Writing in the End Times

Here’s my local grocery store’s toilet paper aisle. Fun.

My family had the flu all last week. Just a normal flu. We all hunkered down. Since it was spring break, meaning all my kids as well as my husband and I who are both school district employees had absolutely nothing to do, we pretty much cut ourselves off entirely.

And then woke up to the world ending.

We knew about COVID-19 going in. There were no confirmed cases of the virus in Alaska at the time (and only one isolated case has been confirmed in the time since [edit: uh-oh, looks like we have two cases right here in Fairbanks as of earlier today]), but we knew it was coming. We had already been talking to our kids about germs and how they spread, and our stint with the flu was a good time to practice better hygiene, both physical and social. We had our food storage already set aside (one of the principles our religion practices so that we are ready to take care of our families and neighbors when the need arises), so we didn’t feel the need to rush out and stockpile now that the disaster was about to strike.

What we hadn’t anticipated is that people are crazy. My first grocery trip after our family had recovered was a bit of a revelation, unfortunately.

Most people were very polite. Even cheery, really. But there was also an undercurrent of fear. There was not a single roll of toilet paper to be found. The dry goods section was empty, as were the canned goods and the frozen food aisle. I didn’t even glance into the first aid section to see how the hand sanitizer supply was. And then the evening after my grocery trip, the kids’ return to school that I’ve been anticipating so desperately was cancelled.

Things are a little wacky. I’m very glad that people (most people? I hope?) are listening to the experts and taking this seriously. And it’s been very instructive to learn just how often I touch my face. (Oh gosh, why can I not stop touching my face??) And it’s also been good to learn, really learn, just what rock stars my kids’ teachers are that they can handle thirty of these monkeys at a time and still manage to wedge some knowledge in their spastic little brains.

Until the school district rolls out its home study program, I will be homeschooling my kids, plus the two buddies who I babysit while their parents have to keep working. We have a bell schedule and everything, complete with lots of recess. They’ll be studying math and vocabulary and French and the Western Expansion of the US in all its awful glory. And of course, the immune system and how viruses and bacteria spread.

So as I’m working with the kids all day and then go immediately into evening chores, where does that leave my writing?

Daytime is an absolute bust. I can’t sneak it in during the day between things like I’m used to, and that’s been tough. And I can’t sneak it in during the evenings either since the kids don’t have activities that I can hide in corners with my laptop during. And a few of my freelance jobs have fallen through as customers have decided that maybe now really isn’t the time for that new marketing campaign. So I’ve had fewer jobs, less time for writing, and a heck of a lot more noise and distraction.

Sounds like a challenge! *cracks knuckles*

Adjustments are always difficult, and the whole world is still adjusting to COVID-19. There’s nothing I can do about losing writing work, but I can just look at it as focusing my already limited time on the jobs I already have. Instead of seeing myself as a beleaguered survivor hiding out in my basement while the world implodes, I can see myself as a good citizen doing my part to keep the most vulnerable members of my community safe. Instead of whining about how I don’t have writing time because I have all these kids around, I can teach the kids about the most important stuff they need to know—sure, math and science and art, but also caring about our neighbors and checking in with the elderly couples on our street (via phone and email and notes in the mailbox) and taking extra precautions not to spread our germs around the town we love.

Illnesses like this can be scary. But I am blessed to be healthy and secure. Maybe I’m losing work, but my husband is not. Maybe I’m cooped up in the house, but you know what, I’m an introvert anyway so never having to interact with other humans is basically like my daydreams come true. I have nothing to complain about.

I will keep writing. I’ll level out and make all the adjustments. And maybe I’ll even get better at washing my hands and not touching my face.

I hope all of you are doing well and staying safe. Be sure to wash your hands and practice social distancing. And if you can squeeze it in amidst all the craziness, happy writing!

