In the Moment

Today we got the veggies into the garden, And Mother Nature got into the act, coaxing bees into fruit blossoms and sending breezes through the sunlight trees. I admit, when I had to take a break between loads of compost or a stretch between planting rows, I let the siren call of social media pull me out of this long, glorious moment.

The irony was, that however anesthetized I may convince myself I am after a few minutes of doom scrolling, there is no social media post that can generate the sense of peace that comes from simply being in the moment with mother nature and all her glory. 

All too easily, I tend to drift into daydreaming, telling myself that I’m meditating. it’s an act I recognize quite often in my students, many of whom are dealing with trauma or their own mental health issues that keep them from being fully present. As The afternoon sun cast a spell on the forest around me, however, I am reminded that Any daydreams, any veering off into the anxieties produced by focusing on all the things beyond my control, is not meditative or productive.

In this moment, I’m focusing on the bees as they help get spring going, on the new leaves that are fairly glowing. And even though meditating on the wind traveling through the forest produces feelings of utter peace, it also makes me feel blessedly awake.

The Opposite of Sick

I tested positive for Covid on Monday which wasn’t a huge deal (we’re all vaxxed and boosted, the symptoms are mild) but it was hugely inconvenient — until the break it enforced helped me find a needed change to disturb this winter’s rest.

Ordinarily, getting an extra week off right before spring break would have been lovely, but Constant vertigo is a fog. It’s an exhausting, involuntary hangover that turns a successful trip from my desk to the copier or kitchen to couch into an Olympic event. Almost daily Ménière’s attacks have sent me home so often that the word “disability” has been floated by doctors more times than I care to count.

The fog also clouds my identity. I feel like less of a mother, less of a teacher, and nothing like an artist. It was started to convince me that art was just a phase of my life that’s over.

A few weeks ago, my sister who had recently moved into a new house, texted looking for matches for framed photos I’d done a decade ago when I was still shooting weddings and portraits. I’d pooh-poohed my photos for a few years as I started drawing again. As I scanned dusty archives for a mate for this rose or that apple blossom, however, I remembered how much I enjoyed making them.

Yesterday, as I sat in the cool spring sun, the cats meditated on the chickadees swarming the budding lilacs. The dog lazed on the grass, occasionally lifting her head when she sensed a deer in the pasture beyond our woods. The spring sun warmed the wind and, for once, the rocking in my head made me feel closer with the rhythm around me.

I got up for a walk around the house, stopping to chat with the cats and dog who followed close behind. I examined branches, looking for incoming blossoms and studied the muddy mess that is my veggie garden after winter. My phone came out of my pocket and, almost mindlessly, I started to snap as I ambled, merging with the buds and even the puddles.

When my head started spinning last November, I felt myself detaching from work and life and, I thought, from art. But, as I snapped a branch or a racing kitty, I realized I can’t disconnect from art. Some people use art to comment on the world. Art helps me connect with it. It often helps me when I don’t expect but need it the most.

People talk about addiction as an illness, and it is, but a wise person in one of my classes once said that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection. I think that’s true with illness as well — the opposite of sickness isn’t a perfectly functioning body, it’s a life that’s still connected. Yesterday, for me, art — even in the form of blurry photos – was the opposite of my disease.

Navigating by Stars

When Thing1 was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis six years ago, his doctor told us, “This is a permanent diagnosis.”

We thought we understood what that meant, but even after a year of unsuccessful treatment and the discovery that he would have to have surgery — not to cure but to manage his illness – we all had trouble wrapping our heads around the idea the concept of what a chronic illness really meant. Four years later, then one has changed his diet, his lifestyle. He’s learned to make his own appointments and monitor his own prescriptions, We think we understand what chronic means for him, but I don’t think I ever really got it until last Saturday.

For six days before, my Menieres had been remarkably inactive. I was still taking daily medication, still told myself that most of the “cure“ was due to the multiple injections in my ear. But for the last five or six days, I had so little vertigo that, the last Tuesday in February, I drove for the first time since just after Thanksgiving. I drove again on Wednesday , and then on Thursday. This was it. I was cured. I could plan for the next year of school at a district that requires a two hour daily commute. We can think about a vacation with a lot of walking.

And then a few days ago it happened, and I started to understand what Thing1 figured out the minute he learned that his UC wasn’t getting better and that he wouldn’t be going to college next week, that he would be dealing with it for a long time.

Saturday, I was watching the clouds roll in for another storm, feeling my ears pop and crack with the change in barometric pressure. I’d read other people with Menieres say the same thing and knew an “attack” was building. As the Big Guy and I made plans to go to breakfast while Thing2 was at his weekend job, I reluctantly handed him the keys, not knowing when I’ll be able to take them back again.

There’s very little good in what’s been happening, as far as I’m concerned, but the few only bright spots have illuminated the my way forward. That morning, as the world began to spin and rock again, I tried to focus on my memories of Thing1’s stalwart examples of acceptance and determination for the past six years. Those memories and the reminder that chronic often means permanent suddenly helped me truly understand my oldest son who, not for the first time, has often been my Northstar in learning how to navigate life challenges.

Tumbled

I’m starting to get used to the vertigo now. It’s been going on for all day for the last month, and it’s hard to remember a time when the world hasn’t seemed like I’m watching it from inside a dryer.

Chronic illness is nothing new around our house, and Thing1 set a really high bar for accepting fate with graceful determination when he got his ulcerative colitis diagnosis a few years ago. I watched his experience, and, I know that, no matter how you handle it, a chronic illness means chronic, not curable.

