In Praise of Anne Lamott’s “Why I Hate Mother’s Day”

No fewer than six people in my facebook feed linked to or quoted a recent essay by Anne Lamott that appeared on Salon.com, “Why I Hate Mother’s Day.”  Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions is one of my all-time favourite momoirs, and her Bird by Bird is a wonderful guide to the writing life.  She just has a down-to-earth, common-sensical approach to things, and this essay obviously hit a nerve with many in the run-up to Mother’s Day .

I have to confess, I said a quiet “Hurrah!” when I saw the title of her essay.  I don’t exactly hate Mother’s Day, and I really don’t mind getting older, but I do really hate being the centre of attention on my birthday and on Mother’s Day.  I have always hated New Year’s Eve because of the excessive burden of expectations.  If motherhood is imperfectible, so, too, is the fine art of celebrating mothers.

It can be easy in the time around holidays to question the expense and the sentiment and the baggage that goes along with them.  For every celebration there is a killjoy waiting to stamp out the light of the day.  But if it’s easy for killjoys to dismiss a holiday, it is also all too easy to dismiss killjoys as spoil-sports without attending to their very valid criticisms.  It’s a logical response to excess (of sentiment, of spending) to want to undercut it.  And we should.  We should be aware of excessive consumerism in December; we should examine the nature of patriotism in July; and we should examine the duties and the burdens of motherhood in May.

Lamott makes worthy criticisms.  She points to the ridiculousness of obligatory tokens of gratitude.  She points out that not only the mothers (n, pl) mother (v).  She decries the self-satisfaction of parenthood.  She argues that mothers should not be praised as saints because they work hard–lots of women’s lives are hard–and mothers should not be praised as saints because beatification is a double-edged sword.  There is a lot of sacrifice involved in getting a halo, and, she writes, not all mothers actually deserve it.

One of the points I think Lamott makes obliquely in the essay is a point about martyrdom.  At least, that’s the theme that has been ringing in my head all weekend.  The most important insight that I have taken away from the essay is that if we do not want our children and our partners to celebrate us out of guilt, then we also owe it to ourselves not to make the kinds of sacrifices that might induce that guilt.

The only thing I wanted for my Mother’s Day was a trip to the McMichael Art Gallery.  I wanted it really, really badly, and I put all my Mother’s Day eggs in that basket.  Months ago, I blocked the whole day BEFORE Mother’s Day off so that we could go.  I wanted a day, a whole day, for immediate family only, away from crowds and cliches, devoted to looking at and making art and winding up with a long hike in the grounds that surround the gallery and a dinner cooked by someone who was not me.  You can see where this is going, can’t you?  Three hockey teams did not have access to my wishes or my calendar, and slowly but inexorably, the day filled up with obligations that narrowed the window of time to visit the gallery to something that was possible, yes, but not at all desirable.  I was not going to clock-watch during the ever-dwindling window of My Mother’s Day Time.  On an ordinary day, on a Not-Mother’s Day, I think I would have gladly squeezed it in and counted myself blessed for the bounty.  But I had wanted of this day most of all not to be rushed, and that, in the end, is what killed it.  When one of the activities ran long and it became clear that time was dwindling, I just asked to go home.

I want to be very clear that I blame no-one, and I would not have cancelled any of the other events that began to fill the day.  You cannot argue with the calendar.  I do believe that the mother of a goalie does not get to say, “Sorry, Team, we have other plans.”  The mother of three Habs fans does not suggest that they go for a ramble in the woods on the night that the team faces Stanley Cup Playoff Elimination; this is not the kind of parenting decision that is likely to lead to happy Mother’s Day memories.

During the time we could have squeezed in a trip to the gallery, I sat in my back yard and read.  I ate a meal with my family that was not cooked by me, and I received and read my children’s perfectly imperfect Mother’s Day cards.  My husband, my amazing husband, gave me this

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and I felt blessed.  But then, instead of joining them to watch the Habs in all of their playoff glory, as I am sometimes known to do, I watched two movies based on the novels of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.  I did things that made me happy, but a double dose of women in period dress will, I hope, communicate to you, dear reader, the depths of my sulkiness and of my anti-hockey sentiment.

I did not blame anyone, but I was very disappointed.

