|"For what is time? Who can easily and briefly explain it?" —Augustine of Hippo|
Back when Wally was one-and-a-half, getting an hour to myself at the local YMCA felt decadent beyond imagination. I dropped him at the daycare they have on-site, included with a gym membership, and "ran" on the treadmill for maybe 25 minutes. Then I'd change in the locker room--even that felt luxurious, in the linoleum, bare bones Y locker room, no one pulling, no one whining, no one tugging, no one falling, no one running, no one engaging with me at all.
Then, the pièce de résistance, if I had enough time before the hour was up, I'd take my notebook and plunk down at one of the tables in the big open space overlooking the pool, and write. Freewrite, or notes on a current project, mostly just wondering--can you do this? Can you have your kid in the daycare when you're not technically using the gym? No one ever questioned me. It was all of ten minutes maybe before I gathered my things together and picked up Wally when the hour was up.
Fast forward 5 years to 2014 when I was able to manage full-time grad school, an 18-hour/week job at Fordham, freelance work, and Petra only in daycare 21 hours a week. I'm writing that not to brag but to compare it, say, to the radical inefficiency of this past Wednesday. That day I really felt like all I was able to do in the time Wally and Petra were out was the bare minimum maintenance. Like, get the recycling down to the bins downstairs. Clear up the dishes from the night before. Not even the laundry! Make a phone call to the bank. Update my tutoring page. Coordinate with a few people about possible tutoring sessions. Answer an email from Harper about a possible book project. Then, before you know it, I was racing off to get Wally, wolfing down the most amazing lentil dish my neighbor Maybel handed me as I was practically on my way out the door. Racing off feeling utterly disheveled, having lowered my expectations for the morning from running and showering, to, as the hours crept on, just showering, to finally just putting on a hat.
My partial excuse, justification, explanation, for the day that was not wasted but also not productive is that I was coming off of a string of days with Petra home sick. She wasn't particularly sick, but her presence did make it difficult to get things done. (As my friend wrote in an email when I said I was having trouble working with her home: "Why would ANYTHING be easy with a toddler?")
I really enjoyed having her here. Enjoying singing together. Enjoyed the way she grabbed a yoga mat and pretended it was her guitar. Enjoyed the cozy, quiet of afternoon naps. Taking the time to put lullabies on in her room, rubbing her back until she started loud snoring because of her cold.
There is something singularly cozy about daytime naps during the week, when the rest of the busy world is going on outside the windows. Something singularly quiet and peaceful about that in-between time.
I felt mixed about her being in preschool now. Torn about whether or not I should keep her home and juggle the way I did with Wally those years when I worked furiously during his naps and ran out the door to the library the minute Alex got home. Maybe that's the difference now too. I wouldn't want to run out the door at that time and give up the afternoon and evening time with Wally. A different juggle now. In many ways an easier one.
So that Wednesday, that middle "full" day of work, the only one this week, between sick days and half days, I feel like I got very little done. And I wonder if some of it was just that I needed to sort of recover from the days where I pushed. You go full-speed, you get kids off to school with hats and mittens you'd already put away for the season, in picture-day clothes, with nut-free lunches and permissions slips, and then your day begins, but you don't take a moment to recognize that it is beginning already in debt to yourself. You're not beginning with a shower, with a coffee, with a newspaper. You're beginning with attending to other people's needs. You're beginning with dozens of micro-demands; the paper cut, the spilled cup, the missing paper, the ripped page, the search for tape, the shirt now covered with peanut butter that must be changed.
So the answer may be to take my own advice from Writer's Boot Camp to wake up earlier.
To wake up early enough to do some yoga stretches at least.
Wake up early enough to fit in Julia Cameron's "Morning Pages" (three pages, longhand, written first thing every morning). It is, in her tutelage, a spiritual practice, as is routine in general. I always found the name itself a little over-the-top. Does that practice of writing first thing longhand need a name? I've written them on and off for the seventeen years since I was given the book by my friend Hein whose eyes are watching all of us.
On another blog recently (I can't remember which one) a writer said she was frustrated that part-way into the Morning Pages practice she would get distracted with things she had to do that day. I wrote a comment saying that I include that as all part of the Morning Pages - To Do lists, reminders, recipes, shopping lists - whatever comes into my head, anything at all. Yet I also appreciated her perspective--she said the best insights tend to come about two pages into focused writing. I think it's probably true that my style is maybe too loose, including "Rent! Eliana's birthday! Call Angelin!" notes jotted in the margin. It doesn't always allow for that flow of thought, that turning point of insight, that a more focused and sustained practice often brings about. Who was it. Maybe it was Louise Tucker, a writing professor in the UK who said she has been using Writer's Boot Camp with her students? I was so thrilled when I heard that. Unfortunately, the students in the UK don't have access to the book.
But wait, back to an attempt to reconcile the vastly divergent experience of time, just around this one micro topic of getting something done while someone else takes care of your kids.
My first thought, when, as I said, attempting to justify/rationalize/explain my non-productive Wednesday to myself was to think that it was partly a recovery day, picking up the literal loose ends, the puzzle pieces, the doll clothes, the play-doh mashed into the floor, that resulted from the days with Petra home and me half-working. But there was something more to it than that, there was a mental recovery for which I so often fail to account. One that exacts a toll from me, prevents total focus and productivity. There is a blurry-ness to half-work/half-childcare, an overwhelmed, pulled-from-all-sides exhaustion that undermines productively in the hours that follow. Like running too fast for too long (not a problem I need to worry about any time soon) that means you have trouble even walking the next day.
It's something I feel has to be identified and ideally named. It goes along with the exhaustion of being always on call, always pulled because of cell phones and because of the expectations put on working moms or half-working moms or any moms - SAHM moms focused solely on the kids working the hardest job of all. I now can't remember where I saw the piece written about the kind of focus a CEO can have, where someone else remembers the phone calls, and sends reminders about meetings, a kind of laser focus a caretaker can never have. That's one variable. And another variable is this recovery period.
Yet even as I seek to identify that brief but necessary period of recovery, forgive myself, if you will, for the slow laps that followed the over-exertion, in fairness, I have to recognize that I am operating at a much lower level of productivity now, not just on that particular Wednesday, but in general. Part of it honestly is the staggering weight of the anxiety and fury over...oh, pick any of a 1000 things...taking away millions of people's health care, for one. Or this administrations infinite and unending ties to Russia. Or the taxes we still haven't seen. And part of it is a failure on my part to establish a routine, (despite Julia Cameron's best efforts). And I fear that the "answer" has to be that I am just not making good use of time. If I was able to once juggle grad school and work and kids, then my dashing frantically out of the house these days, which I will do exactly 10 minutes from now to pick up Petra, is a personal failure. I was at one point able to manage much more. Look how much an hour once meant! I have to acknowledge the hour of bliss at the Y, and use it as a yardstick against which to measure today's inadequacy. Right?
It is a question I'm posing. It makes me think about the quote, "If you want something done, give it to a busy man."
But what if I view the hour of bliss at the Y not as proof that I need to do much more now than I am currently able to manage, but proof that taking care of young children--even just one, even doing just that--is absolutely, unbelievably, mind-bogglingly exhausting. What if instead I begin there. Or end there, for today's post, with the recognition that of course that hour back then felt like the most luxurious expanse of time, because it was a break from an exercise that thoroughly depleted me. What if I start not with the premise that more should be squeezed out of every single minute, but with the invitation to consider a different kind of expansiveness, a more ragged and jagged sense of personhood, apart from motherhood, that can productively begin unravelling a bit at the seams.