New Era, New Routine

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Michael 1st day kindergarten

Coloring a star is serious business.

Well, it’s official: all my kids are in full-day school.

For the past three weeks, things have been rather up in the air. I’ve been collecting a list of Things I Will Do When I No Longer Have Kids At Home All Day. Most of them are writing-related, but there are also things like going out and sitting in nature, which I haven’t gotten to do much of the last year or two. Maybe even a little shopping, occasionally. But then, for a while, I thought something else was coming down the pike in my world, that would call all that extra time into question. So I didn’t bother spending the time trying to figure out what my new world was going to look like. And then that “something else” didn’t end up coming to fruition, anyway.

So the first day of school pounced upon me without a whole lot of preparation. This is the first time I have ever found myself reeling on the night before school starts, asking myself, “Where did the summer go? It was unbelievably short. I don’t have a game plan yet for tomorrow when I’m by myself with time to work!”

Of course, yesterday I went from school dropoff to rehearsal to dental appointment, and by the time I got home, the morning was 2/3 gone already, so maybe it’s just as well I didn’t try to make a plan yet.

Still, I’m a person who does well with structure, and who gets stressed with lack of it. Our life with four kids is much easier if we know that Person XY does A on B day, and Person XX does it on C days. We’ve had the same pattern for, well, 5 years at least. But this year our families outgrew the carpool, so that changes the shape of the afternoon. And because I have the full day on my own, I’m taking more of the morning prep instead of trying to squeeze half an hour of work in between 5:45 and 6:20. (Or 40 minutes…or 45…) I’ve actually done the dropoff run the first two mornings. I’ve never done the morning dropoff. That’s always, always been Christian’s job. So clearly, things are going to be in flux for a while.

What I know so far is that the time between the boys’ departure and the arrival of the public school bus will be dedicated to reading comprehension with Julianna. This much I can set down in stone now, and make good use of a small block of time for something that gets pushed aside too easily in the afternoons.

Figuring out how to structure the rest of these days for best possible use of time? That’s going to take a while longer to figure out. But yesterday, remembering my friend’s words: Pace yourself, I paused at 2:35 p.m. and said, “I’ve worked all day. I think I’m going to play for half an hour until it’s time to pick up the kids.”

And I did. I played with a Shutterfly album of Colorado.

On to Day 2. Hopefully a pattern will emerge sooner rather than later.

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Love Is A Tug of War

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Photo by Nancy Phillips, via Flickr

There are days when I look at the words (or the notes) I’ve put put on the page and I’m in awe, where I literally think, “Where did this come from?” And yet it’s just as likely that by the end of the day I’ll thoroughly convinced no publisher will ever accept such drivel, and what was I ever thinking, anyway?

Some days, I know exactly what I’m going to blog about and how to start, and other days I wish I’d never started the darned thing, because it’s one more deadline I don’t need and one more demand upon me.

Some days, the demands of family and love lie lightly upon me—lift me up, even. Fill me with gratitude and a glow of fulfillment. Other days I am excruciatingly aware of every ounce that love requires me to give of myself.

It’s a beautiful thing to love your life and all the things it demands of you. Not one aspect of my life has been pushed on me by circumstances of necessity; my days are a tug of war among many beautiful, beloved factors: husband, children, words, music, faith, friendship, exercise. I am so blessed. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that each of these things is, in fact, a demand which must be weighed and measured, and that one part of life will always have to give way in favor of another.

I thank God for my life, but I also beg every day, with some desperation, for help navigating it in love.

How I Do It All

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013“How do you do it all?”

This is the question I get asked most frequently. I have four kids. I play flute, lead a church choir, write music, write for magazines, and write fiction. Christian and I teach and promote natural family planning, and we (sometimes) and I (often) do a fair amount of disability advocacy. So how do I do it all?

The short answer is, I don’t. My house is never clean, for instance, and this year my outdoor landscaping/gardening was abysmal, because I just couldn’t take the time. A better question is: how do I get done as much as I do? That’s a question I can answer:

1. I am married to a really good man who supports my working from home, even though it means the house is continually not in the condition that the house he grew up in was; a man who never even hints that I’m shirking my responsibilities, and who, in fact, when I get a call from the civic orchestra looking for a substitute third-flute players, doesn’t hesitate to tell me to be gone half the afternoon and the entire evening, because he knows how much I miss playing in orchestra. And who has the dishes done and the kids in bed by the time I get home.

