Front Row at the Renaissance

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.

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

We lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night. I couldn’t fall asleep until after midnight on Sunday night, and I had to be up by 4:30 on Monday to drive to a teachers’ workshop in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

I was excited, but, for once, I wasn’t nervous.

When I worked in IT, I had a few professional development opportunities that sent me to fun locales, but the courses were usually more competitive than collaborative. There was always an unspoken challenge to prove you were the smartest person in the room (I am rarely smartest person in the room — Except when Jim Bob the orange tabby is here. Then I am the smartest person in the room).

Today was different. I’d done my homework. I had just finished a course at University of Wisconsin on today’s exact subject, and I knew it would be fun and useful.

I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button once. Then I remembered what day it was and snapped right out of bed, hobbled in and out of the shower and donned my favorite scarf, a Maria Wulf creation that had been waiting for a perfect occasion on a perfect spring day. I was out the door and over the mountains before the sun was fully up.

When I got to the workshop/conference, the room was filled with a few dozen other Special Educators who hooking up their WiFi’s and getting acquainted. The news on the way up had told me I should be terrified to be in a crowd this size, but as we shared jokes about the rhymes we are all using this week to get our students to wash their hands better, I decided this day was worth any risk.

We talked about programs. We talked about helping kids with trauma and disability. We talked about our kids and our “kids,” and I suddenly got a feeling I’d never had at any professional conference before.

I sell art at art shows and craft fairs in the summer, but I always feel like an imposter, secretly certain that everyone can see how much better all the other artists are (I rarely worry much about writing since I need to do it badly enough that I don’t care if it’s bad or good). I was in IT in one role or another for over 20 years and, even when I knew I knew my job, I never felt like I really belonged.

Today was like being a ballplayer who had been moved up from the minor league to the “show.” Talking with people who care passionately about helping children and who were as nerdily excited as I was about the best techniques amplified the feeling.

It was a club, but, instead of competing with each other to be the smartest in the room, the members were sharing ideas about how we could help each other to our common goal.

I realized I felt like a real teacher today — like a professional. And, for the first time in any career, I felt like I belonged there.

And it’s a good club.

Blessed Boredom

Blessed Boredom

I got as much homework as possible finished before the surgery, leaving a little to do on Sunday. Sleeping off the anesthetics and first round of pain killed time on Friday night, but Saturday was completely unscheduled. The unusually un-booked day unexpectedly gave me one answer to a question we’ve all asked ourselves every time the Super Lotto reaches fantasy levels:

“What would you do if you won the lottery and you didn’t have to do anything at all?“

Most of the worst pain from the surgery has receded. Ibuprofen and snuggling with Jim-Bob takes care of the rest. For the next few days, I am cursed–or blessed–with hours to fill.

Normally, I fill Saturdays with a rush of errands and housekeeping (what I call housekeeping) and, occasionally, a night out with the Big Guy and the kids. When the sun falls, witching hour begins, and I retreat to my office to write or paint, often feeling as though picking up the brush is more something I should be doing even on nights I desperately want to.

Saturday morning I got myself into the scooter wheelchair and retrieved sketchbooks and watercolors from my office. I grabbed a journal and iPad and made sure all my supplies were within reach on my nightstand before hoisting myself back into bed for the rest of the day.

This was the creative time I have been trying to carve out of the frenzied schedule that I’ve built. Somehow, however, even surrounded by supplies and time, I couldn’t think of anything to draw. Nothing on Netflix or Facebook or the Internet held any interest, and I knew I had hours of restlessness ahead of me.

The boys were still in bed. The Big Guy was making breakfast and getting ready to go to the dump, and I was alone with thoughts and daydreams and all the other flights of ideas that happen when you start to get bored.

I stared at a painting on the wall for a few minutes, trying to think of something to draw. Then, without thinking,I picked up my phone. Instead of opening another social media app or webpage, however, I automatically opened the Notes app. I hit the microphone and started to write. For the rest of the day, I migrated between my journal and iPhone, posting and writing poems and making an attempt at flash fiction.

