Happy bird-day

It’s my birthday.
I’m 52.
And while I do have days (like I wrote about in my last post) where I feel a bit conflicted about getting older or especially in being a ‘mature’ student, for the most part, I am quite content about the whole thing and really try my very best to embrace it. I definitely subscribe to the whole “older and wiser” mentality. I know I am a better mother, partner, teacher, student, researcher NOW at 52 than I was even 1 year ago because of my life experience, or more specifically because I have had the time to grow, learn and become.

This past Saturday night I ripped through Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography. It was one of those truly serendipitous moments of picking up the right book at the right time. In it, Levy, as the title suggests, writes a small section of her autobiography focusing on one specific year of her life where she was undergoing some major changes; a divorce, the death of her mother, the challenges of being a woman in midlife all alongside her struggles in her career as a writer. What spoke so deeply to me was her ability to communicate how those of us who have defined ourselves for so long as mothers, or, as partners to others so often end up in this kind of liminal place– between what we were and what we might become. After spending so much of our time and energy building a life for our family and/or investing in relationships, romantic and otherwise… of being the nurturer…taking care of others… The notion of being free to do what we want and to create our own independent lives may seem exceedingly difficult and requires equal amounts of patience, humour and energy.

What also spoke to me about Levy’s book was the bird theme that runs through it.  Birds! I have been thinking so much about birds lately and this further added to my feelings that it was fate that brought this book to me mere days before my birthday.
The kids has asked me a couple of weeks ago what I wanted for my birthday and I told them, without hesitation, a squirrel-proof bird feeder. I have beautiful feeder that they gave me years ago when we still lived in Vancouver and I was incredibly disappointed  when we first moved to hang it up only to have it pillaged by the hoards of squirrels that roam my neighbourhood here in Montréal. At birthday dinner last night (we celebrated a day early so I had time to prepare an extra special meal -haha!) they presented me with my coveted  squirrel-proof bird feeder. I was ecstatic. I quickly filled it and hung it outside just above my little St Francis of Assisi , patron Saint of birds and animals tile.

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I began thinking about all the symbolism wrapped up in birds not just for me personally but also in life generally and I was reminded of this by Hildegard von Bingen;

“Birds symbolize the power that helps people to speak reflectively and leads them               to think out many things in advance before they take action. Just as birds are lifted             up into the air by their feathers and can remain wherever they wish, the soul in the           body is elevated by thought and spreads its wings everywhere.” ~ from Liber de                 Subtilitatum 

The power to speak reflectively.

Yes. Without a doubt something that I have been pondering very closely for while now.

But the bird feeder wasn’t my only gift!

Sons number 2 and 3 also arrived to dinner with a gift that they had bought all on their own.

It was a scale. A bathroom scale— like, to weigh yourself with. An interesting gift to buy for your mother to be sure… everyone had a good laugh. And, of course I had to get on the damn thing. (not so funny) But! As I was already into some serious metaphorical -thinking about my birthday and the bird feeder I couldn’t help but think about…weight. As in there is a lot of weight in my musings on birds; the power to speak reflectively… yes, but, I was also thinking about freedom.  I was meditating  on birds and their ability to fly, to soar — the freedom inherent in gliding over and looking down on all that is below. The weightlessness of it all.

After dinner when the boys had gone home, the others were heading to bed and the ol’ man had finished the dishes (he’s good like that) I went to put away my good serving plater he had left on the table for me to put back in the china cabinet. As I was shuffling things around in there I picked up a china egg that had belonged to my mother-in-law. When she died 5 years ago, we ended up with a box of assorted knickknacks that, in all honestly, I hadn’t paid too much attention to. They were put away in the china cabinet and have sat there since. For some reason, last night this giant china egg caught my eye, mostly because I didn’t really remember it.

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When I picked it up I discovered it opened into two pieces, and lo and behold, what was inside but two little glass  birds. I had no idea there were birds in there. I took it to show the ol’ man and he also had no idea.
I brought it to my desk and carefully made a place for it— I think this egg and the wee birds inside need to hang out here awhile.

