feels like to me. I am teaching my mind to remain peace-filled during the mundane of a life that involves long periods of isolation and feelings of insignificance. The idea of not simply logging days until the next major milestone but to live into whatever the day holds for me today. Even… the monotony of it. I am moving toward my 5th year of home life as my life.

This year has definitely taken on different hues, especially with the exploration of my online business as a creative outlet. Again setbacks are a part of this process as well. I have had to learn to wait until we move back to the United States to really begin building it because materials and customs are very challenging to deal with here in Germany. So my encouragement for today comes from the words of this poem. I have to TEACH MY MIND to…

In what area can you apply these words today?

[photo credit]

Jenny: How Limited Time Can IMPROVE Your Productivity (Part I)

[Editor's note: With delight, we introduce you to Jenny Wynter, Australian comic and mother of three, aka Comic Mummy. The post below is cross-posted from Jenny's hilarious and insightful blog. Jenny has generously allowed us to republish several posts from her archives -- enjoy!]

Many years ago, I had the amazing privilege of meeting the now-late Colin Thiele. Author of Storm Boy amongst other classics of Australian literature, Colin was arguably one of the most productive writers Australia has ever brought forth, having written countless children’s books, poetry, and more.

The thing that impressed me about Colin — aside from his incredible humility, warm humour, and way of putting you instantly at ease — was his unbelievable productivity.

In tandem with his writing achievements, he continued to work as a teacher his entire life — it was only at night, after classroom, marking and family duties had been put to bed (typically around 10pm) that he would begin writing. Without fail.

When I asked him what his biggest tip would be for me, a fledgling aspiring writer, he looked thoughtful. “Well,” he said, sitting back in his chair and looking upward, “I had a dear old friend who wanted to be a writer many years ago and one day he rang me up and he sounded most exasperated. ‘How do you ever get anything done?’ he asked. I asked him what he meant.”

“‘Well,’ he said, ‘by the time I start, the mailman arrives, then by the time I’ve sorted through the mail it’s time for morning tea, then I finally sit down and the phone rings…’ and he went on and on. And I said ‘Listen, if you want to be a writer, then you need to write. The art of writing is simple: it’s applying the seat of one’s pants to the seat of one’s chair.”

Hmm.

His words came back to haunt me, several years — and children — later.

There I was, sitting in my cosy, pine-wood smelling, tranquil little studio at Canada’s Banff Centre for the Arts. I couldn’t be happier. A world renowned destination for all manner of artistic disciplines and after months of planning, finally, there I was: beginning what would be four glorious weeks of a residency, without any of the distractions of child-wrangling or house-keeping, to spend writing my new solo comedy show.

The view from my studio deck (if I'm in front of you with my arm outstretched)

Indeed, it was quite the picture of inspiration — through my studio windows I had a stunning view of the quintessentially picturesque Canadian forest, the ground was covered in feet of fluffy snow, I even glimpsed the occasional deer trampling through…and I had complete privacy (and limitless cups of tea) with which to play.

My resident passer-by at the Banff Centre

In other words, conditions were perfect.

Yet it took me a grand forty minutes to realise — to my horror — that when finally granted that terribly elusive dream of nothing but time to spend as I please, I wasted it with all the blatant disregard of an elderly person who’s never grasped the concept of recycling.

In fact, I quickly realised that when it came to inventing methods of avoiding creating (doing what I LOVE!), I was a complete and utter genius.

Just another cup of tea.

Just another e-mail.

Just another google search.

Just another blog.

Just another, just another, just another…

I struggled through and finally emerged from the retreat with a decent backbone for my show; (the bare minimum of work I’d set for myself, deeming the enterprise an official ‘success’), yet I couldn’t help but feel some sense of disappointment.

That I wasn’t more productive. That I didn’t make more of each moment. That the grand open space for creativity that I’d so long craved for, had only served as some sort of flag to signal an abundance of time to waste at my leisure — after all, in my luxury writers studio surrounds, the whole point was that I could get round to writing ‘whenever I felt like it!’

Well, fast forward twelve months and there I was: well and truly re-entrenched into the daily grind. Kids. Housework. And yes, writing, but only when — and if — I could squeeze it in.

And yet again I was confronted by the wasteful nature of my indulgent self when it comes to creative time.

By the time the day’s duties were done, I was so exhausted, so spent, so done, that the last thing I “felt like” was actually creating.

Even though I love it.

So I didn’t.