2. I don’t really sleep. I get up between 5 and 5:30 virtually every day, in part because I have to take my temperature, but also because that is the only time of the day when I’m sure the phone isn’t going to ring and no kid is going to demand something of me. It is my daily readings & reflections, followed by my freshest, most concentrated writing time. And if I can’t get to sleep, or back to sleep, at night, I often get up and do a brain dump at 11p.m. or 2 a.m.

3. I don’t watch TV. It’s a guilty pleasure to rack up an hour and a half’s worth of laundry folding so I can put something on Netflix and fold and watch.

4. I’m very protective of my writing time. In fact, I’m protective to a fault; that’s something I have recently realized I need to work on.

4. I spend a lot of time planning and writing in my head. In the car, while I’m doing dishes, and so on. I plan a lot so that I spend less time flailing and getting my bearings when I do have time. And I am constantly planning logistics of how to get things done in the most efficient manner possible.

5. Finally, but not least important, because this speaks to the second-most-frequently-asked question I’m asked (or maybe needling is the better word): I get it all done because I don’t have a smart phone. You would not believe the amount of flak I catch over this. People seem utterly unable to believe that I could possibly have a well-thought-out rationale for choosing not to jump off the cliff with everyone else, but in fact, I become more convinced all the time that I don’t want one. Not having a phone with unlimited minutes, text and data means that I can leave the house and be off-limits to phone calls from Omaha Steaks and Direct TV and even the perfectly valid business and personal calls. You don’t have to answer every call, but the ring alone disrupts my concentration and that’s thirty seconds of productive time that I can’t get back. Plus, it’s human nature to think, “Oooh, am I missing something important?” Again: distraction! Not having a phone with internet access means I can take my computer any old place and simply not connect to the wireless, and I don’t have the option of getting distracted by Candy Crush, angry kittens, or whatever viral sensation is coating the social media waves on a given day.

I also can’t be texted. The vast majority of the time, text messages are an exceptionally inefficient mode of communication–talking is much faster than typing–so again, not having a smart phone means I’m immune from that particular time waster. And although everyone says you can turn off your phone when you don’t want to be interrupted, we all know how often that happens. There’s even a slide show going around about “what we look like on our phones.” Connectivity is good, but beyond a certain point it’s just noise. I get things done because without a smart phone, I have less mental and visual noise in my life. I can hear myself think.

So that’s my answer to everyone who has ever asked (or just shaken their head in wonder) how I do it all. There’s another side to this, of course, but I’ll address that separately another day.

Ruminating On The Rat Race

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Photo by brandsvig, via Flickr

The weeks fly by so quickly, and every moment under pressure to accomplish as much as humanly possible. More than is humanly possible, to tell the truth. No matter how much I accomplish, it never feels like enough. I’ve always viewed myself as a juggler, but nobody can keep this many balls in the air. Something’s going to give. In my case, it’s housecleaning and, well, down time.

And I thrive on it. I do. As I was doing dishes last night, it occurred to me that even though I loathe all tasks related to cleaning, I was feeling unusual satisfaction, simply because I had made so much writing progress during the day. My writing is my play time, and really, who gets to play first and do the work later?

But the clutter makes me crazy. There’s the clutter of physical space—Michael ripping out and scattering the sheets of a tiny party-favor notepad. Shoes everywhere. Jackets on the floor. Lights left on at every turn. Kids who deliberately step on whatever book or couch cushion they’ve thrown on the floor. (Do all kids come with a built-in “destroy everything on sight” feature?)

But there’s also the clutter of time. I can’t even begin to describe the scheduling gymnastics involved in my life. I don’t detail it because I live in dread of having someone force me to quit whining by proving how much worse theirs is.

But one thought keeps coming into my head, over and over:

We weren’t meant to live like this.

I love my work—love every moment of it, even the parts that cause me anguish and anxiety. And I love having the best of both worlds: part working mom, part SAHM.

But there is a tradeoff to pushing so hard. During the day I try to use every kid-free moment to work, but that means I never take time to sit on the deck with a cup of tea, or flop across the couch and watch a TV show. I won’t even take a nap unless my brain is so muddy that I simply can’t string words together.

Basically, I’m pushing all the time. Pushing to work while the kids are at school, and pushing to clean house and do homework and do all that Mom stuff the rest of the time. My brain is constantly making and remaking plans for maximum time efficiency.

And while I know there are many other people doing the same thing, day in and day out, even if the details are different, I can’t help feeling that this isn’t how things are supposed to be.

This is the point where I’m supposed to offer a solution in five simple steps, but the truth is I don’t have one. And really, there isn’t a simple five-step procedure you can follow to figure out these kinds of things. You have to weigh and measure and try and re-evaluate on a daily basis. Today, I’m just giving myself permission to ramble.