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There have been no visitors (that I have seen) to my bird feeder yet this morning but as I walked my son to school this morning we heard a woodpecker, some crows, a whole mess of chickadees and saw (and heard!) a bit fat robin. It is cold-ish (-2C) and there is still snow on the ground so Spring has not yet sprung here. I will keep watch over my bird feeder, eagerly waiting for the first (non-squirrel!) visitor, while the little glass birdies will keep watch over me as I continue to “think out many things in advance before [I] take action…” speaking reflectively and with weight.

Happy bird-day to me.

Resistance is Futile (and deadlines are looming).

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“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit”. ~Aristotle

I have a little card on my desk that has this quote on it and I come back to it again and again (and again). I fully admit to being very distractible. Sometimes I try and go easy on myself… to give myself a break…I mutter to myself, “well, you’ve got a lot on your plate… all these kids…elderly parents to tend to…an almost finished PhD to… just finish already… several teaching gigs… midlife…and just life-life… You have a lot to be distracted by….how can you not be distracted?!” And, well, yeah, sure. I guess those things are all true… But! Really! I am REALLY just easily distracted. I WANT to focus but I am weak, there is stuff to read and look at and fiddle-fart around with. As I have professed on many occasions I am a big ol’ procrastinator— yet, still, I get up every day determined that today I will be better. I know it is a practice—I just need to continue to practice staying focused, I practice daily, fighting against my urge to procrastinate. It is a habit that I will forever need to be mindful of, and there is no easy fix. I recently ripped through the book The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles” by Steven Pressfield on a morning that I had dedicated to working through my PhD revisions— This is nothing new to me— procrastinating by reading books about how not to procrastinate but, I have to say, this procrastination session was particularly enlightening and dare I say, useful. Pressfield’s book resonated deeply with me because his theory revolves around what he considers to be the enemy of creativity; resistance. Procrastination is the result of resistance and fuelled by fear. Fear, Pressfield attests, can be a good thing— it indicates to us that something is important to us— and in my case, this is true. While I do tend to also procrastinate about doing things like cleaning the bathtub and folding the laundry these are not the things that have fear attached to them— my PhD, the play and the article I am writing , these are the things that have fear firmly attached to them and as Pressfield suggests “…the degree of fear equates to the strength of Resistance.” (2002 40) And, well, yes, the degree of fear I feel from avoiding scrubbing my tub is significantly lower than my fear of not getting my PhD revisions done in time.
If I am what I repeatedly do then I want to believe that acknowledging and wrestling resistance must simply become a habit, and part of my practice as an academic, artist and writer. The wrestling takes many forms. Plain old willpower is one way to do it, removing distractions is another. I have been using the website blocker Freedom— which helps. I had read that Zaide Smith used something similar and I was, of course, thrilled to know I was not alone (and in very good company) in my distractedness. It helps. And I will actually laugh out loud to myself when I habitually click on one of my blocked websites while I’m in a Freedom session only to find a green screen with a butterfly on it staring back at me. Resistance is futile, I suppose, and deadlines are looming.

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Take Aways from my freakin’ writing retreat–Day 3

  1. Realizing that I won’t get everything I wanted to get done, done… but also realizing that I STILL got more done than I would have if I hadn’t been here…
  2.  Also, “Why haven’t I done this before????” (oh, yeah, many children, 2 jobs…)
  3. Note to self; always bring more coffee than you think you will need — rationing coffee makes me anxious.
  4. Making a large pot of homemade soup and bringing only the soup, a loaf of wholegrain bread, a jar of peanut butter and a bit of fruit to my 4-day retreat so I won’t have to “fuss” with cooking, seemed like a really good, sensible and wholesome idea, but on day 3, I could care less about sensible and henceforth just ate a bag of microwave popcorn I found kicking around in the cupboard, (OK, so I ate TWO bags of microwave popcorn….)
  5. It is impossible to NOT have at least a few flashes of Kathy Bates in Misery showing up, while alone in a cottage, typing away furiously in a snowstorm.

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Sh*t just got real…

OK- so I am not really sure that “the sh*t just got real” thing works in this context– I just really wanted an excuse to say that.

