At Peace with Priorities. This Week.

There hasn’t been any writing this week. There will probably not be any writing next week, either. Normally, I’d be twitchy. And part of me is. But part of me is okay with it. Because it’s spring. Or because there isn’t really an alternative. Or because I’m terrified of where I am in the work in progress and fear I’m working up to an “eh” moment in the manuscript. Or all of the above.

The fact is, this week has been filled with tasks. Teacher appreciation errands to run. Easter Egg baskets to fill. Baseball games. A field trip I swore I would not volunteer for but did anyway (really, Monica, the zoo? Pray for me, people. Pray hard.). Class Easter parties at preschool. An author lecture. A home renovation project we’re undertaking. The hubby’s car broke down. And it’s only Tuesday. Next week is spring break. Another week filled with two kids and endless time and boundless energy.

After a minor anxiety moment writing out my to do list yesterday morning, I’ve let it go. Maybe it was yoga. Or maybe it was planning a small family road trip to somewhere new for part of the break. Or, gasp, maybe I’m finally learning. I’m learning that my writing and my kids are not competing forces, although it feels that way on a daily basis. I’m learning that as much as I need to respect my writing time, I also need to respect my life. And my life is messy and full and sometimes lands decidedly heavy on the side of kid and school commitments. It doesn’t mean that my writing isn’t important, it just means that in that moment, it’s not the top priority. There will be more moments.

They will only be this age once. They will only have one more Easter Egg hunt at this preschool. I may not always have the opportunity to attend field trips. I won’t always be the room mom for this class. The weather won’t always be this beautiful. They might not always want to play catch with their mom.

Be where your feet are. Best piece of advice I ever got. Hardest to follow. But this week, I’m staying grounded.

“Let’s go for a run,” the five year old announced this afternoon out of the blue. He’s never made this request before. The hubby and I don’t “run.” Not that we can’t, it’s just not our thing.

“Okay.”

And so we did. We hit the street, running up one cul-de-sac and back down. It wasn’t terribly far. It didn’t take too long. It put a smile on both our faces.

“I want you to swing with me,” the five year old stated after our run.

“Okay.” Up and down we went, my stomach not handling the pendulum motion as well as it once did. And then I let go and sailed out of the swing, jumping from the moving swing, landing on the bark mulch several feet away. The 5 year old laughed and complimented my jump. Then we played tag and waited for the school bus to deliver his big brother home.

I wasn’t writing. And yet I was. Because here. Now. This moment. Because of that moment.

Letting go, I’m learning, might be the most effective way of holding tight. Holding tight to their childhoods by making memories with them during the in between. Holding tight to the work in progress by loosening my mind to find it. Holding tight to my marriage by trust falling into its safety when the going gets overbooked.

So I may not be writing in the work in progress as much as I’d like this week, but I’m writing in my book of life. And, probably more importantly, writing in my kids’ books. And those are the ultimate works in progress.

Three Hours

Three hours.

Every weekday I drop the little dude off at preschool, come home and have three hours before pick-up. Three hours to spend focused on those adult-only tasks that are done so much more productively without interruption or carousing  children running about the house. Three hours for writing. Three hours to take care of busy work. Three hours for a kid-free grocery stop. Three hours for neighborhood committee work. Three hours for school volunteer tasks. Three hours for errands. Three hours to start a load of laundry. Three hours to wash dishes (damn the broken dishwasher). Three hours to straighten up. Three hours to email a friend. Three hours to schedule appointments. Three hours to get to those appointments. Three hours for quiet.

Three hours.

If only one of those tasks were on the docket for any given day, three hours could be ample. But let’s face it. Who in this non-stop world of life, not to mention parenting, has only one task on their to-do list? Inevitably, I am forced to choose. Forced to squeeze, manipulate, compromise.