Finding My Center

Many years ago, I took a ceramics class to satisfy an arts requirement for my college degree. I made a lot of really bad bowls and figurines and stuff that have since all been smashed, disappeared, or distributed to family members who feel too guilty to get rid of them. It was an entry level class and I was awful at it, but it was fun.

However, I never used the pottery wheels. I probably would have broken them, and the more advanced students were on them all the time, and I was too garbage and well aware of it to properly beg for wheel time. To this day, I have never tried thrown pottery.

But my ten-year-old has. A few weeks ago, his class went on this weird mish-mash field trip where they went to a rock climbing club, and then a ‘50s style diner, and then a high school pottery studio. Not sure what the educational aim was here (or why this teacher is so set on expensive field trips and activities like all the time), but my son had a lot of fun making a little bowl that I’m probably going to have to buy off the teacher later, to prove that I love my child, in order to help fund further field trips. (I’m not bitter.)

My boy told me in such exquisite detail about the potting process that I think he might want a throwing wheel for Christmas. He told me all about tucking his elbows, and keeping his hands wet, and maybe most important of all, centering the clay.

When throwing pottery on the wheel, one of the biggest problems beginners have is failing to properly center their lump of clay. It might seem centered (enough), but once the wheel gets up to speed and you begin to craft your masterpiece, the wobbly tower of clay suddenly ruptures and flops over dead like an overwatered cactus in fast forward.

A lot of creative work is like that, including writing. Sometimes we start a project before we’re quite ready. Sometimes we don’t see the problems until we’re well along. Sometimes we have to scrap and start over, even when something starts out so promising.

I am the queen of false starts. And messy starts. And oh-gosh-I’m-going-to-have-to-change-all-of-this-later starts. Lately, I’ve been feeling like the empress, though. This last year has been a weird year for me. I’ve been reasonably productive, and pretty successful by some metrics, but I haven’t felt creatively centered, if that makes any sense. So I’ve ended up with some preeeetty wobbly stories, structurewise.

I think part of my problem may be in the sorts of projects I’ve been working on this year. More about this later, but a much higher proportion of my writing has been for either nonfiction or ghostwriting on other people’s creative projects. So a smaller chunk of my creative brain power has been spent on the sorts of projects I enjoy the most (which is mostly people running around getting stabbed in the woods, apparently). This has put me a bit off so that when I do get around to those projects, my head isn’t in the game. This is probably further exacerbated by how busy I’ve been with life in general. My time for art in any form has shrunk considerably as we welcomed a new foster child into our home late last summer. He’s an awesome kid, but takes a looooot of time and attention. I basically doubled my kid load, meaning that most of my time for feeding my creative soul now happens between ten at night and… whenever I go collapse into bed. Sometimes that’s ten, because I’m tired. Sometimes it’s one in the morning because I really want to work on something that isn’t kid related. But then I’m exhausted in the morning and I pay it back for days. So yeah, I’ve been off-balance lately.

So how to center myself a bit more?

Honestly, I think the biggest thing may be to accept that, at least for a little while, I’m just going to have less time for art. I can’t not take my kid to his appointments. I can’t ignore my natural children, either, who are needing more attention than ever as we navigate these emotional waters together. But rather than just settling for less art, I think I should also shift the focus of what time I do have for art. I’ll have to do a better job of reserving my art time for the art that I find most fulfilling. And I’m going to start doing more of my visual art out in the midst of the kids instead of only while holed up in my Tortured Artist Cave. (Writing will have to stay in the cave, though. I cannot write with any distractions whatsoever, unfortunately.)

Giving myself the breathing space to make art without the guilt is probably the key here. Maybe I can’t produce the same volume of work that I have in years past. And maybe I don’t have the same amount of time that I have in the past. But letting myself create for the sheer joy of creating, rather than worrying about deadlines and output and word counts and dollars, should help bring me back to center. I’ll write more in a couple weeks about my goals for this year and how those shaped up, and then I’ll roll out a shiny new set of goals for next year.

Until then, happy (happy, I say!) writing!