Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Finding the common core

Ah, writing time. When you’re used to constant interruptions—to drafting a poem while helping with math homework, say—it is heavenly to have a long stretch of day with nothing to do and no one to answer to.

But a combination of peace and quiet and time also brings an unexpected problem to the fore. A mom of young children is still a mom, even when her kids are away. I’ve been writing poetry along with Common Core math for such a long time that I almost need a number line to compose a verse.

When any organism adapts to a new environment, a return to the old conditions can be jarring. I was a single free spirit for a long time, and I loved nothing more than to throw all of my belongings into my back seat and hit the road. I spent a lot of time in my mind, and it was easy to climb into and out of that mental space. The space itself was always reliably present, and alone time made me mentally limber enough to access it.

Kids make you agile, too. Something gets us to the playground slide a moment before a fall. Something in us can hear a kid choking on a Lego three rooms away. We can tell real sleep from eyes that are merely shut. We can size up guilt or fear or worry at a glance.

A poet parent has to shift from the ultra-observant mom mode to the inner-observant poet mode, and the two modes conflict. When you’re wired to pick up any wrong air current, you’re not prepared to attune to the currents inside you. It takes some time to make the shift—and lack of time is why parent-writers face such a particular challenge when it comes to creating. Sure, we can find fifteen minutes to put down some words, but we don’t necessarily have the luxury of that deep well of introspection that lends itself best to poetry.

For me, there are two settings that let the work happen. When I have only short pockets of time, I rely on the first one, which is to let the inner thoughts bubble to the surface through freewriting. I like to write in longhand, which is a shortcut for me to a mind-body connection, and I get down thoughts in big, loopy cursive that matches the spiraling nature of my thinking. What hits the page is largely extraneous, but it needs to get out, because also in the mix are fragments of a poem. With this method, I find myself panning for gold in the dross, and then arranging the nuggets in the way they ask to be configured.

The other setting is for when I have a long stretch of time, as on a weekend writing retreat. On those rare and heady occasions, I try to recapture the organic self—the Karen I once took on long car trips, and the one who blissfully ignored math almost entirely. When I have a lot of time, I’ll spend some of it napping, or navel-gazing, or singing, or having a scandalously long bath. There may be some TV or web surfing in the mix. A mystery novel is probably somewhere in the room. I spend quite a bit of the free time just getting to know myself again. Even when I don’t meet my writing goals (which are almost always too lofty for the allotted time anyhow), I feel more centered when my time is through. I’m a better writer-slash-mom when I’ve had a little time on my own, just to be me.

A major emphasis in Common Core math is place value. A lot of people mock the methods with ridiculous-looking charts, but the gist is that it’s harder to add, say, 27 and 14 than it is to add 30 and 11. Kids learn mental math—that they can grab three digits from one number’s ones column and make the other number something that ends in zero. Either way you get 41, but the second way, the Common Core way, is something that my kid has been doing in his head since second grade. It’s something, if I’m being honest, that he does better than I do, although I’m (round, subtract, carry the one …) 37 years his senior.

I think time alone lets me borrow from the family’s ones column so that I’m rounded and things feel easy. If I am disciplined—if I do the math—I can continue to make time for myself, and eventually I may be able to settle into my writer’s mind purely by rote.

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