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Getting Back on Top of Your Goals

It’s Not too Late

The first quarter of 2018 is almost over. So, I’m going to ask that ominous question, the one that sounds like the monster that’s been hiding in your closet all these years, whose presence you keep denying to yourself.

How are your New Years’ goals coming along?

Ouch. Did that hurt? Did you feel an arrow fly into your stomach? Or maybe into your head as you suddenly remembered you even had New Years’ goals?

I’m certain you’re not alone, and I’ve got news for you: it’s not too late to start the pursuit again.

Review the Last 3 Months

This might be painful, but quarterly reviews clarify for you what’s going on. What’s really going on. They break the safety bubble you live in, because you’re faced with the good, the bad, the ugly, and the very ugly when you review your progress of the past three months. But keep this in mind: In my experience, the more honest I am with myself and my progress, the easier pursuing my goals becomes. Why? Because I fear less.

When you review your last few months, ask yourself these questions:

Am I where I want to be?

If so, what did I do that got me there? (And continue doing it.)

If not, what did I do that didn’t work? (And find a new way of doing it.)

Get Support to Reach Your Goals

If you’re on track with your goals, you probably don’t want to mess with things. But if you’re off track, then it may be time to get help.

Here’s what happened to me last year: For the first time during my annual review, I calculated how much the time I’d spent on marketing efforts, multiplied it by the hourly rate of what I’d earned for the year, and used the total as a measure of how much money I’d “spent” on marketing last year. I then reviewed how much new business I’d won over the year. The final figures weren’t pretty. In fact, they were pretty devastating. So, I contacted a marketing consultant to do an audit on my efforts and set me on the right path.

But that’s what I’m talking about. Even if you’re trying to lose weight, haven’t reached your word goal, or still have the same number of customers as last year, get help! Either join a group, see your doctor, find a good therapist or coach…Whatever your means allow, now’s the time to get a little assistance.

Do You Need to Re-Align?

The beauty with checking in on your goals every quarter like this is that it gives you a chance to re-align them with where you are now. Remember, you created your New Years’ goals in a certain frame of mind, at a certain time in your life, under a certain set of circumstances. If your situation has changed, you may need to adjust how you achieve your goals.

That’s okay!

What if you planned to write 1,000 words a week but the serious diagnosis of a loved one rammed you off course? It doesn’t mean you can’t write at all.

What if you wanted to quit smoking but in the meantime lost your job, leaving you with more stress than your non-smoking self can handle? That  doesn’t mean you can’t regain your footing. You adjust. (And, of course, get help so you can make it through.) Remember, every little bit helps, so don’t discount small, regular steps towards your goals. Not everything has to be achieved by leaps and bounds.

Don’t be Afraid

Looking at progress is a powerful motivator to help you move forward. It’ll help you figure out what’s gone wrong and hopefully inspire you to plan your next steps to get back on track.

They say every journey begins with a step. Take that next step now to get back on the path you dreamed for yourself this year.

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Returning to Grad School After 13 Years: What I’ve Learned So Far

Considering grad school? I did. For over 10 years, actually, after I’d completed a Masters and two years of a PhD. Now I have a husband, two kids, a freelancing business, and my sanity. So I added a part-time PhD to the mix. You know, just to liven things up a bit.

Many things improve with age, and grad school is one of them. What strengthens my story a little is that I returned to the same department and program I had left over 10 years ago. Even my prof this semester is one I had back then. So the changes I’ve experienced at least can’t be attributed to a change in subject matter or school.

The Importance of Purpose

In my 20s…

I was too scared to step out into the real world. Teaching at the university level looked like fun, so I figured I might as well do it, since I had no idea what else to do with my life. (By now, I had become a professional student, though I didn’t realize it at the time.)

In my 40s…

My goals are crystal clear: to improve my German, my translation skills, and add literary translation to my freelancing business. Now, every book I read, every paper I write, every project I do is fuelled by this reason.

A Willingness to Learn

In my 20s…

This goes back to my Masters. My prof in my research methods course strongly advised us to take off one day a week. It was the only way to handle the workload, he said.

And you know what went through my head? He’s a prof. What does he know?

I also followed instructions literally. If our assignment for that week was to read a range of pages, I read them. And then I stopped. I’d love to blame the absence of the Internet to explain why I didn’t spend time looking up supplementary reading sources, but alas, I cannot: we had the Internet back then, too. The honest answer is that I just couldn’t be bothered to put in more effort than was necessary.

(I think I was actually angry that so much work was regularly assigned in grad school. And I was the one who’d chosen to be there…)

In my 40s…

Some of what we read is really difficult. My writer self can now see that it’s a case of bad writing and can try and decipher it. But more important than that, if I don’t understand something, I look up supplemental information, sometimes spending up to two hours if needed. (If I still don’t get it, I stop there. Yes, I’m in grad school, and independent learning is the cornerstone of that level of education. But I’m also here to be taught.)

As with any grad class, we have major assignments to complete: for this course, it’s a group project on a not-so-well-known author, and a 15-20-page paper. I’m no longer scared of spending time going down a few rabbit holes to find information that may or may not be useful. Why? Because I’m here to learn, and those rabbit holes often leave some interesting crumbs behind for later investigation and exploration. Moreover, I know from past experience that spending time reading and exploring is actually a lot of fun, and once I have the exact topic I’m looking for, researching, writing, and editing flow much easier.

