#LiveActionSlush rush

I don’t like to be brave. I don’t even like pretending to be brave.

When I was kayaking with my kids this summer, an army of earwigs invaded the crowded hull of our tiny, tipsy vessel. I didn’t notice until we were far from shore, and my daughter didn’t notice at all. I calmly picked them off her lifejacket, one by one, successfully avoiding her screams and our eventual death-by-earwig. That was me pretending to be brave in a life-threatening situation. But when my life isn’t threatened by earwigs, I don’t like to be brave.

So it was a bit out of character for me to submit the first page of my work-in-progress for a Live Action Slush. This weekend I attended an amazing local writing conference, When Words Collide, and some of the must-attend sessions were the Live Action Slushes. During these sessions, writers (anonymously) offer their first page to a panel of authors, who read the submissions aloud to the entire room and then critique them. The idea is to learn how well (or not well) your first page would do in an editor’s slush pile. The panel gives their feedback after each page is read. Since the submissions are anonymous, the writers in the audience don’t have to identify themselves. (Some do, because they’re masochists.)

Sounds fine, you say? What’s the big deal? Well, what if that panel of experienced, empathic authors was actually a panel of 9-15 year-olds, who were much less empathic, much less patient and much more particular with their tastes. Kids know what they like, and what they don’t. Also, imagine that this panel of young, discerning readers had been instructed to raise their hands during each anonymous reading if they’d completely lost interest.

Yeah. That’s the panel I chose for my very first Live Action Slush. I entered the conference room, placed the first page of my Middle Grade novel on the anonymous pile of papers, and took a seat to await my fate.

These kids weren’t messing around. Hands were raised, plots were questioned, and when the 13-year-old on the end said, “I like the writer’s use of exposition in the opening paragraphs,” I knew I was in way over my head. Had my body not been numb with fear, I would have crawled up the aisle towards the table and slipped my page out of the slush pile. But then, I heard the opening line of my story being read for the next round of judgement, and I knew it was too late.

I won’t bore you with the details of my immediate, physical reaction to hearing my page being read to a panel of kids in a room full of writers. Let’s just say it was akin to sitting in a kayak full of earwigs. What I really wanted to do was scream, but I sat there silently, calmly, practically motionless. (Any person in the room could have guessed that I was the author, though, since I didn’t exhale for three and a half minutes. Luckily, blue is my colour.) When my page was finally read, the kids had their fun.

The good news is, none of the young panelists raised their hands to signal that they didn’t like it. In fact, they did like it. They said so! Their feedback was articulate and positive and useful and once I saw them smile, things didn’t seem so scary after all.

In fact, it was kind of fun. And not just the kind of fun that people say is fun, but is not actually fun, like kayaking, but a real, honest-to-goodness thrill.

I may even do it again next year. Actually, I can’t wait.

*I do like kayaking, a lot, but only the earwig-less kind.

Summer sixteen

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Photo: Shirley Lynne Photography

I’m not sure if packing for a family of five has become easier, or if I’ve just become numb to the entire process. Tomorrow we leave for our yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast, and even though I’m not quite ready to go, I’m more than ready to get there.

In many ways, it’s been a super sweet 2016. But in others, life feels a little unsure. We have lots to be grateful for, lots to look forward to, and lots of hard work ahead (gulp!).

In the meantime, there’s packing to do! Today, on our wedding anniversary, my husband reminds me that all we need is each other. Which is good. Because I have a feeling I won’t get around to packing much else.

Happy summer! x

Antivirus

Four weeks, three trips to the emergency room, two crutches and one dose of IV fluids later, and I can’t help but count my blessings. April was crazy and May has been kind of cruel, but now that my oldest daughter’s ankle has healed and everyone’s stomachs have un-queased, I can come up for air and reflect on the weeks that were. Because a lot has happened.

Last month I finished my mentorship program with the Writers’ Guild of Alberta. I crammed as much writing as I could into April, and on a sunny Saturday in May I did my first fiction reading ever at the Five New Alberta Voices event in Edmonton.

