Writing With A Toddler III: Choir-lofting Creativity, Or Contemplation in Crappy Circumstances

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Dark Art Cafe
Tags: , , ,

standards.wroughtSo this photo hit my Facebook feed this morning, approximately twenty min. before the proverbial sh** hit the fan. It was a busy morning to begin with, my get-crap-done hump-day; and, because it’s the end of term, that means grading, tutorial meetings, and grudgingly extending deadlines to students who are struggling to survive various apocalypses in which all their technology has exploded (laptops, iPhones, and coffee makers) and all seventeen of their grandmothers have become seriously, seriously ill … “Like, maybe even dead.” And, on top of my regular Wednesday to-do list, I also had an eight-item addendum list that Samantha had me scrawl at breakfast on a newspaper page listing local yard sales to visit on my lunch hour, because our son Liam is nearing his second birthday and who in their right mind buys new stuff for toddlers when you can get next-to-new stuff at yard sales?

And all the like-minded, frugal parents out there said, “Well, duh.”

I don’t have a particular problem with said parents, just that they descend on such yard sales the night before they open and scoop up all the good stuff like so many Death Eaters at a Harry Potter convention. This year, however, Samantha decided we were going to beat them at their game, and by we she meant me; meaning my lunch hour today was to be spent flying around town and scooping up all the good stuff. (Wizarding Wars, a.k.a. Yard Sales in our town, start at 1 p.m. on Wednesdays, to give stay-at-home parents the edge, I think. But I work in town and have a lunch break midday, so, according to Samantha, there’s no reason I can’t practice this dark art of Wed. Yard Sale-ing. Which of course means I’ve been training, practicing my own brand of parent-vs.-parent sorcery: my Soccer-Parent Slide-Tackle, in case things get crazy.)

So, all that taken into account, when Samantha left for work, I was geared up for a busy day. And, like most people preparing for such a day, I poured myself a cup of coffee and did that modern form of mental yoga known as “checking Facebook,” which is where I found this photo by Toronto-based photographer Jonathan Castellino, titled “standards.wrought.”

Busy as I felt, thinking about my day before it actually got started, everything inside me stilled for one blessed moment when I saw Castellino’s photograph. It was iconic for me, the image: like a religious icon, because as I stared at it, I felt like I passed out of my own chaotic kitchen (I still hadn’t put the dishes away from the night before), and I passed into that quiet, vacant sanctuary. When I was a kid in grade school, we performed our Christmas concerts in a church with a choir loft, and, oftentimes, I would sneak away from the busyness below – rehearsals, sword fights with mop handles and shepherd crooks, petty arguments over which of the wise men’s turbans was the coolest – and I’d just watch the craziness, as if from a clifftop.

I’ve often been told, when something or someone is really getting to me, to “rise above” the situation. That expression has bothered me, though, because it seems escapist – detached, platonic, privileged. And, as a maxim, “rising above” a given situation connotes, in some way, removing yourself from that situation, either by rapture or refusing to get involved further. When people talk about rising above something or someone, I cringe because such talk, to me, smacks of a holier-than-thou superiority complex: people who can’t be bothered dealing with things as they are.

Don’t “rise above,” I think: get involved. Engage.

Yet I found myself this morning wanting to slip into that photograph, those old memories, and just watch the day unfold: observe the drama without getting stressed about it or caught up in it.

Then I got a call from our plumber who this week had dug up a section of our sewer line. He said that when he got down there he saw that the line – the whole line – was in bad shape and would need to be replaced. All 50+ feet of it, connecting the house next door to our house to the main line beneath the street on the far side of our other neighbor’s yard.

Have you ever felt fish-hooked by a dollar sign in your head?

For a second I’d been above it all, looking down at the day’s busyness just beginning to thrum, my boy beginning to stir and cry in the next room. Then the plumber’s call, the panicked calculation of what’s in our bank account, and Liam beginning to wail because Daddy wasn’t heading in right away to get him up. And I remembered this past summer, in that small apartment in Sioux City, writing that novel; I recalled those days when Liam, no matter what I did, just would not nap and fussed away: in my lap, in his pack n’ play, in the bathtub, outside, anywhere. Nonstop.

And I was supposed to be writing, especially during those sacred daily nap times.

As I stared dumbfounded at that Castellino photo, the plumber’s news seeming sh***ier the longer I thought about it, I remembered those days when all I wanted was a quiet loft somewhere in which to write, an empty balcony to which I could escape: a cabin in the words, a writer’s studio, an Italian mountaintop villa. But this morning, like those days in the summer when Liam just would not nap, I couldn’t escape. I could not “rise above” it all. Not literally, at least.

But I remembered this morning what I realized this past summer: I can still work (creatively or otherwise) while immersed in chaotic, less-than-ideal, everyday-life circumstances. It takes intentional focus, what monks call contemplation. But it can be done. And it doesn’t involve a physical retreat from my life, which is what I crave in stressful situations: the holy monastic cell of my bed. When things get chaotic, I get exhausted, and my default reaction is to just want to sleep until everything smooths out. This drives Samantha wild, of course. And when I once pointed out that Jesus did the same thing when he fell asleep in the back of a boat after a stressful day of feeding five thousand people, Samantha pointedly informed me that I wasn’t Christ, in case I hadn’t noticed, and supper still needed to be made.

Samantha keeps me grounded, and I love her for that (and for so much more). She more-or-less reminded me this morning, when I called her to tell her about our sewer line, that I needed “get my head around this” (i.e. practice this sort of contemplation while not retreating from or “rising above” my responsibilities. There were still phone calls to be made, after all). Seeing Castellino’s photo this morning, I thought of a new term for that kind of real-world contemplation, the kind that allows me to write mentally even when I’m not at my desk.

I decided to call it “choir-lofting creativity”: the kind of imaginative contemplation that allows you to both attend to the world you find yourself in – soothing fussy kids, getting daily crap done, arranging to have whole sewer lines replaced – while imagining what all that madness might look like from a reader’s balcony perspective. Practicing choir-lofting creativity, this past summer and today, helps me read the life I have, to see the humor in it, the petty drama, the sometimes farcical beauty of these crazy times. Every stinking moment.

The craziness, after all, won’t go away. Life doesn’t stop. Not for writers, stay-at-home parents, academics, or anyone. And to be honest, I don’t want to escape. I want to write all this down, somehow. I want to pay attention. I want to be a better reader of my own life.

  1. What? Yard sales on a Wednesday? What kind of crazy-town do you live in?!

    Also, you and Brian share the same response to stress – rather than ‘Fight or Flight’, you guys both choose the lesser-talked-about ‘Hide.’ I’m glad that Samantha’s able to draw you out of that mode. 🙂

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