Planning is My Friend

In my 20s…

I had no plan for anything I did in grad school. I just knew that I had to keep working so I could be ready for class the following week. I invariably left essays until the last minute, too. I just dove in, because, hey, who wants to waste time planning when you can just get the stuff done?

The result was a lot of stress because, without clear plans, work never ended.

In my 40s…

I plan each upcoming week over Friday and Saturday evening. It takes me an hour, sometimes two, and I’ll expand the plan into the following weeks if needed. The bonus: I often have Sundays free, despite all my commitments. However, if I need to work on a  Sunday, I make sure my time is carefully planned so I only do what’s necessary to stay on schedule.

These plans aren’t carved in stone, and the moment a kid gets sick, or a client suddenly needs more work down now, I have to shift my plans around. But because they’re already set, it’s easy to see what I have to give up and, more importantly, decide if that activity or plan is worth giving up for the new one that’s taking its place.

The Meaning of Boundaries

In my 20s…

Boundaries affect many areas of your life, including schedule, social, and work.

Without a clear schedule to my entire day (teaching and seminars excluded), work just bled and bled and bled. I couldn’t shut off. I was starting to analyze people’s speech patterns during casual conversation, because I hadn’t told my mind to stop working. It’s hard to enjoy a conversation when you’ve got theories running through your head to help you analyze it.

At first, I chalked it up to excitement at having discovered an area of study I loved. However, this excitement built and built and turned into full immersion: I studied and socialized within the department, and even dated within it. (And if I wasn’t dating within it, I was dating another PhD student within the faculty.) My studies, friendships, and relationships all deeply affected on another: Class was more exciting sitting next to my boyfriend, my friendships were more exciting because we could lament about not enjoying class all the time, and my relationship acted as a crutch to help me get through some of the tougher areas of class.

My studies had become my life, and if one thing went wrong, my whole world fell apart. Trust me. It’s not fun.

In my 40s…

The bus won’t drop my kids off when it’s convenient for me, and I can’t cook supper when I feel like it. So, when I calculate the time I have left over after my familial duties are taken care of, suddenly my available time for my studies becomes that much more valuable.

And guess what? I get a lot done in that time, more than I did in my 20s.

(Now, before you criticize me and ask how I know this, let me answer that for you: Once in a while, I fall back into old habits, for example, checking how many more pages I have left to read after every single page I read, or letting my mind wander far too many times. It makes a difference.)

How Did All This Change?

What happened, I believe, is that I spent about 15 years in the working world, where you risk getting fired if you don’t perform up to par. And unlike in the academic world, work keeps piling up and you’re left to your own devices to learn how to deal with it.

As a writer, that means meeting deadlines. A family member had an operation at the end of last month, and I had a short assignment due two days later. I handed it in before the operation. There was no way I was going to ask for an extension: that would embarrass me far too much now, because I see my prof as my boss.

I’m not saying that grad school is easy. The material we have to read can get really heady and often leaves me wanting to scream at the researcher for writing in such dense language. But I have processes to help me deal with the workload, and the maturity to once in awhile shrug my shoulders and go to class not fully prepared. In addition, I know roughly how long assignments will take, so I start working backwards to see when I need to start a project.

But it all comes down to what I just said: I know what I’m looking for, I’m open to learning, I take time to plan, and I live in a world of boundaries and commitments.

So, yes, returning to grad school can be done with work and familial commitments. But in my experience, you need discipline, project management skills, and a dose of humility: there will be times when you just can’t do it all.

And that’s okay.

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Mixing Work and Kids = Inspiring Your Creativity

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a hard time balancing work and kids. Next week, we celebrate Family Day in Ontario, and I realized I’ve book the day full of work duties! But the upcoming holiday has also reminded me that your family can feed your creativity and reinvigorate your brain for work.

If you’re more on the cerebral side of the spectrum, like I am, you may find communicating with kids a little hard, because you have difficulty breaking down your thought process to their level. Heck, you may even find what they do boring, because it doesn’t challenge you intellectually. I’ve been there, I’m still there, and I’m still trying to work on it.

(Granted, as hard as I try to find interest in my kids’ hobbies, I can’t develop any amount of enthusiasm for watching YouTubers play video games.)

Over the years, though, I’ve pushed myself to spend creative time with my kids, not just chore and parenting-related time, and not only does this push my brain in different directions, but it brings me closer to my children, and I find they even listen better.

See if any of these ideas work for you.

Creative Activities for Parents and Kids

Mad Libs: You buy these as pads, usually somewhere in a bookstore. They’re short texts with blanks, and you have to fill them in. The blanks are usually described as a noun, verb, adjective, or something similar. Not only will they help your kids recognize some parts of speech, you’ll likely both find yourselves in stitches as you read back the zany story you’ve both created.

Lego: This I find hard, because I’m stuck with some old inhibitions (I can’t create anything out of Lego except basic houses), and because I need to concentrate on the very foreign world the kids have created. But nothing makes my kids happier than showing off their Lego creations, and the brain drain I experience when playing with them improves my concentration.

Sewing: If you own a sewing machine,  just letting the kids (carefully!) run some fabric through it can be fun. I used to let my older son control the foot pedal when he was four or five. But certainly use your parenting judgment here. A sewing machine does have a needle, and kids’ hands are very small.

