Maximum Distraction

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m getting my painting kit together for an afternoon of escapism, I feel a little bit like James Bond’s messed up kid sister (yeah I like to pretend I’m that young).

Flipping open my beat up watercolor tin that looks like somebody’s five-year-old got into it and checking in the water pens to make sure there’s enough ammo for a few sketches, I can hear variations of the opening bars of every 007 movie followed by the Mission Impossible theme. I will be the first to admit that they probably don’t carry their high tech items in a Ziploc baggie in their purse, but there in lies the genius. No one would ever suspect this frumpy lady, carrying an even frumpier purse of smuggling weapons of maximum distraction around town.

Not even the housework and homework police doing their regular patrols inside my head.

So what’s in your art wallet?

A Good Night for the Good China

Most years, we have or are company at Christmas and Christmas Eve feasts for which all the stops — good china, good silver, family favorite recipes – are pulled out. This year, with Covid raging, ‘company’ is our little nuclear unit, and we were grateful to have it.

We knew this year would be different. No grandparents and no cousin means a smaller meal. Our little unit is a good deal more casual than my parents’ pod was, so we knew there would be no coats and ties, and I even thought I’d forgo the good china.

Then a few weeks ago, Thing1, our twenty-year-old who has spent the fall quarantining in an apartment with his cousin, texted that he wanted to make Beef Wellington. He and the Big Guy, now retired and indulging his own love of cooking through the pandemic began texting back and forth with ideas for a casual, but culinarily adventurous Christmas.

But, our four-person unit agreed, there would be no coats and ties. There would no fanfare.

It’s Christmas Eve as I write. Thing1 is assembling the Wellington, indulging in eighth-grade, low-brow jokes with his eighth-grader brother, Thing2 as they put together tonight’s over-the-top entree. The Big Guy is making popovers, occasionally contributing an inappropriate joke or two to the cooking banter.

We’ll still be casual this Christmas, but none of us can remember a warmer one. Sweatpants still seem like appropriate dinner attire for this crowd. However, as the boys joke and putter in the kitchen, concocting what I know will be the best Christmas Eve feast of our lives, it has suddenly become a good night for the good china.

Don’t Go There

Still on the Group W Bench together

It started with a writing prompt a few days ago. Write a scene with no more than four characters that happens in one room. It was a good assignment, but at first it took me to some very dark places before I remember I was in control of this story. I don’t have to go there.

I’ve tried to treat the last month of Sparkling (and, at our house, often smudged) Solitude as a gift of time, but, as many people are finding, worrying about loved ones, finances, and the world of suffering happening beyond our driveway more than dulls the sparkle. As I wrote, I realized that, while my own respiratory issues have kept me off the frontlines but not terribly fearful, Thing1’s nearly fatal history with a chronic illness that makes him particularly vulnerable has caused more anxiety than I like to admit.

My prompt response grew into a story about a family cursed with endless time and a dark choice that might save their firstborn. The scene grew out the worst night of Thing1’s illness, but, in the story, the husband and wife debating their children’s fate begin to fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out how to put them back together. I had written myself into a corner, but, as I took a break to finish cleaning the pantry, I remembered that during that seemingly endless night, the Big Guy and I had not fallen apart.

We had pulled together. 

We may have squabbled briefly about how fast the ambulance would arrive in a blizzard or if the emergency room would do anything we weren’t already doing or if we could even get there. We had nothing but bad options as our firstborn faded on the couch. In the end we did the only thing we could do. Pulling ourselves together as a team, we decided everything and every phone number until there was nothing else to try and Thing1 started to improve. 

That night wasn’t a gift. Thing1’s illness hasn’t been a blessing in disguise. Those challenges were crucibles so hot we sometimes felt our resolve begin to melt, but when that heat abated, hope solidified around our family, forging an infinitely stronger bond. 

So now I’m back to my made-up husband and wife, still at a terrible crossroads with endless time and a horrible illness and choice in front of them. There is a temptation — for the sake of art – to finish tearing them apart. There is the option to treat the endless time and choice as a curse. 

But I don’t want to go there.

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.

Feline Friday and The daily Zero K

In an apparent attempt to prove that the world would be better off run by members the next generation, the boys have been dragooning me — for my own good — into a very short ZeroK walk around the house every day since I’ve been sick. Thing1’s rationale is that there is nothing that even the smallest bit of exercise can’t make better, and each day there’s more evidence to prove him right.

The first day, the boys and I spent most of the first 10th of a mile trek reveling in each discovery of emerging spring green. The cats and dog cavorted around us, darting in and out of the woods after each other. The boys played catch with an old hacky-sack as we walked, occasionally giving Jim-Bob a chance to inspect it after a fumble.