Typically, I block out writing time. I may run a quick errand on my way back after carpool drop off, but I try to treat my writing time as sacrosanct. The errands book end the writing time. The tough days are when I can’t do that. When an errand takes longer than a quick stop. When planning for a neighborhood event takes more than just sending an email. When volunteering and morning dinner prep because of a late afternoon baseball game collide.

Three hours.

I used to think that I needed to be in the right mood to write. The “write mood,” you might say. If the “write mood” wasn’t available, the words weren’t either. I’m not sure what the “write mood” is anymore, other than a procrastination and avoidance technique. I will always be too tired or too hungry or too distracted. There is no perfect storm that allows the muse to appear, holding your mind and fingertips in creative ecstasy so that the words just flow and the story just builds and the brilliance descends onto the page. There is no music or candle or writing position that will make me a better writer. Only the writing. And so I have learned that the only true muse is my ass. And a chair. And putting the two together. Once they are connected, creativity is available. You can’t force creativity, they say. Well, sometimes you just don’t have a choice. You practice it by just doing it until finally your creative muscle is like any other and responds more willingly, more eagerly and with more strength each time.

Three hours.

I don’t have time for perfection. I don’t have time for inspiration. I only have time for writing. For sitting down. For dedicating. For forced work. Today, I had 50 minutes. That’s it. And I knew it was the only dedicated time I’d have. So I sat down. And I hated it. I didn’t want to. I tried Facebook and Twitter for a few minutes before I turned them off. Before I forced my ass into the chair and my fingers to the keys. It wasn’t pretty at first. There was a graph that was instantly deleted. A mental reboot. Although I was short of a typical productive word count day, what I wrote wasn’t half bad. It was progress. It was another step forward on the path to completed manuscript. It was a step forward in a character’s evolution. It was a step that wouldn’t have been made if I’d waited. For the muse. For inspiration. For time.

Three hours.

Summer vacation is looming in my peripheral vision. With no paying job to help supplement our income, we’ve decided to go summer camp free. The boys aren’t thrilled, but I know it will still be a fun and lazy and adventurous summer filled with pool time and hikes and parks and movies and Legos and neighborhood football games. What scares me is three hours. Where today I look at three available hours to squeeze in carpool volunteer duties, an errand, yoga and 50 minutes of writing as not much time, I see three hours on a summer as a luxury I can’t afford. Literally and figuratively.

So I’m practicing. Practicing to force the work. Practicing working in strange conditions. Right now I’m writing this like my keyboard is on fire while the 5 year old watches a post-picnic-in-the-park-endless-game-of-tag-playdate and just before the 8 year old’s bus completes afternoon dropoff. I could be reading a magazine or getting those nasty baseball pants out of my sink and into the washing machine or working on background for a possible upcoming project, but instead, I’m practicing. Practicing writing under pressure. A different kind of pressure. A noisy kids, spontaneous availability pressure. Can I write in the park while they are playing? Can I write while they play Legos? Can I write during screen time? Can I write at night (trust me, I’ve tried this one over and over and it never works but perhaps I need to try again)?

Three hours.

Fitting in time for our passions shouldn’t be a luxury, but as a parent, I understand that sometimes it is. Particularly when I have chosen a path that doesn’t pay immediately and therefore requires certain responsibilities and sacrifices. The fact is that I am the at home parent. I am the designated chauffeur, cook, nurse, teacher and playmate. I am also a wife and a friend and a thinker and a reader.

I’m not sure if I’m a believer in “making time.” I think that concept insinuates too much, requires us to take on too much, to stay up too late, to multitask to the point we are merely competent instead of excellent. I think we have time already. I think we need to find time. Time we’re simply using in other ways or afraid to use for our passion purpose. Time we think isn’t appropriate for the muse. Right now I have three hours to spend on whatever I decide. Three hours to work, whether on my manuscript or on our family life. This summer, I may have three minutes. The big question will be how I decide to spend it.

Lessons from a Leprechaun

Author’s Note: Below is an essay I wrote this past fall as part of a contest I didn’t win. So it may not be award winning writing, but it seems pertinent to publish today. And so I share it with you. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. May you find your own pot of gold.