By one in the morning, I was still writing and reading and writing, and I laughed, trying not to wake up the Big Guy. I spend so much of my hectic schedule trying to carve out creative time, knowing that the frenzy is partly a search for whatever it is I was born to do—that thing we are each driven to do. It’s also the excuse for not trying or, subsequently, failing.

It took winning the surgical lottery, being thoroughly bored to cut through the chaos to give into a more creative fervor and, now recognizing the continued process as its own reward, enjoy the blessed boredom.

The Reason for the Season

The Reason for the Season

Thursday at 2:45 P.M. was officially the beginning of my winter break, but, before I left school, I decided to leave my kids with a little holiday cheer by using that most important of all teacher skillz, making a bulletin board.

Today, of course, is Valentines Day. I don’t know about you, but I remember Valentine’s Day being bit unpleasant for a lot of kids in high school. My old high school uses the days to raise money for prom by selling carnations to be delivered to (mostly) girls in homeroom. It was all in good fun, and the recipients were always happy, but there was also a bit of schadenfreude as they looked around the room at the girls who had received nothing.

That memory plus the knowledge that at a girls’ school where any romantic relationships, inside or outside, the school are frowned upon had me searching for a different take on the holiday.

Enter the Pinterest and the National Day Calendar. As luck would have it, we are on the cusp of National Random Acts of Kindness Day/Week.

Pinterest was rife with suggestions for RAKW bulletin boards, but the idea I liked the best was a wall of pick-me-ups they could be borrowed or shared or added to as the viewer’s mood struck them. I found one with the phrase “Throw kindness like confetti“ and on a site dedicated to corporate bulletin boards and ran with it.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. putting a bunch of post it notes on our bulletin board with the words “throw“ and “confetti“ is just asking for serious pushback from the people who do maintenance (in our case, the girls at the school). but, over the last few weeks as I’ve been hobbling around on a boot and hands free crutch, I have seen dozen random acts of kindness from my girls.

These kids, many of whom have experienced very little kindness in their lives, go out of their way to help carry things or pick things up. They are solicitous, looking out for the person who is supposed to be looking out for them. To be sure, like every teenager, they still offer the eye-roll and sarcasm to kids and staff, butthey have embodied the spirit of caring and kindness.

I thought that was the most appropriate holiday to celebrate with them.

Something New

Something New

Depression may inspire creative bursts of energy once it’s gone, but, more often, I’ve found that giving into creativity has to happen before the depression can truly start to recede. Sometimes, that surrender starts with trying something new.

I recently stumbled onto a quote by Plutarch that goes, “Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.” The quote has been rumbling around in my brain for a few days now, seemingly more accurate each time I recall it.

I often paint because I cannot find words that vent emotions without being destructive. Whether or not it leads to good or bad art is irrelevant. The creating on canvas is the path away from hurt and from hurting others.

Lately, I’ve been writing more and painting less (it goes in cycles), But there are still nights I struggle to distill churning feelings and events into text. Last night, watching our orange tabby embrace his carefree, hedonistic identity and, as always, still wondering about my own, I got stuck between picking up a brush or opening the keyboard. Then, instead of sitting and stewing about it for another half hour until I was too tired to do anything useful, I got up and retrieved a journal from my office and decided to try something new.

I decided to try and make a painting that spoke.

I’ve written maybe three or four poems in the last seven years. It is certainly not a forte. As with the act of painting that leads me away from hurt and hurting, however, trying to write poetry was not about making something good, it was about actively surrendering to creativity.

Poem: The Business of Being

Fat, orange, arranged on the table

Like an idol on an altar,

The tabby invest his life, without reservation,

In the business,

Not of being born or changing or dying

But of being the libertine he is.

And I, still changing, still searching,

Craving substance, loathing indolence but filled with envy,

Can feel the faith of one who’s found

A business of being meant just for him.