creativity

Life in the Busy (or The New 4:00 Hour)

In “The Habit” newsletter this week (a weekly email devoted to writing), Jonathan Rogers wrote:

 “If what you're looking for is an excuse for not writing, the busyness of your life is a good one. I should know: I use that one all the time. But having more time or a better desk probably isn't going to help as much as you think if you're not already using the hour or two you have at that little desk in the corner.”

It struck me. Since the school year began - really since August hit with all of its NO-ACTIVITIES-FOR-YOU business - I’ve felt pretty dried up. The kids sapped most of my energy in August. Then school hit, along with ALL THE OTHER THINGS. Dance and religious education started. I’ve said “yes” where I used to say “I have three small kids so NO”: to volunteer positions, a writing class, a leadership position at church. Things I feel I have some space for now.

At night, I often stare for awhile at a blinking cursor, with a blank mind but a full brain. At my own little desk in the corner, I struggle to find something to say. 

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And I wonder how much is hiding behind the busyness and how much is actual...busyness?

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The hour from 4:00-5:00 pm used to be the single longest hour in my entire day. To survive for one more hour until the clock flipped over to 5:00 felt like an eternity.

4:00 was about the time I gave up for the day. Where I plopped in the grass and willed our neighbors to come over and play. When I lay down on the couch, to hell with the quantity of toys scattered across the floor or whoever was wailing about a minor bodily injury around me.

Really, I don’t think 4:00 pm has ever been a great time for me. It was the least productive time in my professional life. I often tackled busywork tasks like sketching out floor plans or scanning tile catalogs. I dreaded phone calls during the 4 o’clock hour, when my brain was fried and my introvert side was all d-o-n-e.

I’m still ready to be done for the day at 4:00 pm. But since that’s the time Caden and Brooklyn’s bus pulls up to release them back to me, 4:00 feels less like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and more like entering another tunnel.

“It felt like I went from a nine-hour day to a twelve-hour day,” a friend said to me recently, regarding the transition to full-time-all-day-every-day-school. That hit me as exactly right.

While my day was far from over at 4:00 pm previously, the end was in sight. Another hour until there was another set of hands to help wrangle small children. I could begin my mental check-out from the day, devote time to dinner and dishes and not much else. (Tyson had bedtime duty.) I was almost free for the day - free to leave the house to write, to do yoga. (*ahem* to mindlessly scroll Instagram…)

Now at 4:00, it feels like my day starts all over again.

There are new nighttime responsibilities added to the ones that already existed: filling water bottles and snack bags and tucking them in backpacks, checking communication folders, planning lunches for the next day. I often do bedtime now with Caden and Brooklyn since I don’t see them all day. These duties, unlike many of my other nighttime tasks, can’t be pushed off. The toys, if need be, can still be scattered across the front hall all day tomorrow, but those lunches need to be packed and ready to go by 8:15 am.

And morning comes with its own chaos. Breakfast for three kids (plus me, hopefully), unloading clean dishes from the dishwasher, loading the freshly-dirtied breakfast ones. Drinking coffee before helping Nolan find clothes, supervising Caden and Brooklyn (make sure they’re actually getting dressed and not distracted with half a sock on somewhere). Brushing three sets of teeth and doing Brooklyn’s hair. Packing up those lunches and triple-check to see that everything is in their backpacks. On preschool days Nolan and I have to be out of the house by 8:25 am. Caden and Brooklyn catch the bus at 8:45.

It’s fine. The mornings don’t bother me so much. I thrive on routine. And with three kids who often wake before the sun, it’s not a mad dash the way I know it is for other families.

Plus, after the morning rush three days a week, I return home to quiet.

Quiet is rarely a word that can be applied to our evenings.

Dinnertime spills over into bedtime which seems to be where all those Big Kindergarten Emotions come out. They’ve held it together all day and now they’re home and they’re safe and their energy bubbles over into one more endless round of giggles at the table, whining about a LEGO they’ve lost, or sobbing that they want their room painted blue again because they liked it when it was blue and I didn’t even ask them if I could paint it white. (1: I totally did ask and we all agreed on white and 2: you’ve literally never brought this up before. Can we please talk about it at some other time - any other time - when it’s not already 43 minutes past your bedtime?)