But, if it means that I need to really get my rear in gear– or my submission date is looming (September 29!!!) and I still do not have a full first draft… then yeah, sh*t just got real! (I tried typing it without the asterisk but couldn’t bring myself to leave it like that– I’ve got me some scruples, or I’m just an ol’ fuddy-duddy academic desperately grasping, and failing, to come off as edgy).

Because of my very full teaching schedule, today is the first day in months that I actually have the day (full work day) to write/work and of course, with that kind of freedom comes some trepidation– now I really have to do something. I am trying to go in with beginners mind— really just being present to what I am writing now and trying to not get ahead of myself or panic about all the work I haven’t done yet.

I am coupling that with a plan– mapping out what needs to be done. Got the white board wiped clean, new calendar pages ready to be filled in.

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I am walking into the white room  à la Twyla Tharp, ready to work, with a plan but open to surprises. And by surprises, I mean brilliant strokes of genius! Divine inspiration!

It’s real. 163 days… and counting. Let’s get this sh*t done!!!

Hello My Name is Mamalegato and I am a Procrastibaker.

I belong to a Facebook group for PhD and Early Career Researcher Parents- where,  we share the challenges of parenting while trying to navigate academia and just recently one of the members posted a photo of some adorable but labour intensive looking Easter themed cupcakes proclaiming herself to be a procrastibaker- I can SO relate, and while I certainly would call myself a procrasibaker in the most obvious sense of the word- I bake to avoid the mounds of writing and researching I should be attending to… I realized today, it goes much deeper than that. It hit me this afternoon as I got up from my desk after a particularly dismal day of fiddle-farting around and successfully avoiding the abstract that needs writing, the three separate student assignments that need marking and the script (for a show that goes up in 2 months) that needs re-writing- that my motivation for baking (or procrasti-baking) comes from two places; love and guilt. Love because I know the kids truly love walking in the door and racing up the stairs calling out their best guesses as to what the wafting baking smell is (“Chocolate chip cookies?” “Banana muffins… I knew it!”) And guilt for all the time I have spent away missing birthdays, school concerts, or just being there when they come in the door after school. Somehow- a warm muffin or chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven make ME feel like I am being some kind of good Mom and while neither makes up for time away- I feel like I’m doing just a little something special- while weaselling my way out of reading those 27 student essays… care for a muffin?!muffins.jpg

The Early Bird Gets The Worm (and gets a bunch of other stuff done too.)

 