My second grade teacher was Mrs. Morrison. She was the teacher the first graders began whispering about in May and feared being assigned without really knowing or understanding why. Strict. Mean. Hard. That was the extent of the vocabulary available to me and my seven-year-old peers to describe her. Words that struck a chord of discontent and unease without real fact upon which to base them – par for the course of the younger elementary school set who still asked their parents to check under the bed for monsters (pointing finger at self).

I’m not sure what my initial reaction was to Mrs. Morrison on the first day of school in 1983. I do know that she was an elfin woman, short in stature with close-cropped black hair and reading glasses that she wore on a chain around her neck. I’m not sure why she needed the chain since I can’t picture her without those half-mooned glasses perched on the end of her nose, eyebrows raised as she peered over their rims waiting at the blackboard for your answer. She had a mesmerizing reading voice, clear and steady and thick; never scratchy or watery or too high. She ran a tight ship, but it was easy to stay on her good side. She demanded the best of her students and, on most occasions, received it. She was tough (now as the parent of an eight-year-old second grade boy myself, I understand why) and, although it wasn’t the popular opinion, I loved her.

We were given story prompts often that year, the barebones beginnings to practice our grammar, handwriting and knowledge of story basics. Only one prompt assignment stands out, however, sparklingly detailed in my mind’s eye through a haze of generic second grade memories. It was March, approaching St. Patrick’s Day. I’m sure our days had been spent discussing the science behind rainbows, sorting “gold” coins in math and learning about Irish culture, although I honestly don’t recall. What I do remember is the story prompt:

“One day, while walking in the woods behind my house, I thought I saw a tiny little man…”

Leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day did not particularly resonate with me. I remember that panicky feeling of the blank page in front of me, of students in the desks next to me scribbling out sentences with ease, the fear tickling my scalp that I had nothing to say. Finally I put pencil to paper and simply started writing: “He looked like a leprechaun. He talked like a leprechaun. He was a leprechaun!” The act of starting opened the door. I moved my protagonist through a relatively raucous encounter with an extremely large leprechaun family, forcing her to face sure and dire consequences when her parents found out about the mayhem these little green creatures had caused in their home but then wrapping it all up at the bottom of the page in a joyful ending with the leprechauns discarding their mischievous ways to put the house aright and share their gold at the end of the rainbow with the protagonist and her family.

Mrs. Morrison lauded this small little sliver of amateur story telling. I’m sure smiley faces and gold stars were involved. I was so proud of my effort and subsequent praise from such a tough teacher that I sent a copy of the story – in a large, stamped envelope as these were the days before email and attachments – to my English teacher aunt. In return, she’d typed it up on her word processor, printed it in italics with justified margins and sent it back to me framed in a bright sunshine gold colored mat with a note congratulating me on what an excellent story I had written. That story hung on my bedroom wall next to the door so that I saw it every time I left my room. It remained there until my parents moved out of my childhood home two decades later.

Something about that experience sparked a tiny ember for me. A small piece of my soul had been exposed and it felt good to let the sun shine on it. A secret desire to be a writer of the books I adored and devoured as a reader began to take root in that small glow. But for some reason, I didn’t share it. Not publicly. Not in reality. Later, in middle school, I attended the Duke Young Writer’s Camp and adored every minute. I developed a creative writing independent study for myself in high school and worked on the literary magazine. But when push came to college, I opted for practical. I graduated with a degree from the Journalism School. It was writing. It paid the bills. It seemed a perfect match.

And so a career in public relations was launched. And while riding the Metro to work in Washington, D.C., I scribbled in a journal. I bought books filled with writing prompts and filled pages with random observations on my grandmother’s hands or the smell of fear or my first memory. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer for inspiration. I secretly fed my pent up desires at night while toiling away at AP-style press releases by day. A move to Atlanta so my husband could attend grad school left me hungry for my own outlet and an opportunity to meet people. I took creative writing courses at the Margaret Mitchell House. I fanned the flame. I took my writing more seriously, but still not seriously enough. Then I had babies.

