Friday, June 29, 2012
The Next Chapter
Several years ago, my uncle gave me a copy of a book called In Praise of Slow, a non-fiction book about how much our society measures everything by time (our lack of it, how there’s never enough of it, how we’ve always run out of it) more than ever, and how we never take the time to just slow things down and enjoy life. For months after, he’d ask me if I’d gotten around to reading it, and I’d joke that I just didn’t have time. We’d both laugh.
A few months ago I read an article in The Guardian about a palliative care nurse who has spent many years sitting by the bedsides of patients at the ends of their lives, and she was talking about the Top 5 regrets people have on their deathbeds. Number 1 was, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life that was true to myself, not the one that others expected of me.” Number 2 was, “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
My kids are 4 and 7. Today they graduate junior kindergarten and grade 2. In the fall they’ll be in senior kindergarten and grade 3. I don’t know how this happens. I could swear my oldest was just born yesterday. When she was 2 years old, I wrote this in a journal: “I want to keep her at this age for the rest of my life, still small enough to hold in my lap and rock to sleep, but big enough to walk beside me down the street while I hold her hand. Small enough to want kisses and hugs, but big enough to have a conversation with. Young enough to still be learning new things and not be jaded, but old enough to know what’s right and what’s wrong. I just want her to stay two forever. The other night we went out for a walk with her new wagon and I was walking behind her while she insisted on pulling it. Rob was in the front. I walked behind her, watching this little girl with the blonde hair that’s starting to curl up in the back, pulling this big wagon and not giving up when it got caught on things, walking in her flip-flops that are much too big for her (they’re for a 4-year-old, but she loves them because they’re too big), in her little sundress, with such a look of determination as she pulled that wagon, stopping every once in a while to pick a dandelion and turn to me and say, “Here, Mommy! Dandelion!” and turn and keep walking, and I thought how do I stop time and just preserve her like this forever?”
That was 6 years ago. And I can still see her walking in front of me in that little sundress, looking for the next dandelion. Now she disappears to a corner with her nose in a book, waving me off because she wants to finish this chapter. Part of me is delighted looking at a tiny version of myself at that age (any nook I could find, I’d squeeze into it and sit there for hours with a book), and part of me wishes she still needed me to read those books to her. I go into her room at night as she sleeps and I stare at her, marvelling at how tall she is, how big her feet are, how she takes up most of her bed in her perpetual octopus-like state when she's asleep. My hand used to engulf hers. Now, when she takes mine in hers, her long fingers wrap around mine and I’m once again surprised at how big she's become. (I know many of you are thinking, “Wait til she gets to university!!”) ;)
But we get up in the morning, I rush to get ready for work while my husband gets the kids fed and clothed, and I hurriedly pull her hair up and brush their teeth, throw snacks into their bags and sign any paperwork that needs signing, zip up their bags, slather on sunscreen, pop hats on their heads and run out to the car to drop them off at their caregiver’s. My daughter runs into the school (usually seconds before the bell) and my son trots off with the caregiver to spend the morning with the other kindergarteners before he goes to his afternoon class. After school, caregiver picks them up and my husband grabs them from her house at 5, and I get home around 5:30, rush to make dinner (sometimes my husband’s already got it going), kids cry and moan and whine about something that’s happened that’s colossal and devastating because they both have really low blood sugar before they eat, and then we eat and then it’s rushing off to whatever extracurricular activities my daughter has, then get baths, and off to bed. Bed is usually a long fight where they want just one more page read or another glass of water, etc. That’s when I remember I needed to work with my daughter on her math and my son on his alphabet, but oh well… we’ll do that tomorrow night, right? Right?
Of course, at work I’m working on half a dozen things at once, I have a to-do list that on some days I can work through like a madwoman, on others it barely gets touched. And all day long my mind is half on them. I’m slipping out into the hall to call doctors or dentists or teachers, but usually I’m just calling my husband to remind him to pay the caregiver, or to run back to the school because I forgot the sunscreen, or I forgot to stick in those cupcakes I baked last night and they need them for the party that afternoon. My mind is always scattered these days, because there are so many things warring for its attention. I used to have a mind like a steel trap. Now I have to write down everything or I’ll forget.