Sports: You don’t necessarily have to play a game that already exists. My husband loves making up games with our kids, and they have a blast at it. They’ve even created their own boardgames that the two play together in the evening. I’ll admit, this is less suitable for me, because I like consistency, but then again, maybe it could force me to use my brain differently.

TV: Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest you watch TV with your kids. Not only does this help you, the parent, see what they’re actually watching, but it will, again, force your brain to focus on something different. If watching YouTubers playing video games is all your kids watch, then try a movie on the weekend, with some popcorn.

Painting: Yup, show your children that they’ve probably already bested you in the arena of art. And if you are talented in art, show them one or two tips that’ll make them better. (Of course, if your kids are old enough, maybe actually painting a room might be more engaging for all of you.)

Colouring: Those adult colouring books are more than suitable for kids over the age of five. My older kid (in the junior grades) will occasionally sit in the same room with me as we both colour for ten or fifteen minutes in separate books.

Writing: My youngest loves this. He’s in the primary grades, so he still finds spelling and printing arduous. He absolutely loves to dictate a story to me as I type it out in Scrivener. I set the timer for 10 or 15 minutes (my forearms can’t handle anything longer), and he’ll easily produce 300-600 words.

Dancing: Kids don’t care how you move. If your kids is active, turn on the tunes and get dancin’!

So, those are just a few ideas of how to build in some creativity time that will help you in your profession but also connect you with your children. Do you do any of these activities already? Or other ones?

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Guilt Getting in the Way of Your Creativity? These Suggestions Might Help

Guilt is never a nice feeling. At its worst, it reminds us we’ve hurt someone (which is what I think its original purpose was for), and many live with that feeling for the rest of their lives.

But, like many negative emotions, guilt can also interfere with other aspects of your life. Like worry, it can hijack your mind and keep you from creating, because your mind is occupied by all the other things you should be doing.

To be clear, I’m not going to rant about how important it is to feed your creativity to the point where it looks like I’m asking you to ignore your responsibilities. What I’m talking about here is the guilt that comes after those basic – and hugely important – duties have been completed.

But a Parent’s Duty Never Ends

I know. Even when I’m in my office, with both doors closed, my ears are open, listening to my kids. As much as I dream of spending a week away at a writers’ residency, I think the silence would be too distracting.

But let’s look at the context: Do you feel guilty about spending time on your creative work because you could be chopping up vegetables for tomorrow? Or because you forgot to dust the baseboards again? Oh – a few doors have fingerprints that have been driving you crazy, right?

I’m not teasing you here – those are things going on my head, too. (Garage door from the laundry room and office door from the kitchen – fingerprints galore!) But my point is you’re not feeling guilty because your kids are hungry and you insist on continuing your art.

Look at the Full Context

You need to step back first and examine the big picture (the trees vs. forest thinking I was talking about last week). Let’s look at an after-work situation. You finish at 5:00, want dinner on the table by 6:00, and feel guilty for not having a full, standard supper ready for your family. When it comes time to work on your own personal project, you’re chewing yourself up at having made tacos with last night’s leftover ground beef instead of finding some ingenious way of turning cooked ground beef into steak, baking huge potatoes, and julienning carrots for the wok.

The thing is, you’re almost never in the door until 5:30. What options do you have? Well, you can

  1. Continue berating yourself for not living up to your high standards, but we’ve seen this hasn’t been working for you.
  2. Move supper to 6:30.
  3. Put supper in a slow cooker in the morning.
  4. Prepare the meat in the morning so you can throw it in the oven the moment you get home.
  5. If your kids are old enough and are home before you are, start getting them to help.
  6. Lower your expectation.

Your feelings of guilt that you can’t have a full meat-potatoes-vegetables meal on the table every evening will only sap your creative energy. They’re not worth it.

Use Your Creativity and a Little Self-Compassion to Solve Your Problem

Years ago, I dated a guy whose mom always made us meat, potatoes, and a vegetable for supper when we came to visit. He wondered why she didn’t try pasta on occasion, or other dishes. Her response was that, as students, we likely ate pasta all the time, and she thought this would be a nice change (she was right). But I think part of it, too, was that she knew exactly when to start, how long each step would take her, and she could quickly switch up meats and vegetables as needed. It was easiest for her and let her focus her energy on other things.

A word about lowering your expectations: Keep in mind your overall goals and the least amount of work needed to accomplish them. For example, I want my kids to have healthy, home-cooked meals. For me, this means one substantial protein, at least one vegetable (usually two), and a grain. Possible options include

  • tacos (minus the high-sodium spice mix that comes in the package)
  • pasta and a good meat sauce
  • oven-baked chicken, roasted vegetables, and quinoa
  • turkey and carrot casserole, with brown rice, tomato sauce, and cheese

And if things are so harried sometimes that all I have time to cook is frozen, breaded meat, frozen peas, and toast, then that’s okay. (But not all the time – a few times a months is my limit.)

You deserve time to be creative. I would even say that you need it. If you’re finding yourself feeling guilty while you’re creating, examine the source of that guilt and what can be done to get rid of it. Guilt does have its purpose, but killing your own personal creativity is not one of them.

 

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Do You “Risk It All” for Your Dreams?

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Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

I’ve been reading self-help books on and off for years, and I wonder how they can promise that you can “have it all.” However, I also find these inspiring, and they often get me to think about my life in much different terms, and I think I’ve finally figured out how to balance my dreams with my life.

