Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Should have been a snow day

Yesterday was a snow day. It’s rare that we get enough snow to close the schools, but yesterday we did. What doesn’t make sense, though, is that we have even more snow today and the schools are open. This is what our road looked like at 8:00 this morning:


Note our neighbor’s car, which got stuck when he tried to turn it around. It’s been snowing on and off since Saturday and we haven’t seen any sign of a salt truck or a plow on our street.

So who decided that it was a good idea to open the schools and cause thousands of cars to be on roads like these? Obviously not a mom. Is one day of instruction really worth the effort it will take to get all those kids to and from school, or the potential for bodily injury, since Vancouverites are notoriously bad drivers in the snow?

Lucky for me, my husband usually drops Child One off at school on the mornings he has early band practice. I sent Child Two with them, figuring that it would be a blessing to everyone if this particular driver wasn’t on the road. And also lucky for me, my husband has new, super-duper snow tires—the very ones I scoffed at when he bought them a month ago, thinking they were overqualified (and overly expensive) for his little 10-year-old car. Those are his super-duper tire tracks in the picture. He and the kids made it safely to school, but just. They almost got stuck twice on the way.

If the plow doesn’t come through before long, I will have to walk to the school to pick them up. We live within walking distance of the school on an ideal day. When the weather’s nice, it’s a strenuous but pleasant 20- to 25-minute walk, down a little hill, up a very steep hill, then down a very steep hill, then up another very steep hill. But today it will be a slog through the snow—about a foot deep in some places. Too bad I don’t have any snowshoes. I wonder if I can build a makeshift sled and harness the cats up to it?

On the funny side, when my kids grow up they can honestly say to their grandchildren, “When I was your age, I had to trudge through the snow to school, uphill both ways.”

We didn’t have mail delivery yesterday and it’s looking like we won’t have it today either. It’s torture for Child Two, who is patiently but desperately waiting for two birthday presents that haven’t arrived yet. And for somebody as postally obsessed as me, the lack of mail is even worse than the mountain-climbing expedition it’s going to take to get to the school.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Improg word: Challenge

To the hundreds of dozens of five people reading this: Please feel free to leave a comment. I read a lot of blogs and leave almost no comments, but now that I have blogs of my own, I would love to know who’s stopping by. If you’ve got nothing to say, just tell me what the weather’s like where you are or what you had on your toast this morning.

The first slip of paper I pulled out of Hayley’s envelope this morning said, “Hi Susan! Have a great day!” Somehow, even from 1200 miles away, Hayley knows when I need a cheerful wave. It also said, “Pick another one!” so I’m not off the hook.

Today, Hayley has challenged me to write about challenge. Appropriate, because it’s been a very challenging week so far (and it’s only Tuesday morning).

Of course, language nerd that I am, the first thing I did was look up the meanings of challenge. There are several, including “a call to engage in a contest or fight,” “a demand for an explanation,” “a test of abilities,” and “a demanding but stimulating situation.” It was the last one that had come to mind when I pulled out the improg slip.

It seems to me that, like grin and bear it, even this single definition of challenge has different connotations; it can have a negative twist or a more positive one. There’s the what-doesn’t-kill-you-makes-you-stronger kind of challenge—something that you endure.

One mother on the playground: “See that boy covering his sister in bark mulch? He’s a very challenging child from what I’ve heard. He once had to go to the emergency room because he’d stuffed green beans up his nose.”

Second mother: “I’m sure glad he’s not mine.”

There’s the just-getting-through-every-day category: figuring out how to get your kids to their conflicting activities when time travel isn’t an option; preparing a meal that includes at least one item that each member of your household is willing to eat; finding a new winter coat for the child who was disorganized enough to have a growth spurt in January, when the stores are stocking flip flops and bathing suits despite the fact that it’s still winter. These are not so much stimulating or negative as just necessary (but still difficult).

Then there’s the exciting-opportunity-for-growth kind of challenge—something that you embrace. Maybe you’ve challenged yourself to paint an 8-foot-square mural of your stamp collection or to break the world record for hula hooping. These kinds of challenges aren’t easy (they wouldn’t be challenges if they were) and perhaps not every minute of them is enjoyable, but you undertake them because you want the experience or the results.

