Salad Days

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

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

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

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 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.