Ramble along with me, people. Tell me I’m not alone. Tell me how you weigh and measure, and what you try that works.

Where I Spent Last Week, And What I Learned From It

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I spent last week at a conference for church musicians. I want to blog about it this morning, but so far I have spent ten minutes sitting in front of the computer grasping for what to say. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I can think of lots of things to say, but I can’t find the thread that ties them together. Some experiences have to be unpacked slowly over a long period of time.

WLP Instrumental showcase

It was a wonderful week, spent with wonderful people, making wonderful music and gleaning inspiration and insight. At the end of the week, Msgr. Ray East urged us to think of the encounter with Christ we had had this week, and share it with others.

Well, here goes.

The last few years, I’ve spent most of my time and energy being Mommy and freelance magazine/fiction writer. But there’s always a little part of me that tugs on my sleeve, reminding me that I’m a musician, and begging me to carve out some time for writing music. I spent this week away from my children, focusing on being a liturgical musician and composer. I got to be part of several great musical events, singing and playing flute with really terrific people. I got to spend a week focused on writing music and texts for worship with people whose work I admire tremendously.

Showcase

I had deep conversations with old friends and made new friends I can talk to as if we’ve always known each other. Being a morning person at a conference that didn’t get started until hours after I’m accustomed to rising, I had time in the mornings to spend a few minutes being still in the presence of God in the adoration room.

And at length, I realized the obvious: that writing sacred music grows out of one’s spiritual life. If your spiritual life consists of clinging to the rock face and just barely hanging on amid the crazies, well, you’re not exactly in a position to bear prodigious amounts of fruit, are you?

For years, I’ve clung to the idea that you do what you can, and a great deal of a mother-of-littles’ prayer time consists of prayer by service. You know: doing dishes and brushing teeth and folding laundry equals my spiritual work.

I still think that’s valid, but my soul is longing for more. I don’t have the solution worked out yet, but I know I’m going to have to make time for contemplation. I’ve been trying for the last several months, but it’s scattered and haphazard. Now it’s time to get real.

You’re all busy people. Feed me. How do you find time for silence and stillness to nurture your relationship with Jesus in the midst of the crazies?

Cars and Vans And Things That Go

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Cover of "Cars and Trucks and Things That...

Cover via Amazon

When Alex was a baby, the time I felt most secure in my role as a mother (outside of nursing) was bath time. At bath time, I knew what I was supposed to do. There was a structure to it, and he loved it, so I felt confident that I was seeing to both his physical and his developmental needs.

The rest of the time I was a little nervous. What exactly does one do with a baby all day? What if I didn’t read enough, or play enough? Or read the wrong things or played the wrong things? What if I didn’t give him enough tummy time? At bath time, at least, I knew I was being a good mom.

For some reason I thought of this yesterday as I was chauffeuring. 8:15–preschool dropoff. 9–to Jazzercise. 10–back home for morning nap. 1–preschool pickup. 3:15–kids in the van in anticipation of Julianna’s arrival on the bus. 3:30–Julianna off the bus and into the van. 3:45–to the orthotist to pick up her repaired shoe inserts. 4–pick up Alex at after care. 4:15–piano lesson. 4:45–head home. 6:30–head out with Alex and Julianna to EEE open house. 7:20–head for adaptive swim. 7:40: take Alex home for bed, get the boys ready for bed. 8:15–pick up Julianna and finally head home for the night.

Yesterday was the worst day yet this year, but I’m sure there are many days like it to come. I spent the whole day with an undercurrent of anxiety bubbling in my chest, a sense of hurry hurry hurry. The only time it eased at all was when I was in the car. And although I wouldn’t say I had exactly the same sense of purpose that I used to have at bath time, I couldn’t help noting the parallel. Because when I was driving from point A to point B, I knew I was doing exactly what had to be done.

Taxi time is a necessary evil that everybody tolerates, but nobody really enjoys. With the exception of crossing through the construction zones. That makes every trip worthwhile, even for me. Luckily, our city is in the midst of a huge highway-intersection project, which we have to go through every day. (Ahem. Did I just say “luckily”?)

This is a sign of crossing into a new stage in our family. In the nursing era this sort of schedule would have been enough to cause a nervous breakdown; now that all the kids can walk themselves to the car and “snack” means graham cracker instead of latch time, one set of complications has been cleared away. And just in time, too.

I tend to compare everything about my life to the way it was when I was a child. Realistically this is a poor comparison, because the children in my family were more spread out in age and we all went to the same school, which offered bus service for the first few years. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling that we spend a lot more time in the car than I did when I was a child. And it’s very tempting to pass judgment on myself for that. To feel like we’re overcommitted and that we’re not giving our family what it deserves.