I would read, perhaps.
I would watch crappy television, justifying it by telling myself that part of the comedian and writer’s job is to stay abreast of popular culture (even now, as I write that I cringe, hearing my mother’s voice ringing in my ears “You should have done law!”).
I would think (oh, how I would think!) about the things I wanted to do.

But actually putting pen to paper, finger to keyboard, or even voice to Dictaphone? Oh, no! No! My hands were far too preoccupied slapping my forehead, in a melodramatic rant about all the creative things I intended to do “when I finally got the time.”

Until one day, something happened which made me realise not just how lucky I am to even be able to create at all — regardless of time constraints — but how much I truly NEED to.

That thing was a car accident.

Suddenly my existence went from juggling comedy shows, procrastinating writing duties and rearing children, to managing medical jargon, tackling endless bureaucracy and recovering from a severe head-on collision.

I was lucky to be alive. I was lucky to be walking. Yet, as I began to process the overflow of trauma of what happened that day, I was slowly confronted by the dawning truth: from that moment onward, I had no excuses not to create.

In fact, I not only wanted to write about what happened and what was happening in my life, I needed to. I had to.

And so it began.

Every single day, without fail and without compromise, without excuses and without procrastination, the moment my little bubba went down for his nap, I would sit down at the computer and I would not leave. I had no expectations of what I would write. No agenda. No outcome in mind. Sometimes I would just write random thoughts, sometimes I would work on little nuggets of a screenplay, others I would sketch out the backbone of an article.

But the point is, I would write.

I kept going and going. If I finished one piece, I would start on another. I would write and write and would not stop until the little dude woke up. And given that this ‘end point’ to my writing session was so unpredictable its arrival at best, it eliminated the possibility of any clock watching on my part.

On the contrary, this flexible and unpredictable deadline made me all the more motivated — many days I would find myself hoping that he would keep sleeping just that little bit longer so I could keep it going.

"I'm only doing this for Mummy, ya know!"

And at some point during that first week of writing my way out of my hell-hole of self-pity, it dawned on me:

I am umpteen times more productive when my opportunity to do so is limited.

And I’ve also realised that no matter how much time I might think I have to write/create/perform, my time is always limited: by life.

Like my son’s waking time, the unknown date of my exit point from this earth is also unpredictable. And, as it turns out, can prove likewise to be extremely motivating.

I thrive under pressure. I produce under constraints. My limitations are in fact, my greatest allies.

Namely because they really are, in essence, the glue that is finally adhering the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair.

*This is the first post in a series on this topic. Please, calm down.

Cathy: Results!

Remember this list?

I spent the previous two days at writing camp with my writing group. Two whole days dedicated to writing. Yesterday I had a different meeting in the morning, but then I headed straight to  my writing camp’s day two, and thought I was going to have trouble, but amazingly got right to it! I seriously surprised myself by what I accomplished in the last 48 hours!

The List now looks like this:

DONE~continue to edit Joe out/Mike into Thanksgiving and Observatory scenes

DONE~write observatory scene using A. H.’s notes

Fixed~pay attention to name changes for T. B. and T. N.

working on~characterize supporting characters more through action and physical description

working on~make ‘thought bubbles’ action scenes or move them to more fitting scene

working on~edit down cooking relevance

mostly finished, maybe a bit more at the end~more on comets

I also edited it a bit more in making sentences and paragraphs more succinct in the first 50 or so pages.

I need to edit the observatory scene now, but at least it’s on paper – er, computer screen. I think my next stage is to print and edit again by hand. I read very differently on paper than on screen, and can see needed changes so much better.

I obviously need to be in a different environment than my office with my home distractions to be able to concentrate on my manuscript edits.

The other five women I sat in quiet with for the past two days expressed the same thing. Here’s the funny part: I thought it was because of my kids, etc, but only half of us have children at home, and of varying ages. I am the only one with a toddler or a special-needs child, of course, I have one of each. Two are grandmothers who live with their retired spouses, who are both very good at busying themselves. And one is home while her husband still goes to the office.

We’re all at a stage of editing a large work we’re committed to. All of our projects are middle reader or young adult novels. Yesterday we planned that the rest of our usual twice a month meetings for the summer will be devoted to writing, no critique.

This way, when autumn comes around, we will all have work to critique. How’s that for commitment? I couldn’t do this without them. I am so grateful to my writing group and to the time we commit to working together.