I was also very angry at myself for feeling disappointed.  Why had I saved for a single day a host of things that I value?  Art, creativity, learning, hiking, not looking at the clock, privacy, family time.  Why had I thought that the day should be devoted to these things to the exclusion of all others (hockey) when the very reason I so badly needed it was because the bulk of our schedule is devoted to the kids’ activities and interests to the exclusion of mine?  The solution to the problem of not having enough of what I want to do in our daily lives is not to try and make it happen on the one day on which the kids and husband will feel obliged to make it happen.  The solution is to make art, creativity, learning, hiking, not looking at the clock, privacy, and family time as much a part of what defines our whole family as the hockey schedule.  My martyrdom was not in sulkily asking to just go home when we could have gone to the museum, but in not having insisted that what I value must also have equal space on the calendar on every other day of the year.  This is not easy to do.  If I ever do manage to fit in all of the richness of all of our interests, I will have earned my halo, but I will have done it without being a martyr.

Nathalie’s Word for 2015: Attend

attend (v)

1. to be present at (an event, meeting or function)

2. to apply the mind or to pay close attention

Origin of attend: Middle English, from Anglo-French atendre, from Latin attendere, literally, to stretch to, from ad- + tendere to stretch

First of all, I love that the etymology for this word includes “stretch” because for weeks and weeks “stretch” was my word for this post.  I even wrote it in the sand at the beach this summer to photograph it for this post, then I changed my mind.  I like to feel I’m having it both ways now.  More than that, it felt like a gift to discover that the word I finally settled on has nestled inside it the word I had been contemplating for so long.  It made the decision feel right.

And having it both ways is kind of what this word is about because “attend” points in two very different directions for me: to venture out and to pay close attention to.

I want next year to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone and to attend many more events and functions and plays and games and gatherings outside of my home and my comfort zone.  I am a home body, and I need a lot of time alone at home, but this blog and my children’s growing older have both opened up a lot of new opportunities to loosen the tether to home and the comfortable safety it offers.  I want to say yes a lot more often to occasions to be away from home.  Often, this means that someone else will have to attend to my children, and I’ll be honest, sometimes the effort of replacing myself just doesn’t seem worth it.  Well, I want not to weigh that question of worth quite so often next year.  I want to find out for sure, and I want to begin to belong in circles, places and spaces that define a different part of me.

But I also feel strongly bound by the sense of the word that means to pay attention, to attend not only to the world and the people around me, but also to my gut.  It’s an inward-looking, close to the self kind of meaning, and I want to pull the world in at the same time that I venture out.  I have begun that in a really rewarding way already with photographs from my daily walks.  (I post them on Instagram, if you’re following us there, and they pop up on the side bar if you’re reading us on the computer.)  Somehow, giving myself the task of capturing one image from my day has made me attend to my surroundings in a whole new way.  I’m looking for opportunities to frame and capture a moment, a colour, a flash of light.  I am never the subject of the photograph, but somehow they reflect me and how I saw the world that day.  “Attend” came to me while I was on one of my walks, and it really does capture how grounded and right in myself I feel while I’m walking.

I listen to podcasts while I’m on my long exercise walks, so attending also means paying attention to another person’s story.  I often joke that education is wasted on the young and that I could happily be in school for ever.  Well, with podcasts I am attending lectures for as long as my walk lasts.  I have met so many amazing authors in interviews recorded with the CBC, BBC, The Guardian, NPR, LRB, and others, and I’ve been utterly captivated by what I’ve learned about science and history from “Quirks and Quarks” and “A History of the World in 100 Objects.”  My taking photographs and listening to podcasts began in earnest in November, but I know it’s something that I want to make a top priority for 2015 because they both feed my soul.

Finally, I want to learn to attend to my own instincts more generously and viscerally.  I second-guess myself all the time, and, usually, I think that’s a positive thing.  I think it’s good to question yourself.  I like humility and the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, and I value how second-guessing myself will give me both.  But I’m also a bit tired of how often hindsight will show me that I should have been more rooted in my own values and priorities.  I will catch myself scrambling around in ways that reward others much more than they reward me, and I want to rein that in, to attend to what feels right for me.

So, a word that stretches me in some ways and extends what is already there and working well.  I’m happy I settled on it.  I feel at home in it.

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I Dream of Clones

magnets-i-dreamed-my-whole-house-was-cleanAnne Taintor is my hands-down favourite satirist of motherhood and the life of a woman.  (Seriously, click that link and look at her gallery of images.  Time well spent.)