I used to write books. Remember those? I used to blog a lot, too. Now I’m lucky if I get a post up once a week. Or every two.
And with all this going on, I’ve hit that moment in my life that we all come to: the infamous crossroads, where you need to make a decision. Do you keep along the path you’re on, no matter how tough it is, because it’s a known place? Or do you venture into the great unknown and take a massive risk, hoping things will get better? How many of us wake up every morning determined to do something different, and at the end of the day realize we’ve done the same thing we always have, but tomorrow will be different? How many of us vow to slow down, to turn off that computer, put away the smartphone, and be engaged with family and friends and spend as much time as we can with our children? When I’m away from my kids, I want to be with them the whole time. When I’m with them, I’m constantly worried about the work things I should be doing. Even on weekends. I’m wired a certain way, and I’ve surrounded myself with people wired exactly the way I am. We have to be moving all the time, doing things. Multitasking.
Multitasking is just doing a bunch of things at once, and not doing any of them well.
The last two years of my life have taken me on an emotional rollercoaster. Two years ago, I was on top of the world: Lost was coming to an end, I was doing a ton of publicity for it, I had the final Lost book in the works, my kids were both healthy and happy and doing well in everything they did, I loved all the books I was working on at my workplace, my husband and I were happy and doing all the things we wanted to do, I was on my way to Slayage to deliver a keynote… and then it was just one of those things, where starting from the moment I got back from Slayage and lasting the next two years, if something could go wrong, it did. Things happened, my world was jolted several times, the rug was torn out from under me repeatedly, people I thought I could count on suddenly were not the people I could count on, and I began seeing those little inspirational sayings and NOT rolling my eyes, but thinking, “Yeah, that is totally true.”
I KNOW, right?? Crazy. ;)
And so, I’m taking the plunge. There’s a reason this blog has become a ghost town. Today, June 29, is my last day working in the offices of ECW Press, where I’ve been an editor since 1997 (outside of my freelance job as a writer, since 1998). That’s a really long time to be at one place. I’ve watched people come and go, and the office evolve, and the atmosphere change time and again, and the way books are made has changed drastically from when I started there. But I’ve always been the constant. I stuck with that place through three bankruptcies. I found some of my best friends in that place, and watched many of them leave and move on to other things, but thank goodness for email and phones to keep in touch with so many of them. My boss has been my mentor, a father figure, and a dear friend.
When I started working at ECW, I was a student, I still hadn’t finished my graduate degree, and I was engaged to be married. After I started working there, I moved in with my fiancé, then married him. I became an author many times over. I discovered new writers and watched them grow into rather well known ones. I got three cats. And after 14 years, I lost one of those cats. I’ve had four addresses since I started there, and bought my first house, then sold it and bought the second, and now I just sold this one and bought what may very well be the last one.
And, most importantly, I became a mother. I have watched my daughter grow from a feisty, demanding, high-maintenance baby into a confident, stubborn, imaginative, daydreaming, obstinate, beautiful little girl. I have watched my son grow from a quiet, easygoing, laid-back baby into a shy, sensitive, smart, hilarious, inquisitive little boy. They are the source of my biggest laughs, my deepest worries and frustrations, and my greatest joys. And my husband, who has gone from being a grad student to becoming one of the biggest golf journalists in North America, has been by my side every step of the way. When he’s not off golfing and calling it “work.” (Ahem.)
I used to keep a crazy pace. Before I had kids, I’d be in the office for 10 or 11 hours, every day. When I worked from home I’d work even longer, well into the evening hours. I’d come into the office on weekends and continue working because I loved the quiet. I threw myself into every aspect of the job, and LOVED it. And when I wrote books on top of it, I could start writing the moment I got home, while eating my dinner at my desk (my husband was a freelance writer so he’d be doing a similar thing down the hall) and write until midnight. I would start writing early in the morning on weekends and go all day and into the evenings. I wrote two books while I was pregnant with my daughter (books on Alias and Angel), and I figured they’d be my swan songs. I mean, how do you keep up this pace with kids?