Right now my life is all about challenge—good and bad, voluntary and involuntary. In the green-beans-up-the-nose-category are a couple of personal situations that I probably won’t be writing about here (they’re personal, after all). There’s not really any way to look at these challenges as stimulating. Demanding, yes. A test of my abilities, yes. But not stimulating, unless you count being so stressed that you tear your own hair out as stimulating.

Then there’s the middle category: learning to improve my work scheduling, driving in the snow (this used to be a green-bean challenge for me, but I’m improving), finding time to get the housework done before we are all killed in a terrible dust avalanche.

Last year I realized that most of the challenges I faced were of these two types. My life was more about endurance than enjoyment or growth. So I actively set out to find some embraceable challenges. Some I made up myself: the Year of Living Differently, which is part of my Getting My Shit Together Project, is full of them. Some, like this improg project, were the ideas of others (usually Hayley). And the green-bean challenges, while negative in themselves, are proving to be a source of more positive challenges, like learning to take care of myself in the midst of a difficult situation and to take control of the things I have control over and leaving the rest alone.

I’ve learned from watching someone I know that if you live without embraceable challenges, your whole life can become an endurance challenge. And I’m learning through my own experience that once you start looking for and embracing positive challenges again, even the negative ones get easier.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Turning 10

I am the mother of a 10-year-old. Not big news, you might think. After all, I’ve been the mother of a 10-year-old before, two years ago. But the other day my younger child turned 10. I didn’t have much of a problem with it—a little pang, maybe—but, for the first time, she did.

When Child One was younger, he used to cry the night before each birthday and on the last day of school each year. He had had such a good time being four or five or in first or second grade, and he didn’t want it to end. Child Two, however, has always been a very adaptable kid, taking life as it comes along, happy to move from one year to the next, so her sadness at turning 10 came as a big surprise.

This school year has brought quite a few changes. She’s in fourth grade now, which, where we live, officially makes her an intermediate student rather than a primary. This means the start of homework and letter grades (her brother, who did his earlier years of school in a different system, has had homework since kindergarten and is disgusted that she’s gotten off scot-free all these years). But, while a bit stressful, these changes haven’t bothered her much. So why the sudden crisis?

She’s worried that her real childhood is over now that’s she hit double digits. She doesn’t want to be a preteen, and she’s certainly in no hurry to be a teenager, with all the changes that will bring. She’s seen how some of the kids in her brother’s grade have changed as they’ve gotten older—they’re so mean to each other and they care more about who’s going out with whom than anything else. She sees the beginnings of this in her own circle. She was betrayed by a friend for the first time a few months ago. The crushes are starting. She has always had close friends who happen to be boys and she’s not interested in those friendships turning into “that other stuff.”

She’s happy being just a kid and she wants to stay that way.

On her birthday, I got some hints about the kinds of things that are on her mind. First, her wish for the day was that there would be no arguments. This was brought on by the increased friction between her almost-teenaged brother and her dad (really, sometimes they remind of two head-butting goats). She knows that this is an inevitable part of growing up and becoming independent, and I think she’s worried that soon she’ll be head-butting too.

Second, after she had opened all her presents, she told me with obvious relief that she had been worried that one of them would be a bra. I assured her that (a) when the time comes, I won’t buy her a bra as a birthday gift and (b) if she’s anything like her mom, that time is not going to come for at least a couple of years. When I was younger, I was so flat that the cooks in the restaurant I worked in would tease me unmercifully whenever one of my customers ordered two eggs sunny-side up. I didn’t even qualify for a bra with a real cup size until I was a few months pregnant.

I dread the day that Child Two stops seeing her body as simply the part of her that allows her to sprint down a soccer field or leap across a dance stage, strong and capable, and starts seeing it as her enemy—too fat or too skinny, too short or too tall, not good enough. I wonder if she will go from being a confident, happy kid to someone full of doubts about herself.