I read the first chapter of my middle grade novel, which has come LEAPS and BOUNDS since I started my mentorship with the Writers’ Guild. My amazing mentor, Lee, was there to introduce me and cheer me on. My husband arrived separately with our three girls in tow, including our oldest daughter who was nursing a fractured ankle. (And by nursing, I mean refusing to use her crutches.)

Our plan was for my husband and daughters to stay only during my reading, then duck back to the hotel before the show was over, leaving me to get drunk with the other writers enjoy myself. Which was a good plan.

But when you’re dealing with kids, you can’t really have plans. C’mon! We know better. We should have assumed that a nasty little bug was churning circles inside our three-year-olds’ intestines just as a I took the podium. It happened exactly then. My husband held our puking child against his chest as I stuttered through my reading in my lilting Maritime drawl.

IMG_2322Afterwards, my husband sent me the following text: “Quinn just threw up on me.”

(On the bright side, only one person threw up during my reading, which I think is pretty good for my first time.)

I didn’t actually know that my darling girl was sick until two glasses of wine later (ok, three, I was super nervous) when I thought to check my phone. I thought my wingmen had exited as planned, just in time to miss the reading that followed mine, a very racy (and masterfully written) NC-17 novel that made even my ears blush. But when my giddy self read my husband’s text, my heart and stomach sank. And I hopped in a cab for the hotel.

And that’s about it. The days that followed my little literary high have been filled with a whole lot of retching and not a lot of writing. But I’m ok with it. Because now, finally, we’re happy and healthy. And I have time to reflect on my opportunity to write, and to read what I wrote to a smattering of light applause from the Alberta literary community. And even though it was gut-wretching at the time, I love that we have yet another story to tell. About the time my writing made my daughters puke. All night. For weeks. See? Gold.

To get to the other side

Things have been… busy, lately. And when things get busy, I start to notice my sanity unravel. I’m loath to admit this, because of course I’m perfect, but unfortunately it’s true. I’m not built to be too busy. I like being just busy enough.

My tipping point arrived a few days ago, during one of those ridiculous weekdays in which every minute was scheduled, every task was essential and every word I spoke to my kids was, “Hurry up. Quiet down. WHY AREN’T YOU DRESSED YET?” Everyone had been sick, including our pets, and I had committed myself to several things that were outside of our typical timetable. In between hours of errands and our very limited minutes at home, I prepared dinner in advance. I made chicken.

In the past, one of my most stressful daily experiences was driving home during afternoon rush-hour and having absolutely no plan for dinner. Now that I stay at home and our kids are a bit older and my brain is almost at a functioning level, I have all of our weekly meals planned. I have our fridge efficiently stocked. I have food on the table every day by five o’clock. It’s not just my best attempt at a Norman Rockwell painting, it’s part of my self care. (It’s also delicious.)

Minutes after the meal was cooked, I had just enough time to pat myself on the back before running out the door with all the kids for another appointment. It would be quick, and we would all be back in time to meet my husband at the door when he got home from work and sit down to a family dinner. What I didn’t have time to do was put the piping hot chicken just out of reach of our naughty nine-year-old dog who sometimes (enough for me to know better) has the habit of eating off the counter. When I returned home around five o’clock, it took me two seconds to realize where the chicken went. And my head exploded.

It wasn’t just that I was upset about the chicken. That’s not how my brain works when I’m overworked. Instead, in those moments, my brain pulls every bad memory, every moment of weakness, every failure on record and parades them in front of me like a slideshow of shame just to say, “See, Shannon, this is why you can’t have nice things. Or chicken.”

I couldn’t stop the tsunami of thoughts that went very quickly from, “Dinner is ruined!” to “Our dog’s going to get sick! Our vet bill was already enormous this week and shoot, did I give my daughter her medicine this morning? Why is this house such a mess, I just cleaned it and why did the school call, was I supposed to volunteer? I didn’t write today, no one’s socks match in my family, what happened to my career and F*** YOU NORMAN ROCKWELL!”

Or something like that.