The second day, the Big Guy decided to join us on our Zero K walk. The dog quickly took her place a few feet ahead of me, and the cats began their outdoor dance, darting in and out of the woods, pretending to stalk and then rub against the legs of their human prey.

By day 3, the Zero K was a family routine. The cats cavorted slightly less, opting to take the lead on our lap on the running trail I had worn around the house back when I was training for 10k’s and 12k’s in solitude.

Like the rest of the world, we’re self-isolating from the rest of the world — we have two people in high-risk categories, and I’m sick with respiratory illness. It could be a time of fear. Our communal walks, our Zero K’s through our cloister of mountains and trees have turned the next weeks of cocooning into an unexpected gift.

Sparkling Solitude

Someone on Facebook wryly observed that, unless you’re socially separating yourself in the Quarantine region of France happy, then you’re really only engaging in sparkling isolation.

I’ve had to segregate myself somewhat from my family since being diagnosed with pneumonia earlier this week. I’m still close enough, however, to be able sit for a few minutes in the cool crisp spring air on the deck.

The grass is slowly getting greener.

The cats and the dog are cavorting in the dappled sunlight.

And two housebound brothers who, by virtue of the wide range in their ages and recent, age-appropriate but painful geographic separations had begun moving in different directions, suddenly have nothing better to do than play a good game of catch and catching up with each other.

If that isn’t sparkling, I don’t know what it is.

Mother’s Little Helper

 

Driving by Fields on a Snowy Day

Today was the first time I’d been out of the house since the surgery. I figured out how wrap my cast and get a shower before the Big Guy chauffeured me to my follow up appointment. I’ve been using the enforced break from the activity of daily life to get a better handle on my priorities, but today, trying to get back into it, even just for a couple hours, gave me an unexpected lesson in empathy.

My doctor prescribed Percocets and Ibuprofen for pain management. Paranoid about getting addicted to any opioid, I’m usually pretty pigheaded about avoiding leaning on Vicodin or Percocets. This week, mindful of the kids I now work with whose lives have been completely upended by adults struggling with opioid addiction, I’ve been even more stubborn about disciplining myself to rely mainly on ibuprofen or Orange Tabby Therapy, and I’ve been pretty lucky with the pain.

Until today.

By the time the doctor finished changing my dressing and cast, I could feel my Frankenstein foot gently begin to throb. The Big Guy and I got out to the car, and the pain was amplifying. There were a couple errands to run, and, even though I sat in the car for them, having the foot not elevated seemed to help push the pain up and down my leg.

By the time we got home, the three hours of ordinary activity had turned my leg into a constant throb, wiping out any hint of energy. I got back into the scooter chair and then into bed, knowing I was going to take the opioid and not the ibuprofen.

And then it hit me. Before any relief, before the purring of an orange tabby on my chest could lull me to sleep.

This is where the stories of those kids begin. They begin with a person in pain, with all the best intentions, looking for relief. For help. They may get it for a time until help becomes a disease and the disease a source of shame and judgement.

I’m guilty of passing those judgements. Of seeing only the impact of the disease on the people around the addict. Of forgetting that anyone could become the addict.

I used the help in the orange bottle this afternoon and knew I might use it again this evening. Tomorrow I will go back to the non-addictive pain management with purpose but also a little more humility and empathy. Recovery is not linear, and, in the setbacks, there are potential pitfalls that can upend anyone’s life.

I don’t know what makes the difference between the person who becomes addicted to these miraculous, terrible drugs and the person who uses them for a brief time and moves on. I know I won’t find the answer as I reach for my orange bottles over the next few days, but I’m determined to keep asking the question rather than living in judgement.

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.

Orange Tabby Therapy.

We got back from the hospital in the early afternoon. All three of my boys helped me into the house where a borrowed motorized scooter was waiting. I scootered straight to bed where valentines flowers and chocolate were waiting and, after a quick bite, passed out for the rest of the evening.

Jim-Bob, our orange tabby, was initially quite displeased by the new arrangement. He did not like presence of the wheelchair or the extra glasses and pill bottles on the bedside table where he likes to climb before he hops onto the bed and curls up in my arms. He woke me up a few times in the early evening with the sounds of a glass or a book being shoved unceremoniously off the table onto the floor. He still wouldn’t come onto the bed — my cast appear to spook him.