And then I realized, you can. Or, at least, I can. On my daughter’s second birthday, the first Lost book was released. When I was pregnant with my son, I was writing the next one, and on maternity leave, I wrote the third. When I went back to work after he was born, I realized I still had the discipline I had before, but I was no longer working 11-hour days and part of the weekends; I was working 8-hour days, then coming home, being with the kids until they went to bed at 8 and then working until 12. Back up at 6 (that’s when the kids woke up) and continuing on. My husband took the kids home on weekends and I learned to work from 7am until 11pm, with two one-hour breaks in between. The most I wrote in a week was 65,000 words; the most I wrote in a single day was just over 15,000.
But then again, ask any mom who’s been on maternity leave with a baby whose feeding schedule is every 40 minutes and who never naps. Trust me, if that child naps for 15 minutes, we can do laundry, clean 3 rooms, and cook an entire lasagna in that time. You learn to become extremely productive in small spurts.
But something happened during that final book: my body said nope, I’m tired of you trying to be Wonder Woman. I was pushing myself too hard at work and trying to write a book on the side while using up my much-needed holiday time to do publicity for the end of Lost. I’ll never forget the long weekend where my husband took the kids away for a long weekend, leaving on Thursday morning, and I worked my 7am to 11pm days, and on Sunday I suddenly felt my head… vibrate. That’s the best way I can describe it. It was a buzzing feeling. I remember glancing at the time on my computer, and it was 3pm. Not late enough to quit, I thought. I glanced out the window at the house across the street. Then I looked back at my computer. 5pm. I rubbed my eyes… 5pm. I sat there for a moment as a jolt of shock ran through me. How could that have happened? I hadn’t fallen asleep, I was awake. But I had absolutely no memory of those two hours. It’s as if I had just powered down like a robot. It terrified me… and I also took the hint. I immediately stood up, went downstairs, and watched sitcoms for the rest of the evening.
While I was finishing up the final book, a dormant heart arrhythmia I’d been born with decided to wake up and say hello (apparently it’s brought on by extreme stress). Remember that scene in season 5 of Buffy when Riley goes to the hospital and they clock his heart at 150bpm and Buffy says, “Oh my god, no one can live with a heart that fast”? On last year’s rewatch, I thought that line was hilarious… because that’s what mine had clocked at. 155, actually.
I’ll say it again: Riley was a wuss.
Oh, but it didn’t stop there. Every time I thought I’d have one thing under control, something else would happen that would turn my world upside down. And it was all stressful. To protect the privacy of my kids I won’t go into details, but let’s just say the heart thing turned out to be the least of my worries. I can deal with me being sick, but when others get sick, I feel like the bottom drops out of my world. It’s ongoing, and we’re dealing with it, but much of my time has been spent reading books, trying to figure out what’s happening, and doing my very best to keep things under control. My kids, my extended family, my friends… one bad thing after another happened, and like I usually do, I internalized it, put on the happy face I’d learned to use since I was a kid (people have always commented on how I laugh constantly…). I’m one of those people who talks and talks and TALKS incessantly about everything in my life… until it starts to go wrong. And then I clam up. I stop telling people what’s up, I avoid any conversation that might lead to a, “So how are things?” because I don’t like lying, and I don’t like sounding like a pity whore. And that’s why I’m uncomfortable about writing what I just wrote: I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. Trust me, I know people who have gone through things in the last 2 years that make me look wussier than Riley. And that’s saying a lot. I used to handle anything that came my way. It was like I had Wonder Woman’s bracelets and could just “Ping! Ping!” any difficult thing away from me. Now I have a bodily organ that’s betrayed me, and it destroyed my bracelets, dammit!!
I know you noticed the blog wasn’t being kept up. Tumbleweeds were floating across my screen. And I tried to keep it occupied. The Buffy Rewatch helped hide the emptiness of it during 2011, but 2012 has been more obvious.
