A Way Forward

I started this piece between bouts of pneumonia a few months ago. My intention was and is to give it to a friend who has supported my creativity for years now, but almost as soon as I scraped the first blobs onto the canvas, my creative journey stalled back into neutral.

Teaching from home through the last eight months of illness has meant I could channel some creativity into lessons plans, making Kahoot challenges for kids who hate math and interactive reading lessons for kids who hate reading.

But, for the first time in my life, channeling a littel creativity failed to yield more creative energy. As foliage season came and went, continued lung issues and anemia smothered my creative spark under a wet carpet. For weeks, I finished work and then passed out on the couch for a few hours before going to bed.

The painting, the drawings, and the journals became bric-a-brac to be dusted, and I wondered more than a few times if you can smother or drown a creative spark once and for all.

The day before Thanksgiving break, Zoom was booting one of my remote kiddos out of class. Most days, this kid turbocharges his way through his reading lessons. That last day, however, he really wanted to be at school, watching movies and having Thanksgiving activities with his friends.

Still, each time his internet got too slow to keep him in the meeting, he’d log back on and pick up where he’d left off in the reading, doing what he could with what he had (I rewarded both kiddos in the class with a link to a Smithsonian Virtual Field Trip).

Monday, my head and chest were feeling cooperative, and, feeling inspired by the pea-pickers on the other end of Zoom that afternoon, I decided to do what I could — even if I didn’t feel like it, even if it was just a little bit.

And I got a post done.

The next night (last night), I had my afternoon nap, fed the Big Guy and Thing2 (Thing1 is quarantining with other young adults this semester), and cracked open my travel easel. This would not be a midnight marathon session with a completed addition to my bookshelf gallery. I wasn’t even certain exactly where this painting, started when leaves were just changing to fire and gold, would end up.

The only thing I did know last night was that, even if it goes very slowly and a little at a time for the next few nights, at least it will go forward. And, hopefully, kick starting the journey will re-ignite some of that spark.

 

 

 

One Battle, Many Fronts

I’ve been sending out resumes for weeks, but today was the first morning in weeks that I set an alarm. Job searching is rolling a rock up almost to the top of the hill each day just to watch it crash into a ravine as the sun sets. It’s a slow-drip infusion of limbo, and last night, as the first hint of fall air blew through the window I realized that anesthetic has had me sleepwalking through the summer. 

But summer is almost over, and it’s time to pull out the IV and fight back.

For most of my creative life, I’ve been refereeing a tug of war between my writer side and my artist side. Last night, as I began thinking about the best plan of attack, that tug of war — fed by the knowledge that I can’t serve two masters — threatened to become a quagmire.

I sat trying to choose between two passions until I looked at my empty calendar for the next day and realized that the only master I should be serving is creativity. There may be many fronts — writing, gardening or painting  – but the battle is for the creative life.

Before I went to bed last night, I made two dates for today. The first, as soon as the sun and mountain mists would be moving, was with Mt Equinox and a canvas. The second was with my blog and the short story folder on my laptop. By the time the alarm went off and my easel was packed, limbo was in full retreat.

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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.

What Next?

This time last year, I was holding Thing1’s hand as he recovered from major surgery and navigating an unwanted gap year. I was still working at home, and Thing2 was still getting his feet wet in middle school. They were the center of my world and the center of my life, and I thought I knew who I was – a mom, writer and artist. The last twelve months, however, have changed all of that.

When I first started this blog seven years ago, I was a work-at-home-mom. The boys were 12 and 6 and, in addition to being the center of my world, were the centers of my days. At the time, the messes and chaotic rituals that go with raising creative kids in the country were endless sources of entertaining and, sometimes, heartbreaking, inspiration for post after post. Trying to preserve the moments, I got back to drawing/illustrating and then found my way to painting.

While Thing1 and Thing2 starred in many posts, I resisted making this a “mommy blog“ for reasons I couldn’t explain then but, after this year of change, I am starting to understand now.

I changed work venues and careers at the beginning of summer. Then Thing1 left for college after a summer of work. Thing2, a case study in extroversion, waded enthusiastically into the middle of middle school, and, while they are still the centers of my life and my heart, they are not always at the center of my day. Thing1 is carving out his own life. Thing2 is working his heart out to be better than his brother at everything. I’m getting to know them both as young adults, and it is an exhilarating experience. It’s also a confusing one.

The kids seem to be forging their identities almost effortlessly. I’ll always be a mom, but with each snip of the apron strings, my ‘mommy’ days seem to be slipping away. I’m still new enough at teaching to think of it as something I do and not yet as something I am, and that distinction has, over the last few months, repeatedly prompted a question about the other important part of my life of “What do I create?” Am I a writer who paints or an artist who writes?

With our family stories evolving away from the kitchen table near the wood stove, for the first time in seven years, I don’t know what to write. I don’t know what to paint. I even started taking internet personality tests (always a reliable source of wisdom), hoping the results would spur an obvious answer and direction.

Then a friend reminded me that an artist is an artist, regardless of the medium. That meant the answer was simply in getting back to creating again. The task, now, is to start with writing something – anything – every day.

I know he’s right.

I know that the act of creating will be the discovery of the next stage of life. So bear with me as I get my new bearings. All topics are on the table, and the journey has just begun.