I’m reading The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer right now. I came across this advice:

That silent inner knowing will never leave you alone. You may try to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist, but in honest, alone moments of contemplative communion with yourself, you sense the emptiness waiting for you to fill it with your music. It wants you to take the risks involved, and to ignore your ego and the egos of others who tell you that an easier, safer, or more secure path is best for you. (page 152)

I love the book, but I find advice like this potentially misleading: he’s suggesting you don’t listen to your inner doubts and just take the plunge towards your dreams. For me, that would involve stopping all work and just focusing on writing fiction, which doesn’t bring in any money until you’ve developed somewhat of a following.

Tell that career decision to the bank that wants to take back your house.

Stay Safe

On the other hand, though, is the “stay safe” advice he talks of. There are varying degrees of this, at least in my experience. Here’s one side of the spectrum: An older relative of mine was once worried about the whole-grain, no-sugar diet my parents were raising me and my sister on (in the 80s and 90s, before it became trendy). The relative thought I’d have a hard time finding a husband by being on that diet. I eat sugar now, but I still prefer whole-grain baking and cooking to regular, and yet I somehow managed to find a husband AND have children with him. The relative meant well, but this is one version of the “safe” advice that Wayne Dyer is speaking of.

Here’s the other side: “You have a family to look after. Why on earth would you quit your job to become an artist?”

To which the person might respond, “Because I just know in my heart that it’s what I was meant to do.”

That last statement may be true – many of us push off what we’ve always felt to be our calling because others told us we’d never make a living with it, whatever it is.

But where are you in your life? Do you have a mortgage or rent to pay? Kids to get through university? A weekly grocery bill to feed others besides just you?

Yes, right? So, what to do?

Think of the Possibilities

Don’t be afraid of blue skies dreaming. Dream, write it down, dream some more. Many of these self-help authors are good at putting you into the right frame of mind for that. You let your mind go free with all the things you dream of, all the things you want to do and to have, and start envisioning this new version of your life.

Now, this is where I would halt the process: Before you go any further, you need to look at your life as it is now and start setting things up to work towards your dream.

You want to become a master painter? Find an appropriate painting class, sign yourself up, and squeeze in 10 minutes a day to practice.

Want to work your way up in your company? Talk to managers and ask them how they got to where they are. Then start emulating what they do. (But make it your own; as the saying goes, “Just be yourself; everyone else is taken.”)

Want to change your career? Find more responsibilities in your current job that are applicable to that career change.

I don’t want to make it sound like these ideas are easy. You may have to shift your schedule around, or risk standing out from the crowd at work…and I wonder if these are the risks Wayne Dyer is really talking about but not explaining? There are legitimate concerns surrounding any major life-changing decision, but there are also fears that hold us back, like a thick woollen blanket wrapped around you: it’s warm and cozy but immobilizing.

The trick is to differentiate the two categories.

What About Bob? Baby Steps…

I don’t know your situation, of course, but I do believe that if you want to change something for the better, you will find a way to make it happen. For me, it was deciding to forego TV after the kids were in bed and spending that time on my novel.

Would I like to spend part of each writing fiction, at a time when my brain is more functional? Yes. But I chose to have a family and a mortgage. To just drop all my streams of income to “follow my dreams” would be hugely irresponsible.

But that doesn’t make following my dreams impossible.

Don’t feel guilty or frustrated if you aren’t living your dream life. Whatever life you are living, so long as it’s generally helpful to you and others, can probably teach you something that will benefit the life you are dreaming of. But figure out what those baby steps are that can get you moving in the right direction: the real risk, in the end, may be just prying open the door.

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Juggling Too Much? How I’m Starting to Focus

Lori's clean deskThis week, I watched a video on lynda.com called “Getting Things Done,” by David Allen. This is Allen’s organization system, and he has a book about it and coaches about it, etc. Being an admin assistant, part of me actually thought, “I’m already good at getting things done. Why should I waste time watching another ‘how to get organized’ video?” What I didn’t anticipate was Allen’s approach.

The Real Purpose of Your Brain

Allen’s philosophy is that the brain is for having ideas, not for holding them. The first task he has you do is to make a list of everything that “has your attention.”

I thought this was a brilliant way to look at all the things I have to do in my life. If the request had been to simply write a to-do list, then I would’ve finished that in a few minutes. But a task requiring me to write down everything that has my attention is a different beast.

For example, my messy desk had my attention, my work-in-progress marketing plan had my attention, and spending more time with my husband had my attention.

How I Actually Got a Good Night’s Sleep

In the end, after about 90 minutes (including a few interruptions from the kids), I had a list of 200 items. I can honestly say it had been a very long time since I’d slept that well.

Of course, by the next night, once my mind was aware of a to-do list with over 200 items (more got added the next day), I didn’t sleep as well again. However, once I got those items into a to-do program, the sleep returned.

There was definitely something to this idea of moving everything that has your attention to manageable lists.

The Hard Evidence

What became evident to me, though, after writing that huge list was how much I wanted to just spend time with my family. My desire to freelance came out of my desire to show my kids that you can make a living doing what you love. Ironically, though, I haven’t been spending much time with the people I love.

Is it Really About Time Management?

The next point that really drew me to Allen’s approach is his belief that it’s not about managing time but about managing your focus.

