Journey of a Thousand Miles

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 Even thirteen-year-old Thing2, mostly estranged from any trauma in his short life, is withdrawn and, for the first time ever, unenthusiastic about school and learning.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.

Organically Grown

Somedays the wind is howling around the mountains. Other days, the sun is pointing out every new bud in the forest. Even when it’s grey and the back section of our trail is more pond than path, though, at four o’ clock, at least one kid and one adult will ask if we’re all ready to walk. Our walks have attained the ritual sacredness of communion, and, even though they are peppered with swear words when the boys argue about whose turn it is to chase the frisbee into the increasingly green rosy-bush, there is serious communing going on.

The walk around the house is about a tenth of a mile. Thing1 has a goal of getting his parents to do 30 laps walking and then running. I’m treating it as physical therapy for my ankle and, on days when my lungs allow it, have managed 10 laps with a few passes through the garden to talk to the peas and carrots. The Big Guy, waiting for a knee replacement, is less focused on the number of laps than on just walking with the boys. 

The kids will do two laps for each of ours, deliberately tossing the frisbee into the woods or at each other’s heads. Thing1 and the Big Guy will talk car repairs. Thing2 will talk music and life.

We don’t see each other for most of the rest of the day. Thing1 is finishing up classes from college online until late at night. Thing2 has class in the morning and then has creative projects. I write and study, and the Big Guy reads. There’s an implicit understanding that, while we are locking down, we need to have our physical and mental separate corners.

Vermont’s governor is slowly relaxing restrictions that have helped keep our infection rate down, but, with high-risk people in the home, our family won’t relax the current routine until we see evidence of a prolonged absence of a second or third wave of infections. As the rest of the state returns to normal, I’m grateful for these organically grown rituals that keep us close but not constricted, knowing they’re about to become even more important.

Drawing Lots

Pneumonia benched me well before Covid-19 invaded neighboring New York State, but my son’s severely compromised immune function was already forcing considerations about whether and how to keep working at the residential school where I teach.

Our school immediately implemented Herculean measures to reduce the likelihood of infection. The experiences of other assisted living communities across the nation, however, suggested that any infection, once introduced, would spread rapidly. I love my school kids, but knew working during the pandemic might mean living away from my family. When my body turned on me, I was almost grateful to surrender the decision and took a leave of absence as our family settled into the stay home directives that, while not all that new for most Vermonters, felt like a different normal.

When I started considering family safety, the virus was sweeping through cruise ships. There were a handful infections in Washington state, and the media zeitgeist was proclaiming that the virus “only” endangered the elderly and people with chronic illnesses (about 157 million people in the US), as if that made it more tolerable.

One night early in March, however, I caught an interview with Yale physician, Nicholas Christakis, predicting the trajectory the infection would soon take. Identifying schools as disease vectors (as any parent or teacher weathering flu and strep season can attest), he advocated nationwide closures. “Flatten the Curve“ hadn’t been coined, but he was articulating the strategy: slow the spread, reduce the load on the healthcare system, and improve the odds.

As March and the pandemic progressed, Christakis seemed like Cassandra delivering disturbingly accurate warnings, heeded only when case numbers and fatalities began to skyrocket.

I remember marveling at extraordinary examples of solidarity by people from all walks of life filling my Facebook feed when Americans did adopt the social distancing guidelines already in place in Europe. There were some doubting the seriousness of the disease or disregarding how their continued mobility might endanger others, but videos of people making masks, entertaining each other, organizing school services and lunches for kids and families were brief testaments that we were all at least trying to be in this together.

Then the economy, already wobbling under volatile oil futures and markets, imploded. Poorly maintained government safety nets struggled to expand and accommodate millions of newly unemployed people.  Suddenly the stay home directives were not just about flattening an abstract curve, they were about individual rights, paychecks, and haircuts.

I don’t have much sympathy for people screaming for haircuts, but at least 40% of adults in the United States don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency. That means a lost paycheck could easily translate to a lost roof or food. In regions that have not yet seen spikes in the numbers, the prevention can easily seem worse than the disease.

I had just started programming in 1996 when I first saw a program crash because an end-user had tried to enter the date ‘2001’ in a two-digit year field. We fixed that particular issue pretty quickly, but as we went through our other programs, we realized how many applications were vulnerable. Y2K work wasn’t just bread and butter for the next few years, it was steak and caviar.

That New Year’s Eve, I brought home a laptop to login to work and monitor for any SNAFUs. As midnight rolled around, I wondered if many programs would fail. Would the “major” systems around the world make the jump successfully?