Eventually, I calmed down. This was after my husband came home, we pulled together a meal, put the kids to bed and coaxed our darling dog out of the corner where she was hiding because she knows what she did. When I was finally able to breathe again, I was almost grateful for my breakdown because it gave me the chance to say, “I can’t do this. Today was too much.” And for my husband to remind me that that’s ok. And that we have each other. And to remind me that I am, in fact, perfect. (I’m paraphrasing.)

The next day, when I had to clean up our dog’s barf which consisted of my perfectly cooked chicken and some undigested grass, I wasn’t even mad.*

*Ok, it was barf. So I was a teeny, tiny bit mad. Like, the appropriate amount for cleaning up dog barf, if there’s a scale for those things.

The elevator pitch

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Going up?

A funny thing happens when people learn that you’re (attempting to call yourself) a writer, and that you’re currently writing something specific. They tend to ask, “What are you writing? Is it a book?”

Of my many rambling responses, the following usually make the top three:

-Uh, I’m not sure what it is.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s nothing, really.

Then, perhaps as some form of torture, they ask, “So what’s it about?”

-Uh, I’m not sure what it’s about.

-It’s just silly.

-It’s about nothing, really.

If this sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid. And not just because I should probably know what it is I’m writing about. (My husband says I need to work on my ‘elevator pitch’, which is apparently not the same as my desperate barrage of apologies when my kids press all the buttons in the elevator.) It’s stupid because if I can’t comfortably call myself a writer, if I can’t even talk about what I’m writing, and if I can’t imagine eventually sharing what I’m writing, then WHY AM I WRITING?

The other weekend, my husband came home from our daughter’s hockey practice and said that we should probably teach her how to accept compliments. One of our daughter’s coaches had approached her after ice time and said, “Wow, your skating has come so far!” to which she said, “Blerp-dee-blee-doo.” She may have also said, “You’re welcome.” I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but that awkward feeling of being acknowledged in any way is all too familiar.

Of course, writing isn’t exactly like receiving a compliment. It’s like punishment, actually. Someone saying, “Wow, you’re writing a book? Cool!” is like someone saying, “Wow, you’re sticking your hand in a garbage disposal? Cool!”

But still, I need to develop some level of comfort when it comes to talking out loud, to people, about writing. Keeping it bottled up inside will only lead to an explosion of sorts, like the time I met my writing mentor for the very first time. She said something like, “Hi, are you Shannon?” and my mouth erupted with every thought I’d ever had about my plot, subplot, my protagonist’s hair colour and (bizarrely, truthfully) cell phone towers.

It was like the time my husband and I took our ten-month-old to a fancy restaurant and she barfed all over the table, but instead of a seemingly endless stream of regurgitated breast milk, I was spewing random words. Either way, It’s just not healthy.

Thankfully, astonishingly, my mentor has agreed to meet with me again, in public, word spew and all. Maybe she can even help me work on my pitch.

(Our family is never, ever allowed back at that fancy restaurant, though. Like, ever.)

This bill is bananas

You're not fooling anyone, bananas.
You’re not fooling anyone, bananas.

Yesterday I did something that I rarely ever do. I went to the grocery store on a Wednesday. My list had two small items that I needed before my usual grocery-getting trip on Friday. I felt a little bad, and not because it was 8am and my two-year-old was already enjoying one of the complimentary cookies. It was because I’ve worked very hard to keep our grocery check-outs in check, and yesterday I went off-course.

Ok. I don’t mean to be dramatic. This was a small, necessary deviation from our regular routine for the sake of milk and bananas.* But it did remind me of how we used to handle our groceries, and our grocery bill, and I have to say we’ve come a long way.

A few years ago, our eating habits were what you might call unsustainable. We were spending way too much money and wasting way too much food. This was around the time we became brand new parents and our heads exploded. I spent hours steaming, roasting and processing fresh fruit and vegetables to ceremoniously feed to my little ones, while I unceremoniously stuck a frozen pizza (or two) in the oven around 8pm for my husband and me. This was our reward for getting through the day, so we could enjoy our easy meal and binge-watch The Wire in peace. It worked for us at the time.

