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.

The State of an Author-Composer’s World

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Do you ever have that feeling that there’s just too much going on? No, of course not, she says (wink-wink). This summer hit me like a Mack truck, and the grace in it was that I was so focused on two weeks in July–my week at NPM in Cincinnati and our trip to Colorado last week–that I didn’t have any time to spend calculating how much other work was getting shoved off to the side. If I had really processed how much there was, the stress level would have skyrocketed.

As I was taking these pictures I was feeling bad for the poor mama moose, who was having to raise her babies with 50 people taking pictures…but now I think I sort of missed the part where she was living in ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, with no responsibilities except existing. There’s some beauty in that.

My poor kids have two weeks of summer break left and it’s the first real unstructured time we have. We needed one day for recovering from twelve hours on the road–day 1 we saw moose at Sprague Lake, I battled Nicholas and Michael on the aerial course, we had lunch and souvenir shopping, and THEN drove 6 hours in 7 hours. Day 2 we got up, ate breakfast, and drove 6 hours in 7 hours. And then did eight loads of laundry and went to a birthday party for the baby of a choir member. So yeah, we needed Sunday to recover. And Monday.

By Tuesday, they were “all war zone, all the time.”

And me, in the meantime?

I knocked out my first two deadlines on Monday and Tuesday–the shortest two. Some of the other tasks on my to-do list are gargantuan. It’s easy to say, “Query Trust Falls.” What that line item doesn’t tell you is I have to write a synopsis. And take the list of upwards of a hundred agents I’ve been collecting for the last two years and organize it and figure out which ones are the best match. Then agonize over the query letter and make sure it’s as compelling as it can possibly be, with the right balance of, well, everything. And only then comes the querying itself.

It’s also easy to write on that list, “Trio.” But writing a piece of music is not a short process. I will likely spend three or four months working on that.

So I view the upcoming school year with a mixture of emotions. On the one hand, all the kids will be in school all day for the first time. (Hurrah! Uninterrupted days to work!) On the other, homework season is starting. The reading assessments that ended 3rd grade underscored to us that we’ve really underserved Miss Julianna, and we can’t do it anymore. We’ve GOT to figure out where to scrape together 15-20 minutes a day for reading comprehension, and when the speech therapist sends home that 12-page packet that says “do this list of words 3x a day for a week, then do this list 3x a day for a week…”…well, we really need to do it.

Such things make me feel like whimpering. It makes me miss this even more:

I could totally stand to spend every day climbing enormous piles of boulders at the Alluvial Fan and cuddle up by a fire in the evening to write. Wait. If I write, that presupposes all the deadlines and the other stuff…roses and thorns.

When this round of deadlines clears out I have to take a clear-eyed stock of what I commit to and be more realistic.

That’s the state of my world right now, and I know no one’s all that interested, but I debated not blogging at all today because I just remembered (I’ve been working on agent lists this morning!), and I have a flute duet rehearsal any minute, so I decided it was the type of day that calls for a stream-of-consciousness post that only takes 12 minutes to write.

Why, Hello, Summer.

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It seems that lately, most of the people I talk to about summer plans say, “We have no plans. We go to the pool every day!” Speaking for myself, I might not mind going to the pool every day under two conditions: 1) the water is warm; 2) there’s plenty of shade. But since those two conditions don’t really exist where I live (especially in conjunction with each other!), the pool feels more like a chore to me than a pleasure. I really, really, really, really hate sunscreen. (Really.) And squinting. And when you have four kids who are only so-so swimmers, taking kids to the pool involves being at maximum mental capacity from the time you enter the enclosure until the time you leave it. This will be the first year I feel like I can take them by myself at all.

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Summer break, day one: helping Grandma rid her flower bed of rocks.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering how to spend these summer months wisely. Field trips are good. I do like the fact that the kids get to sleep in, because it means I have more than 45 minutes of work time at 5:30 a.m., which is hands down my best brain time of the day. I like having evenings open, where we aren’t in a high-stress, get-out-the-door mode.

But unstructured doesn’t seem to work for us. My kids fight a lot. And they get bored easily. And while I could stupefy them with screen time, they always fight more afterward. And it’s really hard to concentrate on, say, novel plotting, while Julianna is reading Sophia, the Little Mermaid, or Anna and Elsa in her compressed, monotone (read that: loud) voice and Alex is practicing piano and the other two are fighting over Lego, or light sabers, or who gets to go first at Gobblet. It’s hard even to concentrate enough to write this blog post.

Since it’s so hard, I tend to problem solve it a lot. And the result is that last summer, I was so focused on creating productive time, I felt like I kind of cheated my kids.

hog bones

But we’re leaving behind the jawbones and other skeletal remains of the hogs that were composted in this sawdust. I’m quite sure every child in my kids’ schools envisions spending Day One of summer break doing just such archaeological excavations.