People who knew me when I was a kid say that she’s the spitting image of the younger me. It’s true that there’s no mistaking us for anything other than mother and daughter. But while we share many traits—physical and otherwise—until now Child Two has differed from that younger me in one important respect. She’s always had a realistic picture of herself: not perfect, no better than anyone else as a person, but capable of a lot of things. She’s seen herself as a whole person and she’s defined herself on her own terms, based on the things she can do. She’s an artist, dancer, athlete, musician, student, animal lover, reader. I, on the other hand, usually felt that I was a fake, a fa├žade with not much behind it. I defined myself in terms of how others saw me and what I could not do.

I’m starting to see some cracks in her confidence. More and more often I hear her say things like “I’m not a good artist anymore” or “I’ll never be able to whistle” or “I don’t think I can do that.”

Now that she’s been 10 for almost a week and hasn’t suddenly turned into a bra-wearing, boy-loving, argumentative preteen, she’s relaxed a bit. But I’m much more sensitive now to her fragility. I want her to be happy being just a kid for as long as possible.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Making do

I've started a new blog. Called "Making Do," it's for my creative stuff. Well, my other creative stuff, since writing is creative. I love reading craft blogs, seeing what people are doing, finding out a little bit about their lives, and stealing their ideas learning from their posts, and I've long wanted to start one myself. I decided that for me, having two blogs was best, one just for writing and one for all the other creative things I like to do. Knowing me, though, I may change my mind.

Yes, I realize that I haven't even managed to get my profile completed and this blog all set up. Starting a new project before I've finished an old one? Me? How unexpected. (Lucky for me, you (all two of you who read this blog) can't come and look in my closets.) I will get to that, but today I thought that rather than fight with Blogger over my career choice, it would be more fun to post pictures of cats and a hat (but not cats in the hat).

Monday, January 21, 2008

Improg word: Mix

After pulling this word out of Hayley’s envelope, I spent a few minutes muttering under my breath, cursing her for emphasizing the challenge aspect of this writing challenge. Mix? What the hell can I write about mix?

Phrases started popping into my head, as phrases do. Cake mix? No, I can’t write about my utter inability to make cakes—it’s just too painful. Mix and match? No, that makes me think of articles about the 10 must-have pieces to buy this season, and I’m definitely not qualified to write about fashion. Mixed bag?

That was the phrase I needed. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend about how we see our lives. When I was a teenager, I used to complain to my brother about my dull and boring life. Until my friend and I had this conversation, I had never updated that opinion.

I haven’t traveled much and the traveling I’ve done has been—except for one nightmare trip to England with my mother—close to home. I haven’t had a proper career; for many years I haven’t even had a “real” job. I’ve never been in the newspaper, apart from a story I wrote in about 5th grade (written from the point of view of a Christmas tree that no one wanted). I haven’t done anything big to change the world. Pretty blah, I’d say.

But my friend sees my life completely differently. Apparently, I’m one of the most interesting people she knows—and that’s not because she’s a hermit who doesn’t get out much.

She’s lived most of her life in one town. She sees this as boring; I see it as having roots. I’ve lived in four cities—five if you count the one I was born in, although I don’t remember it at all, or six if you count another that I lived in for just a month. I’m a citizen of two countries and through high school I spent the school years in one and the summers in the other. I see this as having no true sense of home; she sees it as having a wider view of the world.

We both went to university. She did a teaching degree, which I see as following a passion. I went to university for 15 years (yes, that’s 15 years) and did four degrees in two fields. Avoiding the real world? Unable to find my passion? Not according to her. She sees me as having a wide range of interests and being willing to pursue them (and a little crazy for going to school for 15 years).

