I’m not so much about leashes. Literally and figuratively. Does everyone else have behaviours that you’re proud of but also worry they might be signs you don’t fit in with the rest of humanity and that they know something that you don’t? I have a few of them (okay, I have a mountain of them – but I only plan to address a few areas in this particular post). These behaviours include: letting my dog run off leash when we’re not walking on a street; letting my teenagers decide whether or not to attend their high school classes and regularly putting my needs in front of my kids’ needs. You can see how these are all both controversial and liberating.
Don’t worry – this post will get to Week #4 of the Artist’s Way program, in fact, this IS about the Artist’s Way program, because the crux of my pride and doubt conflict is the tension between choosing security and choosing openness. Following the Artist’s Way keeps teaching me that focusing on openness will lead to creativity AND security, but that focusing on security, most of the time, doesn’t lead to either creativity OR security. When I prioritize security issues, I usually feel scared and weak.
Back to leashes.
I have a valley behind my house that I take walks in daily. I currently take them with my dog Lily, but before I had Lily, I took them on my own. It was my first experience seeing dogs running around off leash. At first, the sight of dogs running freely, not always beside their adult companion, was a little unsettling. There were times I got nervous during a run, when approaching a dog running freely, scared that the dog would chase me or snap at me. That never happened, so over time I became more comfortable. When Lily joined our family almost two years ago, I did some research on training a dog to be off-leash. I wanted her to have opportunities to run freely. I didn’t want to hold her back. Accepted dog training wisdom directed me to wait until she was about 10 months before letting her run freely without fences. In the meantime, I took her to a large cemetery, minutes from my house. It’s fenced and gated. I loved releasing her from her leash and watching her take off, running after squirrels, birds or sometimes appearing to run for the sheer joy of stretching her legs and moving quickly. When she was around 10 months, I started letting her off her leash down in the valley. It felt really risky at first. It’s a huge place – if she ran from me and didn’t turn around it’s possible, I would never be able to retrieve her. In the same way that when my children started going to daycare, I quickly learned that they would emerge from the day, whole beings, and in fact, fuller than they were at the beginning of the day, because they had learned and experienced so much, Lily would explore the offerings of our ravine – checking out the bushes, trees and hills and always returned, albeit sometimes with burrs or flowers knotted in her fur.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I wanted Lily to have these incredible experiences every day. It was also selfish. Watching Lily move in and out of the brush, running after squirrels and taking dips into the river to grab some water or go for a quick swim filled me with joy. It’s amazing to watch how much she learns. She’s learned how to approach people (mostly) with caution, watching their signals and also how to approach dogs. She’s learned when to go into the river and when it’s running too high and too fast. I’ve participated in some of this education by providing direction and encouragement, but Lily has done the lion’s share. Even though she’s a dog : ) I think these daily walks are so positive for Lily’s health and my own. I also worry I’m weird for prioritizing my dog’s freedom and opportunity to learn and grow over other people’s comfort and the rules of the ravine.
My kids would not be surprised to learn that Lily just got the majority of focus in my blog and they’re going to get three paragraphs. Favourite child issues are at least as old as the Bible : ) The thing that I’m proud of and worry about is that I’m not so inclined to leash my kids either – and less and less as they get older. I identify so much this way that I was surprised last week to hear my 17-year-old nephew say that he remembers our house as having more rules than he had ever experienced before. Those were my rules. I don’t even remember what they were, except for pretty strict bedtimes. I was so tired then – three children 5 years of age and younger. Bedtimes were really crucial. For me.
My parenting style has changed quite a bit. I believe that some of the changes can be attributed to the fact that my youngest child is now practically 13. The change also stems from the growing desire to not have my kids on a leash. Some of this motivation is borne out of a similar sentiment to walking Lily which is simply: I don’t want to ruin my walk by playing tug of war with Lily the whole time. I like walking. Equally, I don’t want so much of my life (or at least the child rearing part of it) to be characterized by playing tug of war with my children about what they can do or not do. When, as the Silician in The Princess Bridge would say, “Death is (not) on the line”, I’m not inclined to employ a leash. I’m happy to leave my kids to explore and learn and grow without a whole lot of interference on my part.
That’s why I don’t get very involved with my kids’ school attendance. I used to more – I would want to make sure if they were REALLY sick or had a REALLY legitimate reason to miss class. Now, I’m happy to let them choose. Missing classes has natural consequences. I think practicing staying home to feel better is something that many people in Western society would benefit from practicing more since stress levels are hitting new high levels all the time. Most of all, I’m happy for my kids to figure it out. They have the capacity. It’s not that there aren’t risks – it’s more that the benefits are tremendous. The kids own their experience at school. They’re not there to please me or even to make me proud. They’re there to learn and develop. I think that I’m largely here to provide some direction and a lot of encouragement.
What does it mean to let myself off a leash? More than anything, that means to put my needs before anyone else’s. I don’t want to feel controlled by my kids’ wants/needs (or anyone else’s, for that matter). This might be my greatest area of pride and worry. The Mother’s/Women’s Anthem is frequently one of sacrifice and selflessness. This is such a hard proposition for me. I need to rest. I need to read books. I need to write. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg – my need/want list, is pretty extensive. I like how I feel when I’m rested and learning and writing. It feels hard sometimes to have the kids know that I’ve chosen something different than their needs. I worry that they’ll feel less loved than other kids. Then, I usually remember that my capacity to offer love to my kids is usually rooted in how much rested and happy I feel.
Which brings me back to the Artist’s Way. One of the weekly components of the program is an Artist’s Date. This is time when the phone goes off. No one but the artist is invited on the date. Those are the only criteria. The activity is whatever might nurture/develop that artist. On Artist’s Dates, I have coloured, wandered markets, read fiction, read non-fiction, written stories, eaten very yummy cheesecake and drunk a few cocktails. During this weekly time (a two-hour block), I practice putting myself first. Like going to a yoga class or going to (my new obsession) Orange Theory Fitness classes, I find setting the time aside hard and then actually DOING IT, just as hard, but the payoff is huge. The experience is tremendous – I get fully engaged in whatever I’m doing with deliberately reduced distractions. The feeling after is just as tremendous – I carry it into my next activities – often for days. Putting myself first and doing what is best for me helps me feel connected and purposeful. It’s like motivation rocket fuel. Julia Cameron might characterize Artist Date’s as creativity rocket fuel. I think she would also encourage me to keep letting the kids, Lily and myself run off leash as much as I can bear.