In the Moment

Today we got the veggies into the garden, And Mother Nature got into the act, coaxing bees into fruit blossoms and sending breezes through the sunlight trees. I admit, when I had to take a break between loads of compost or a stretch between planting rows, I let the siren call of social media pull me out of this long, glorious moment.

The irony was, that however anesthetized I may convince myself I am after a few minutes of doom scrolling, there is no social media post that can generate the sense of peace that comes from simply being in the moment with mother nature and all her glory. 

All too easily, I tend to drift into daydreaming, telling myself that I’m meditating. it’s an act I recognize quite often in my students, many of whom are dealing with trauma or their own mental health issues that keep them from being fully present. As The afternoon sun cast a spell on the forest around me, however, I am reminded that Any daydreams, any veering off into the anxieties produced by focusing on all the things beyond my control, is not meditative or productive.

In this moment, I’m focusing on the bees as they help get spring going, on the new leaves that are fairly glowing. And even though meditating on the wind traveling through the forest produces feelings of utter peace, it also makes me feel blessedly awake.

Perchance to Dream

I spend an embarrassing portion of every day daydreaming, worrying, planning for imaginary (and, occasionally, real) contingencies, and, did I mention worrying?

Now, as Nicolas Cage once opined in Raising Arizona, “Y’all without sin cast the first stone,” but, as the surgery date gets closer, the worrying gets wilder.

I’ve been through enough procedures to not worry about what’s on the other side of this one. A day ago, I thought the angst might be mourning for the impending loss of fertility, but it was willingly surrendered fifteen years ago. The Big Guy and I had replaced ourselves and, having hit the jackpot and getting two moppets with great comedic timing, were pretty sure we had our share of miracles. Besides, my uterus and I have been — at best – frenemies for most of our lives. 

My worries are way dumber than kvetching over a piece of bodily equipment I’m not using anyway. They’re more along the line of hoping the anesthesia has truly kicked in before doctors start disconnecting wires. Or that they’re sure anesthesia’s safe for people my size (short and round). And will the Big Guy get Thing2 to bed before 2 a.m. if something goes really wrong?

And there’s the rub.  Rubs.

It’s not fear of dying or that, per chance, that you’ll dream. Or that you might not be dead when they start putting the nails in the coffin (Hamlet was an amateur). A few hours before launch, I’m trying to stop the dreams just to get to sleep.

Sleep will come just when the alarm goes off, and, once it does, the day will move too quickly for dreams to move in again. The other side of this is, hopefully, more energy and freedom. The Big Guy has been pulling me back to those, reminding that the best part about the other side is that it won’t be a dream.

I know I’ll get to sleep just in time for the alarm to go off, but, once it does, the day will move too quickly for dreams to move in again. The other side of this is, hopefully, more energy and freedom. The Big Guy is great at pulling me back to those, reminding me that the best part about the other side is that it won’t be a dream.

Pieces of 2021

A lot of people think that no good can come of checking your phone at 2 AM in the morning, but anyone who’s ever been getting ready to go into a meeting at 2 PM knows that there’s nothing like a quick glance at that glowing window to distorted reality that take your eyes off the prize so quickly. Even if it’s just for a second, that glance — that loss of focus – can almost make you forget what the prize is.

 January 6, just as I was signing into an IEP meeting I’d been anticipating for weeks, I stupidly glanced at my phone. My kiddo, learning at home all year because of health issues, armed with nothing more than cheerful fortitude, had blown his math and reading goals out of the water. It’s the kind of conversation you love to have with a parent.

But there I was, clicking the start button for the meeting as the chaos in the capital, and not this kid’s triumph, tried to command my attention. When the other faces popped on the screen, the sea of smiles hinted that my colleagues had not seen the news.

For months, I had been aware of national and world news but most days, it was on the periphery, nothing more than a headline to be liked on Facebook. I felt guilty for not tracking events more carefully, but I also enjoyed the bliss of ignorance created by the wall that work had erected, obscuring all but the most vital events.

I pulled my head back to the meeting. The IEP team took turns telling mom about her kid’s amazing progress. We discussed our hopes and goals for him for the new year, and I realized that everyone in our meeting – Mom and teachers – had been channeling fears and frustrations with the chaos of the last year into things we could control. We’d unconsciously rerouted our energies into creating hope for ourselves, one kid at a time. 

