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Journey of a Thousand Miles

Yesterday I went to the hospital for more bloodwork, including a coronavirus antibody test. Pain in my chest and lungs still keeps me mostly sedentary, with the exception of our daily walk. Even though I walk only a few additional feet traveling between my bedroom, study and living room, but it feels as if those minimal footsteps have, over the last month and a half, added up to a journey far longer than a thousand miles. 

Not long after I started this blog as part of a writing workshop, I began feeling, more than ever, as if I had missed my calling. I had tried to quell my financially unviable passion many times over the years, but, reviving another creative passion for drawing, more than ever, made my day job feel more like just a paycheck than the career I should have made for myself.

I searched for jobs that allowed more time for creativity, and, with teaching, that may come partially true in the summers (the teaching workday does not end when the kids go home). Guiltily, a part of me still hoped for finances and time to align long enough to devote most of the day to writing and art.

This disease enforced isolation is no vacation, but I have tried to use it as a sabbatical —  a time to ask, if time allowed, what I would really want to do with my life. 

I did write on my blog more frequently at first. Daily monotony threatened to flatten inspiration, but I knew a writing life is about showing up.

My chest and lungs make painting painful, so I signed up for an online drawing class. Wanting some structure and to develop my written craft, I signed up for an online fiction workshop. It’s impossible to serve two masters equally, and this was a chance to hone skills and discover which passion burned brightest.

Psychologists are saying now isn’t the time to worry about learning new skills. Civilization is experiencing massive trauma as hundreds of thousands die and millions lose their livelihoods. Working with children recovering from trauma, I have seen how trauma — even more than poverty – causes catastrophic disruptions to learning. Even thirteen-year-old Thing2, mostly estranged from any trauma in his short life, is withdrawn and, for the first time ever, unenthusiastic about school and learning.  

Drawing class was everything I hoped art school might have been. Deliberate drawing practice. Assignments I knew would improve my painting when the f-ing pneumonia (that is officially the new technical term for it) recedes. 

The fiction class was more difficult to dig into. I read the bios of the other students and took 2 days to write mine. There were Ph.D.s and young, bold recent college grads with  much better handles on the craft of fiction.

Then I opened the first lecture. Much of the it was a review of the elements of fiction I teach in school. Then I saw the first assignment – spin a story out of a snippet of conversation from the last week. 

Okay. 

I mean, the only conversations I’d had were, “Hey,” with the kids when they woke up and “What should we do for dinner?”  I can make a silly post out of those, but a story?  And, did I mention, I suck at plotting? Could we start with something easier? 

I was scratching my unwashed head when I heard gunshots from the other side of the mountain. It turned out to be a neighbor scaring off a coyote. It was also the most original conversation I’d heard all week.  I wrote my story in less than an hour and received enthusiastic feedback from the instructor. 

I stopped worrying about the better writers in the class and focused on craft. It wasn’t an entirely new body of knowledge, it was a different way of approaching it, and the approach recharged my writing life. Every day since, I’ve dashed off a blog post, read and then written a short story, many of which, I hope, won’t end up in a drawer. I’ve even returned to old duds to give them better lives. The work and time have become my sabbatical and, though I doubt I’ll ever stop painting, helped me focus on my true passion. 

My lungs will improve, and either from home or at a school, I will be teaching again in the near future. I have, however, already begun planning how to fit making a livelihood into a life’s work and not the other way around again. Some people may, psychically, be in a place to invest in new learning, and I take my hat off to them. For me, however, using this time to examine which parts of “normal” I want to restore has been just as valuable.

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Making Good Decisions

My problem is not finding enough couch-friendly inspiration to keep busy on a rainy quarantine Friday. The problem is picking one creative battle and ignoring the distractions of social media and mindless TV watching to stick with it.

The day was about, as we say at school, “making good decisions”, in this case just one thing decision.

I sat down at my desk. Good decision number one.

I checked out my index card box full of scenes to write then looked at the text of a children’s book I’ve been agonizing over for far too long and then almost got up to go through the sketch books on my shelf. I was deep into indecision land, which is never a good choice.

Jim-Bob, our orange tabby, came to the rescue, offering some of the Orange Tabby Therapy I usually rely on to get to sleep. As he always waits to do until I’m about to get up from something, he hopped up on the desk, walked to the space between my arms and laptop, turned around three times (a trick he learned from Katie the Wonderdog), and plopped down on my arms, leaving me just enough control to keep typing in the document I just opened.