But the more I think about it, the more I remember one parent or another heading off to MRL or Farm Bureau or road district or prayer group. And the more I think about it, I realize that my sisters and I had piano and gymnastics and cheerleading and basketball and music group at church. When you have four kids, you’re going to have a lot going on. When one of them has a disability that requires her to attend a different school, there’s going to be scheduling headaches. That’s the way it is, simply part of this season of life. No sense griping or feeling inadequate over it.

On The Need For A Recovery Day

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Chaos theory! :: Teoría del caos!

Chaos theory! :: Teoría del caos! (Photo credit: Nhoj Leunamme == Jhon Emmanuel)

It started out so well. We’d had two days of solid-packed family fun, with the promise of another coming up on Sunday, and we’d prepped all the kids that Saturday, the day in between, was the put-the-house-back-together day. So while Alex and I mowed the yard, Nicholas helped Christian in the house. When I finished, I grabbed the grocery list, and Nicholas asked to come along.

We breezed through Aldi smoothly. Nicholas loves picking things off the shelves. (Although I did feel an ominous “pop” in my right trap while lifting him to reach something.) He got to push the buttons on the card reader and deal with the deposit quarter on the cart.

stop & shop, west springfield MA

stop & shop, west springfield MA (Photo credit: Rusty Clark)

Then it was on to Gerbes, and not one but two different “car carts” were there for him to choose from. We went over to the floral department to watch the woman fill balloons for a bouquet. Joy of joys!–she offered him one! Complete with an elastic wristband so it didn’t have to be tied to his wrist!

Nicholas was in Heaven. He played ice cream truck while I stopped to talk to the mother of a former student. I saw him take the balloon off his wrist. “Nicholas, honey,” I said, “you’re going to lose that. You need to keep it on your wrist.”

“No, I’m just going to hold it,” he said.

And promptly let it go.

Both I and a lovely elderly gentleman lunged for it, but that helium balloon was bent on escape, and in two seconds, it was nestled at ceiling level right above the sausage case.

And the tornado sirens went off. Oh wait. That was Nicholas.

Both adults excused themselves hastily, and I bent to hug and comfort my four-year-old. But he was having none of it. Blood-curdling screams. Ear- ripping, throat-tearing screams. I sympathized. I got stern. And then I realized it wasn’t going to stop. I had three more items to get, so I took off.

He leaped out of the moving cart and hurled himself on the floor. I twitched toward him, and as if in warning, my shoulder twinged. Okay, so I couldn’t wrestle him out of the store. Now what?

The saving grace turned out to be his terror of being left behind. If I just took off, he would leap up and run screaming after me. But whenever I stopped, he was back on the floor, screaming “I WANT MY BALLOON MOMMY!” Hands down, the worst tantrum I have ever experienced in my whole parenting career. From a 4 1/2-year-old.

We got to the front and he flung himself on the floor in the main aisle. I had to grab him under the arms and drag his preschool bottom across the tile so he’d be out of the line of traffic.

And that was about the time when I thought, “We really need a recovery day.”

When Alex and Julianna were babies, I had a strict policy of scheduling a recovery day after any overstimulating day. When we went to St. Louis or did a lot of errand running, the next day we stayed home and took it very, very easy. Books, low-key outdoor play, and long nap times. No big agenda. Just recovery.

Somewhere along the way we stopped doing that. I remember thinking, “Uh-oh, I have stuff scheduled two days in a row.” And it must have turned out okay, because the farther into parenthood we’ve gone, the more things have gotten scheduled back to back. With four kids that’s kind of the reality. And anyway, these days staying home means they’re at each others’ throats, which isn’t much of a recovery.

But Nicholas going nuclear reminded me of the value of such a day. We (speaking globally now) have this idea that we have to push, push, push. And sometimes we do. But then we get into the habit of looking for things to push toward. And sometimes you (to say nothing of kids, who have less coping experience) just need a chance to breathe, for crying out loud.

Well, Michael and I got that day yesterday. Christian and the other three didn’t; they went to a baseball game and were playing hard for twelve hours. (Unlimited carousel rides at the ballpark, baby.) When they got home last night, Nicholas was crying about his feet hurting. He was completely shot, again. And unfortunately, today can’t be a recovery day. We have well-child checks for the two older kids first thing this morning, and Julianna’s glasses have been awaiting pickup through all the days of our out-of-town adventures. (Didn’t I mention Michael SNAPPED THE EARPIECE IN HALF last week?)

A great illustration that there’s good ideas, and then there’s reality. But I think we will take it easy the rest of the day. They’re going to need it.