I find there are two prevailing strands of life advice that both seem to get me in the gut, and I can’t figure out how to reconcile them.
One is about living in the moment: being present to the beauty of the ordinary and every-day, ceding the illusion of control, and letting the future take care of itself.
The second is about seizing your dreams now: making the time to follow your passions, honour your gifts, and not let creative opportunities slip by. Not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.
I’ve yet to figure out how to do both of these things at once, but, being a committed idealist, I’m trying.
At the moment, I swing my life on a pendulum: first one way, then the other. One month I’m a zen master, smug about how beautifully I’ve slowed down to enjoy the moment; the next month I’m frantic, feeling like I’ve dug myself into a hole and can’t find any way out. Then the tears flow.
The balance tips very quickly. There’s so little time cushion. My husband is away for work one weekend and out several evenings in a row, I give away my one child-free morning in the week to help a friend with a greater need, and suddenly between the amount of my own work I’d like to be doing and what I can actually accomplish yawns a huge gap of impossibility.
There’s a puzzle to be solved. And in my optimism, I want to believe there’s some way to solve it.
What I’m seeing, truly seeing and accepting right now, is that shutting down my own creative and intellectual processes, stalling them, putting them off for later is not an option I can live with. That was never my intention.
What I’m seeing is that not carving out focused work time for myself means that when I’m with my kids I’m always half thinking about something else. That is not going to go away.
The truth is that when I decided to homeschool my kids, when I talked my husband into agreeing, when I talked our extended family into accepting it, when I committed to sucking up the financial consequences of that choice, I never really thought I’d do it all on my own. In many ways I don’t – we spend lots of time with other families and other kids in both casual and organized ways; my kids take part in an outdoor program once a week; they do a weekly yoga class; they spend one morning a week with their grandparents. I often go away on weekends for the naturalist programs that I’ve been involved with for the past few years. A couple of times – when grandparents have taken the kids out of town – I’ve been away for a week at a time for more immersive experiences. And last summer, we had a few delightful weeks where each child pursued their interests at full-day summer camps while I worked on other things at home. And yet I want more.
So what am I looking for exactly? Regular, focused time alone that I can depend on. And not at an hour where I am fighting the need to sleep.
When I go away for a weekend of learning and get wildly inspired to follow up on my experiences, I come home and stop short. There’s no time to integrate, to work through the research and writing that are right on the tip of my mind and fingers, to let productive work take shape. I can pretend to relax and be in the moment, but my mind and heart are spinning. Not unproductive spinning, not worrying, not busy thoughts that I want to quiet down. Awesome, inspired spinning. Spinning that I don’t want to suppress or delay. Spinning that feels like flying, soaring above the world in great leaps.
I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of inspiration in my life in recent years. My dreams – sleeping and waking – are full of images, of stories I want to tell, of art projects I’m conjuring up. But so little of it is possible to do in small, infinitely interruptable moments with small people – no matter how dear – talking loudly in my ear. It all takes time and focus.
This fall has been intense. Yes, we had a fantastic family trip, where my husband, kids and I AND my parents all hung out together connecting, exploring and learning for three full weeks, and I’m supremely grateful for that. But the contrast between that and the return to regular life is always painful. Especially since for so many adults working a full-time professional job – including my husband – taking time away means a huge increase of pressure and creeping increase in working hours trying to catch up on the return. And three weeks of integration segue into three months of extreme imbalance.
Right now, we’re at my parents’ house for a week for the Christmas holidays. Intergenerational family life. People cooking meals, people reading, people chasing the kids around the backyard, my father working on bits of a building project. The kids bounce around between adults, playing, reading, helping with small tasks. Six adults available to do what I normally do on my own. I can sit in the middle of the living room all day ignoring the children and writing, and no one even notices me. It’s blissful.
When people present arguments against one parent being at home with the kids, or against homeschooling, the case is made is that one person can’t meet all of a child’s developmental and educational needs. Even the nuclear family is a fairly recent invention. Humans have always lived and worked and learned in groups, in communities. Mothers and fathers have always done productive work. So now, in this historical moment, the accepted answer to this dilemma is to have everyone go off to their separate silos – separate offices, separate institutions, separate classrooms segregated by age, for the majority of their waking hours. We claim that’s the only answer possible. We claim that the only possible alternative is isolation for children and martyrdom for parents. And I concede that those can be real dangers. And I concede that currently, for so many structural reasons, it can be almost impossible to conceive of any other option.
But neither of these things – separation or isolation – is what I want for my family or for myself. I want a village. I want people engaged in meaningful pursuits, with children, babies, teens, elders woven into the fabric of daily life. The perfect scenario would be if we were doing exactly what we’re doing now except with ten other families with kids of various ages living all around us and available to play and learn and work with us even on weekdays, and maybe – please, let me indulge my unrealistic dreams for a moment – a huge open field surrounded by woods all around our homes, where the kids would go off and roam for hours at a time.
But, okay, I’d settle for a few more homeschooling families within walking distance of our urban house, my husband working shorter hours and taking more of a stake in homeschooling as a family project, and maybe some time for my kids with a teen or adult mentor once a week.
When I see my friends who are homeschooling their kids, I don’t see martyrs. I see writers, artists, educators, activists, healers, culturally creative people, all of whom are trying to shape an alternative to the dominant world of silos and specialization, of outsourcing, of separation. All of whom are trying to find integration of head, heart and hands; integration of generations; integration of learning and work and creativity and domestic responsibilities. People who are trying to do something different, to take risks.
I see people who are trying to find balance in a system where it’s very difficult to create a family income out of two adults with part-time work. Even in a family who somehow find ways to live on one full-time income, the balance usually tips to one adult working long hours (because that’s the way most jobs work in our culture) and one adult crazily trying to hold down the fort alone.
So that’s the problem. There are bigger problems in the world. But I would argue that finding time and space to develop our own gifts is something each of us has a responsibility to address in our own way, in our own circumstances.
Thinking about this question almost every day recently, I’m still fairly sure that the easiest course – taking advantage of the free child-care provided by public school – is not the answer I’m looking for right now. I’m not ruling it out as a some-day possibility, but there’s still so much that tips the scales for me towards homeschooling, unschooling, real-life mentoring, learning in the eclectic and self-directed ways that adults are usually allowed to but children generally are not. I want to keep this experiment running. I’m looking for smaller changes, significant tweaking, not a total reversal of where we currently are.
I’m happy that I’ve been able to articulate what I need more clearly within the pressure of the last few weeks. Now that I’m taking myself more seriously, I’m slowly seeing more possibilities as to how these needs can be met.
And so I’m changing metaphors. Last year, my metaphor, my mantra, was the river. I had changed course so severely in the past decade and I saw that I was pushing too hard – paddling too hard – to figure out where I was going. I wanted to let myself follow the flow, without concern for destination, trusting that the current of the river would continue to move me forward. Because really, that is all any of us can ever do. Right now, I’m flowing; I’m no longer worried – for the most part – about where and when exactly I’ll land.
My current metaphor seems to have something to do with carving. The word keeps coming up when I speak of what I need. Intentionally carving out space and time for my own work. Carving out more clearly the shape I need my life to take right now. Not a final product, just the next best step, the next stroke. The little pieces of life that I might have within my control.
What’s that image I’ve heard described by so many sculptors and carvers? Carving is finding the pieces that need to fall away to uncover the shape that’s already underneath, waiting to be brought into the light.