I was used to doing a million things at once and getting them all right. Now I couldn’t do anything right, or at least it felt like I was failing on all fronts. And every day I felt like there were people reminding me of things I was doing wrong. So I decided, ENOUGH. I had to make a change. I want to take on less work, but do an excellent job at it. I want to write on my blog, and bring people back to it and return to what I used to do here, and just schedule time in my day to do just that. I want to be an organized mom (HAHAHAHA!!! Oh… oh… that’s hilarious, I know… ) and actually have everything in on time, not realizing the day a permission slip is due that it’s due and I have to drive back to the house, sign it, and run into the classroom waving it in the air. But you can’t be a full-time mom, a full-time editor, and a part-time writer. There’s simply not enough time.
And so. I am leaving ECW… and Toronto. Yup, after 16 years, I’m leaving the big T-Dot, and heading back to my home town of London, Ontario. My husband and I have sold our house and bought a beautiful house that not only gives me my own office (MY OWN OFFICE… Oh, Virginia, you were SO RIGHT about me needing a room of my own!), but it backs onto a wooded area with several miles of walking trails. My daughter the explorer completely freaked out when she saw the place. And so did I. I will be near most of my family, and, very importantly to me, my best friend, who has been a rock to me for many, many years.
I love so much about ECW, not least of which are my bosses, who not only supported my move, but offered me a chance to keep acquiring books for the press, and to keep editing. I’m going to continue pretty much doing exactly what I do now… but part-time. The other part of my time will be spending time with my wonderful children, being organized, blogging, and trying to find some sense of order in my life that went away about two years ago. And I will spend hours and hours in that forest with my kids, roaming the trails and climbing trees and just… slowing… down. Phones will be left at home, computers will be turned off, and lives will be lived. And I get to continue to work with my authors, who are also my dear friends, and keep in touch with the people in my office and continue to hone the skills I’ve developed for 15 years.
And maybe I’ll find the time to write that next book I’ve been thinking about.
Earlier this week my fellow employees had a good-bye dinner for me and one other person who’s actually leaving this week as well. My boss gave a heartfelt speech, I got verklempt, and when I got home I felt drained. I looked at my husband and said, “Fifteen years in the same company.” He said, “That’s quite an accomplishment.” I said, “Yeah… but it also makes me feel kind of old. Like, I’m retiring already.” He said, “No, you’re not. You’re preparing to begin the next chapter. You’ve completed phase one, and now it’s on to phase two. Who knows what that will bring?”
As I posted elusively on Facebook earlier this week (before realizing I was one of THOSE FB posters, like those people who post, “OMG I can’t believe that just happened!!” and people write, “What happened?” And they respond, “I don’t want to talk about it.”), I’m ending a chapter of my life this week and beginning the process to a new stage in my life. But I’m going to try really hard not to see this as a week of lasts, and hope that instead it’s a gateway to a lifetime of firsts.
I’m sad, but also happier and freer than I’ve felt in a very long time. I’ve made it through a very difficult period and I’ve come out on the other side, and I feel stronger because of it. I’ve gotten back to where I was, and yes, it shows. There are more grey hairs, there are more lines around my eyes and on my forehead where the worry planted itself. But I’m back, and wonky heart notwithstanding, I’m better. The people who matter are by my side. And the two littlest people who matter will be at my side more than they have in a long time.
And I do promise MUCH more activity – and interesting things – coming soon on this blog… which, with any luck, will soon be a website. You’ve all had enough down time. I’ll be back very soon, and I’ll make it worth your wait, I promise.
One of the most oft-repeated lines on Lost was “See you on the other side.” I feel like somehow, I’m on that other side, and I can’t quite see what’s out there yet (much like Christian opening those doors at the end... SOMETHING was there, but we didn’t know what) but I’m excited to see what it’s going to be.
A few months ago, I finally read the first chapter of In Praise of Slow, and it was a catalyst for the decisions I’ve since made. I called my uncle to tell him I’d actually started it, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read it earlier, and we talked about me possibly moving back to London. He said to me, “You know, no one gets to the end of their lives and says, ‘I wish I’d spent less time with my kids.’ You’re doing the right thing, kiddo.” I really do hope so. And maybe I’ll finally find time to read the rest of that book.