Discovery

In the months since we visited the Turner exhibit at the Boston MFA, my art practice has undergone a revolution.

Turner’s sketchbooks and studies in watercolor and oil pointed the way to constant, blissfully imperfect practice. Another exhibit and then a new mentor confirmed that, even in a modern era when we are saturated with expression in all forms, for the artist, practice still makes progress.

The result has been nonstop but also the transformation of my sketchbook from the collection of drawing exercises to a journal of my life and our summer role in 1-2 minute sketches.

#LedZeppelin2 live

The pages are filled with concerts with family, swimming kids, and views of America seen at 70 miles an hour. In the drawings connect me with people and events in a ways that photos simply can’t because they demand that the drawer be fully present. 

Sometimes drawings find their way onto canvas, and I am discovering that being present for an event like a sunset burns the colors more accurately into my brain than simply recording them through an electronic rectangle that often gets it wrong.

Sunsets

There are times when, wanting to stay connected to my family, I’ve ignore the inch to retreat to my studio to work. This summer of discovery, however, has made clear that making the time to practice — pursuing progress at every opportunity- only makes the connections with life stronger.

Good to Know

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, and Vermont and got its first foot of snow for the season.

Skiers were giddy. The woodstove was roaring, and, almost five years to the weekend after we got back on the grid, the power was out (again).

I’d gotten up at 5a.m. on to get the apple cinnamon oatmeal slow cooking on the back of wood cookstove. While the apples melted into the oatmeal, the Big Guy and I went out to dig out one of the cars so Thing2 could get to work.

Wet snow had bent dozens of trees down to our driveway, collapsing the canopy layers of lace curtains and cutting us off from the little bit of civilization that starts 1000 feet up our road. The Big Guy and I laughed as we shook branch after snow-laden branch, shrieking as the snow exploded off the loosened limbs, onto our heads and down our shirts.

We’ve talked about leaving this place in a few years to be closer to better healthcare options and to wherever the kids end up. Part of me won’t miss the digging and lighting of candles, watching the batteries to make sure the fridge and the well pump hold out until the power company has cleared the lines.

The other part of me knows that there is magic in the snow covered branches. There’s something else — not quite magical but almost as good – about all the work. As we pull out water jugs from our emergency supply and check the wood bin, I realize that, if ever we leave this place, the one part of these challenges I will miss is having the regular reminder that it’s good to know that we can get through them.

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.

Some Things Stay the Same

Not belonging to any religion — organized or not- our nuclear unit reconfigures most holidays to fit our wants and needs. The fourth Thursday in November is no exception, especially this year.

Like many Americans, the Big Guy, Thing 2, and I have been recreating, working, and schooling from home since March. Thing 1, needing a break from being parented, decided to run away from home with one of his cousins and quarantine in an apartment Connecticut where they did their classes online all fall.

Our autumn of isolation followed a summer devoid of our usual family reunions in Michigan or even a day-trip to see siblings in nearby Connecticut. My septuagenarian parents and the Big Guy’s sister have also been staying home to avoid becoming disease vectors, so when Thing1 and his cousin announced they would join us for Thanksgiving, we knew what this holiday would be about this year — and probably for the next twenty years.

Twenty-year-old Thing1 and my twenty-one-year-old niece (the pig-tailed tyke featured in my first and only book, A is for All-Nighter) drove up Wednesday afternoon. Thing1 and his brother had put in their request list of favorite side dishes. We had all agreed to keep everything but the food casual, and I had most of the meal prepped and ready to go into crockpots by the time they arrived.

The crowd at the Thanksgiving-eve dinner table was half the usual size, and the kids took advantage of a dearth of parents and complete absence of grandparents to indulge their inner eighth graders (much easier for Thing2 who actually is an eighth grader). By the time Thing1 went to the kitchen island for thirds, Thing2, who had been saving up his best fart jokes for an appreciative audience for nine months, had our tiny crowd roaring.

I played Exploding Kittens with the kids after dinner for a few hands before turning in. Thing1 and my niece, now used to studying until dawn, played cards with Thing1 until the wee hours of Thanksgiving morning. Their shrieks of laughter occasionally penetrated our bedroom door, and as we quietly laughed into the darkness, the Big Guy and I tried to recall experiencing a better holiday.

Some things were the same. My niece and I still managed to burn the bottoms of the crescent rolls (I felt like I was literally passing her a torch of some sort). Thing1 still insisted he wanted me to make a quart of cranberry relish. Thing2 assured us he’d be taller than Thing1 by Christmas. And, even though it was a much smaller gathering, the weekend was still about family.

We Zoomed with parents and siblings who had to stay in their states, missing the warmth of a large family gathering, but the fact that any of us could gather at all made this weekend special. I know American Thanksgiving (along with much of our history) is fraught with controversy, but, for our family, any event marked by four days in a row of gathering and giggling with our kids, especially over burnt crescent roll bottoms, is a holiday worth celebrating and being thankful for.