My day feels stretched out, beginning with that four o’clock hour. And my evenings feel like they’ve slipped away.

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I sit down at the end of the day, my later-than-usual, stretched-out day. I’ve felt so caught up in those lunches and remembering drop-off and pick-up times. I’ve scribbled Post-It note reminders to bring sandwich bags to Nolan’s preschool, to pick up ingredients for the church potluck, to send money for the back to school dinner. I send an email to the teacher, place the book order, cross off items on my list, and make another for the next day: wrap presents for the party, revise that document, make a phone call, write this post for that deadline.

I don’t know if it’s busyness as an excuse or actually being busy. I see how I could get lost in this phase of life, maybe even more so than in the baby stage. Where I don’t have naptime to fall back on and more often than not have a (non-napping) three-year old around. When 4 o’clock hits and our house explodes into chaos and emotions and dinner to make and backpacks to clean out.

Maybe I am busy.

Maybe I’m hiding behind it sometimes.

Maybe that’s okay.

Maybe I’ll learn to make the most of that blinking cursor during the single hour I find in the evenings, in my own corner of my bedroom. Maybe I’ll find a way to energize myself during the 4:00 hour. (Hahaha.) Maybe it’s okay for awhile if that cursor blinks at me more than I would like. Maybe I’ll find life in the busy and return here to put it all down on the page.

What Writing Looks Like

“Mommy,” Brooklyn began, as I helped her get dressed. (In a jumpsuit. Five-years old and those can be difficult.)  Her hands were on top of my head, even though I’ve told them all 432 times to use my shoulders for balance instead. “Mommy, when we press on your head, does it push all of your ideas out?”

I laughed and said no, I still had my ideas. She grinned, crinkling up her newly-freckled nose, gave me a hug, and scampered away. 

I thought more about her question as I carried a load of laundry downstairs. Small, marker-stained fingers in and of themselves don’t push out my ideas. Though sometimes it feels that way.

It’s hard to explain writing to someone who isn’t a writer. The struggle to pull together a sentence, add a period, the debate to use a comma vs. a semicolon. The drafts and the edits and the agonization over word choice. I’m not sure I know of a single writer who actually, really, truly enjoys the writing process itself. It’s arduous. To do justice to a story, plodding forward in an attempt to tell the truth, to get to the essence of an idea; it’s work.

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Jen Hatmaker has talked on her podcast about how writing is like dredging up words from the bottom of the ocean. Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, says that the act of writing looks like this:

“You put a piece of paper in the typewriter, or you turn on the computer and bring up the right file, and then you stare at it for an hour or so. You begin rocking, just a little at first, and then like a huge autistic child. You look at the ceiling, and over at the clock, yawn, and stare at the paper again. Then, with your fingers poised on the keyboard, you squint at an image that is forming in your mind -- a scene, a locale, a character, whatever -- and you try to quiet your mind so you can hear what that landscape or character has to say above the other voices in your mind.”

Throw in picking up your phone to scroll through Instagram for awhile and this is 1000% accurate.

Glennon Doyle talks about a famous writer who was asked if she loved writing, and her response was, “No, but I love having written.”

That sounds about right to me.

Anyway, back to those small children with their sticky, dirt-covered hands who ask about pushing ideas out of my head.

Sometimes writing looks like trying to put words down on a page but my brain has absolutely no ideas and it is all the children’s fault, not because they used my head to balance, but because the only thing I can think of is the LEGO Movie 2 The Second Part Original Motion Picture Soundtrack because it’s on repeat at our house and even when it’s not playing the children are running around singing it at the top of their lungs: “THIS SONG’S GONNA GET STUCK INSIDE YOUR HE-AAAAAD” and it is, it IS stuck in my head and I haven’t had an original thought for two straight weeks.

Writing looks like sacrifice. It takes time and energy. Sometimes it takes money in the form of a writing class or an editor. More often it’s in the form of a $5.35 latte. Mostly, though, it’s time. Since I am not, never have been, and never will be a morning person this often looks like rushing out the door at 6 pm right after dinner until the coffee shop closes at 9:00. It’s time on the weekends when I would truly rather be lounging around the backyard or going on a family adventure but if I don’t take advantage of the next two or three hours who knows when I’ll get a decent stretch of writing time again.