Sadly, she has not yet captured my dream with her witty one-liners: clones for the whole family.

It’s that time of year when folks are asking, “What would you/the kids/your husband like for Christmas?”

I’m sorely lacking in imagination with my answers because, frankly, I want for nothing but time.

How can you make my dreams come true?  Clone me.  Better yet, clone me, my husband and my three kids multiple times so that one husband can drive one kid to hockey while the same kid stays home and gets his homework done and the same husband drives a different kid to hockey and I stay home and supervise homework and attend both hockey games and the third kid’s basketball game and I cook a huge brunch and we all sleep in and enjoy a pajama day.

We have a lot on our plates, but you know what?  We don’t want to give any of it up.  The kids can’t wait to get out the door to hockey, whether it’s morning or night, and while the enthusiasm might be slightly more muted for the academic extracurriculars, they like those, too.  They aren’t complaining about being overscheduled.

Overscheduled is what we appear to be when you look at the bulging calendar, but the word implies an unwelcome burden and zombie kids but none of what we choose to stuff the calendar with is unwelcome and the kids are thriving.  Our lives are bountiful and filled with welcome plenty.  I struggle so with acknowledging all that welcome plenty at the same time as feeling frazzled from so much running around.  I am a homebody, and I crave my quiet nights, but I do not want to say no.  I do not want to trim or cut or axe or delete.  I want us all home and sitting around the dinner table together and I want us all tucked into our beds on time and I want time for my kids to really get pleasurably absorbed in a project and I want them to play epic games of Minecraft/tag/cards/whatever without watching the clock and I want us all at the rink, four cheering on the fifth, and I want to experience that fabled feeling of being in the moment when the moments only seem to come hurtling at me at 100 mph.

So, what is my dream for Christmas?  The impossible dream: I dream of clones.

Bedtime Stories Are My Abiding Delight

I am a big believer in making time, and lots of it, for books before bed.  My family was even interviewed about it once by Andrea Gordon at the Toronto Star.

Four years later, and the boys are bigger and, significantly, they play a lot more hockey.  All three boys play competitive hockey, and we make 10-12 trips to the rink a week.  This is a good thing, mostly, and I’m a little bit proud and a lot relieved to be raising kids who are so eager to be fit and healthy and active.  (Not my DNA.)  However, hockey eats into time for all kinds of things: playdates, family dinners, unstructured time, and, yes, bedtime stories.

Time is never found, it’s made, and I make time for bedtime reading whenever it’s remotely possible, which is still usually four times a week of an hour of reading aloud before bed.  I am a stickler for bedtimes, because some of us are quite cranky if we don’t get a full night’s sleep, even if some of us are in our forties.  But if I can squeeze in a chapter before Youngest’s bedtime, I will always go the extra mile to do so.  I’m now reading aloud to Youngest and Middlest, and it’s all Harry Potter all the time.  After Youngest pops off to bed, Middlest reads by himself, sometimes curled up with me and my book, and sometimes for up to two hours before it’s time for his lights out.  (Definitely my DNA.)  It’s a magical time.  I am so profoundly grateful for it.

endgameEldest does not read with predictable regularity any more, though, and that saddens me.  He is at the rink most often, and he comes home late.  He will occasionally get immersed in a series, but it’s not a dependable thing.  I recently heard an interview that impressed me so much, I went out and bought the book for him.  (Seriously, go listen to this interview: James Frey being interviewed by a boy named Joshua for The Guardian.  It’s not often I am more impressed by the interviewer than the interviewee, but this kid is sharp.)  Anyway, I learned from this interview that James Frey’s new YA novel The Calling, the first in the Endgame trilogy, has a puzzle built into it, and the first person to solve the puzzle has a chance to win $500,000 of James Frey’s own dollars, currently sitting in a vault in Las Vegas in gold bars.  “This will get his attention,” I thought.  I’m glad to say that while it did get his attention, and while he did find my enthusiasm about the interview infectious, he did not make a huge effort to read the book quickly to solve the puzzle to win the gold.

Reading should be its own reward, and I’m glad that money was not sufficient enticement.  I have a quiet faith that one day, when there is somewhat less hockey (and soccer and basketball and swimming) on his schedule, Eldest will make his way back to daily and lengthy engagements with a book.  Reading is my abiding delight, and I do so want them to have that kind of pleasure in their daily lives.