[crossposted from musings in mayhem]

Robin: Going Deep

Preparing for a road trip last weekend, I gathered some books to read in the car and came across one called When I’m Big, by Debi Gliori. It is the story of a little boy who is dreaming of all the things he would do when he’s older. One page depicts these big, beautiful, stylized whales with the little boy snorkeling in their midst saying “I’m going swimming with the whales in the deep blue sea instead of splashing in the bathtub.”

As I read that line, I realized this fearlessness represents the spirit of most children. Somehow that vibrancy tends to leave us when we become adults. We decide to play only in the shallow end. And if we do venture out too far and we are unsuccessful, we vow never to go out quite that far again. When I look at my little one, I see she has the personality of “why not?” in her. And for some things, I have to rein that in, like in issues pertaining to safety. But in many instances the exploration is where the meat of life in all its juiciness occurs.

I see that when it comes to other creative endeavors OUTSIDE OF WRITING, I treat it as an “all or nothing” transaction. Like so many other ventures in my life, I have a zealous beginning followed by a drastic ending with the hindsight of what the hell was that. What I am finding though is that the creative process entails in large part growing into yourself and finding how your unique self is able to express most freely. And then as I drift back to my home base — writing — I find MORE strength to push back into uncharted waters and maybe just see — IF I CHOOSE TO.

So the paints and the “good paper” are out again. Colors of red and green and blue and all the mixtures in between are falling together boldy. And I am swimming toward the deep end.

[photo credit]

Cathy: Caught writing

Last week I mentioned my new story idea that came up in the midst of my big edits I need to do on the first book.

Yesterday I had one of those rare creative spells in which, no matter the interruptions, I wrote steadily over the course of about 6 hours on the new idea.

I’m really enjoying it. That spark was what was missing in the edit draft two stage of the manuscript. I mean, I enjoy making the improvements, but it’s a slow road.

But having something else to be excited about is just plain fun.

So I will continue to edit when I have good uninterrupted chunks of time, as in when my writing group meets. But in the meantime, I’m going to have fun over here on this little idea in all the little moments I have between the usual family business.

Making stuff up is so much easier than fixing what I already have. And it’s fun. I feel like a kid with a kite. It’s time to fly.

After my prior whiney blog share, I felt compelled to crosspost from musings in mayhem something more positive on writing that happened shortly after.

Miranda: Summer Vision

Summer 2010

As of next week, all of my kids will be out of school and summer will begin “for real” at our house. I’ll no longer need to get up at 5:45 every morning (although I may still do so). Schedules will open and priorities will shift. The prospect is tantalizing.

Summer tends to fly by, of course, and I’m sure this year will be no different. That said, now that my youngest has turned 2, our bandwidth has definitely increased. We’re doing more — and sleeping more, thankfully — than we were last June. To make the most of my increased capacity, I wanted to focus my hopes and framework for the summer. (OK, so I’m a sucker for any excuse to make a list.) What kinds of memories do I want to create for my family this summer? Where can I invest in family relationships? In what ways can I further my personal growth? In what ways can I work toward my bigger goals, without getting stressed about deadlines and “shoulds”?

I sat down to think about all the things I wanted to do this summer, and areas where I have an opportunity to focus on my family, my creativity, and myself. I came up with a list of 18 things that I want to be mindful about and enjoy fully. Some of these activities are things that I’m already doing — and some are new. Some of these things will surely stay on the list well into next season and beyond. In total, the list represents all the “cylinders” I’d like to hit in the coming months in order to feel balanced (as much as I don’t like that word) and good about how I’m using my time.

Then I decided to turn my list into a vision board (above — click on the mosaic for a larger view). Each photo in the mosaic represents one item on my list. Some of the photos are mine, and some are from Creative Commons (photo credits noted). From top to bottom, left to right, the images/activities are:

  1. Having picnics. Eating outside is just plain fun. I want to enjoy al fresco dining as much as we can during the warm months, whether that means packing up dinner and eating on a big blanket on the grass at our local park, or just eating out in our own backyard. (Photo credit.)
  2. Doing art projects with the kids. With more time at our disposal, I hope to get through some of the craft projects I’ve been thinking about. Of course, doing something creative with the little guys is a great way to satisfy my own creative itch without needing solitude. (Photo credit.)
  3. Meditating. I’m trying to meditate every morning. It doesn’t always happen, but my plan is to still get up before the little guys do, and start my day with mediation and coffee before “momming” begins. (The photo is of my zafu and zabuton, where I practice in my bedroom.)
  4. Eating mindfully. I’ve been reading a lot about mindful eating, from Geneen Roth to Jan Chozen Bays to Thich Nhat Hanh. The Buddhist perspective on compulsive eating has opened new doors for me, and I need to stay in touch with this learning on a daily basis. (Guess what? I put my scale away about six weeks ago — something I never, ever, ever, ever thought I’d be able to do.) (Photo credit.)
  5. Running. I’m running 4-5 miles three or four times a week, and liking it, a lot. I’m getting faster, too, which — after nearly 15 years of running at about the same pace — is quite satisfying. (Photo credit.)
  6. Doing art projects for myself. I have a few painting and collage ideas percolating that I’d like to explore. I have such a steep learning curve in this department that it’s hard for me to tune out the inner critic. “What? What are you doing? This is the most hideous thing anyone has ever created!” <sigh> (Photo credit.)
  7. Writing. It’s been a few months since I’ve worked on my novel, and even longer since I worked on my nonfiction project. I’m getting itchy to return to both. This probably won’t happen unless I schedule the writing time. (Funnily enough, unless I commit to a writing session, I tend to find a million other things that need doing instead.)
  8. Going to the beach. It’s time at the beach that makes summer so memorable, isn’t it? I plan to take full advantage, from our local watering hole to our beautiful New England coastline.
  9. Baking with the kids. We already bake on a fairly regular basis, but I want to keep at it this summer — especially with my oldest son at home from college to help eat the end results before *I* do (see item #4 above, lol).
  10. Gardening. I love working in the garden, and this year I’m able to do so while the little boys play outside. I still have to keep an eye on them, of course, but I don’t have to worry quite so much about the youngest one eating ants or crawling into the rose bushes.
  11. Going out with my husband. We miss having a regular date night, and this summer I’m going to rope the teenagers into helping out each Thursday night. They only have to take care of the little guys for an hour before bedtime, so it’s not a hardship — oh, and I pay them, anyway. My husband and I really need this regular connection time and I’m looking forward to a “regular” date night, even if much of the time we end up doing something on a shoestring, like browsing at Barnes & Noble and chatting for an hour or two. (Photo credit.)
  12. Reading. Been reading a lot lately, both fiction and nonfiction, and I want to keep it up.
  13. Doing yoga. I haven’t done yoga in years — aside from the occasional DVD session at home — but with my meditation practice and Buddhist study, I feel like yoga practice is a natural addition. I have yet to find the right class at a convenient time and place (ha ha) but I’m optimistic. (Photo credit.)
  14. Connecting with teens. I haven’t been spending enough one-on-one time with my three older children (ages 19, 16, and 14). Tuesday evenings this summer are now reserved for time with my teens in rotation — whether that means going out for a decaf cappucino at Starbucks with the oldest, a music-blasting joy ride with my 16-year-old, or staying in for pedicures and a movie with my daughter. (Photo credit.)
  15. Taking pictures. I love photography, but I don’t know enough about the finer points and I feel like my lack of technical knowledge is holding me back. I’d like to make some time to begin reading through an excellent guidebook that my husband bought for me a couple of years ago. (Photo credit.)
  16. Keeping house. Don’t laugh. I actually like a lot of things related to domestic chores. In addition to mindfully enjoying the regular, daily tasks, I’d like to get to a few of the things on my household project list.
  17. Studying Buddhism. I find that I need to take notes from the books I’m reading, which usually means reading the book once through while making a few notes in the margins and then going back through the whole book again, page by page, to put all the pieces together. I also find that writing out notes longhand helps me “learn” and remember more effectively. (Photo credit.)
  18. Blogging. I hope to get back to writing at least one personal blog post a week, in addition to posting the usual items from our wonderful community of creative mothers and sharing at our Facebook page.

The list is long, but I have to keep in mind that I’m already doing a bunch of these things. I’m grateful for that; grateful for being able to do so many things that I enjoy and spending so much time with my family. This summer feels like an unprecedented opportunity in many different ways.

How about you? Have you thought about your summer in macro and micro terms? Are your “plans” as simple as “relax and enjoy” or do you have something more elaborate in mind? If anyone has created or intends to create a list — or even a vision board, digital or handmade — please share.

Kelly: When I Grow Up, I Want To…

I was doing some major studio cleaning and reorganizing this Sunday when I came back across the cards the girls made me for Mother’s Day. I keep a box in my studio of cards they make me since, more often than not, they make them sitting right there next to me…their little fingers covered with oil pastels and markers while they say “No peeking, Mama!” But these particular cards were made at school. They were those “My Mom…..” fill-in-the-blank kinds of things, like “My Mom has blond hair and green eyes.” I mentioned my eye-opening moment those cards brought me back in this post. What was the eye opening moment?

