It's Sunday morning at the "everything table" and I'm working on an elaborate, symmetrical snowflake of fuse beads when I should be writing. I have already completed a bumblebee, and I've been helping with a butterfly and a heart, both mishmashes of bright, pastel, primary, and sparkle-infused colors.
"Jewel, your butterfly is so beautiful. I love how you used all of the colors."
"All the colors of the rainbow except black because black isn't pretty," she says, her four-year-old mind dividing everything into the pretty things that she likes and the "not pretty" things that she doesn't.
"Oh, I like black, but did you ever see a rainbow with black in it?"
She thinks for a moment. "No, so then I don't have to use it!" Reassured, she goes back to placing beads, so much more easily manipulated by her tiny fingers than mine. Her twin sister works across the table from her; I'm strategically located on the end, equidistant from both, forever trying to do everything equally to minimize the competition for attention, mommy time, and Goldfish crackers. In the background, the Disney station softly plays their favorite songs: Let It Go, Under the Sea, A Whole New World, I See the Light, Be Our Guest, and Can You Feel the Love Tonight. The unrelenting, upbeat hopefulness of the lyrics encourages me.
I'm finally getting close to one of the things I need in order to feel fulfilled, the one I've been lacking in this new role as mother to twins: time to be creative and write. So much of being a mom is mundane drudgery. The glorious moments—those tiny surprises that overwhelm me with love, pride, and admiration, the ones that make motherhood rewarding—are too elusive and fleeting: watching the reluctant twin cautiously try something new and succeed, seeing the sensitive twin offer her blankie to comfort an upset friend, introducing them to a city I love and watching both of them twirl around yelling, "I love it here!" The smiles and happy faces turn just as quickly to scowls and tears. The moment disappears, and then it's back to preparing another meal they probably won't eat.
It's hard to find any time for myself, much less the solid chunk of uninterrupted quiet, contemplative time that I need to process ideas into words. When I decided to stay home, I made a deal with myself: if I wasn't going to work, at least I'd write. But somehow, I've been derailed and the closest I get to being a writer is letting my brain wander while I stand in front of the dryer folding clothes. I rush to scribble a note if a beautiful turn of phrase or interesting idea rises, intending to make the thought whole some other time. Only that time never seems to come.
As Let It Go begins for the second or maybe third time, I notice Pearl's dolphin. "Wow, Pearl, you're almost done. You have so much focus!" She stares intently as she directs a bead onto a little plastic spike in a sea of already-beaded spikes. But she keeps knocking the surrounding beads over.
"Mommy, can you help me?"
"Sure!" I lean over to see what's troubling her. My plan is working. She concentrated through three whole songs without asking for help, our longest stretch yet.
I've been trying to teach my daughters the value of quiet time. This isn't just for them, although I'm sure that there's research somewhere that time spent reading, coloring, building, sculpting, or painting fills some inner need that keeps us happy and healthy. My theory is that without it, people become cranky, disconnected, and overwhelmed. Or maybe I'm just projecting my own issues onto others.
After four years of being a full-time mom, constantly watching, feeding, and entertaining twins—two babies who as infants cried mercilessly the second I left their sight and who sometimes still have a tantrum the moment I leave a room—I'm realizing just how much I enjoy not having to talk or listen to anything or anyone. My sweet, rambunctious daughters have helped me measure just how much quiet solitude I need to be creative: at least an hour a day. Sometimes I can cobble that together in 15-minute chunks before dinner or while they watch My Little Pony, but those chunks aren't as productive as 60 continuous, blissful minutes. Now, finally, they're getting to an age where they will sit down and draw with crayons or pinch, roll and cut play dough for more than a couple of minutes without needing me, so my goal is to stretch that into a golden hour of peaceful productivity.
Before kids, when we lived in New York City, I started taking writing classes after a large melanoma of the eye threatened the possibility of a shorter life. If I only had a few years left, I wanted to pursue the nagging dream that I had more or less ignored until then, that of being a writer. With a degree in English and art history, I had stumbled into a career where I raised funds to support nonprofits that promoted the arts. What I didn't see then was that while I enjoyed helping others to pursue their artistic development (others whose creative output I deemed more worthwhile than my own), I was ignoring my own needs
I enrolled in a memoir class at Gotham Writers Workshop. I had always enjoyed a well-written history or memoir in which I could discover a place's or a person's unique story. There were always new perspectives, experiences I'd never have, and an authenticity that, to me, was more compelling than fiction. With that class, I discovered that creative nonfiction was a genre, and I found my obvious niche. Then, I was on a mission: I wanted to write the book that I couldn't find, one about what it feels like to bring children—babies someone else would carry—into the world knowing that you might not be there to raise them.