The Gift of an Extra Hour

560146_10154829745705014_3080396294445167686_nAnd you, you busy mother, what will you, did you do with the gift of an extra hour this weekend when the clocks turned back and the night closed in?

What gift will you, did you give yourself in those sixty precious extra minutes?

Sleep.  Sleep sleep sleep sleep sleep.  And/or.

A full pot of hot coffee and time to drink it quietly.  And/or.

An early-morning slip out of the front door and up the hill to the damp dark park for long quiet walk.  And/or.

Bread, from scratch, to make the house rise with its smell.  And/or.

A bath alone and piping hot.  And/or.

A project from beginning to end.  And/or.

A meal, unhurried.  And/or.

Yes instead of no.  And/or.

Extra chapters at bedtime.  And/or.

Sleep.  Sleep sleep sleep sleep sleep.

 

 

Mindfulness, Meditation, and Making the Most of the Day

056It must be about 15 years ago now that I went to my first yoga class.  I had finished law school and landed a job at the University of Toronto, where I would stay for awhile before becoming a litigator.  The Associate Dean of the law school was my supervisor, a bright light at the school whose work ethic and good judgment was jettisoning her career at rapid speed.  This type of life is predictably stressful, and it was she who recommended that I try yoga, because it had done wonders for her:  “It sounds cliche, but it’s transformative,” she said.

This wasn’t an endorsement that I could ignore so I went.  And shoot, it wasn’t transformative.  I just felt twisty and disconnected and wondered what the deep rumbly noises all around me were (ujjayi breathing).  In other words, I had no idea what I was doing or why, which kind of means that I really wasn’t there.

Gratefully I tried again, with a very good friend who introduced me to an Indian teacher from whom she first learned in India, and who she continued to follow when he moved to Canada.  And the classes were, well, transformative.  It was my first real foray into meditation, or less loftily, simple calming the mind (I’m pretty sure he would not call those classes meditation by a long shot, but it’s me writing the post).  My body was doing all kinds of interesting things, but focusing on one’s breathing for an hour and a half (even when it’s raggedy and you should cool it a bit with the pose), is profoundly restful for the mind.

Mindfulness is a pretty catchy term, which is always a signal that one should explain what one’s definition of it is.  For me, it means being more awake to my surroundings and my choices, to live more intentionally.  I have been doing this for quite a few years now, sometimes with great success, and sometimes not.  At the moment, I am operating in a less successful window.  I could cite some reasons, but why bother – I’m just (over-)busy, much like you.

But if my hold on being mindful were stronger, I would know that it is precisely during such times when meditation and a calm mind is most needed and most helpful.  I woke up yesterday really feeling like a shift was due, and set my sights on a 30 minute window for a mindful meditation.  An unexpected turn in my husband’s schedule eliminated this possibility; I was with my 3 year old until the end of the school day, when I’d have my boys on my own until bedtime.

I’m vulnerable to being plowed under when best laid plans like these don’t materialize, but in one of my better moves, I noticed that the weather was clear and warm-for-fall, and my boy and I went outside.  I finally set up the cages for my mushroom logs (best-tasting mushrooms ever, by the way) to keep the darn raccoons away, and the neglected garden got some attention, with some of it put to bed (not the kale though, it’s still going strong). We were outside for a long time, my little guy sometimes helping me, sometimes doing his own thing, almost always talking to me.  We worked.  I worked, but I stopped often to see his centipede, or to find the wet hat lost in the summer, or to pick chamomile.  We came into the house hungry and happy and settled.

It was not a meditation, but it was mindful, and it felt like a breather for an over-active mind.   I was active and productive at home, and yet the world slowed down for me, and the conscious choosing of my time felt grounded and right.  The benefits felt similar to those from meditation, and I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on mindfulness when my allocated 30 minutes of meditation slipped away, because there was still a whole day remaining.

It won’t do for the purists I know, but maybe meditation or at least its benefits can come in different forms, and maybe it’s not quite elusive this way.  A walking meditation maybe, a listening meditation, a gardening meditation, a playing meditation.  Just actually noticing where you are and making the most of it meditation.

Yesterday this happened.  Today is a new day.  I’m going to try.