Having children illuminated my own life like a stage spotlight with no escape from its harsh reality. My children inspire me to be the best mother I can be, to be a better person, to live my true life as an example of the life I wish for them – a life of sincerity, generosity, hope, passion, love and fulfillment. I decided perhaps it was time to walk the walk. It was time to recognize and fertilize the tiny plant struggling inside. It was time to focus more on writing. I spoke out into the universe that I wanted to try my hand at a freelance writing career, something manageable with two young boys underfoot. Imagine my surprise when it was my friend, Kristine, and not the universe that answered.

Her husband’s start-up was in need of some public relations assistance. One meeting with her charismatic husband/CEO and I was sold. I wanted in. This was an exciting new business. One I understood and felt good about promoting. The schedule would be flexible, part time, family-friendly. It included a steady paycheck and screamed practical (that dastardly word again).

I had a blast at this job. It was fun, challenging, satisfying. Then, this past spring, after two and a half years, my contract was terminated.

After losing the security of a day-to-day job and taking the inevitable moment for self-reflection and consideration of next steps, I realized I didn’t want to look for another public relations job. I didn’t want to write words that needed massaging and tweaking and rearranging to better fit a brand message. I didn’t want to write quotes and talking points and words for others. I wanted to say things. I wanted a creative life. I wanted impracticality for a change. I wanted leprechauns.

After a summer of fun with my now eight and four year old boys, I am rededicated. I am taking the risk. I am telling myself that I am a writer. And that decision is filled with all the same warm joy I felt when I hung that silly story on my wall.

As an eight-year-old second grader, my heart of hearts decided I was a writer. It took the rest of me 30 additional years to finally believe it.

Leaning In: What’s in it for Men?

Dear Men:

You are not all selfish, sex-obsessed pricks who cower under desks afraid that some broad is going to waltz in on stiletto heels and take your job. I’m sure there may be a few of you out there (and I assume that’s because on some level you realize you probably aren’t fit for that job anyway), but I’m going to put my neck on the line and assume that most of you are oblivious to the blatant misogyny in the workplace and simply go about doing your jobs every day, earning your paychecks and contributing to the economy. Yes, you may interrupt your female counterparts too often or let thoughts about any potential pregnancies cloud your hiring judgement when a young woman walks into your office or even be ignorant to the lack of a pumping room for women returning to work after maternity leave. I think you simply require some education in that department. A little knowledge that you interrupt, that she’s a great candidate or that you need to provide a room with a door (and a lock, please) will go a long way to thinning that glass ceiling. With a little education, empathy and experience, I think any misguided assumptions or even deep seeded unconscious habits you had that were drilled in by generations of colleagues before you could be modified, advanced and, in some cases, eradicated, to make a pleasant and productive work place for all employees whether they be male, female, single, married, gay, straight or simply a loud gum chewer in an open concept work space.

It is with this acknowledgement that you, too, are a smart gender, that I apologize for Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s latest column in The New York Times about Women at Work. You deserve better than that.

Men may fear that as women do better, they will do worse. But the surprising truth is that equality is good for men, too.

I nearly threw up in my mouth. First of all, if you are afraid of doing worse because a woman is doing better, than you probably should be worried about your job status in general. I’m just saying. Second, “surprising?” Really? Boys played on see-saws on playgrounds, too, and know that it’s no fun if three people pile on one side and only one is on the other and no one moves. The ride is only fun when you can balance and help each other up and down. And this isn’t the 1930s. I think we can all agree that equality is good for everyone, we just might need to be a little more factual about what that implies. So, I’m willing to give you a corporate economic impact argument, Sandberg and Grant. Your information on diverse workplaces equal more successful companies is great. I get it. Men get it. Statistics and facts proving points of an argument. Thank you. I’m with you again.