Last Tuesday I had an injection of steroid into my inner ear that hopefully well control the symptoms for a few months at a time, putting the disease into remission. Forty-eight hours later, there were breaks in the tumbling until I torpedoed my success with too much salt which led to a hangover on Thursday. When the hangover began to recede, my first sensation was exhaustion. After a 20 minute nap, however, I felt like a towel that had been pulled out of the dryer and hung on the line, fluttering with my second or third wind.

Drinking the Water

I used to set up my little tray table with my paint water, always at the top right of my pad, right next to my hourly Diet Coke. Somehow, however, even though the cans are very different from my collapsible green water cup, I always managed to end up drinking at least a little paint water.

When my doctor gave me my diagnosis of Meniere’s Disease a couple weeks ago, he recommended a low-salt diet and, hearing the amount of caffeine that I normally drink, also suggested I cut down from my diet soda intake to one cup of tea each day. I’d already promised Thing1 that I’d get clean and decaffeinated (like all adult kids he’s an expert on health and everything else) and figured it wouldn’t be any more of a hardship to give up my two favorite foods (salt and added salt) as well.

All of that bargaining has led to more water drinking. Experts do claim is is better for you but I’m guessing most of them don’t do watercolors because the recommendations never mention the risks of drinking water.

Last night The little green rinse cup sad was in it’s traditional spot. My shiny blue water bottle sat nearby, and, sure enough, and the heat of painting (which is much hotter than you can imagine), when that first bit of thirst hit, I found myself picking up the little green cup.

The paint isn’t toxic, and I doubt it or interact with any of my medications. Depending on how long the painting session has been, it can taste bad enough to get your attention. In the beginning, however, it’s easy to have a sip and not really mind the flavor.

So on the first screw up, I still did my usual mental panic as I put the cup down (how much have I had? Will it be safe to drive after this much paint water). Then I remembered that at least I’m painting again and at the very least, the paint water, in addition to not being diet soda, and it didn’t have any salt in it.

Salúd!

Original available here.

Good to Know

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Vermont and got its first foot of snow for the season.

Skiers were giddy. The woodstove was roaring, and, almost five years to the weekend after we got back on the grid, the power was out (again).

I’d gotten up at 5a.m. on to get the apple cinnamon oatmeal slow cooking on the back of wood cookstove. While the apples melted into the oatmeal, the Big Guy and I went out to dig out one of the cars so Thing2 could get to work.

Wet snow had bent dozens of trees down to our driveway, collapsing the canopy layers of lace curtains and cutting us off from the little bit of civilization that starts 1000 feet up our road. The Big Guy and I laughed as we shook branch after snow-laden branch, shrieking as the snow exploded off the loosened limbs, onto our heads and down our shirts.

We’ve talked about leaving this place in a few years to be closer to better healthcare options and to wherever the kids end up. Part of me won’t miss the digging and lighting of candles, watching the batteries to make sure the fridge and the well pump hold out until the power company has cleared the lines.

The other part of me knows that there is magic in the snow covered branches. There’s something else — not quite magical but almost as good – about all the work. As we pull out water jugs from our emergency supply and check the wood bin, I realize that, if ever we leave this place, the one part of these challenges I will miss is having the regular reminder that it’s good to know that we can get through them.

Turbulence

A few weeks ago I woke up strapped to a tilt-a-whirl in my head. It hurtled me back and forth, spinning around for good measure until, like anyone who’s been on a roller coaster for one too many rides, I threw up. 

I kept throwing up for the next few days until we went to urgent care and then get sent to the ER to learn that no one knew exactly what was wrong. A visit and a call to the GP yielded diagnoses of virus-filled ear and then a game of dialing-for-diagnosticians. All of it has added up to several weeks of sporadic absence from life.

This morning, like several other mornings in the last four weeks, I woke up thinking it might be over. By the time I stood up and walked down the hall, someone had put a seashell to my ear, and I could hear waves pounding in the distance. The waves and ringing will get closer during the day — the medication they gave to combat vertigo is of questionable value – and all of it has made me question my go-to philosophy of handling healthcare issues.

Our parents didn’t really do sick days. My dad was a pediatrician, so proving you were sick enough to stay home from school practically required coughing up a lung in your hand. As a teacher (before Covid enforced staying home with symptoms) that practice translated into plastering on my game face no matter what the rest of my body was telling me.

A few weeks ago, however, my game face, unable to ignore the turbulence, felt too much a Picasso, and it was an abrupt reminder that you can’t willpower your way through every setback. Sometimes you have to step back and accept the bad so you can get a game plan for your road back to life or school.

Housekeeping

The Picking My Battles blog has been evolving over the last few weeks, with the title of the main site focusing on art. Over the next few days the site and the blog will be moving to a new host. You’ll still be able to find art at rachelbarlow.com and blog posts at pickingmybattles.com, but if you use the Follow button to receive updates, you’ll need to bookmark the site or update your subscription at the new location, www.pickingmybattles.com.

Mental Gallery

There is a painting of a sunlit stand of trees in the permanent wing of the Clark Art Museum in Williamstown, MA, And I have to stop every time we visit so I can feel its heat.

It’s bright and sunny here, but the light is cool, and I keep going back to my mental gallery for warmth.

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Picture this…

I told myself to find something, anything to draw while this virus has me couch surfing for a few more days.

The master’s degree is done, and I’ve set my sights on writing and illustrating books kids in my classes can read. For now, as ideas and word lists germinate, I’m practicing by picturing my life in doodles again, and Thing2 gave me the perfect tale to doodle.

My second pride and joy sat down on the couch to figure out a new song on the guitar for school. The incoming storm made the lights flicker in and out, and I started to draw as I listened to the unelectrified strains of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy.

The drawing was terrible — even for a first after a hiatus -but the picture it saved in my mind is priceless.