One of my writing spots is a coffee shop, just a five-minute car ride away. It’s quiet. Not that it isn’t busy, but the overall atmosphere is studious. I realized recently that there are virtually no children there. Like, ever. One day I saw an eight-year old in line with his mom and it dawned on me: this is the first time I’ve seen a kid here. Mind. Blown.

I’m not against kids (I managed to have three of them) but they’re not exactly quiet. If I could concentrate with small children around I wouldn’t have to leave the house. Their babbling words interrupt the ones I’m working to construct in my head, so it’s hard to concentrate on things like writing an entire coherent sentence

I do enjoy watching the high school students who congregate here, though, the teenagers who are thoughtful and friendly, showing their friends their latest Snapchat (or whatever, I mean I don’t really know) and giggling. They sit with their large extra-pump-of-caramel frozen concoctions at their sides because they don’t need to worry yet about ingesting that amount of caffeine or sugar at 8:30 pm.

Other times writing looks like heading to my favorite spot in downtown Minneapolis. It looks like double-checking that I’ve locked my car because there are signs warning me to: “LOCK YOUR CAR. HIGH PROWL AREA”. But it’s worth it because then I enter into the most magical workspace in town, where they make chocolate croissants as big as my head and the eggs benedict is the best combination of salty/sauce-y/butter-y I’ve ever had and it takes all of my restraint to not order everything on the menu. (Those days writing costs me about $18.46.)

Writing looks like creating my very own writing nook. I’ve been sitting here often now, despite the children, instead of heading to the coffee shop. Sometimes a little boy sits on the floor next to me and plays with his LEGOs, and every time he starts to talk, I say, “Mommy’s working remember?” and he says, “Oh yeah I forgot” in a whisper.

There used to be times when writing looked like typing up words at 2:32 am, since I was awake anyway and it didn’t matter whether it was 2:32 in the morning or 2:32 in the afternoon, I was probably nursing a baby, either way.

Sometimes writing looks like rushing home from the store and abandoning the groceries on the kitchen counter so I can rush upstairs to type up the narrative I’ve been constructing in my head the whole way home. It looks like not being able to keep up with the rush of words and hoping I get them all down on the page in the exact order they came to me on University Avenue in my minivan.

Other times it looks like not being able to abandon the groceries, because they really do need to be put away so we can eat lunch, and by the time I get to a computer hours later, they’ve completely vanished. “I’ll remember this later,” I lie to myself. But I never do.

Sometimes it’s leaving myself a voice message of an idea I’m certain is genius and then listening to it later and wondering what on Earth I was talking about.

Some of the best times are when I leave a draft for my friends, the fiercest, strongest group of women and mothers I know, and they leave me comments and edits. And depending on the piece, sometimes I hate them for awhile and I abandon writing for awhile (forever, if I get dramatic in my head) until I come back to it and realize they were all so very right. Entire essays have been born because of them. Entire essays have been saved because of them.

There are nights I can’t wait to escape, where the day has been long or a deadline is looming or a story is in my head and it’s all I can do to not plop the kids in front of the TV to type up some words.

Other days all I want to do is stay home, to do the bedtime routine and snuggle them in. To answer questions like, “Is the sun always a star?” and read their books. Sometimes writing looks like being surrounded by children and stuffed animals as I take note of the rhyming patterns in “Rosie Revere, Engineer” or the foreshadowing in Harry Potter.

Those ideas in my head get pushed in and poured out all the time. Sometimes it’s like grasping at air to try to reign them in, to put them down on the page to create something meaningful and intelligible and maybe even beautiful. And sometimes those ideas are initiated by a little freckle-face five-year old wondering if she’s pushed all the ideas out of my head, and instead I can say, no — you’ve added to them.

Art Time

I’m a planner by nature. Always have been, always will be. My husband and I use an app to synch our family schedule and I use another one to plan our meals and create a grocery list for the week. After a two-year hiatus, I recently caved to the purchase of a beautiful, lovely, glorious paper day planner again. I’m eyeing an enormous whiteboard calendar to fill a wall in our kitchen, to help with the question my kids ask every morning at breakfast, “Where are we going today?” Bedtime, nap time, quiet time, and wake-up time are all coordinated by the Okay to Wake clocks in each kid’s bedroom. (Well...maybe those times aren’t quite as carefully coordinated as I would like them to be.)