And then this:

Some men might wonder whether these benefits for the organization, and for women, might come at their individual expense, and ask, will I end up lower on the corporate ladder?

Oh boy. So, if women do well based on their merits, men, based on their gender, may worry that they won’t advance? Hahahahahahahaha. Welcome to the glass ceiling boys! I point you again to the idea that if you’re worried, you may not be the best fit for that job. My advice? Do your best job and you will be rewarded. That’s all women want.

Let me repeat that:

That’s all women want. To be rewarded, as equally as men are, for their contributions. If you’re worried that you might not be equally rewarded simply because you are a man, than pick up a torch and burn that bra, gentleman, because that’s what we’ve been fighting for for years.

Couching the argument in terms of a blow to the male ego only perpetuates that the male ego should be damaged by feminism. And it shouldn’t. It implies that men should feel superior to women, after all, if we have to defend the very definitions of equal as being good to the male individual and not just the way a productive and compassionate advanced society should live. Google the definition of “equal” and you will find it is defined as “being the same in quantity, size, degree or value.” Equal is unbiased. Equal is fair. Equal is unimpeachable. If you’re worried by equal than you are, I’m sorry to say, not equal to the task. Instead, Sandberg and Grant perpetuate the dominant male standing in the workplace and the home by appealing to its base nature of territory marking and sex.

Yup. Sex.

It started with the attention grabbing headline: “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom.” Sex sells, I get it. But men should take on housework because it leads to more sex? Because doing laundry is “choreplay?” I can’t speak for all women here, but let me just say, if my husband does the laundry, it does not make me want to have sex with him, no more than when I clean the toilet it turns him on. It’s called division of labor. Perhaps if he helps with the housework I’m not going to be so bone crushingly exhausted at the end of the day that I pass out on the couch during House of Cards taking sex pretty much off the table. Perhaps if we are a team in all things – parenting, chores, marriage – than we will be partners in the bedroom, too. And no, if my husband wants to do something nice for ME, he doesn’t do the laundry. He does the laundry because the damn laundry needs to be done. Saying it’s for me only perpetuates the idea that it’s my job to do it in the first place. And I don’t recall that being in my marriage vows (I can’t speak for everyone). If he wants to do something nice for me, he does something that reflects my interests, passions, needs, desires. Yes, it is nice if he does the laundry. It is appreciated if he does the laundry. I will say thank you if he does the laundry (just as he says to me if I do it). But doing something that needs to be done in our home is not a gift. It’s a responsibility.

The entire tenet of this article rubbed me wrong. Men shouldn’t need to be told that they may get something out of equality. Equality is not selfish. That’s the whole point. Isn’t it?

Ugh. Okay. Let’s try another way. If we’re going to go with male stereotypes here, let’s go with sports. I’m a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill grad and was a senior the fall that Dean Smith retired. The man was a legend on campus, and not just because he provided us the opportunity to watch Jerry Stackhouse dunk and strut against our rivals or Vince Carter being the fireworks OOP to a quintessential alley. He was a legend because he was a leader. A leader for equality. He was instrumental to desegregating the town of Chapel Hill in the 60s and when asked about it, his response was not that he should receive accolades for it. It wasn’t that the African American community in Chapel Hill should buy him coffee every Thursday. It wasn’t give me the Presidential Medal of Freedom for it (though they did in 2013). His response was this:

You should never be proud of doing what’s right. You should just do what’s right.

So men, it’s not about the sex or the money or the promotion you may receive because you supported women in the workplace. It’s about doing what’s right. It’s about hiring the right people. It’s about providing the right benefits. It’s about sharing your own load at home. It’s about allowing all of us to follow our passions, work hard and be rewarded professionally, personally, spiritually. It’s about modeling behavior that allows our children to see what partnerships and teamwork and a productive society look like. It’s about doing what’s right.

And, that, my male friends, is a serious turn on.

Yours,

High Heeled Mama