For some reason, then, Cheryl Richardson, a life coach who publishes with Hay House, came to mind. Her philosophy is balance: she lists seven areas of life that you should try to keep somewhat in balance. If one area goes out of whack, e.g., you lose your job, it’s easier to manage that change if you have also focused time on your family, yourself, your spirituality (doesn’t need to be anything religious), and the other areas.

The approach that Allen is suggesting seems to fit that.

The God of North American Culture: Single-Minded Dedication

We often idolize the single-minded tenancity of an Olympic athlete, or the latest start-up CEO who’s slept only a few hours a night for the past year, not the human who can expertly balance the many parts of life at once.

Instead of revering the race car driver who gets all the glory, we should be revering the teacher who has over time become a surrogate parent, social worker, psychotherapist, and educational assistant all rolled into one.

Instead of the baseball star who couldn’t exist if it weren’t for a slew of unnamed people – likely included many volunteer coaches – we should be celebrating first responders who go from rushing to the home of a panicked mom whose kid is wheezing from a sudden onset of croup, to a violent break-in a moment later.

Don’t get me wrong: these athletes are incredible, and not all teachers and first responders are great. But please don’t miss my larger point: our culture reveres this extreme kind of focus more than it does the balancing act, which is what most people have to contend with.

And Back to David Allen

David Allen’s system is very simple, and I’m not going to explain all of it here (that’s what he’s for, after all). I should make it clear that I’ve only been at it for a week, including trying out a new to-do program that thankfully perfectly aligns to his approach.

But his system is also really simple.

Once I saw everything that was going on in my mind, it became clear that I needed to find a better way of managing it, and I think I have. It started with a clean desk and cleaning out my in-baskets. It continued with realizing a few items on that list would only take a few minutes each to complete. And it’s continuing now with helping me see how I can focus on each aspect of my life and still keep the balance, as precarious as it may be sometimes.

Let the balancing act continue!

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What’s the Point of the Arts?

annie-spratt-253799 reducedI do believe the arts are a spiritual endeavour, one that’s not always easily put into words. But when I read about cuts to the arts in schools, or run into someone who asks what the point is of studying literature or fine arts, because, hey, no one can understand that stuff, anyways, it frustrates me for two reasons.

For starters, the arts in almost any capacity feeds humans just as the sun does. It’s obvious to me and I don’t see why people don’t get it.

Second, the moment someone complains, my throat closes up because of the frustration in that first point. It’s a weird thing I have: I get frustrated, and then the words disappear into a jumble in my head I can’t quite dislodge and unpack to calmly explain my point of view to someone.

So, without delving into scientific evidence (there’s lots out there, I just don’t have time to review a chunk of it and spit it back out to you in 800-1,200 words), I’m going to tackle the question from a individual viewpoint, which, I’m learning, is a very Romantic-period way of solving such problems.

The Arts are Expression

The arts (and that includes music, dance, drama, visual arts, and everything in between and across disciplines) by definition are about expression. Not allowing a human self-expression through the arts is no different than plastering their mouth shut with duct tape.

In essence, individuality is at the heart of the arts. Many artists hope to make a living with their work, but many use it as a hobby and outlet, writing away stories no one will ever read, or strumming on a guitar for the sheer pleasure of soothing the nerves. When we always approach the arts with, “How will you make money off of this?” we miss the true value for the individual.

The Arts are Culture

Moving past the individual, we come to our culture. There are most definitely songs and paintings out there I don’t like for one reason or another, and yes, I do sometimes wonder who was paid to produce “such a horrible piece of work.” You will also have your preferences for stories, music, and concert dance.

What I feel, though, has been forgotten is that freedom in art helps underpin our democracy. It’s no coincidence that one of the first groups of people dictators try to control is artists, everyone from painters to writers to all the specialists involved in the TV and movie industries. (The other main group they try to silence tends to be academics.)

Cultural Appropriation

There is a dark underbelly arising in the arts, though, and I’m not entirely sure what to think of it: cultural appropriation. As I understand it, it means using another culture in your own creation. Part of me revolts at the thought that someone has a right to dictate to artists what they can and can’t do. At the same time, being someone of German heritage, my back went up when a puppet on a kids’ show was wearing a Bismarck-era military helmet, faking a German accent, and pretending to be the bad guy. (Couldn’t he at least wear lederhosen and be happy while dancing a polka?)

Whatever your view on the subject, one thing is certain: if artists didn’t use their voices to produce their work, we wouldn’t be having these discussions about culture, power, colonization, and the like. It’s because of the arts that voices are being heard on these very difficult subjects.

The Arts Belong in Schools

Because of the high emphasis on self-expression, learning the arts in school helps children find outlets for their own personality. For those who have difficulty doing so in words, they may find comfort in music, drawing, and dance. For those who feel physically awkward, channeling their energy onto paper may help them share their feelings and release that tension.

But where’s the monetary value? The economic incentive? This one always gets me.

The entertainment industry is perhaps one of the largest industries in the Western world, and people still ask where the monetary value of the arts is.

Every business needs talented people whose gifts for creating are needed for marketing, communications, and even product development. Again, you don’t get that talent by not nurturing the arts.

Every scientist needs to present findings in a way that others will understand. (The most popular scientists, in my view, seem to be the ones who can in one moment speak to other specialists in their field and in the next, to laypeople, and convey the same information in a way each audience understands.)