So it should come as no surprise to you that as a stay-at-home mom I’ve given a similar structure to the planning of our days. I thrive on routine and my own kids, like most kids, do too. They anticipate the ordering of our days: wake-up, breakfast, get ready, preschool or other activity outside the house, lunch, nap and quiet time, screen time, snack time, playtime, dinner, clean up, pajamas, bed.

Afternoon playtime can be the longest and most tedious part of our day. With a two-year old who caps out at a 60-minute nap and twin four-year olds who don’t really nap anymore, the afternoon hours from 2-5 pm can drag on as we all go slightly stir-crazy from the close proximity to each other. In the summer we find relief in gathering with neighborhood friends to go run around outside, burn off all that energy, and splash in the pool until it’s time to prep dinner. It’s these cooler months, the ones that have all too soon arrived this year, that really take a toll.

Enter: art time. Four o’clock is art hour at our house. Despite the name, it’s nothing too creative. Nothing too novel. Come 4:00 pm, whatever we’re doing, I stop and call out “It’s art time!”

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Read the rest over on the Twin Cities Moms Blog!

Slow Decorating

Recently, I bought stools for our kitchen island. I started with two but quickly added another, since one kid always felt left out. (You’d think I’d have learned by now.) During our Month of Two Stools there were too many fights to count and I cursed even buying them in the first place. (Sometimes I still regret buying stools because my two-year old thinks he has full access to everything on the island at any given time, but that’s another story.)

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We’ve lived in our house for almost three years. I didn’t care much about stools at first during the chaos of moving and adding another baby and having twin two-year old climbers who didn’t need any more temptations. But after awhile the island looked kind of lonely and empty to me. It was time. I searched and I researched and compared prices. I found some. Now I love having our simple kitchen stools. The kids have easy access to help me bake, I often sit there for breakfast or to work on a project, cold brew or craft brew by my side. The three little Williamses often sit three across for breakfast or lunch or an afternoon snack.

But I had to find the right stools first.

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It was the same in our bedroom. All this open space, what to do with it? A (very first world) problem I had never had before. Our previous apartment barely had room for a bed, two nightstands, a dresser, and space to walk around them all without bumping into something.

I thought I hated the tan walls (It's grey that's in, not tan!) but despised all that painting would entail. Then I saw an image, burned into my brain now, of a bedroom full of tans and whites and creams and walnut and it looked so beautiful, so serene. That picture became my inspiration. A cream-textured bed with nailheads, white and walnut dresser, cozy chair in the corner. I’m not done yet. But it took me at least a year of living there to realize I even liked the space I had to work with. To realize I could mold and transform and even love it.

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I’m wary of buying any pieces I don’t love. Afraid that if I just buy something to fill the space, it will become normal, I’ll get used to it, I’ll never update. Until recently, our ottoman was a $79.99 faux leather (Does "vegan leather" sound fancier? Let's go with that.) dark brown piece with storage from Target that desperately needed replacing. The hinges didn’t quite work after four years of kids using it for everything from a boat to a hiding spot. There were a couple of rips in the “vegan leather” on the corner. But it worked. It held my feet up. It was easy to set it and forget it and not worry about upgrading.

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I’m a big fan of slow decorating. I think you have to live in a space before you know how you want it to feel, how you want it to look, how it will function best for you and your family. I know many people buy houses and immediately go about their renovations and binge on furniture purchases. I’m a bit more tortoise-like, quieter. I often don’t have an idea about a space until — suddenly — I do. It often comes to me, in a flash, and then I can’t tackle a project fast enough.

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I guess we’ve never really had the budget for major renovations or a plethora of furniture purchases to begin with. The lean days of our early married years made even a $79.99 ottoman purchase an investment for us. It amazed me that after putting a down payment on a house anyone had any money left to buy furniture to fill it with. In a way, we’ve been forced into slow.