So this year, I’m committed to doing a better job of splitting the difference. To that end, I’m setting some general guidelines along the lines of New Years Resolutions. Because I know I will make time to write, I’m not even talking about that.

1. Pool twice a week.

2. Practice my flute half an hour a day, five days a week. Well, four at a minimum. (How far I’ve fallen from the years when I walked through a blizzard to practice four hours every single day!)

3. “Homework” time—a single worksheet or flash cards for the three younger ones, at least twice a week once summer school lets out. That may seem cruel and unusual, but the teachers have asked for it.

4. Field trips. I did the prep work, so we already are committed to two multi-day trips and one day excursion for Pit Stops For Kids. And if last summer taught me anything, it is that the distance between the end of summer school and the start of the fall semester isn’t as great as it seems, so I’m only listing three more “must-do” field trips, two of which are local.

5. I’ve promised Alex I will make time from my Womens Fiction Writers Association challenge to read a series of books that he loves, called the Unwanteds. I’m on book two.

What about you? Do you make plans for the summer? Or does unstructured really work for your families?

Summer is Kicking My Butt

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My last year of high school I came to dread a question that everyone asked me. You know. “So what are you doing next year?” Truthfully, I wasn’t confident in my choices. I wanted to lash out at everyone who asked me—and I got asked a lot.

These days there’s another question that I dread being asked: “So how’s your summer going?”

It’s a throwaway question, a drop of oil on the gears of social interaction.

The socially correct answer to this question. (Image by muha…, via Flickr)

The trouble is, this summer is kicking my butt, and it’s very hard to obey the social niceties when that fact is the only thing on your mind. But I also dread being the complainer.

The honest answer to this question. (Image by David Kingham, via Flickr)

I can’t quite explain why this summer is so much worse than previous ones. We have a lot going on, I’ll grant you, but no more than during the school year, and it feels far, far worse.

Really, I think it’s a cumulative effect. During the school year I am not responsible for the morning dropoff. Now I am. During the school year I have a carpool to cut the afternoon pickup commitment in half. In the summer, it’s all me. The boys are loving baseball and I like watching their enjoyment, but for crying out loud, we’ve been at this for three months. That’s a quarter of the year!

By late June, you don’t expect to be having to mow the lawn twice a week anymore—but I am. And the fighting in my house is epic. Epic, I tell you. Michael is stretching nicely into the worst age of all childhood—three—and has all the volume and knowledge of his own desires of an older child while clinging stubbornly to the toddler’s belief that the world can should and does revolve around him. He and Julianna both are excruciatingly difficult to coach through anything because you can’t tell what they truly don’t understand and what they’re pretending not to in order to get out of having to do what they’re told.

Nicholas is, well, Nicholas. Although in many ways he’s much better than he was a few months ago, he’s still a strong-willed child. And Alex, although he’s a darned good kid, is at the age where he’s yelling at and bossing ev.er.y.one.

And then there’s the fact that every one of them feels compelled to report on their siblings’ misbehaviors half a dozen times a day—all the while remaining sublimely clueless about their own violations. Splinter and plank, I’m telling you.

It seems to me that they walk around the house methodically throwing things on the floor for the express purpose of being able to step on them. They seem pathologically incapable of putting clothes away, no matter how many times they’re reminded. I tell them to do something and they ignore me the first, second, third and fourth times, until I explode and shout instead, and then they look all victimized, like it’s my fault. (You think I’m exaggerating, don’t you? I’m not. I counted the other day.) Getting out of the house with all the baseball gear seems a physical impossibility, despite the fact that they each have a friggin’ bag to keep everything together.

I have gone from having 3-4 hours a day of work time during the year to squeezing out a few minutes here and a few minutes there, virtually all of them peppered with the above drama. Thank God I took the summer off magazine features! But you know, once you start working from home, everything doesn’t just stop because the kids are out of school.

And the only solutions to any of the above involve even more time and attention from me than I’m already giving.

We had a serious “come to Jesus” convention in our household that spanned a) a twenty-minute lecture on the way to the ballfields, b) a mom freak-out before bed, when it became clear that the lecture had been ineffective, c) a loud venting-to-Christian session after bedtime, and d) sitting them all down on the couch before breakfast the next morning and telling them all the consequences of their cumulative behaviors.

Yesterday I only had about twelve violations. Which is a huge improvement, if that tells you anything.

The danger in putting things like this out there is that people always want to advise you, offer solutions that quite clearly I can’t have thought of or I wouldn’t be having these problems–as if all the details necessary to make such judgments can possibly be contained in one blog post, to thus allow people to identify what I’m dong wrong.

Writing things like this, in other words, invites judgment.

I don’t need judgment. I have plenty of stress without it, thank you very much. All I need is empathy and encouragement. Empathy, because I’m sure there are others out there who are feeling the same way I am. And encouragement because, you know, obviously.

Pour some love on me, folks.

Image by clogsilk, via Flickr