Before having kids, she was a very successful elementary-school teacher. Now, years later, she runs into teenagers who tell her what an impact she had on them. I’ve worked as a nanny, a waitress, a bookkeeper, a secretary, a tutor, a university instructor, a writer, and an editor—and that’s just what I’ve done for pay. As a volunteer, I’ve worked in libraries, managed the production of a monthly newsletter, served on boards, run fundraisers, led a kids’ community service club and a troop of Brownies, and piloted a reading program at an elementary school. In my current work as an editor, I haven’t followed the often-advised path of specializing in a niche market. No, my work is all over the map (literally). I never know what kind of job I might be doing next: wine labels, journal articles on fuel cell technology or dementia, a book on food allergies or the Canadian political system or finding your soulmate, a children’s story. Who knows what the next email or phone call will bring? I’ve thought of myself as scattered, unable to follow either a single path or the rules. She sees me as well-rounded, willing to take advantage of opportunities that come up, and able to do a lot of different things.

This friend loves to hear stories about my past. I never thought of myself as having interesting stories. But when I stop and think about it, my childhood was full of experiences that most kids don’t have, from working in a soup kitchen to being best friends with one of the daughters of the first African American family in our neighborhood (at a time when that was not considered a good thing) to moving a thousand miles away from one of my parents. And I had rather a . . . um . . . colorful adolescence. Then there’s my extended family. You could make a three-part miniseries about us—adventures, accomplishments, doomed romances, traumas, illnesses, and more than one skeleton partying in the closet.

A mixed bag—that’s what I am (with the emphasis on mixed, please, not on bag). I could look at myself as someone who has no real home; who has failed in doing what she was supposed to do—climb up the academic ladder to that tenured professorship; who has lived a dull and boring life, doing this and that but nothing in particular. Or I could look at myself through my friend’s eyes.

We’re all mixed bags of circumstances and experiences, which, combined, give us our stories. And whether those stories are part of an interesting adventure book or a dusty, boring tome is really just a matter of how we look at them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sleep deprivation

I used to sleep. Nine or ten hours a night, sometimes, with a nap during the day. But I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve slept through night in the last twelve years.

I grew up in a house under the flight path to San Francisco International Airport. I’ve lived in apartments that overlooked the El Camino and a major highway. I’ve lived on one of the main streets (and bus routes) of Victoria, with the driveway to the parking lot running right past my bedroom window. I used to have the ability to sleep anytime, anywhere, through any noise.

Then I had a baby and my sleep patterns changed. Actually, changed seems too weak a word to describe what happened. Disintegrated, maybe? Went to wrack and ruin—that works. While neither of my children were good sleepers, my husband sure was (or pretended to be). So from the beginning, I’ve been the nighttime parent, and not just because I had the right equipment for feeding. If the kids woke up for any reason—hunger, nightmares, illness, the sudden need to hear Kenny Loggins’ Return to Pooh Corner for the 342nd time that day, the inability to go the bathroom alone at night even though they were capable of doing so during the day—it was me who got up.

On the rare occasions when my husband did get up to help, he was so inept that he just made the situation worse. He’s a smart guy—I mean really smart. How can someone so brilliant during the day be so useless changing a diaper in the middle of the night? On the worse nights I wondered if he didn’t bumble on purpose so that I’d give up asking for help. (Asking, I’m sorry to say, is also too weak a word to describe what happened on some nights. I once kicked him—literally—out of bed. But when you’re dealing with a premature baby and are sleeping only half an hour at a time, you get desperate.)

Then he did something that made my nights even worse. Child One slept with his favorite teddy, Friend Bear, every night. One day my husband put one of Child One’s t-shirts on Friend Bear. Very cute. Child One decided that Friend Bear must wear the shirt all night, every night. Also very cute, except for the fact that the shirt was bigger than Friend Bear’s entire body and fell off once, twice, three times a night. Although it made no noise, it somehow woke my son up. In addition to my regular nighttime duties, I now became the official put-the-shirt-back-on-the-bear parent.

My children have slept through the night for many years now. Unfortunately, my cats don’t, so neither do I. Dottie gets lonely and wants company. Her tactics for waking me up include tipping over the wastebasket and taking everything out, scratching at the magazine and book baskets, and bringing me her string. My before-bed routine—when I remember, or my middle-of-the-night routine when I don’t—includes putting the wastebasket in the closet, covering the baskets, and hiding the string.