But I do love the slow accumulation, over time, of pieces that speak to me, of pieces that are just right, of a corner I had no idea how to use until suddenly the exact right, perfect idea pops into my head - ah ha! So that’s what to do with you.

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That ottoman has been replaced now. A bigger piece, one more suited to the size of our space. Without hinges because now I know those will just get broken again. With a cream fabric that will probably get stained but since it was a steal at $169.99 it’s a risk I can take for something that’s more my style, something I like, something that feels like me. (It's still from Target, though. Some things never change.)

I’ve been eyeing some nightstands for our bedroom, a couple of chairs for our living room, still have no idea what to do with the long wall in our entryway. Maybe I won't for another three years, five years, eight. This house will probably never be "done", not finished in the way I see on Pinterest or in the pages of Dwell. And that's alright.

I'm okay with taking it slow.

Room to Breathe (Or: Celebrating Less Pile-Ups Around the Train Table)

Words haven’t been coming very easily to me lately. The blank screen or empty page has seemed more intimidating than usual. Part of it is this season of the busy — last week either Tyson or I or both had something each and every evening. Our weekends have been full, with fun things mostly, (a wedding, a birthday party, meeting Santa at “Elsa’s ice castle”), but full nonetheless. My typical free time has been taken over by either Christmas shopping (my goal: 100% online) or a little girl who doesn’t want to nap. I suppose it's hard to find the words when I can't even find the time.

Last weekend, though, I kicked everyone out of the house. Actually, I warned Tyson the night before that they had better be gone before I got up. I needed a few hours alone in the house and I didn't want to see or hear anyone. The seeing part worked well — they vanished before 8:30 — the hearing not so much. (The energy that three kids under four have at 6-something am is truly amazing.)  I attempted to sleep a little longer before I gave in and propped myself up on pillows instead to read a book and wait for the calm. 

I made my way downstairs to a fresh pot of coffee (bonus points, hubby) and a quiet house. I may not have had the words, but I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish without small children around.

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The playroom. (Feel free to shield your eyes from the sheer horror.)

It's been a source of frustration to me for awhile. It was...okay. It worked well enough, and in fact a playroom that I could sort-of-but-not-quite-see from the kitchen was one of the selling points of the house. But things had become sort of hodge-podge since we'd moved in. The bottom line: it wasn't laid out as well as it could be. The kids were constantly tripping over one other (admittedly on purpose sometimes) and there would frequently be pile-ups around the train table. Paintings were falling off the wall, only weakly held by the washi tape that seems to work for everyone else but only causes our creations to float to the floor. (Seriously, any washi tape recommendations?)

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As it always is with me, I didn't really have a plan for the space until suddenly I did, and then I couldn't tackle the makeover fast enough. I set to work, throwing out broken crayons, used coloring books, and dried up Play-Doh. The old artwork came down, markers were relegated to a drawer away from the reach of little hands, furniture was moved and (sort of) dusted.

Then, the fun part. Toys re-arranged. New pictures hung. Colorful wool garlands draped.

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I finished less than two hours later. I was surprised at how much I did in so little time. (Do you KNOW what you can accomplish without small children around?!?) It felt so good

I haven't tackled a project like this for...awhile. Maybe since Nolan's nursery. Going from the before to the after. Exercising my creative muscle (my interior design creative muscle at that) gave me a rush, a sense of energy, a hit of adrenaline. It was like solving a puzzle. Besides the poster frames, everything in the room was stuff that we already had. (I knew I would find a use for those pricey wool garlands that I just had to have for their birthday party.) Truly, all I really did was throw out junk and shift things around. The best kind of update. 

He knows that he's not supposed to eat in here but also that mom is too busy taking pictures to stop him.

He knows that he's not supposed to eat in here but also that mom is too busy taking pictures to stop him.

There is space to play, less junk on the shelves, room to breathe.

It's nothing major, but it's a change, a cleansing, a re-invigorating of a little corner of our home. I feel a tangible relief in the fact that I've created a space that we all actually want to be in now. It wasn't the creation of words, but a different kind of before and after, one that I used to do quite often. A check-in with a part of myself. Oh, hello. You're still there after all. And it doesn't hurt that I completed it all just in time for the toy influx of the holidays. 

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