Wages of Salt

Back in December, I made a deal with Thing1 that I would quit drinking Diet Coke. We were both worried about some new habits he’d picked up at college and decided to conquer our separate vices in solidarity. The bargain worked out well for both of us, but, when I slipped in the middle of June, I discovered that crushing guilt wasn’t the only price I would pay for not upholding my side of the deal.

When I was first diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease (MD) back in January, I’d been “clean and sober for a couple weeks. My ENT’s eyes widened when, responding to to his query about my caffeine consumption, I revealed a lifetime commitment to keeping Diet Coke stock prices stable. He confirmed Dr. Thing1’s prognosis – Diet Coke was not a health food – and noted that, in addition to needing a few weeks for the caffeine to leave my system, the 40 mg of sodium per can might have been aggravating my vertigo.

So for four months I stayed on the wagon. I told myself it was for the Meniere’s but knew the discipline was entirely due to my pact with Thing1. I occasionally counted sodium until April, when, after months of disabling vertigo, my ENT that I might actually need to go on disability. Neither of us was ready to throw in the towel just yet, however, so he referred me to Mass Eye and Ear in Boston.

Thing2 was elated for a trip to Boston — his stomach knows no limits – and, as the self-appointed referee of my pact with Thing1, even allowed that a single Diet Coke would be permitted with our first meal.

That was the first slip and should have been the last.

The visit to Mass Eye and Ear was scary (no taking the T alone, no driving, no running) but resulted in specific guidelines for diet that might give me back my life. He gave me a new medication and a firm number for daily sodium, along with guideposts for avoiding hidden salt.

I’m always stronger when I have a checklist to get through things and, for the next 5 weeks, using my calorie counter app, monitored every bit sodium in every bit of food and drink. It was much more strict than anything I had done before. I was proud of developing a shred of discipline, and knew I owed it to my pact with my first born.

Then came the text from Thing1.

I was getting a haircut and almost ignored the ding.

<<I’m having chest pains>>

Chest pains can be many things, but Thing1’s chronic illness has taught us never to take chances. We texted back and forth as the stylist cleaned up my neck, and, by the time I was paying, I had an iron-clad promise from him that he was going to the emergency room in Boston where he’s working.

I texted a doctor in the family to get reassurances that this was nothing, but as I started home, anxiety gripped my chest and stomach. We’re in Vermont. I knew he had to handle this on his own until we could get there. All there was to do was worry.

I knew I had to keep on with my itinerary as we waited for news, but, as the worry metastasized, I found myself turning to my old standby psychotropics — food and Diet Coke. I turned into the drive-through, knowing this sin was worse because Thing1 was sick. When the salt and soda were gone, the worry was still there, but it had shame as a companion.

We got down to see Thing1 the next day. His meds had triggered pancreatitis, and he would be in for a few days. When we knew he was okay, I admitted what I’d done. The guilt still ate at me, but what I hadn’t anticipated was how giving into one habit triggered another downfall and penance.

For our first day in Boston, I managed to stick to counting milligrams, but soon began rationalizing sampling this dish or that. My prescription did its job keeping vertigo at bay valiantly for a day or two, but, but by the fourth day of sinning with sodium, the sidewalks started to move beneath my feet, and the ocean began to roar in my head again.

I knew guilt was one the wages of salt and soda, but that “sin” was also a powerful reminder of what it felt like to have my life literally spinning out of control.

I’m back on the wagon again, but fear and even guilt didn’t get me back to the straight and narrow. Love did, and it’s what I know I need to focus on when the next crisis hits.

Showing Up

Harry Rich has been showing up at his studio (every day) for 71 years,” read the first line of the article, reprinted from a 2021 issue of Art New England Magazine that I’d picked up at the gallery entrance.

I browsed through the rooms of the gallery, having the same reaction I always have with wonderful art. The world and its chaos faded away, and, for a few moments, there was only peace and color and light. By the end of our visit, however, there was something else just as wonderful and completely unexpected.

I’ve known Harry Rich for many years. I’ve been friends with his wife, Mallory, also an artist. Visiting their house and viewing her expressive landscapes on one wall and his large square, colorful abstracts on the living room walls is like discovering a secret world. Seeing his luminous paintings in a gallery, however, was like getting free admission to an art museum in a major city. 

This gallery is not in a major city. It is in Arlington, Vermont at a community center called the Arlington Commons. Housed in a former Catholic church and rectory, the Commons is new community gathering place and gallery space.  

Last night, this town of 2500 had a new pizza place open (a major event), and, as the Big Guy and I headed over to sample the vittles, we passed the new community center and a sign announcing Harry’s art show. We knew an after dinner visit was mandatory to complete the perfect date night. By the time we got to the art show, a quorum of friends and neighbors had had the same idea.

As we walked to the entrance, we waved at people we haven’t seen outside of Facebook since before Covid. For reasons passing understanding, I was suddenly shy about seeing people I’ve known for 20 years or more. I wasn’t sure what to say or for the first few minutes, but just asking how people were or about their kids, opened the floodgates. We mingled through the crowd of 30 or so people, and I felt like I was returning to something. The looks on the faces of other guests suggested at least a few people felt the same way.

We finally walked into the gallery with 45 minutes to spare before the opening was over. We spent a good part of the time wandering through the space, sometimes talking stopping to talk to a friend or neighbor. I read through Harry’s unofficial bio several times as I took in the paintings.  

In his interview with Art New England, he spoke of himself as a poet as much as a painter, and his  description was perfect. It leaves out a few things, however. I read the line about showing up, absorbing the implications as each new painting opened gateways into Harry’s imagination. 