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I am an early riser. I always have been, my Mother was too, she grew up on a farm and I like to think it is in the genes. Even as a undergrad student, working until 3 am in a bar, I still woke up at 9 am (early for a barmaid and a student!) because I just couldn’t fathom spending the day in bed. (I suppose I have what the young ’ins these days call FoMO- of “fear of missing out”).
Over the years my early rising has shifted from what some people seem to think of as a sort of reasonable early rising of 6 am to my current 4 am. I know, 4 am is really early. Telling people you get up (because you want to- not because you have to) at 4 am elicits the same same sort of response as telling people you have six children. “What?!” “Why?!” or “That’s amazing!”- which is always slightly embarrassing because, trust me, I am not doing it for the notoriety, or the wow factor, I do it because it really helps me get set for the day- centres me, makes me feel like I can “get ‘er done” (whatever “it” may be). My current weekday morning ritual looks something like this; I wake up somewhere between 4 and 4:20 (I don’t use an alarm clock- ever- I just wake up.) I get up, turn on the heat, and make a hot water with lemon. I roll out my yoga mat, and sit in meditation for 5-15 minutes ( the time depending on whether I got up at 4 or later) I then do a bit of yoga, usually, Sun Salutations for 5-10 minutes, then try to read a short passage of something inspiring (currently; Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates and Katrina Kenison), then sit for a few minutes at my desk and write a to-do list or a few notes in my agenda/journal and then go put on the water for coffee. Some of the inspiration for my current ritual came from a Podcast I was listening to on Français Authentique– I actually listen to it to work on my french but in one particular episode he was talking about “The Miracle Morning” a book by American Hal Elrod, who writes about the ‘best practices’—”developed over centuries of human consciousness development” (according to his website) to create an effective morning ritual “to transform your life” and apparently achieve everything you have ever wanted. I definitely got some inspiration from it but have also tried really hard to listen hard to what I need each morning whether it be more mediation, a few minutes rolling around on a massage ball or more time to scribble some thoughts down- I try not to be a rigid as Elrod prescribes- because I really like that time to be something nourishing- and not something I feel like I have to do.
The ol’ man gets up at 5 (he has also always been an early riser) and we sit, for a minimum of 30 minutes every single morning (this we’ve been doing without fail for 24 years) and have coffee together. Sometimes we talk; about the kids, the weather, what’s going on that evening or that coming weekend, who needs to be taken where… and sometimes we just sit in silence. By 5:30- I’m making breakfast and packing lunches, finding socks and gym clothes and white shirts with no stains on them, somedays (2 days at the moment) I am out the door by 7 am to get to work and the other days I walk the youngest kids to school and get back to my desk by 9-ish to start writing.
The ritual has shifted and changed over the years, and has most definitely had to adjust through babies, and breastfeeding etc. I remember with extreme fondness a time when I was just mama to 3 and we lived near the beach- I would get up around 5 to go for a run and watch the sun come up. Other phases of my early rising had me simply being up before everyone else and reading.
Of course, getting up so early, means that I am ready to fall into bed pretty early, usually around 9 pm and it is not unusual for me to conk out shortly after 8, as soon as I get the younger kids to bed. And on those mornings when I have had to be up “late” (10 pm+ *gasp*!) the night before I just let myself sleep until I wake up which is still usually 5:30 or so. But after many months of being on the 4 am ritual schedule- there is always just a bit of disappointment when I look at the clock to see I’ve missed my precious golden hour.
Rives, an American poet, and storyteller, talks about his own obsession with four in the morning on a Ted Talk that I highly recommend- in it he talks about how he came to curate the online; “the museum of four in the morning“. I enjoy visiting this virtual museum if for no other reason, when I am bumping around in the dark- getting up and trying not to wake anyone else in the house, it makes me feel like I am part of some secret society.

 

How (not) to write a PhD and keep/lose your sanity…

When I am feeling my most discouraged and whipped by this PhD I tend to start listing mentally, everything that has happened in my life over the past 2.5 years that have made it impossible for me to “properly” get this thing done. Pathetic, I know- but somehow I think it is kind of a common “poor, poor, pitiful me” thing to do. But, I recently got to thinking that, funnily enough, when I am feeling particularly buoyed and optimistic about getting this thing done, I turn to that very same list, and use it to pat myself on the back in an “against all odds” sort of way. The ol’ man and I, will, from time to time, start trying to list all the major happenings of the past few years only to give up mid-way through because it becomes a tad overwhelming. At some point, me doing a PhD, in another country, while raising six children seemed like a good idea- if someone is able to remind me of that specific good idea I would be most grateful because most days it completely escapes me.

I have to preface this all by saying I have, from day one, from the first inkling, or seedling of a thought that I should pursue a PhD, had this pestering voice in my head telling me (loud and clear) that I have no business doing a PhD in the first place. (Hello major imposter syndrome!) I really think I am fairly justified in listening, even just a little bit to this pestering voice for the following reasons; I am the only person in my immediate family to have gotten a degree of any kind, I have an uncle on my Mother’s side who has a Bachelors degree and no one on my Father’s side has ever attended university. I dropped out of university before completing my BFA because I was pregnant with my first son. I went back 5 years later (we only had 3 kids at that point) and finished. I then went on to have 3 more kids, keeping one foot in the opera/theatre world, doing a bit of performing and teaching privately from my home. Two years after my youngest son was born I lucked into an adjunct teaching job because of my professional experience in the field. I loved it and decided I wanted the opportunity to move up and get a more stable job in academia, so I went into an MFA program at Goddard College a non-traditional, low-residency, Interdisciplinary Arts program- not your typical route to an PhD.
No sir-ee.