Apparently, we’re working on the novel today, and OTT(Orange Tabbt Therapy) includes a little decision-making psychotherapy.

By-the-by, Jim also had a suggestion a new, work-at-home, pandemic edition of the Olympics, which, for no particular reason, should include a “Type with your Pet” event (I convinced him there should be a division for all pets even though he’s quite convinced no one would have interest in watching anything other than a cat).

OK, back to my stack of creative to-do’s.

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Resting My Laurels

Pain in my chest has made standing and painting less enticing over the last few weeks, but I hate to have my easel empty, especially since my study/studio is my quarantine headquarters. I decided to put the first oil painting I ever did. Appropriately, it happens to be a picture of the first masterpiece I ever had a hand in.

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Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

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Front Row at the Renaissance

I love special education because it’s all about finding the spark in someone and helping it glow. It’s an act of hope informed by evidence. I’m housebound now and spending too much time on social media. The temptation to give into fear or despair is great, but the same internet that serves up daily examples of greed and malfeasances has also recently, for me, been a source of evidence-based hope, fueling optimism, rather than worry over what comes next.

A few weeks ago when the pandemic was still just a probability in the United States, I noticed the occasional half-humorous meme warning that we were about to have front row seats for Armageddon. I laughed nervously at the gallows humor, knowing that, in any apocalypse, my lack of fitness and survival skills will ensure me a spot on the scaffold.

Last week, the pandemic probability morphed into actuality. One news organization and then another reported a sharp spike in gun sales. I wasn’t able to muster a nervous laugh about that story, but it still didn’t convince me that the inevitable next phase will be apocalyptic.

I’ve had the chance to teach Romeo & Juliet twice this school year. Both times I prepared by indulging in a bit of gratuitous research, tracing the history of the play to the various Italian poems and novella that influenced it. My journey through Italian Renaissance lit is never complete without a quick review of Boccaccio’s Decameron (yes, I’m a lit nerd and a sucker for back story), a collection of tales set against the backdrop of the Black Death of the 14th century, told by a group of young Florentines self-isolating in the sparkling solitude of the countryside.

I’ve thought of that book frequently this March.

The Italian Renaissance wouldn’t begin in earnest for another century after the book was published. A number of historians do point to the upheaval caused by the Black Death as one driving force in that movement, but, for me, The Decameron, is, for me, a symbol of one of the seeds sown in a dreadful epoch.

Two weeks ago Italy announced increasing restrictions on movement for its citizens. I remember worrying and wondering how people would react. Italy had good reason to impose the restrictions. Hundreds of people had been dying daily, but good reason doesn’t always illicit the desired response.

Less than a day after Italy announced a nationwide quarantine, however, a video of the residents of Siena playing music on their balconies for each other emerged. I wondered if this was just an outlier, but every day and then every few hours, new videos appeared, each showing Italians playing out a modern Decameron playing music instead of telling stories.

The same stories emerged from Spain and then France. From Ireland came stories of apartment blocks organizing outdoor BINGO.

I wondered how or if people in United States, when faced with quarantines and devastating statistics, would make the same choice. Would we let art and community be our shields?

Then came news of school and business restrictions from my parents’ home in Ohio. Almost immediately a video of two young children serenading an elderly Columbus lady on her porch appeared. Soon after, apparently anticipating the school closures, other teachers and homeschooling moms pro-actively began offering online resources and encouragement. In the next two weeks, from a medium that so often foments division and anxiety, I would instead see and continue to see outpourings of art and photography, soul-feeding poetry and writing, impromptu concerts, and, caremongering.

As the pandemic grows, some people may arm themselves and prepare for an apocalypse. There is another option, though.

The other course of action is the one so many generations before us have taken – it is the choice to get busy rebirthing our souls. It is the decision to use this time of sparking solitude and, inevitably, of profound grief and even fear, to nurture the seeds started by the creative sparks that are connecting and uplifting us.

It is to reserve a front row seat for renewal – for Renaissance – instead of surrendering to the inevitability of a cataclysm.

Me?

I’m not waiting to go back to school to go full-on Special Ed.

I’m going to comb through the piles of evidence from the last few weeks and the months to come, looking for the sprouts that need care and the sparks that need stirring. I’m going to commit acts of hope.

And, based on the evidence, I think I’ll be anything but alone.