Jamie is a perpetual toddler and his favorite activities are knocking things off of flat surfaces and carrying stuff around. During the night he gets up on the dresser and knocks down whatever’s there, one item at a time. And he brings me things. Knitting needles, Lego, ponytail holders—if he finds something interesting, he wants me to know about it, no matter what time it is.

He loves to sleep on me or next to me. Little Bit likes to sleep next to me too, but because she doesn’t like Jamie much, she sleeps on the opposite side. When I try to turn over, I wake up realizing that I’ve been stuck between the two of them for hours and I’m now too stiff to move.

Little Bit’s favorite place to sleep, though, is under the covers on my husband’s side of the bed. She touches his face with her paw until he wakes up and lets her in. And unlike me, she won’t give up. When he complains about the sleep he loses, I bite my tongue and give her a kitty treat. A little payback is a sweet thing.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Now with picture!

I was hoping to be able to write "Now with pictures!" but apparently I'm not Blogger-literate enough to do that yet. I've managed to add a picture to a previous post, which, given the fact that my Internet connection cuts out regularly, is an accomplishment in itself. High-speed my connection might be when it's working, but if you take into account the time I spend waiting for pages to load when it's not, I'd be better off with a good old-fashioned dial-up.

But for some reason I can't get a picture into my profile. I tried uploading one from my computer--no luck. So I tried linking to one that's already online, but that's not working either.

In fact, Blogger seems to have its own ideas about what my profile should contain. No matter how many times I try to change my industry, it says I'm in accounting (and yes, I did hit "save"). Many years ago I thought of going into accounting. I took some courses and I worked in an accounting office for a summer. In addition to basic bookkeeping, my duties there included typing, answering the phones, making the coffee, and taking the owners' miniature poodle, Pixie, for walks. Pixie had his own Inspector Clouseau-type raincoat, complete with epaulets, pockets, and a belt, and his owners absolutely insisted he wear it in the rain. Since it was summer, you might not think this was a problem for me, but this is Vancouver. I would hide under my umbrella, hoping my ex-boyfriend, who lived and worked close by, didn't see me.

"Man, I'm glad I dumped her. Even dogs dress better than she does!"

I decided that accounting wasn't for me, but Blogger has me wondering. Is this a sign that I've made the wrong career choice?

Now I have to get back to my work--which involves no balance sheets, coffee machines, or dog coats--so I'll have to leave my profile until later. I can't wait to see what Blogger has to say about my favorite movies, my interests, and my gender.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Improg word: Grin

Hayley’s envelope of improg words arrived on Friday and it’s been hard for me to resist peeking. I used to be a peeker (and in my heart I still am). I would search for my Christmas and birthday presents, unwrapping and rewrapping them if necessary to see what they were. Given the amount of tape my mom used, this was quite a feat to do undetected. But I’ve been shamed into giving up peeking now that I have kids who were born with much more self-control than I have.

“What’s Mom doing under the bed? Hey, she’s peeking at her Christmas presents!”

This morning I approached Hayley’s envelope with trepidation. As I’ve mentioned, I never know what to expect from her. She’s easily capable of giving me challenging words like toenail or booger (actually, I could write something about booger). But the one I pulled out isn’t too bad.

My improg word for today is grin. The first thing that popped into my head was the phrase grin and bear it—kind of appropriate as I had a 7:00 a.m. dental appointment today (what the heck was I thinking when I agreed to that?). Since I’m a linguist (and, yes, a dork) and can’t resist a dictionary, I looked it up. The official sources I found gave the meaning as something like “putting up with something unpleasant in a stoical way,” but a few other sources gave a definition like “putting up with something unpleasant with good grace and humor.”

Throughout our lives, there are so many things that we have to bear. Children bear adults telling them to do their chores when they’re in the middle of something important like building a Lego city. Teenagers bear braces, zits the size of Manhattan, and parents who are the stupidest people on the planet. Too many kids bear unbearable school days, bored or lost or worried about bullies, counting the minutes until they can go home. Adults bear jobs they don’t like, bad relationships, infinite-loop conversations with aging parents, duties that weigh heavily on their shoulders.