Art and Peace

Our world is huge, and there’s no way I can humanly know all its history. But my general impression is that artists don’t start wars. They may start disagreements, and these disagreements may turn into huge arguments, but I’m not aware of them starting wars. I believe artists, through their vocation, study the human condition (with some exceptions). They see the value of human life and honour the exchange that occurs between us when we communicate our true selves. I believe artists are often more comfortable than many of us in dealing with human emotions.

Support the Arts

So it makes no sense to me that we cut back on the arts in schools and label them as useless. I know teachers only have so much time and training, and they themselves are also only human. But I don’t think we can afford to keep cutting back on the arts – humans need to express themselves, and what is school if not a place to help kids grow into an adult, one who is ready to participate in this world as a fully realized and actualized human being? And how can this goal be fulfilled without teaching the students the many different ways they can share themselves with the world around them?

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Writing With Young Kids in the Home

writer-babyTrying to write with little humans traipsing around your home and causing havoc can be challenging to say the least. They drool everywhere, put everything in their mouths, drag their bums on your dirty kitchen floor and then over onto the clean living room carpet, and they make the strangest noises you’ve ever heard uttered from a human mouth. (If you have boys, that part gets a lot weirder as they enter the primary grades. I’m warning you now.)

You’re likely reading this post because you’re in this phase right now, or you know someone who is. Let me start by saying this: You can survive!

I somehow made it through that initiation ritual and can offer a few tips for you. But there’s one thing I need to get out of the way first, a reminder. It may sound harsh, but whenever I find myself in conflict between my kids and my writing (both my paid and unpaid work), reminding myself of this centres me again so I can better deal with the issue at hand.

This is my reminder: I chose to have a family, which includes marrying a man and having children with him.

So when I find myself thinking, “If only they’d stop talking!” “Can’t they see I’m busy?” “Of course the stomach flu has to go through the house while I’m on deadline!” I remember that this was all my choice. I could have lived the single life and become a sworn spinster. But I didn’t. I chose this, so I have to take responsibility for it.

That doesn’t mean I’m a doormat. This reminder just affects my way of solving problems. Balance is important in any life. Even when I was in my 20s and just a grad student, I lost my balance: I dated, studied, worked, and socialized in the same department. If one minor problem appeared, my life turned upside down. No family or husband in the picture yet.

So keep that in mind as you read these suggestions.

Be Realistic

Most toddlers have the attention span of a fruit fly and a propensity to explore without any idea of government-issued health & safety standards. Set your office somewhere where you can easily supervise your child (or restrict your child to an area you can easily supervise from your office).

Also resign yourself to the fact that you’ll be lucky if you get 10 minutes of writing time in one chunk while your child is awake.

Of course, longer periods of writing are necessary to get into deep thought, or “the zone” as some call it. But, as I said, be realistic. Don’t expect a 28-month-old to be capable of leaving you alone for two hours. Either arrange for childcare or write when your child is asleep.

Expect Interruptions

These are the normal day-to-day interruptions, like when they hit their funny bone, or when siblings get at each other. But also remember that kids get sick at the turn of a dime.

Do not leave major projects until the last minute; start them as soon as you get them. You can easily lose a few days to illness, maybe even a week or more, depending on how easily everyone in your family gets sick. Daycares also send kids home for any number of reasons, so there’ll never be a guarantee that you’ll get a full day’s worth of work in.

Don’t fight it, accept it. Generally, until your kids move out of the house, plan for interruptions.

Teach Your Children That You’re Writing

And here I really mean teach. Don’t scold, don’t shout, don’t expect a toddler to read an adult mind; instead, explain, be firm if you need to, and demonstrate. Keep it age appropriate, too. For example, there’ll be very little you can teach an 18-month-old, but a child who’s three can usually be taught to knock before entering your office.

I’ve also heard some luck with using the kitchen timer: for example, you set it for 10 minutes and your child can’t interrupt you until it goes off. You’ll need to be firm and consistent here but also know when your child really does need you.

Kids are Wired to Seek Your Attention

So accept it. They’re not trying to annoy you. They know you’re responsible for their well-being, and being humans themselves, love social time. When you’re spending time with your child, keep the focus on them, not your phone or other device.

I cut down on my television because of this guideline, which is to say, I don’t watch much anymore. I used to watch while cooking supper, just to hear adult sentences being strung together.

However, if my kids wanted me, and I was trying to pay attention to the TV, and I had the stove and oven going while I was cutting something…that was too much strain on my mental resources, and I lost my patience with my kids. So now, the TV is rarely on while I’m in the kitchen. I’ve become more patient, supper’s ready faster, and the overall change has been remarkable.

My experience was and still is this: if I give my kids some undivided attention during the day, they’ll usually leave me in peace at times, too.

Is the Television a Babysitter?

I know doctors would like us to say no. I’d like to say no. But I’d be lying if I said my kids never watched TV so I could get a half hour of work in. I didn’t have a doctor’s salary to pay for childcare, so it was inevitable.

If you do let your child watch TV without you, keep the times short. Kids should be exploring, not sitting in a chair, their eyes transfixed to a screen. But if we are to respect my first tip (Be Realistic), we have to acknowledge that most of us no longer live in extended-family situations, which means we don’t have live-in babysitters.