So, I have a “sketchy” academic background, six children, I am researching voice for the theatre (not a lot of people breakin’ the banks to help me fund that) and let’s not forget I am a woman, in my 40’s – not your typical postgrad – no, not typical in any way. So already the odds are stacked against me. Oh! and did I mention that I am self-funding?! Save for a few government bursaries for middle aged women with lots of kids researching theatre, I am doing this on student loans.
One might say I was (and still am?!) behind the 8 ball…

But despite all that I still thought it was a good idea. Riding on the momentum of my MFA (which in and of itself was difficult but definitely transformative in many ways) we (the ol’ man and I) decided this would be an adventure worth taking. Doing it in the UK seemed to make the most sense because there was a supervisor there who met my research needs (someone experienced as both a classical musician and a theatre artist) and they offered the opportunity to do it as a split site location student as moving the whole family to the UK for my studies was not going to happen.
We decided that to make this whole thing more manageable we would move across the country to Montréal where all the ol’ man’s family is, giving him support when I was away and making popping back and forth over the pond a little less daunting.

It all sounds so easy, right?! I would go away for 2 weeks to a month every semester, teach part-time and he would work full time and hold the fort while I was away.

Piece. of. cake.

Except. Nothing is ever simple for us- you would think I would know that by now- not much is simple with six kids because, well, there are simply so many people involved.

Early in my studies I was in a panic because I did not have a clue as to what I was doing- how does one “do” “write” “participate in” a PhD? So I read books and scoured the internet for helpful hints- everything from “Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minute a Day” to numerous inspiring articles such as ;“10 Steps to PhD Failure”.
I can remember sitting reading one of these articles with much anxiety as I started ticking off all the tasks I had already completed in one called something like “Top Reasons PhD’s Get Derailed”. Yes, I am the poster girl for how-not-to-do-a-PhD-but make-it-work-anyway.

And I, or rather we- as this inevitably affects all of the family, are still limping along.

So. Here’s the list (which is surely not complete- because… well… life).

It may conversely make me weep, or pump my fist in victory or maybe both.
1. We sold our house, I left my adjunct job (a small university that I liked very much) and the ol’ man quit his solid construction job and we moved 5 of the kids across the country (our eldest, 20 at the time stayed.)
2. We arrived to new province, a new language, new schools new jobs and then…

3.…a month after we arrived I left for my first one month stint in the UK.
4. My Mother-in-law was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, refused all treatment and died a year after we arrived .
5. My father decided he could no longer care for my Mother who suffers from dementia, and moved her into a full time care facility. I flew back (5+ hours) multiple times to help with the transition.
6. Our eldest son, who had been dealing with addiction issues, reached out for help- we used the money we had made from the sale of our house to bring him to Montréal and put him through rehab for 3 months. (He has been sober for 2+ years now, is a straight A student, works to support himself, writes, plays music- we couldn’t be more proud of him).
7. My Father-in-law was diagnosed with cancer one year after my Mother-in-law died. He is now in remission and doing well.
8. Son #2 fell down a long set of stairs at the metro (subway) and broke his shoulder, he required surgery to insert a steel rod and months of rehabilitation.
9. We moved from the first house we rented in Montreal to a larger one.

10. I got really sick with a mystery illness about 1 year in. I developed eczema all over my face and I lost my voice- for one month- one whole month with little to no voice- kind of ironic as a Doctoral Researcher studying…VOICE! The doctors I saw diagnosed it all as stress related. (No sh*t Sherlock!)
11. I spent a month in New York performing a show at a theatre Festival, (the family came and joined me for a week.)
12. I have presented my research at 8 conferences and travelled to 5 different countries.
13. I have made no fewer than 12 transatlantic flights in the last 2 years, 5 months, 24 days… that does not include two separate research trips to New York, 4 flights back to Vancouver and a job interview in LA.

 

The verdict;
Don’t try this at home kids. PhD’s + big families + grand ideas= not for the faint of heart. (And if I told you I don’t often feel faint then that would make me a big liar!)

Well, I am not weeping- so it must be a fist pump kinda day.

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