As we try to help our son deal with bullies, we talk a lot about the line between grinning and bearing a situation and trying to change it. Through personal experience and volunteering with Chemo Angels, I’ve watched amazing families bear the horror of cancer with good grace and humor while simultaneously fighting it tooth and nail. I also know people who have borne unhappy lives for decades without making any effort to change their circumstances. What distinguishes grinning and bearing it from giving up?

I think the difference lies in two things: control and attitude. If you can take steps to improve the situation, bearing it doesn’t make sense. But if you really have no control, or if exerting your control would have worse consequences, grinning and bearing it might be what you have to do. Then whether the situation is a source of growth or a soul-killer depends on your definition of grin and bear it—that is, whether you emphasize the grinning or the bearing. I’ve tried both and I much prefer the unofficial definition.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Postal obsession

I live for the mail.

My postal obsession started when I was about 5. John P., my babysitter’s son, was a mail thief and I was his accomplice. We would make the rounds of the houses on his block, taking anything that looked interesting. When we got caught, he got a whipping and I (having different parents) got a lecture. Being lectured to wasn’t much of a deterrent, but my new understanding of federal offence was enough to end that career.

When I was a bit older, I would answer the pen pal ads in the back of comic books and send away for samples of shampoo—anything to fill my mailbox. Well, except for those sinister chain letters that were so popular back then. Being Catholic, I was very superstitious, and those letters filled me with dread. Late at night (or at least long after my 9:00 bedtime) I would sit on my bedroom floor, wild-eyed and clutching a pencil, trying to get 10 copies of the letter ready to go before the deadline struck and my house burned down or my dog died or my leg fell off.

For a year during high school, I was engaged to a guy who lived thousands of miles away. I wonder now if I was in love with him or with the thought of getting mail from him. Not able to wait until 3:00, I would race home from school at lunch to see if he’d written to me. Because I didn’t have time to take the long, safe route, I had to sprint across a four-lane highway and scramble up a steep bank. The best moment of the day was just before I opened the mailbox, when there was still the possibility that a letter from him was in there. More often than not, there wasn’t.

But if I was lucky there would be a letter from my best friend, who had moved far away. The only good thing about her moving was that it gave us an excuse to send each other mail. And, boy, did we! For years I sent her rambling letters full of news and gossip once, twice, or even three times a week. I’ll be able to recognize her handwriting for the rest of my life and I’m still happy to find an envelope from her in my mailbox.

I have one friendship that is entirely dependent on mail. Of all my friends, Hayley knows the most about my day-to-day life and what goes on in my head (I’m not sure that’s a good thing from her point of view). We first met over four years ago at my brother’s house. I’ve seen her in person only four or five times and I’ve never, ever spoken to her on the phone but I have about 3000 messages to and from her saved on my computer. And she sends me the best mail. Her packages are covered with stamps and stickers and fancy tape, and as I open them I have no idea what to expect—sealing wax, a purple thong, spare change (which she sent when she found out how much my son’s clarinet cost)—who knows what will come next?

I no longer steal to get mail, but if I suspect that the letter carrier has messed up (which happens periodically), I dust off my skills and sneak along the street, looking in my neighbors’ boxes until I find my mail. A letter from a friend or a postcard from far away—the mail is still one of the highlights of my day.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Man of Plans

Last night I brought a bunch of old notebooks to my daughter’s soccer practice. As I sat in my car reading by the map light, I came across something that I wrote about my son almost five years ago. It was a good time to rediscover it; he had a hard day yesterday, so I’ve typed it up to give to him.

He stands four feet tall. The water has plastered his hair to his head. Seemingly all bones and skin, he is planted firmly under the spray. I can see evidence of the day on him: smudges of dirt, a fresh bruise on his leg, a spot of chocolate ice cream on his face.

It is difficult to hear what he is saying as his voice competes with the drumming water. After a long day, I just want to go sit down with a cup of tea. The light bounces off the chrome and glass, making me squint. The noise is so overwhelming that I feel it rather than hear it. But his enthusiasm compels me to stay and strain to catch his words.