Balancing Phones and Children

Invariably, your phone will ring while you’re spending time with your kid. This happened in 80s as much as it does now, only now, your phone is with you all the time. As the phone rings, explain to your child that you have to talk to someone else for a moment, but you won’t be long. When you hang up, apologize for the interruption like you would to any adult. In the end, you’re treating your little human the same as any other human in your company: would you answer your phone without excusing yourself from the present conversation?

I know most toddlers and preschoolers won’t fully understand what you’re saying, but they’ll hear the patient (and possibly firm) tone in your voice. Once the call is done, put all your attention back to your child.

Have patience with this and keep it age appropriate. Remember, you’re teaching your child how today’s world works and how to behave in it.

Use Your Child’s Temperament

When my boys were old enough to play with each other (i.e., when I had a toddler and a preschooler), I found they generally played well after a meal and horribly if mealtime was not too far away. So, where possible, I scheduled my writing accordingly and left cleanup, which didn’t require any concentration, for later.

Be Creative With Where You Write

For example, an easy task, like editing a short text, could be done on paper at the kitchen table, while your kid is colouring next to you. Or teaching your older preschooler that they can do a quiet activity in your office next to you may also work. Again, keep your child’s temperament in mind: If they’re a bundle of energy, it’s probably best to go outside with them after a meal so they can burn some of that energy.  Then try working.

In the End…

View this as a balancing act, not as a competition. This is why I find it so important to remind myself that I chose to have a family. Once I’ve repossessed that responsibility, it’s easier to handle the interruptions. Also be flexible, your kids will change as they grow up, and the easiest thing you can do is change with them. After all, you’re the adult with experience.

If you’re in Waterloo Region, I’ll be part of a panel discussion on self-publishing, taking place Wednesday, May 3rd @ 7PM at the Kitchener Public Library, Country Hills branch. I’ll be contributing advice on balancing writing and family.

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How Writers Fit in Exercise

bikeyellowbuildingThe downside to writing, as with many seated jobs, is the lack of movement. Having grown up a dancer, I was constantly moving. Getting into adult life wasn’t too bad – I walked a lot. But getting into family life, unless I was running after a toddler, I wasn’t doing much. Everything I read kept emphasizing the need to exercise to stay healthy, but exactly how was that going to be possible? Between a full-time job, cooking, and kids, exercise seemed elusive.

At first, the answer was easy: I had only one kid, and my work had conveniently relocated to near my home. There was a daycare on the same property. I don’t drive, and walking there was easier than taking the bus.

But by the time my youngest was a toddler and his brother had started school, I realized that, no matter what was going on in my life, I had to make room for exercise. My kids certainly weren’t going to offer me the time. My husband also worked opposing hours to mine, so I couldn’t ask him to mind the kids in the evening and on weekends while I worked out, either.

So my main piece of advice to you is just that: it’s up to you to push it into your schedule. But exactly how you do that is up to you. Below, I’ve collected some advice from other writer friends on how to exercise when kids are around.

Free and Easy

When all else fails, use your own house if you have to, but getting out to walk is the simplest, cheapest form of exercise. Montreal-based writer and translator Kathe Lieber used to get up at 6:00 AM to walk with two other women who had small kids. Rising that early meant her child hadn’t awoken yet, either.

Helen Lammers-Helps, an agriculture writer who lives in Waterloo Region in Ontario, loaded her kids into a stroller or wagon and walked all over the neighbourhood. “It’s a great way to get to know your neighbours and being outdoors is good for my mental health,” she says. And when her kids got older, they hiked on local trails or biked.

Shake It Up

Lammers-Helps also found joining the local YMCA helpful: she made use of their babysitting while she did Aquafit classes or used their track. If her kids had hockey or swimming at the local rec centre, she walked around the centre’s track.

Lieber says that, if getting to a gym isn’t feasible, try finding a second-hand stationary bike or cross-trainer and store it in your basement or bedroom.

“My kid has left home, but I still find this the best way to shoe-horn exercise into a busy schedule. My stationary bike is by the window, with an interesting view, and there’s a TV and a radio in the room – so I’ve called my own bluff, basically. And my Kobo balances nicely between the handlebars. No excuse for not exercising.”

Virginia Heffernan, former field geologist turned writer, suggests having exercise equipment near your desk so you can squeeze in some movement. That can include a mat, a Theraband, free weights, or even a stationary bike as Lieber suggested.

Exercise and Television

Lisa Bendall, a feature writer and book author who lives Toronto, says that Just Dance on the Nintendo Wii system is her ticket to exercise: “Fun for the whole family and a great workout!”

Alison Palkhivala, a medical journalist in Montreal, plays boxing on her Xbox with her son. “But my son accuses me of cheating whenever I win,” she says.

When the Kids Are a Bit Older

Palkhivala says that once the kids turn 12, there are many family activities you can do together. In her family’s case, they started taking family martial arts classes.

“We’ve made martial arts a family affair and I joke we’re training to become the Incredibles,” she says.

The Most Important Thing to Remember

I’ve been a mom for almost a decade now, and I’ve learned that you have to change as your kids change. We did evening walks in the summer when the kids were easy to fit into a stroller. Now, they’d rather play with their Lego instead of go for a walk.

Be flexible, and change with your kids. Once I went on mat leave with my second child and my work moved back to its original building, I had lost my two 30-minute walks a day and had to find something else.