I began writing notes, ideas, even first drafts on my phone during my subway commute back and forth to work. With the earphones jammed into my ears, I had 40 minutes of uninterrupted time twice a day, bookended by short walks during which I planned ahead or decompressed from the workday. By the time I walked onto the subway car, the words were ready. It was a relief just typing them out, as if they needed to be released, and it was exciting, as if I was finally doing what I was meant to do. Although most people don't think of New York City as quiet, in some odd way, the urban chaos simply became white noise that I could easily ignore. After dinner and late into the night, I'd revise and rewrite until I had a draft that I was comfortable sharing with my memoir class.
I would never have thought of the subway as a writing oasis, but compared to being home with twins constantly vying for my attention, it was heaven. When my daughters were only a few months old, taking three naps a day, I jotted a few paragraphs on my computer or poured them into my phone's voice recorder after preparing bottles, doing laundry, cleaning floors, and maybe showering. (Maybe. I never knew if the screaming baby alarm would sound before I stepped in, and I tried to ignore it only if it had been more than three days since running water had last touched some part of me other than my hands.) But the ideas never seemed to coalesce. They were more like puzzle pieces that not only didn't interlock, they didn't even have a straight side or a discernable image on which to build.
Soon, I gave up trying to write the book I'd begun writing two years before and focused instead on shorter pieces, unrelated to the book, that would eventually become essays. I thought that when my daughters went to preschool, I'd gain the time I needed to map out a writing plan with a schedule for completing my book, perhaps thereby mapping a path to a new career. But preschool is expensive even for two hours a day, twice as much for twins, so instead I got a part time job to pay the bills, and my writing remained marginal, an indulgence rather than a necessity.
And so I started quiet time. But it's not just quiet time for mommy. (If I just wanted that, I would simply hand them their iPads and earphones and I wouldn't see or hear from them until dinner.) No, my goal is to teach them to enjoy and appreciate the flow that comes when you focus completely on something, to nurture a love of time spent with oneself in a singular pursuit. Then, time can be malleable; it can feel instantaneous like a flash of lightning or leisurely like a walk in the forest. It can settle the mind like meditation, be a respite from the tumult of preschooler emotions, challenge the intellect, and spark creativity.
So twice a week, on days without dance or soccer or gymnastics, we spend 20 to 30 minutes on an activity that hopefully stimulates the girls' minds in some way, or at the very least attracts their interest. I set the mood with low music, usually instrumental, to create a calming environment. I lay out an activity that shouldn't create too much noise: Playdough works well if I hide the machines that make the annoying cranking sounds. Crayons or markers and a stack of blank paper or copies of the same image (to avoid bickering over who gets what) are good, as long as I withhold the stamps and dot markers with which they would bang on the table. Stringing beads is great if I don't mind cleaning up the million little bits of plastic that will, inevitably, scatter over the floor into hard-to-reach corners and crevices.
The next challenge is getting them to play quietly at the same time. One twin sitting peacefully and coloring is wonderful, but if the other is still running around the house playing butterfly or Supergirl, that won't get me the quiet I need. It's a little like trying to get a photo with both facing the camera, smiling. It only happens in rare, split-second instances and I'm always surprised to discover that I actually captured it, even though my iPhone takes 30 continuous shots in just a few seconds.
My great hope is that one day in the near future, the three of us will sit together at the "everything table" and each will do something that she enjoys: Pearl will draw, Jewel will sculpt or paint, and I'll delve into my long-neglected work, translating the books that lurk in the corners of my mind into words on a screen. Writing will no longer be an indulgence, but a part of our routine, my creative output a source of pride, and an example to my daughters. Learning to focus, to entertain themselves, and to do so independently will be good for them, but if I can stretch these moments into 30-minute blocks, it will be better for me.