As he tells me his latest idea, he is both dead serious and filled with joy. He is a man of plans and I never know what is going to come out of his seven-year-old mouth. It might be a plan to build a ship by hand and sail it away with the crew of second-grade friends he’s already enlisted, or to plant his own forest and live like Robin Hood.

This time, he is telling me that he is going to build a pyramid. He will experiment with sand and clay and cement until his blocks are perfect. He will use levers and ramps to lift them into place. He has learned everything he needs to know from books and TV shows. He goes on and on and on.

As his words mingle with the sound of the water, I stop listening and instead marvel at his supreme confidence. These are not dreams to him; they are plans. It never occurs to him that he cannot possibly carry them out.

What a luxury to have absolutely no sense of one’s limitations. His body is small and—to his mother’s eyes—so vulnerable as he stands naked in the shower. His mind, though, is huge and, for now at least, it’s invulnerable and filled with nothing but possibility.

Since I wrote this, he’s been through a 1000-mile move he didn’t want to make, followed by a school closure, meaning that he was at three different schools in three years. He’s been—and continues to be—bullied. He’s now riding the rollercoaster of adolescence.

Back then, his biggest worry was how to prevent his crew from getting scurvy on the long voyage (lemons, he told me) or how to get his hands on enough gray clay to build a model of Stonehenge in the backyard. Now he worries about grades and homework and the sometimes brutal social scene of twelve-year-olds. He is still a plan-maker and he has somehow managed to cling onto the amazing sense of self he had when he was younger, but his mind is not invulnerable anymore. But if we can get him through the next five or six years intact, he’ll be fine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Improg word: Active

Hayley and I have our own two-person, long-distance writing group. The best thing about it is that we don’t have to worry about putting up with people we can’t stand—you know, the guy who reads from his endless science fiction stories, or the woman who puts down everyone else’s work but doesn’t produce anything herself, or that person in the corner who is always sniffing.

A few weeks ago Hayley came up with the idea of an improv blog—an improg. The original plan was that we would send each other an envelope full of slips of paper, each with a single word on it. At a designated time (hey, Hayley, remember the plan to designate a time?), we would each pull out a slip and write something about that word. These first pieces would be just to see how well it worked (hey, Hayley, remember the plan to see how well it worked first?). Then we would get someone (Shirley, probably) to give us both a word periodically and we would have fun seeing the different things we came up with for that word—and let you have fun reading them.

Well, Hayley’s envelope to me hasn’t even arrived yet, but I guess she’s received mine, because she’s started without me. And, being the beloved take-the-bull-by-the-horns person that she is, she’s posting already on her blog. Obviously, the improg has been launched!

Since I don’t have Hayley’s words yet, I’m going to steal the one she used today: active. Due to my busy life and resulting chronic lack of sleep, I can’t remember what words I sent her, so it’s as much a surprise to me as it was to her. You can see what Hayley wrote about this word in her post.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to live an active life. I don’t mean the kind of active life that my town’s rec center talks about in its slogan. I’m thinking more of the difference between an active and a passive approach to life.

The stuck-in-a-rut person I mentioned in my previous post lives a sadly passive life. She’s got a lot going for her. She’s retired, financially secure, and—while she’s no spring chicken—relatively healthy and mobile. So she’s got the time, money, and ability to do just about anything she wants. But she does just about nothing. Physically and emotionally, she’s the most passive person I know. She will do nothing that someone else doesn’t suggest and organize. She is so risk-adverse that she won’t even try a different type of pasta.

She’s always been like this. Even while working hard and raising kids, she lived her life as a reaction. And she’s blamed every problem, every bit of unhappiness, on other people. Granted, her life hasn’t been easy. But nobody’s life is easy and everybody has faced hurtful circumstances and people. We can passively accept the hurt they cause and let that rule our lives, or we can actively learn and move on.