When the meeting ended, I checked my newsfeed again just to make sure the country hadn’t devolved into a full-fledged Civil War. Knowing there was nothing I could have done regardless of the situation on the monitor, I got back to the things I could control. 

Then I went back to planning a meeting for the next kid on my list and making up a new game for the next day’s math class. 

I didn’t completely tune out. A functioning democracy needs care and attention. It needs participants now and down the road.

Since January, however, I’ve let my list of meetings and to-do’s turn the news down to a faint din again because I’m not taking my eyes off the prize again. 

The victories our team nurtures and celebrates are small but significant, and we know we’re not alone. There are setbacks, but, faced with two images of the world on January 6, I’m glad I chose the one filled with hope. 

Salad Days

The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.

I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.

Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.

I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.

Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.

The First Thing

About five years ago I was invited to lead a drawing workshop for a group of teenage boys recently arrived to this country as refugees. I had never taught anybody anything and knew nothing about classroom management. I understood the workshop would be an education for all of us, but some of the lessons of that day have only recently become clear.

The boys were attentive and engaged with the workshop. By the end of the class, they had filled the pages of the sketchbooks I’d brought with drawings of trees and garden statues. As their confidence grew, some of them began to sketch their lives as refugees.

Those very personal drawings often depicted experiences no human, especially no child, should ever have to endure. When I got beyond my outrage at the thought of a child having to hide from people with machine guns, however, I wondered if the resilience of these boys was the most valuable lesson I would take home, but my education was only beginning.

A few years later, I began working with students with complex trauma. Many of the students came to us through the juvenile justice or foster care systems after experiencing years of assault or extreme neglect at the hands of parents or trusted caregivers. Some students tiptoed into the program, scanning every room they entered for threats and jumping at the sound of a torn piece of paper. Other students raged against their lives with profanity and destruction.

These kids take months and years to navigate far enough around their trauma to be able to build their futures. Some never get around it, and, when I first started this work, I wondered how the boys from the workshop who had survived war circumnavigated those memories, seemingly, so much more quickly.

When Thing1 was born, I morphed, in the space of 36 hours, from an ambitious, tech-driven programmer to a bowl of pudding that wanted nothing more than to hold my child until he no longer wanted to be held. At the time, the Ferber method was still very popular, but something felt very wrong about not picking up my child when he was crying. I asked a social worker friend if I should just have Thing1 ‘tough it out.’

My friend put her hand on my arm and said, “Rachel, the first year is about establishing basic trust.”

I never forgot that. Establishing and keeping trust with Thing1 and Thing2 became my parenting touchstone.

Studying education, I read Erik Erikson, the psychologist who promulgated the stages of psychosocial development starting with that first year or so of basic trust. It was bias confirmation, but, as I met more children healing from trauma, I wondered if the loss of trust reset those stages of development. 

Last year I drafted my family into a 5K to raise money for charity. The race, an hour away from our house, gave me a chance to talk a family member and child psychiatrist about the different trajectories I was seeing.  I asked him if the breaking of trust by a parent or trusted individual such as a teacher or police officer cause a more profound or permanent trauma than experiencing atrocities by people who make no secret of their bad intentions.

He didn’t a quick answer for that question. He didn’t have easy answers to the more difficult question of how we help people recover from that trauma. I still suspect there are no easy answers to either question.

Working with children who have been betrayed by people they should be able to trust has brought the lessons from the workshop full circle, showing me that rebuilding a life is begins by addressing the first thing all humans need– the ability to trust.

Winter Warrior

We woke up to about a foot of snow this morning. this time last year I was at work at home mom, and The news of a snow day what are you meant sleeping in for an extra hour before logging on for work. This morning, however, my new life as a teacher at a residential school where snow days just don’t exist meant the alarm was set the night before for 5 AM. call cement rediscovering a slightly more adventurous part of myself that has been buried for a long time.

I’ve had trouble with my eyes for the last few years which has limited night driving. In the winter when the weather is bad, I tend to be a homebody at night. combine the bad eyes with a little PTSD from two winter time accidents, and I am normally just as happy to keep my car parked in the driveway and my butt parks by the wood stove for most of the winter.

Two years ago when Thing1 was sick, I had to suck it up and find the nerve to drive over the mountains almost every week and a winter that miraculously had a major storm almost every single time we drove. My concern for my son help quell my fear, but today I didn’t have a bigger fear motivating me. There was just a knowledge that our students need us to be there whether or not the weather is bad.