Yoga With Kids

270Along with pretty much everything else, yoga has been on a hiatus lately and I’ve been feeling it.  But I fit in it yesterday.  I was with my youngest babe, and for whatever reason, he suggested it.  It’s been a good long while since we’ve done any yoga and honestly I don’t even know how he would know to ask for it.  But I’ve been meaning to get back to it anyway, and there’s no time like the present, so in popped the video.

I did this even though in exactly six minutes I had to pick up my older boys from school, but I figured six minutes is a huge improvement on the nothing I’ve been doing, and my body would benefit from anything.

And then I had the happy (and kind of surprising) experience of mentioning it to the boys after school and hearing:  “Yeah!  Yoga!  Let’s do yoga!  Yoga, yoga!!”

So we traipsed up the stairs and into the bedroom where the computer is and got started.  There is absolutely no room for four of us; there’s barely room for two.  We squished two (sometimes three) on the floor, and one (sometimes two) on the bed.  Yes, my children did yoga on the bed.

Yoga with the kids is also more vocal than when I do it alone.  I heard:

I’m the best at this!

Is this supposed to hurt?

What does she mean take 5 breaths?  I already took 5 breaths!

My feet smell too bad.  I’m too close to my feet.

There’s space right here on Mommy!  See?

Who wants to play the game where we run and bump each other?

Meditation is not the name of the game when I do yoga with the kids, but it’s hard to imagine enjoying it more.  I am in awe of what practicing yoga can do for the body, mind and spirit, and yet there really is something to be said for a good belly laugh (or six).  I’m thankful for all of it.

Community Success

photo 3My proudest time as a teacher was taking a group of students to South Africa on exchange.

In 2007, I took eleven Nelson Mandela Park Public School students (from grades five to twelve) to Cape Town, South Africa, for a month.

For close to two years, the school and the Regent Park community worked together and supported the exchange in every way (financially, emotionally, physically) through fundraising, learning about South Africa and Nelson Mandela, and through communicating with Battswood, our sister school in South Africa.

Prior to our trip, in December of 2006, the Regent Park community hosted a group of teachers, parents and students from our sister school in their homes and classrooms for a month.

The community aspect, both here in Canada and there in South Africa, was amazing.

It was a lot of hard work, but at the same time it was easy because we knew that other people were supporting  the project.

What was most remarkable about this whole experience was the level of trust from the school, the community, and the families that these children could be successful in doing the unexpected.

I was privileged to be a part of this life changing experience.

(Recounting this story brought tears to Sherri’s eyes).

 

What do you learn from your students?

photo (10)Being a teacher and spending my days with young children has taught me to embrace living in an imperfect world. The lives of children are often messy and complicated, but that messiness is usually short-lived and turns into joy and exuberance more quickly than we adults anticipate. I am always amazed watching children make mistakes as they are learning or as they are navigating the social world of the playground because I am also witnessing them build resilience and their inner strength, which I know they will carry into their adult lives.  Watching them build their resiliency or come to accept when their ideas don’t work out as planned makes me remember it’s okay to exist in a place that isn’t always neat and tidy, where it’s okay to fail because we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Sense Memories

dustOne of the things I loved about Moira Young’s Dustlands trilogy was the way she describes smell.  The narrator protagonist Saba is caught in a love triangle, as the heroines of young adult fantasy and dystopias often are, and each of her love interests has his own characteristic smell.  (Actually, she has three men vying for her attention, but the third does not get a sense description, so we know that we can dismiss him as a contender fairly quickly.)  The books are set in a post-apocalyptic world of drought, dust and danger, and on those rare occasions when there is time and water available for bathing, it is described as something wonderfully soothing and quietly aromatic.  And her men?  One smells of sage and the other of juniper.

I had my first kiss in middle school, and the boyfriend in question smelled of Polo, the signature scent of boys in the eighties.  And when he gave me his jean jacket to wear, I could carry that smell around with me everywhere.  It was the smell of butterflies in my stomach, of relief to be paired up, of pride to show it off.  It was the sensory equivalent of the fog I was in in those heady days of fumbling around for a sense of place and selfhood.  I loved the smell then, and I took every opportunity to bury my nose in the soft, frayed collar of the jacket.  I smell it today with mixed emotions, not all of them pleasant.  What hindsight throws into stronger relief is the tumult of emotions that goes along with first kisses and first loves and first heartaches.  The 1000th and 10,000th kisses are so very much better, though they never fail to give me butterflies.

What is your scent memory of your first kiss?