Being passive isn’t necessarily the same thing as being weak. This person wields her passivity, using it, paradoxically, as a form of control over her life and, through guilt, over other people. She doesn’t have to make decisions and she doesn’t have to take responsibility. She can peg the blame for anything that’s happened to her—from not learning piano as a child to not being able to knit anything complicated to the fact that her family hated her cooking to missing a movie she wanted to see—on someone else. She didn’t learn piano because a teacher told her she wasn’t talented, not because she didn’t persevere. She can knit only basic things because no one ever showed her how to do anything more complicated, not because she wouldn’t pick up a book and learn like other people. Her family hated her cooking because they were picky, not because she was a boring cook. She missed the movie because no one invited her to go, not because she didn’t invite them. She always has a ready-made excuse to stay in her comfortable but oh-so-boring rut.

How much better it is to be active! To me, it’s not so much about wresting control from someone else as it is about using what you have to make the best life you can. I’ve been wondering lately what this person’s life would be like now if she’d lived it actively instead of passively—if she’d taken the difficult but valuable experiences she’s had and used them to grow stronger and wiser. Instead of being unhappy, unfulfilled, bored, and scared, would she be content, satisfied, engaged, and strong?

My sister-in-law, one of my favorite people and one whom I look up to in a lot of ways, told me a story about a woman who wanted her husband to stop at a blueberry stand. Every time they’d pass it, she’d say something like “Oh, look, blueberries!” or “Those blueberries look good,” but her husband, not realizing what she wanted, would drive right past. The moral of the story is that if you want them, get the damn blueberries yourself.

So, as part of my Year of Living Differently, I’m looking for the parts of my life that I’ve been lively passively. There are definitely some blueberry stands that I’ve been whizzing right past on the hectic road of my life. If I want those damn blueberries, I’m the one who has to make it happen.

The Year of Living Differently

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore. I used to make lists every January and September (having been a student for a ridiculous number of years, September feels like the start of the new year to me more than January does), but one of two things always happened. Either I forgot about them altogether or—always the rebel—I revolted against my own authority. Don’t try to tell me what to do!

Then I had kids and my time became much more unpredictable. The most carefully made plans could be destroyed in seconds by one of them throwing up or dissolving into a tantrum. And now, although my kids are old enough that I don’t have to carry them screaming out of the store, leaving behind a full cart of groceries and knowing that I’ll have to come back and start the shopping all over again, my time is still unpredictable. A business to run, kids to raise, an aging mother to help—all of these mean that any resolutions I make are bound to be pre-empted by someone else’s crisis.

Making resolutions that I know—from the moment I write them down—I either won’t be able to keep or have no intention of keeping adds an additional layer of stress to my already stressed-out life. If I do try to keep up with them, they become a chore. If I don’t, I feel like I’ve failed. Who needs that?

So I’ve accepted the fact that, for me, saying “This year I will eat properly” and “This year I will paint every room in the house” guarantees that twelve months from now I will be found sitting in one of the mushroom-soup-colored rooms much loved by the previous owner of our house, stuffing cookies into my mouth. I’ve replaced the lists of resolutions with an ongoing list of things I’d like to do—not things I have to do. Instead of duties, these are goals or ideas about how to spend the little bit of time I have control over.

And late last year, as I was thinking about a person I know who has spent most of her life in a deep rut of her own making, a theme for this new year popped into my head: the Year of Living Differently. This year I won’t resolve to eat more vegetables or reorganize my closets (although that is on the list of things I’d like to get done). Instead I will just try to live differently, in ways big and small—cooking different foods, visiting different places, reading different authors, recognizing my knee-jerk reactions and changing my approach to things that aren’t working.

And this brings me to this blog, which I have (temporarily, maybe) called “Always an Editor.” I love to write—anybody who gets email from me knows this. A writer is someone who (a) writes a lot or (b) has been published or (c) gets paid to write, and I’ve been all of these. But over the last several years, I’ve been so busy editing other people’s work that I haven’t taken the time to write much more than email.

There’s no point in my resolving to spend x minutes a day writing. But I’ve started this blog, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. As I was trying to think of a title so I could fill in that field on the Blogger set-up page and get on with it, another phrase popped into my head (yes, this does happen to me a lot): always a bridesmaid, never a bride. At this point, I am always an editor, never a writer. As part of my Year of Living Differently, that’s one of the things I want to change.