So I got up and showered and got the car out. I was rewarded on the way down with a glowing early morning view of the snow. I had an emergency backpack packed in case I get stuck. I have heavy duty ice and snow scraper and shovel, and suddenly I felt less like a tired and nervous middle-aged hausfrau and more like an adventurer — a winter warrior.

when I got down our mountain, the roads seemed easier to navigate. I thought about some of the women in my family who have been happy adventures as they get into their 50s and 60s and how I always joke that I want to be then when I grow up. As I pulled into the parking lot at school, accident free and wrapping up my morning spanish lesson on tape, I felt my old fears fade as I took a step towards becoming a happier adventure.

Bring in winter!

but this morning I had someplace to go .

Smelling the Roses


“When are they due?” I texted, knowing exactly what the answer would be.

“Today,” he texted back.

I had tons of baby pictures, but we hadn’t snapped many pic of Thing1 or Thing2 since Christmas and none that were remotely yearbook-worthy. So that’s how the Big Guy, Thing1 & 2 and I found ourselves packed into my Jetta, zipping toward the mall portrait studio after I got done with work.

The ball-drop was my fault. I had messaged a friend about senior portraits a few weeks earlier and then forgotten about it when round 3 of this year’s flu started up. Thing2’s classroom has been a petrie dish that would make a bacteriologist green with envy and gangrene, repeatedly recycling flu and strep that caught Thing1 in an especially vicious spin of the cycle.

Thing1, understandably, has had to work to remind himself of the good things that have happened to him this year — getting into most of the schools he applied to, a job he loves with people he likes, and miraculously managing to be in the hospital mainly on days he’s not scheduled.

Still, he’s been out of school a lot. Normal bodily functions require planning. A fitness buff, he struggles to remember the healthy version of himself, and it has definitely affected his mental health.

“I just wish he’d get a break,” the Big Guy says every so often.

The entire family has learned that breaks are rare, brief and never scheduled. So, even though it was our first family outing in months that didn’t include a hospital, none of us was ready to let our guard down Saturday night as we sped toward the mall for the last minute appointment I’d booked.

The Big Guy, however, quickly started doing what dads do best, using his special talent for turning innocuous road signs into the finest eighth grade humor, and Thing1 and Thing2 were, as always, an appreciative audience. They segued into fart jokes, and we all started bawling. I focused on trying to drive as I surrendered any pretense of trying to minimize the inappropriate humor.

The shenanigans ceased only briefly as we walked through the department store to the portrait studio, but as soon as Thing1 and then Thing2 got in front of the camera, the Big Guy went to work with his Family Guy impressions ensuring that the two of them smiled for every shot.

They smiled for their individual sessions and then together with Thing2 putting Thing1 in a headlock or grinning up at him as if to say, “I’m willing to be the bratty brother the whole way home if it would get a laugh.”

And in every shot, I can see them completely forgetting their troubles. The only thought they seem to be sharing, as every kid does at least once, is how embarrassing parents can be in public.

Trouble started back up for Thing1 the next morning as his body refused to respond to medication and fart jokes.

We had known the fun would be short, but at least for a few hours on Saturday night, we had been reminded of an important truth which was the only unspoken thing that night. You have to take the bad, but when breaks come your way with a bit of good, you positively need to enjoy them — even if someone has to tell a fart joke to get you started — because you don’t know when they’ll come around again.

Postcard from Pompanuck

postcard-from-pompanuckweb

Saturday & Sunday I went over the mountain to help with and participate in a blog workshop at Pompanuck Farm in Cambridge, NY.

Sunday I got there early to have a little time to paint, but I had been up till 5 in the morning nursing Thing2 through a fever, and I kept nodding off as I sat in the sun-warmed car.  The other members got there just as I was adding the first green wash for the lawn.

I went in thinking I would paint and listen – I always think it helps me concentrate. Instead I had to work to keep focused on the painting, as each member of the group voiced their reasons for wanting a blog, recognized that those reasons were partly about wanting to stand in their truth.

I felt like I found mine over the summer when I took just a travel sketchbook and a pen on vacation. We went to the Palouse in Washington state, and the rhythm of the wind bending the yet-unharvested wheat fields was hypnotic, spurring meditations and frenzied drawing sessions. Drawing, and later painting, was an act that pulled me closer to my truth – that the only work that would ultimately fulfill me is creative work.