Until it didn’t. Right around the time that our growing girls began joining us at the dinner table, I took a real, hard look at our growing grocery bill. And then, I took a real, hard look at the forgotten food that would end up as waste at the end of each week. It was our wake-up call. I wanted to make changes for our health and our wallets, and we both wanted to set a better example for our kids at mealtime.

It probably should have been a gradual shift, but truthfully we did an overhaul almost overnight. We changed the way we approached buying food, eating food and enjoying food. We actually started to eat more in terms of ‘quality’ and quantity. And it saved us money! I cut down on my trips to the grocery store, started meal planning and made much more use of my time. Our meals were no longer an afterthought, or worse, a source of negative thoughts. They were thoughtful. And worry-free. And thoroughly enjoyable.

We still splurge every now and then (and again and again), but we attempt to eat and spend as it fits into our overall plan. I try very, very hard to never feel guilty about the food I do eat, but I do feel guilty about the food I waste. After we made this change a few years ago, I hardly feel guilty about food at all.

Except when our favourite pizza place calls to say they miss us and hope we come back soon. I still love you, pizza place! Just not three nights a week.

*Due to an unfortunate combination of unrelenting morning sickness and a bad banana smoothie, I have not eaten bananas since 2009. And I have no future plans to do so. My family loves bananas, so I buy them, but even mentioning them in this post has made my stomach gurgle. That’s how much I care about my family’s happiness (in relation to their banana consumption).

Mindfulness-ish

About a year ago, at the suggestion of someone much wiser and balanced than I, I started reading a book on mindfulness and meditation.

You may have heard of it. It’s considered a classic introduction to the practice of mindfulness, and it’s called Wherever You Go There You Are by John Kabat-Zinn.

“Sure,” I remember saying, while simultaneously thinking there is absolutely no way in the Four Noble Truths that I’m reading that. But upon further insistence that this book was essential to a life well-lived, I downloaded a digital copy to my tablet, which is what I do with books I don’t really care about.

(I was later told that this book is not meant to be stored as an electronic file on your tablet like that series of selfies your kids took with your unwilling cat. Instead it’s meant to be held and highlighted and dog-eared, so evidence of your many epiphanies is much more tangible. My bad.)

It may be surprising to some that I found this book exceedingly helpful. To others, likely those who have read the book or who are aware of the witchcrafty-powers of practicing mindfulness*, it may not be surprising at all. Mindfulness, in its simplest explanation and in words that I’ve trickily avoided plagiarizing from most articles on the internet, is a mainstream technique with Buddhist roots that involves being actively engaged in the present.

It’s about observing and not criticizing. It’s about being self-compassionate. It’s about improving your state of wellness. (And with a little concentration, contemplation and discipline, it’s eventually about becoming a “full human being!”)

Sounds great, but I was much less motivated by becoming a “full human being” than by using mindfulness as a method of stress reduction. And it did work. But it does take some pretty dedicated mental training that, ironically, sometimes stresses me out. (ONE MORE thing on my to-do list!)

I do return to this book sometimes, and I try to use some tricks** of the trade*** when I’m feeling overwhelmed. It’s especially useful when I’m with my family, but not present with my family. If I catch myself drowning in a river of negative thoughts or worries that are ultimately beyond my control, I drag my floundering body out of the current and onto the shore. That helps me concentrate on the puzzle we’re building, or the dough we’re rolling, or the episode of Full House we’re watching for the billionth time (more likely).

I keep waiting for the week, the month or the season when life starts to slow down, but I’m getting the impression that just won’t happen. But I can slow down to engage more with the present, and mindfulness is just one more tool in my dusty toolbox that helps me do just that.

I may never reach the state of “full human being,” but maybe it will get me as far as “somewhat functioning wife and mom.” I’ll take it.

*Practicing mindfulness has not given me witchcrafty-powers. Yet.
**Mindfulness is not a trick.
***Mindfulness is not a trade. Or is it??