At the end of the walk-through, I returned to the entrance where Harry and Mallory were talking with other guests. The Big Guy and I gushed over his paintings as the four of us caught up for a few minutes. I told Harry how much I loved the insight into his work the article provided. I loved learning about him “showing up“ and continuing to paint even when he thought “the paint had won.“ 

I thought of the times I’ve hung up my apron when I couldn’t solve a problem in a painting, swearing to the sky that I forgotten everything I know. As if our minds were meeting, Mallory voiced the same sentiment. 

Harry overheard that part of our conversation and looked at his wife and then at me and the Big Guy. With a mischievous look in his eye said, “That’s bullshit.”

He wasn’t telling anybody how talented they were, he was telling any artist who was listening to get off their butts and get to work. He was telling us all to show up. He had given us the gift of his creativity, reconnecting his community with each other and, in several cases, connecting people with art in a completely new way. 

I’ve been guilty of not showing up for so many things over this last year. I haven’t reported to my studio with any consistency. I’ve been reluctant to rejoin community even as Covid restrictions recede.

Last night as we finished reconnecting, we both decided that we would be back for future get togethers. Harry’s work had been a tangible reminder that we need show up regularly for the little bit vital things in our lives and our community. After all, showing up did more than produce a few rooms full of his paintings. It made him a master. It made him an inspiration.


Harry Rich: “The Vermont Years, So Far…” exhibit

is on view until September 6, 2022

The Arlington Common hours are

Thursdays 5-7 & Saturdays 10-3

3938 Historic RTE 7A , Arlington, VT 05250

Who are You?

When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.

It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.

“What if I’m not actually an artist?”

We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.

The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.

Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.

The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.

His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.

Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.

The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.

It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.

So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.

As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.

Blessedly Connected

Our first house — a 200-year-old fire trap of a farmhouse in Vermont – came complete with dreams of growing our own food and (me) making quilts. Then 9/11 happened, and I began thinking about my garden as a form of defense. I thought about the Victory Gardens of yore and how they could once again fortify the country from the unexpected, but I also thought about them as a way to disconnect from a world that seemed to be going more mad than usual.

I’ve had that same feeling of and for disconnection for a good part of this year, though not always because of the news. An unexpected and protracted battle with Meniere’s Disease put my current dream teaching career (and work in general) at risk and seriously challenged my carefully honed skills at managing depression. Living with uncontrolled Meniere’s is walking (or sometimes crawling) through a tunnel with a hangover. It’s being in an airplane as it’s changing altitude too fast. It’s watching the world from the back of a cave, while clinging to the arm the couch.

In the last month, I’ve finally found a medication that to be controlling the “flare ups.” As the brain fog began to clear, my first destination was my garden. The rest of the world is just as chaotic now than it was in those crazy days after 9/11, and I still find the work of weeding to be meditative and healing but not always for the reasons I expect.

The work of weeding can be exhausting, even in Vermont where the summers aren’t that bad. My weeding sessions aren’t that long, and because this is a garden for our family, I can use methods that mean that I don’t have to do it that frequently. Every time I weed or plant, however, I find myself thinking of the people who squat and fields picking and pulling for hours on end, day after day so that Americans can have cheap food. I think of the farmers calculating how to get the most out of every hectare so that they can keep producing food for the rest of us.

When I started growing food, I wanted to disconnect from a society that seemed increasingly violent and irrational. What I found, however, as I weeded the beds and paths, was that I became more connected to humanity.

And as I get done with one bed and move onto the next, salivating in anticipation of the fun part of picking dinner for the night, I find myself fall of respect for so many of the people in this country that will never meet but with whom I am momentarily and blessedly connected.

Hot Mess, Cool Brain

In the end, it’s the not just the content of the racing thoughts that drive people to a swallow that bottle of pills – I think it’s a  desperate to escape the noise inside your brain. I realized that a few weeks ago as I got out of bed just past midnight and padded to my office.

I’d been lying in bed tossing and turning over a health insurance question I knew I couldn’t solve that night. It was a vital one, affecting my ability to get and continue treatment for my and my sons chronic illnesses, but it was still a problem that had no midnight solutions. 

No matter how many times I rolled over to a different side to try to reframe the question, it wouldn’t be solved that night or in the middle of any night.

That’s what I told myself when I’d tried to go to bed an hour and a half earlier, and after 90 minutes of mentally calculating budgets and consequences, it was still true. Knowing it was true, however, didn’t stop the thought racing through my brain. I knew some of this is anxiety from the shooting in Texas and multiple threats against schools here in Vermont during the same week. 

I also know that is what mania feels like. Sometimes you get the fun mania – – you feel all powerful and try to take on as much of the world as you can before the inevitable crash. Other times — most of the time during one of many sleepless nights – you just can’t stop thinking about anything and everything. 

I see this in my students sometimes. An unnamed but very real trauma may completely derail any attempt to sit at a desk and learn. When they are vocalized, internal monologues escape at a fast and furious pace as these kids who have already seen too much try to process and suppress the memory of whatever has happened between school days. 

When I see it in my kids, I instinctively turn to art — not the meditation that comes from drawing, but the expression and venting that comes with color. The irony is, that as my own head had become crowded with worries over the last few months of school, I didn’t automatically return to art to quiet my own thoughts.

That night, battered by real worries I couldn’t resolve in the dark on a weekend and feeling steel bands of stress tighten around my chest, however, I finally hopped out of bed and went to my office, put on some music and started to paint. I didn’t know what I would paint and I didn’t care. The result at the end of a 45 minute session was a hot mess but a cool brain that, for a few critical moments, managed to escape the noise inside.

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.