Partners in Crime

Thing2 has been experimenting with the digital projector I use for presentations at school. He’s been projecting video games and Avengers movies on the ceiling and underneath the TV. here’s an idea man, so it should’ve been too much of a surprise when the two of us looked at each other and said, “let’s have an outdoor movie night.“

The other family members were out of the house when the idea got started, and, by the time everyone else got back we had collected a makeshift screen and two plant hangers from which to hang a curtain rod.

Immediately we agreed that we should all watch the original Star Wars. The kids have never seen it on “the“ big screen, but I think this one will be just as good. We just have to rig up THX in the yard before we screen Empire.

Fathers and Sons

It’s interesting watching fathers and sons connect. It happens in the very beginning, but it seems as if, during those early teen years, a chasm sometimes appears. 

When Thing1 was eight or nine, he and the Big Guy bonded as father taught son and then sons the fine art of burping on command and then advanced topics like the alphabet.  Thing1 got into computers a few years later and entered his own little world — a world he’s making his own now. The Big Guy isn’t anti-computer, but, for him, they’re tools. He doesn’t love to get under the hoods.

While Thing1 was focused on computer camp and making mods on programs, the Big Guy, an engineer at heart, focused on his interests. He still supported Thing1 through school and healthcare troubles every step of the way, but they didn’t commune over common interests until Thing1 got interested in driving. 

Thing1, always interested in how things work, got into cars in a big way. He test drove as many cars as dealers would let him. He researched the workings under the hood. He even started a car blog for a very short time. He helped the Big Guy with a few jobs on his ancient Mercedes. Then, as he prepared to take custody of the keys to our 20 year old Volvo, he and the Big Guy had the ultimate bonding experience as they replaced the radiator together, the Big Guy teaching Thing1 new vocabulary every step of the way.

Thing1 finished his online classes last week and, with no way to work for a while, decided to work on the car that he bought last year. He turned on the hard rock station and took his car apart, demonstrating his command of the colorful vocabulary he’d learned in Home Mechanics 101 a few years earlier. And, every so often he’d call the Big Guy over for a bit of advice but also a bit of bonding over their common ground.

By the second afternoon, his car was mostly back together, and the two of them were sharing car repair war stories. Maybe the sun was in my eyes as I was watching them, and, definitely, the love was always there, but watching the ‘like’ grow was something special too.

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.

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.

Self Schooling

My favorite picture of the Big Guy and Thing1 doesn’t show their faces. To the casual observer, it’s a picture of them replacing the radiator on our 20 year old Volvo wagon. for me, it’s the moment when our oldest kid learned that sometimes you get the best education when you roll your sleeves up and learn how to figure things out. Yesterday Thing2 got started on that same path.

Time and weekends are almost meaningless, these days. Thing2 has a few assignments every day, but, without the interactive component (and friends) offered by the classroom, our social butterfly has greeted homeschooling with as much enthusiasm as cleaning his room. Yeah, that room.

Friday, however, his iPad which is still my iPad, served up an ad for MasterClass, an online series of courses hosted by famous writers, lifestyle gurus, and artists. T2 watched a video with Carlos Santana and then a couple with a super chefs before rushing to my office. he regained his composure a few steps inside the door and casually begin the process of trying to talk me into buying the discounted two for one subscription.

I’ve seen their ads before and always been curious about the classes but leery of the price. Seeing it half price, however, and seeing T2 getting excited about directing his own homeschooling a bit, I cracked open my wallet.

Last night before bed I walked in on my multitasker reading his English assignment and keeping an eye on the video game, all while watching Gordon Ramsay teach him how to make the perfect soufflé . I put the kibosh on any more video games for the night and figured he’d go right to bed.

we slept in a bit because it was Saturday, but the sun was out and the boys have chores to do outside. I went to rouse my would be guitar playing chef, curled up under his blankets, buried in the kind of oblivion one only experiencesafter staying up way too late. I knocked on the door jam asked, “Do you still want to make eggs for Daddy?” I wasn’t sure if he would even remember the aspiration had mentioned the night before.

“Mmmph,” was the only sound he could muster from under the covers.

“You two have got a lot of work to do in the garden today,“ I said as I walked into the kitchen. I went to the fridge but as soon as I closed the door and turned around to go be the snooze button, there was Thing2, Wondering if dad would actually like him to make scrambled eggs.

Five minutes later he had his answer as the two of them were hovering over the stove, discussing the finer points of making eggs and soufflés and homemade bagels. Thing2 did most of the cooking with just a few pointers. The Big Guy made the toast and coffee. I did a little heavy lifting and got a picture of Thing2 discovering that there are a lot of ways to get your education. That picture is going to go perfectly right next to the original.

Faking It

I am able to walk an extra lap around the house or drag a few branches out of the garden these days, but my real skill these days is corralling the boys into believing that all of the work they’re doing to get our house ready for summer is fun.

This morning I got Thing2 to believe planting 125 seeds was fun. Later, after catching up on some homework, I got him to believe that seeing the weed pile slowly vanish was a good reason for a high five. And when Thing1 came out to try out the new blade on the trimmer and clear away some stubborn raspberry canes, the Big Guy and I swore we heard him say, “This is a good way to spend the day.”

Score one for the parents.

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.