The next morning, there had been a few hiccups but no apocalypse. Newscasters seemed almost disappointed that more things hadn’t gone wrong, glossing over the fact that the millions of programmers who had been updating systems for the previous three or four years had made that possible.

Right now, people are being asked to accept hardships to make sure that as much of our worrying as possible is for ‘nothing’.  Some people, even offering themselves as sacrifices, are willing to play the lottery and advocate for reopening the country. With one journal, however, suggesting that school closures alone prevent “only” 2-4% of Covid-19 related fatalities (2000-10,000 lives depending on projections) and new reports of hospitalizations and fatalities among younger, healthier people, reopening the “country” is a lottery that will trade lives for paychecks.

But too many missed paychecks can also cost lives. 

Some (including me) would argue in favor of securing the social and digital safety nets to enable as many people as possible to stay home longer and reduce illness and contagion. People advocating the alternative, however, do have valid concerns. Safety nets are expensive. Any vaccine could be at least a year away. There’s no confirmation, yet, that surviving the disease confirms permanent immunity, meaning that this could be a question of thinning the herd rather than building herd immunity. Stay home directives could be simply delaying the inevitable.

Less than a century ago “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, depicted a modern version of a “brutal ancient rite” taking place in some version of Bennington, Vermont. Townspeople drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed by stoning to ensure a good harvest. The New Yorker and Jackson received mountains of complaints and abuse from shocked readers who could not countenance the idea of even fictional human sacrifice in a modern setting.

We aren’t choosing lots or stoning people to death, but in the end, we are being asked not just what we personally are willing to surrender for the economy or a flatter curve. We are being asked who we are willing to sacrifice to achieve either goal. How many and which people are disposable?

On our very micro level, I know I would give my life to keep my kids safe and fed. I also know it’s easier to be a martyr than a problem solver. At some point, the pandemic and the economy will force us to ask the tougher question of how to balance Thing1’s health (and life) against my need to work, against Thing2’s right to go to school and grow. When do we “reopen”? We’ll find some answers in logistics. Other answers will require making ethical choices far more difficult than drawing lots.

Everyday Art

Everyday Art

In my classroom there are long rows of hanging shelves containing multiple copies of different novels for my kids to read. Next to my little brown desk, however, I keep single copies of various books that I am reading with students one-on-one or, in my “free” Time at the suggestion of various students. My little stack of books is a colorful sculpture, an homage to the conversations I have with the wonderful young people who come through my door every day.

My and Thing1’s health situations have necessitated close adherence to the “stay home“ directive. I am treating this time at home as training for retirement when, again, there will be infinite time to write and paint as part of a last career. I’ve inaugurated a daily schedule of writing in the morning and drawing practice in the afternoon (chest pain from pneumonia still makes painting impossible).

Writing is a conversation with the zeitgeist, but, despite efforts to focus on the sparkle in the solitude, the conversation seems a bit one-sided lately. I can’t do much about the solitude, but, looking to put some sparkle in the conversation and, at least mentally, reconnect with my kids at school, I’ve started a new book sculpture next to my/Princess Jane’s fuzzy blue chair.

What do you have in your book sculpture these days?

Covid 13

Covid 13

When he was little, Thing2 was Prozac in Pampers, a tight bundle of goodwill who could tease a smile out of Ebenezer Scrooge. As he got older, he was a flight of fantasies, a constant comic, David winning over Goliaths with a well-timed burp or fake fart instead of taking them down. Optimism as hard as a colored-candy shell was Thing2 (a.k.a Superdude’s superpower), impregnable even in the face of impending teen angst. 

But the era of Covid 19, with its empty hours is threatening to become his Kryptonite. 

Thing2 started the lockdown indulging his love of computer games in between online classes, but, as Spring Break rolled in, even the little remaining social outlet provided by classes laboriously organized by dedicated teachers dried up.

Superdude quickly exhausted his favorite reruns on Netflix, tired of zapping the last space invader, and started surrendering to the chosen time-killing strategy of depressed teens everywhere — sleep. He still joins in the family walks, playing catch with Goliath (Thing1) as we take our laps around the house and sometimes deeper into the woods, but in the absence of social stimulation, the boy who scripted fan-fiction videos, casting his friends and adding digital special effects is still.

We’re reinstating nightly card games (a fertile venue for burp and fart jokes). We work to entice him away from the land of Nod, but the part of me that abhors hovering also believes he needs to navigate some of this brave new world on his own and learn how to make new adventures. 

He’s doing some of this already — watching online cooking classes and connecting with the Big Guy over a shared interest – but the marathon has just begun.