About midnight I woke up as the first round of painkillers wore off to note that he had overcome his dislike of the wheelchair where he was now sleeping and, apparently, watching over me. I moved him as gently as possible onto the bed so I could use said wheelchair to get to the bathroom and back. As soon as I was in bed again, he hopped back onto the wheelchair. This time, after an ibuprofen, I gently pulled him back onto the bed for a little snuggle that turned into an official Jim-Bob curl-up and sleep-over, and, as his purring reverberated into my arm, the pain seemed to disappear.

It could have been the miracle of modern medicine, but at least some of my money is on the pain killing effects of orange tabby therapy.

Gratuitous Artist Pics

 There are several things that are certain in life at our house.

Dust.

Bills.

Taxes.

And if I sit down at my desk and open a keyboard or a tin of watercolor paint (it has to be watercolor paint), Jim-Bob will crawl into my arms within five minutes to offer his assistance and advice. He is now demanding full credit on all paintings, arguing that he has become an indispensable part of the creative process.

Poem – Familiar

My familiar keeps

The world and work at bay.

Heavy as a blanket,

Draping his heat over my fear,

Hiding my anxiety under

Fat and fur and purring

Till we, happily entombed

Under imaginary desert sands,

Sense that day and lull

Are done.

Saturday Gave Away

Friday the 13th rounded out this last week which also included a full moon and a lead into the upcoming week before Christmas creating what one meme called a “Teacher Trifecta of Terror” (it can be kind of scary for parents too).

Friday was actually pretty lucky for me. There were no meltdowns. Everyone got most of their work done. And, for the first time all week, I got to bed before one in the morning.

Teaching has turned into the toughest, best job I’ve ever had. The nature of our school population combined with a nationwide teacher shortage has translated into opportunities to take on more challenging responsibilities early on in my new career. The only drawback is that, some weeks, everything — creativity, fitness, diet, sleep — gets moved from the backseat to the spare.

Friday night, though, I headed out with a plan. Dinner, then Art, then sleep, followed by a day of creativity on Saturday. But, as I fought my heavy eyelids as I drove home, I felt the itinerary change. I got home and, in between moments of shut-eye interrupted by an iPad or iPhone falling to the floor, I managed to make myself a lovely burnt supper before passing out and bumping the rest of my itinerary to what I promised myself would be a “makers“ Saturday.

I kicked off Saturday, however, with an impromptu contest of “you get up first“ with my husband. After a late breakfast and laundry folding, I was determined to hit the studio. Lethargy has other ideas, keeping me on the couch long enough for the orange cat to settle on my lap (which everyone knows, by law, means staying in that exact same position until kitty is ready to move again). The day was ticking away, and guilt turned into doubt.

The sun set, and after a miraculously unburnt dinner, I thought I had just wasted one of the only unscheduled Saturdays we’ve had in months.

But the funny thing about brains is that letting them nap for a day is a lot like finally getting an overtired toddler to sleep. There’s a lot of fussing getting it to quiet. When it starts to wake up again, it can be disoriented and cranky at first, but then it really starts to acknowledge the recharge and wants to be friends again.

Mine fired up last night again about most peoples normal bedtime. After hours vegetating and dozing in front of the TV, sketchbooks started calling from down the hall. I retrieved a pad and a journal From the studio. For the next hour, my pen scratched, whispering ideas in my ear faster than I could scribble them, and reminding me that sometimes clearing your head — and your day – can be an act of creativity too.

Waylaid

I had a mountain of paperwork waiting for me at home, so when I got the text last night that a mountain of sand at the top of our driveway was blocking the last 900 feet of my trip home, I groaned. All I wanted to do was to get my work done and go to bed, but suddenly there was time to kill. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it soon turned out to be just what I needed.

I drove around for a little while and finally pulled into the parking lot at the Wayside Country Store 5 minutes from the house. It was well past sundown and the light from the store cast a warm glow on the slushy snow. As I pushed the door open, the smell of roasting chicken blasted my senses, followed immediately by the aroma of baking scones and cookies.

Normally I go to the drinks aisle or the kitchen supplies to grab what I need and go. Tonight, however, I headed toward the deli where the gingham oil cloth-covered roundtable serves as a meeting place for farmers and contractors on their way to work in the mornings and knitters and time-killers like myself in the evenings and on the weekends.

The guy who normally plows our driveway was sitting there, recounting the tale of how the sand came rest at the top of our driveway, and I sat down, suddenly feeling an unexplainable smile emerge. Another friend was sitting at the table listening, and we talked about goings on around town. Talk turned to the quality of heat from the various woodstoves that were waiting for us at home. The sound of food being made in the deli was our background music, and I thought of how rare simple, comfy moments like this are – especially on a work night when the world outside our doors is at odds with itself. And, as suddenly as my schedule had changed, so did my mood as I realized I was glad to have been waylaid at the Wayside.