It was a truth I began to sense and acknowledge with my decision to illustrate my first blog ‘Picking My Battles’. What began as a spur-of-the-moment strategy to cut the cost of royalty-free photos and the kids’ sleep schedules evolved into a reawakening of an artistic drive I had tried to smother for years.

The revival led to doodles and sketches, scribbles and watercolor cartoons.  The blog became a cartoon, Picking My Battles (it’s have a little vacation as I reorganize my schedule around school and projects) and added another (HOGA), and I began feeling like I was on a multi-line tightrope between painting and cartooning and writing.

Diving into drawing with abandon, I found my truth and something that I had only felt a few times – pure joy.  Interesting that the joy and truth are so closely linked.  Embracing my truth – feeding a need to draw and paint – saw words  re-emerge, supporting the blog’s art the way  art had once played a supporting role for the words.

Joy also let me see the silly situations that had made blogging so fun in the first place, and a few weeks ago I took a flying leap and embarked on an Alphabet book for parents.  As we talked about blogging and truth over the weekend workshop, I realized that each new post and page of my book is proof that there’s room for more than one truth in a life.

My new blog (My Sketchy Life) – with the serious painting and the silly cartoons isn’t a tight rope I walk between two sides of my creative life I need to choose between. It’s a collage of my life and, like my life, it’s a more than a little sketchy.

I went home thinking there’s nothing like a good workshop in a sunny farmhouse living room to open your eyes to the world right in front of you. Wish you’d all been here.

What Goes Up

what goes up

Sometimes it isn’t a crash.

Sometimes everything just recedes.

You go from feeling everything to feeling nothing. To wondering why you’re here.

To wishing you believed in a higher being that had a purpose for your life and being fine with not knowing what it is because knowing it exists is enough.

To realizing every battle can’t be fought and others can’t be fought at all without ammunition.  To picking the fights of getting up for the job and the kids each day and retreating from the others until the arsenal is stocked with little pills that still need a glowing fuse to work.

If Everyone Jumped

Windpower Apr 1 2014

“Mom, I have a new superpower!”  Thing2 barely had his seatbelt on.  “I can create wind!”  That neatly explained seven-year-old Thing2’s energetic,  skyward gestures as he hopped off the bus.

“What do you mean?” I asked.  Thirteen-year-old Thing1 smirked as he tried not to inject eighth grade into a heretofore innocent and imaginative conversation.

“I can,” Thing2 insisted, launching into an explanation of how to get the weather to bend to your will.

We quickly figured out that the weekend’s Frozen marathon – halted when Thing1 threatened to get a court order to get Thing2 to stop playing it – had inspired the afternoon’s flight of fancy.  It’s the result of a pattern that’s threatened to force us into using the worst parenting platitude ever devised.  It’s one I prayed I’d never use, but here we may be.

Thing2 had zero interest in Frozen until last week.  He, along with the rest of the boys in his class, were left off the guest list of a girl’s slumber party (a story unto itself).  Discovering the party’s theme and certain he was off the list because of his ignorance of the plot’s complexities, he promptly began begging to see it.

“I’m the only one in my class who hasn’t seen it,” he told me, digging out the other most over-used phrase in parent-child relations .

“Where have I heard this before?” I asked, resisting the temptation for a traditional answer. The question was rhetorical – I’d heard the complaint two weeks earlier.  It was before ‘Everything is Awesome’ from The Lego Movie became the newest tune Thing2 used to torture Thing1’s highly sophisticated musical ear and he’d been the only kid whose parents were keeping him in a cultural wasteland devoid of talking Lego characters.

I was a teeny bit curious about Frozen, however, so when the Big Guy and Thing1 were busy with homework  hit the download button.  The rest of the weekend was history.

I’ve avoided completing the other half of the ‘Everyone else is doing it’ equation for thirteen years not because I’m a parenting genius, but because Thing1 is a born skeptic.  If his friends were jumping off the proverbial bridge, he’d ask if they had insurance and a rope.

Thing2 is a different matter.  He doesn’t go along with the crowd just to go along with the crowd.  He goes where the fun is.

When we got back from the bus stop,  Thing2 offered to demonstrate his wind powers.   I fetched firewood as Thing2 climbed to the top of a snow drift, raising his hands in the air and gesturing to the clouds.  The top of the pine trees continued to sway.  “See?”

Weather control soon bored him and he began jumping from drift to drift.

“You’re going to get hurt,” I said.

