Kissing Thing1 goodbye two years and one pandemic ago as we dropped him off on the corner closest to his dorm was tough but good. He was doing what kids are supposed to do. He was trimming away the apron strings.
But then, yesterday, he shredded them.
He had been back for two weeks after his classes ended and then packed up and drove back to school to an apartment he’s rented for the summer. Without any prompting from his parents who would really love to spend more time with him, he’s found work and a place to live and started building an adult life.
He submitted to a long maternal hug and some tearful kisses, promised not to drive too fast and text when he got there safe (which he forgot to do, of course). It’s what he’s supposed to be doing, and, even thought in some ways it’s the hardest day of being his mom, having the proof that he’s standing on his own two feet and happy made it the one of the best.
I’ve been delivering Special Education services remotely since September. Some of my students are learning in school. Others are learning from home, but all of them are teaching the adults in their lives an inadvertent but valuable life lesson.
Even if you’ve only accidentally clicked one news link in the last eight months, it would be almost impossible not to hear some newscaster talking about the challenges of online education for students (and teachers) in rural areas.
The internet in our ‘town’ of about 300 has definitely improved since the early days when we practically needed to rig up a kite and key and hope a bolt of information-laden wireless signal would find its way into our laptops. Still, most days as I try to stay connected with my kiddos, I wonder if the powers that be are using gum and fishing-line to connect Vermont’s information super highway (it’s really more of an information dirt road in mudseason).
But, just like mudseason, there are two ways to deal with our inter-not. You can do what I do — silently grumble while keeping my best classroom Zoom smile plastered on until the next break in the action.
You can also do what the kids seem to do. You can accept that this is just a minor hurdle as you restart your Chromebook and log back into your class and catch up on the 2 or 3 minutes of the lesson you’ve missed.
All of my kids seem to be learning — and teaching – this lesson every day of school. They come into school unable to enjoy many of the communal activities — sitting together at lunch, talking face-to-face – that make elementary school memorable in a good way. The in-person learners wear masks most of the day, and the remote kids pine for their friends.
Some kids sit down at their computers and get right to work. Others may need a little redirection to focus on the task at hand, but, regardless of the degree of engagement, they don’t grumble or complain about all of the new hurdles this pandemic has thrown at them.
So, this morning, when Zoom and our rural internet booted me and two of my remote readers out of class, I didn’t utter an oath at the internet gods in the sky. I took a page from my students’ playbook, restarted the class, and cleared the next hurdle, knowing that each time we do, we only get stronger.
I was already stressed by the time we got to the checkout line yesterday.
It was the first time since the start of the pandemic that both boys and I had been to a store together, and standing in line made the afternoon feel like a holiday. We chatted with another middle-aged mom and a younger mom carrying a 6-month-old in a snuggly. The mundanity started to soothe away the anxieties wrought by a frustrated job search, financial worries, and waiting for further news of my mother who was in the hospital two states away.
The summer has been filled with the same stress that millions of people are feeling — job searching, isolation, illness, and, this year, a void.
Circumstance has tied my life in knots, strangling my creative life. My garden has been a practical canvas of sorts, but, for most of July, my easels and my laptop (except during job searching) have been closed. Lung pain made painting physically impossible for most of the spring and early summer, but lately a different pain has kept me from writing or painting.
Mania makes me powerful as it burns out unpleasant details, but my depressions throw them into sharp relief with every disgusting reality glaring back at me. I see our planet melting. I see the powerful sacrificing the weak on the alters of profit, making me wonder if any lives — especially those as trivial as my own – matter. The clarity is painful, and the pain feeds on and expands my void.
Thing1 and Thing2 were waving at the 6 month old who seemed fascinated by their brotherly banter. Above their masks, I could see the other mothers smile. Covid-related cleaning extended the wait, but everyone seemed to recognize the preciousness of this bit of normal.
Shouting from the cell phone section a few hundred feet away shattered the normal.
At first we thought someone was arguing over masks, but Thing1 and Thing2, towering over the shelves in the checkout aisle, reported an argument between a group of shoppers and a manager. A thud echoed through the store as someone threw something, and four men, one of them carrying a well-stuffed black garbage bag, ran toward the exit near the cash registers. Someone yelled to call 911 as a manager yelled at his employees to lock the doors.
Realizing we were witnessing a robbery, I tried to maneuver my kids behind me and looked for the younger mom who was also looking for a place to escape or hide her baby. Thing1 and Thing2 have never witnessed or survived an armed robbery. I have. Knowing the prevalence of guns in this country and not caring how many phones or electronics might be in that garbage bag, I held my breath as the fleeing men got closer to the doors and the registers and prayed the employees wouldn’t be able to lock the doors.
The men and the garbage bag barreled through the doors before the employees were able to force them closed. Cashiers returned to cashing people out as supervisors called 911 and tried to get descriptions. I asked the boys and the other mother if they were ok and noticed my own hand was shaking as I retrieved my credit card from the card reader.
We left, and the boys focused on burgers more than burglary. Adrenaline got me to the take-out place safely, but it also became a filter. Sometimes a story on the news will trigger a flashback to another robbery twenty-eight years ago when, lying face down on a beer-soaked carpet, I wondered if our assailants would shoot us in the head or the back before they left with our valuables. I’ll feel damp and my limbs will go numb, but, as I sat in the car, watching my kids eat and goof off, trading inappropriate jokes, I stayed with them. I stayed in the now.