On Sarah’s card, one particular line read, “My Mom does not like to fish.” Sure enough, I hate to fish. I have no patience for fishing. If I don’t get a nibble within the first two minutes, I’m done. On that same line, Olivia’s read, “My Mom does not like to have fun so much.” Ouch. Big ouch. Given all the special fun stuff I try to do with them, that one really hurt. When I asked Livvie what she meant, she said, “Well, you’re always working, Mama, so you don’t get to play with us as much as Daddy does.” Amazing the clarity of children. When I looked at it from her perspective, she was exactly right. I don’t get to “play” with them as much as Daddy does, at least not during the week. DH leaves the house at 6:30 am every morning, before the girls are even up, so I have the morning duty of getting everyone fed, dressed and to school and work. Guess there’s not a whole lot of “fun” in that. DH picks them up from school about 4 pm every afternoon, so when they get home, they spend about 15 minutes on homework before they get to play, take a swim in the alien pod pool, ride their bikes around the backyard, etc. I don’t get home until at least 6 pm or 6:30 pm on the nights I’m not teaching. Teaching nights, it’s closer to bedtime. But even at 6 pm or 6:30 pm, that’s just in time to get dinner on the table, review a little homework, take a bath, and then read a book before bed. That’s one thing I’m diligent about: Mama gets to read the bedtime book and put them to bed every night, and we have our little bedtime lullaby that only Mama sings.

I know this isn’t unusual for working moms, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. I’ve mentioned here before that I’ve been keeping an eye out for full-time faculty openings for a while now. A full-time faculty position (as opposed to a full-time administrative position combined with part-time teaching) would definitely give me a lot more time. There are a few positions opening up in the fall, and I submitted my application last week. Even though I know a change is needed (no news to my supervisors as I’ve already shared this news with them), I have to admit I submitted that application with mixed emotions. I enjoy teaching, I truly do. Yet I also truly enjoy my current role in Student Life and Leadership Development. I think what I’d miss most if I am able to move into a faculty position is “leading” something. I’ve been in a leadership role for so long that that would be a difficult transition for me. Interesting thing about that, though, is that I’d have no hesitation leaving the formal work force all together, with my only “leadership role” being that of full-time mom and artist, but that’s not an option for us financially.

These particular positions are also new to the college. With our change to a four-year state college, we’re now approaching college-prep classes a little differently, and that will be the focus of these positions. Whereas our “normal” faculty positions require 15 classroom hours and 15 office hours per week each fall and spring term, these positions require 16 classroom hours (since prep classes are four credit hours each) and 16 lab tutoring hours. The 30 vs. 32 hours isn’t the issue as much as the fact that with the new positions, those 16 non-classroom hours are dedicated to tutoring instead of office hours, leaving class prep and grading to whenever you can fit it in. The carrot to balance that? Summers off. My other concern is the flexibility I might lose. Currently, as an administrator, I have ample annual leave and sick leave, so when I need to take a day off to go on a field trip with the girls, visit their school for an awards program, or take a couple days off for an arts festival or retreat, that’s easily done. That’s not so easily done in a faculty position. There is no annual leave or sick leave because you have summers off. These are all things I need to figure out and all questions I’ll have to ask should I be granted an interview. While summers off would definitely be a wonderful thing, are they worth the pay cut and very little flexibility the rest of the year? All things I need to work through.

All I know for sure is that Mama definitely does like to have fun and having more time to do that would be nice. I’ve been trying to look at things objectively. Now, I work some long hours but I have a lot of flexibility. Should I make a switch, I’d have fewer work nights and work weekends away from home coupled with summers off, but less flexibility during the school year and a pay cut. I can think of a lot of things I’d like to do with summers off, like have much more time to create art and expand my Purple Cottage ideas and retreats, which could potentially make up for or even surpass filling in for the pay cut I’d be taking, yet would I then be limited to doing those types of things during the summer, particularly the retreats, because I’d lose flexibility during the fall and spring? You see my conundrum? I realize I’m putting the cart before the horse here, but for my sanity, I need to work through these things before the horse gets rigged up. So, oh wise ones out there, what’s your take? If you were in my shoes facing a decision like this, what would you want to be when you grew up, since I guess that is exactly what I’m talking about here. :-)

[Cross-posted from Artful Happiness]

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