“No I won’t. Look, Mom,” he said as I filled the canvas wood carrier again.  “I’m jumping over the Grand Canyon.”

I stopped and watched him leap between two solid snow drifts.  He really did look like he was getting ready to jump over a gorge, and I realized I’ll never get to ask the oldest, most-overused query in parent-child relations.  The answer was already there in his flushed cheeks and every new story he was imagining with each leap.  More jumpers would just make it more fun.

 

Be

In my inner world, I fight dragons. I take on armies and villains, triumphing over any challenge with wit and courage. Did I mention this was a fantasy?

In the real world, I've wrapped myself in the notion that my dreams are the result of an active imagination. Lately, though, as I look at my life and the things I haven't achieved or the real demons I've been afraid to fight, I've come to an uncomfortable admission. It's not just the inner triumphs that are fictional. Everything in that world is imaginary – especially the courage.

Before thirteen-year-old Thing1 was born, I never thought of myself as especially kind or patient or even steadfast. When he came into our world, however, right away he needed me to learn all of those things and, for him, I did. My kindness or patience still wouldn't win me any awards, but because of him I learned to keep trying when the breast milk wasn't flowing right away. I learned to stick by someone who was screaming in my face and to put someone else's needs before my own.

Right now we're navigating the first year of adolescence with all the pitfalls I'd expect and some I didn't. And even though he's getting stubble on his chin, I still look at him and feel the same powerful push to be better. He needs me to be brave now. So, not just for him but because of him, I will be.

 

Another Rainy Sunday

Rainy sunday

I’ve been getting pretty good at getting up at 6 or 6:30 on Sundays to have enough time to get in a longer-than-a-weekday run and still get back to the cave before the kids or the Big Guy are ready to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet in Cambridge, NY.  Sunday wasn’t much different.  It was raining, but I’d tackled the rain issue, and decided to go anyway.

I planned to go to the park since my usual route was about to be the scene of a 5k and 12k to support our local community day care center.  But as I got to the turn for the park, I pulled the steering wheel the opposite direction and headed toward the covered bridge in West Arlington – a stone’s throw from Norman Rockwell’s studio.  When I drove through the covered bridge, I saw several cars parked at the grange building on the other side.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to support the day care center – both my kids went there for preschool.  But I have my first 10k coming up at the end of October, and I knew I needed both Sundays to get the longer routes in.  I was also keenly aware that this race would be longer than anything I’d planned or done.  I wasn’t thinking clearly because somehow I ended up getting out of the car and squishing through the muddy field to register for the 12k part of the race.

My boys were still at home with their aunt, and the Big Guy had gone in to work to cover a shift for a friend, so I was feeling a little lonely, but it had been a spur of the moment decision.  I’d be busy for an hour and a half, but I knew six-year-old Thing2 wouldn’t tolerate an hour in the damp.

The rain stopped by the time the kids’ 1k fun run began.  By the time the 5k and 12k participants began assembling, I’d waved to moms and dads I hadn’t seen since the beginning of the school year.

Fiddling with my music player and zipping it into its Ziploc baggie in my belt, I started dead last.  I was to be happier for it.

I started slowly, determined to run the entire thing one way or another.  The only person I passed on the entire race was another runner with a music player malfunction.

As I got close to the first turn around, other runners began passing me the other direction.  I started yelling “Good Job” and “Way to Go”, and they did the same.  I began passing friends.  Sometimes we waved, other times we slowed to high five each other.  Everyone – walking or running – was smiling.

The 12k continued past the starting gate for another lap out and back the other direction, and for a while, I was very alone.  I settled into my Sunday pace, meditating and enjoying the saturated fall colors against the grey sky and dirt road.  Then the front runners began to pass me on their way back to the finish line.  Again we cheered each other.

Typically (for me) I got close to the turn around point, and promptly got confused.  After running back and forth few times until my app said I’d gone 6.25 miles, I decided I was far enough out to get back and get all 7.45 miles in.  Except for a car making sure the last runner hadn’t collapsed, I finished the rest of the route alone.

At the end, there were a few people still waiting to cheer the slow pokes. I got my 3rd place souvenir (out of 3 in my 40-something age group).  I gave pats on the back to a few people and got a few myself and then went home to get cereal on the table for my boys.

I was soaked.  I was sore.  I was freezing.  And I couldn’t stop smiling, even when I snuggled on the recliner for a nap.  Some Sundays, the best plans are the ones that get rained out.