However, I also went through periods of doing nothing – it happens!

Now, with my split work day (part-time employee, part-time freelancer), I walk home from my employed job four days a week, a total of 20 km. I recently added a one-hour workout four days a week, and I had to ram it into my afternoon schedule. For the sessions during the week, that meant getting creative with supper and finding recipes that needed a long time in the oven, for example. If you’re adept with a slow cooker, this would help, too. I tried morning routines, but as of late, they just don’t work for me.

When it comes to getting yourself to move, know what motivates you the most, and get creative. After all, if you’re already creative in one area of your life (otherwise, why would you be writing?) then you can certainly be creative in other areas.

So, get a move on!

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Vivian Hicks: A 13-Year-Old Who Doesn’t Let Bullying Ruin Her Dreams

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Vivian Hicks at an audition for America’s Got Talent

My first assignment for just dance! magazine this year was to interview a 13-year-old phenom, Vivian Hicks. This young woman has accomplished a lot: Not only is she a Mini-Pop, something I so wanted to be when I was a kid, but she’s modelled, placed extremely well in dance competitions, and is a rising social media star.

However, one aspect of her story particularly grabbed me: her response to online bullying.

A Growing Social Media Star

She’s reached over 1 million followers on musical.ly, has 416,000 on Instagram, and although her YouTube channel has “only” 32,000 subscribers, her video to the song “#DISS,” which she wrote herself, has well over 300,000 views in six months.

It all started when she was three, and her mother, Alley Hicks, began posting videos of Vivian singing. Here’s her rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” with her mother coaching in the background. Vivian’s 4 in this one.

Cute, in my books. Alley kept posting, and Vivian kept training: first in Georgetown, and then in Oakville, cities just outside of Toronto, Canada. Vivian trained in singing, dancing, and acting, and her career has just flown.

“But with the followers comes a lot of hate, and jealousy, and crazy people. It truly does. I do tell Vivian, if she gets a message, to not look at it if she doesn’t know who it is,” says Alley.

The Dark Side of Social Media Stardom

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Um, who says she can’t dance?

Here’s just a tiny sample: A short hip-hop video with another dancer has comments like these:

  • “I hate white ppl”
  • “Wtf is she trying to hit the folks?I’m weak bruh”
  • “She’s can’t dance you can check that off your Resume”

If I had seen those words when I was 13, I would have buried my head under my pillow and watched copious episodes of whatever show I was into back then. Of course, social media wasn’t around in my youth, but if I’d read those words anywhere, I would’ve been devastated. The closest I can come to that was when I played the title role in Der Besuch der alten Dame (English adaptation: The Visit) in my mid-20s. It was a university production I had co-produced, co-directed, and starred in. I was playing a woman in her 70s out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend from her youth. She bet that someone in the town would kill him if the price was high enough. (Whether she succeeds depends on which version you see: the Swiss original or the American adaptation.)

I saw one review, and they said I didn’t play “old” well enough.

Well, wasn’t I just embarrassed; I thought my world had gone under, because I wasn’t perfect. (They were right, though.) And here’s Vivian, easily ten years younger than I was at that time, dealing with comments like those further above.

Sadly, though, those weren’t the worst comments she’d ever dealt with.

In our interview for the magazine, Alley told me about a disturbing incident where someone threatened to kill her daughter. Unsure what to do, Vivian showed the message to her mom, of course, and Alley advised her not to respond, because people take photos of those exchanges and then exploit them.

So what’s Vivian supposed to do in the face of all of this? Quick perusals through the comments of many posts show that the overwhelming majority love her. I had even found a few fan pages in my research for the article.

Bullying: Don’t Let It Stop Your Dreams

“There’s better things to worry about than about some person hiding behind their phone and saying mean things to you,” Vivian said to me. She advises kids to not worry about. “And be yourself, because that’s the best you can be, to be honest.”

In the end, if she had shied away from what she loved to do, I suppose you could say the bullies would have won and the light she is clearly shining on her part of the world would’ve been extinguished.

But she doesn’t shy away from it. Instead, she’s just continuing to fly.

Did Kirk Cameron’s parents worry about his growing stardom at such a young age? Jody Foster’s? Emmanuel Lewis’s? Shirley Temple’s? Elijah Wood’s? Keisha Knight Pulliam’s? Probably. What would have happened, though, if they had held their children back because of it?

I just looked at the label on my tea bag: “He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.” It’s apparently a Persian proverb. I guess if any of us are looking for fame, we have to accept that others out there will find their own, mean way of having fun with us.

But Vivian doesn’t just ignore it; she fights it with power. For example, she performs for Bullies Foundation, an American foundation created by some reality TV stars. I don’t follow reality TV myself, so I don’t recognize any of them, but they’re getting the word out there that bullying is not okay. Here’s a short news clip of some stars from Big Brother and Vivian at a rally.

For a young woman seeking stardom, these comments are unfortunately part of the playing field. But to me, it looks like she’s striking every one of them out.

If you’re being bullied:

The RCMP has an excellent site on bullying.

If you’re a child or teen in Canada and need to talk to someone now (or your friend does), then call the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868.

If you’re in the US, there’s the Crisis Call Center. You can call (775) 784-8090 or text “ANSWER” to 839863. Or you can call the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

Whatever’s happening to you, get help.