New blog post ideas started popping into my head. As I started the drive home, I noticed, for the first time all summer, the layers of green and gold and white in the landscape. Suddenly the landscape – and life – didn’t seem trivial.
I’ve navigated my depressions for years using cognitive lifelines, but responsibility to my kids, rather than creativity, is usually the first one I grab. Yesterday, our trip through the ordinary and the newsworthy knit those lines together and gave me a stronger way out of this depression.
One of things I love about having two kids who are getting older (one is almost 20 the other is almost 14) is that, as their different strengths emerge, I am ending up with two very different and wonderful partners in crime.
Thing1 one is my builder. I contract more and more construction projects out to him these days.
Thing2 is my idea man, my co-dreamer. When I have an idea for a backyard project that might make Thing1 or the Big Guy gasp in horror, Thing2 is ready to hop on that flight of ideas with me which that’s how I ended up with today’s menu specialty, Garden Surprise.
Last summer the two of us were shopping and stopped at the food court for mango smoothies. We both decided they were so good we had to have seconds, and just before total brain freeze started to take hold we uttered, at the same time, “we should get a blender so we can make our own.”
Now I know what you’re thinking. There should’ve been a responsible adult there to put the kibosh on this idea, but five minutes later we were headed over to the kitchen store to pick out a blender. We bought a bunch of frozen fruit at the grocery store and did a little experimenting. Almost as soon as we stocked the freezer and perfected a few blends, however, cold weather set in, and the blender didn’t see much action for the next nine months.
We’ve had a few barnburners recently, and the frozen fruit and blender have re-emerged but with a twist this year. The last few days, as the garden really starts to produce, I’ve developed a new recipe, Garden Surprise, which consists of water, protein powder, a little bit of frozen fruit or banana, and anything that happens to be ready to pick. It’s yielding wildly different drinks from day to day–today included kale and cilantro and peas, but, just as i’ve learned from my two very different boys, sometimes the things that take you most by surprise also offer the most joy.
So here I am in the backyard, shooting flowers again, wondering where my creative life is going. It might look like I’ve come full circle, but, when I look closer, my loop has the twists of a Möbius band.
Fifteen years ago, wanting a creative career, I ran a wedding photography business. I sucked at up-selling, so I also delivered papers and did a little freelance programming, all the while looking for that ‘real’ job. We went to the local art museums on their free family days, but for the most past, art was relegated to the back seat, and the back seat was getting pretty cluttered with empty newspaper boxes, bills and booster seats.
I was still searching and scrambling when I bumped into a friend at potluck picnic.
“How’s your photography going?” she asked.
I had been hoping she wouldn’t ask. An established documentary photographer, she had been encouraging when I’d first picked up a camera, and I was embarrassed that it had fallen by the wayside.
“I haven’t had time to do much,” I said as then two-year-old Thing2 hung on my arm. I pulled out the one-handed point-and-shoot that I was using most of the time. “I’ve been working a few jobs, but I just don’t have time to do anything except when the kids are in bed. The only thing I do anymore is write and draw and shoot flowers.” Then I joked, “Don’t they say your creative life is over when you start shooting flowers?”
“Not so,” answered my friend, and she introduced me to Imogen Cunningham.
Born in 1883, Imogen Cunningham studied chemistry at the University of Washington, photographing plants for the botany department to finance her tuition. She went to work for a portrait photographer after college and then traveled to Germany to study photographic processes. When she returned to the states., she set up her own studio. Her portraits and other work had established her as an artist by the time she became a mother.
At that time, even in America, her quest for education, career and artistic fulfillment weren’t commonplace for most young women in that era, so I was surprised to learn that, after all that struggled, she followed the more traditional route of being what we now call a stay-at-home-mom. I wondered if there was even a choice for her.
But art was not a choice for her.
Responsible for three boys, Cunningham used her camera to focus her attention on her offspring as well as her garden. Her botanical images from this period of her life won her lasting acclaim. Far from signaling the death of her artistic career, Imogen’s botanical photographs made in the throes of motherhood confirm that an artist can bloom in the face of responsibility. It just required some really good naptime coordination.
My boys are long past the nap time stage, but ‘real life’ and the creative life duel constantly. My unexpected, enforced sabbatical seemed like the perfect opportunity to breathe new my painting and writing life, but revivals can have unexpected results. When the intense intellectual and emotional challenges of working in Special Education receded, there was suddenly space to mediate. My writing life, more recently relegated to the sidelines, came roaring back, routing me from my bed early in the mornings. Painting moved to the back shelf, and a blog that was almost 100% illustrated or painted for over six years began relying on photographs to support the writing.
The painting will never disappear, but the need to write online and off and to produce images in minutes, rather than hours or days, hasn’t killed creativity. It’s re-opened an old, almost forgotten path to it.
So I come back to Imogen and her work. It continues to resonate with me because of its beauty but also because of what it embodies. She was a mother. She was a housewife, and she was still making a creative life for herself. And, sitting under the apple tree, my camera trained on a blossom until one of the swarming bees comes to kiss it awake, I know that photographing flowers is the opposite of a creative life ending.