Navigating by Stars

When Thing1 was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis six years ago, his doctor told us, “This is a permanent diagnosis.”

We thought we understood what that meant, but even after a year of unsuccessful treatment and the discovery that he would have to have surgery — not to cure but to manage his illness – we all had trouble wrapping our heads around the idea the concept of what a chronic illness really meant. Four years later, then one has changed his diet, his lifestyle. He’s learned to make his own appointments and monitor his own prescriptions, We think we understand what chronic means for him, but I don’t think I ever really got it until last Saturday.

For six days before, my Menieres had been remarkably inactive. I was still taking daily medication, still told myself that most of the “cure“ was due to the multiple injections in my ear. But for the last five or six days, I had so little vertigo that, the last Tuesday in February, I drove for the first time since just after Thanksgiving. I drove again on Wednesday , and then on Thursday. This was it. I was cured. I could plan for the next year of school at a district that requires a two hour daily commute. We can think about a vacation with a lot of walking.

And then a few days ago it happened, and I started to understand what Thing1 figured out the minute he learned that his UC wasn’t getting better and that he wouldn’t be going to college next week, that he would be dealing with it for a long time.

Saturday, I was watching the clouds roll in for another storm, feeling my ears pop and crack with the change in barometric pressure. I’d read other people with Menieres say the same thing and knew an “attack” was building. As the Big Guy and I made plans to go to breakfast while Thing2 was at his weekend job, I reluctantly handed him the keys, not knowing when I’ll be able to take them back again.

There’s very little good in what’s been happening, as far as I’m concerned, but the few only bright spots have illuminated the my way forward. That morning, as the world began to spin and rock again, I tried to focus on my memories of Thing1’s stalwart examples of acceptance and determination for the past six years. Those memories and the reminder that chronic often means permanent suddenly helped me truly understand my oldest son who, not for the first time, has often been my Northstar in learning how to navigate life challenges.

Picture this…

I told myself to find something, anything to draw while this virus has me couch surfing for a few more days.

The master’s degree is done, and I’ve set my sights on writing and illustrating books kids in my classes can read. For now, as ideas and word lists germinate, I’m practicing by picturing my life in doodles again, and Thing2 gave me the perfect tale to doodle.

My second pride and joy sat down on the couch to figure out a new song on the guitar for school. The incoming storm made the lights flicker in and out, and I started to draw as I listened to the unelectrified strains of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Pride and Joy.

The drawing was terrible — even for a first after a hiatus -but the picture it saved in my mind is priceless.

The Hardest Best Day

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.

 

The Kids are Alright, pt 2

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.

A Way Out

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.

Garden Surprise

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.

Me and Imogen

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.

https://www.imogencunningham.com/

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. 

It’s just begun.

Covid 13

When he was little, Thing2 was Prozac in Pampers, a tight bundle of goodwill who could tease a smile out of Ebenezer Scrooge. As he got older, he was a flight of fantasies, a constant comic, David winning over Goliaths with a well-timed burp or fake fart instead of taking them down. Optimism as hard as a colored-candy shell was Thing2 (a.k.a Superdude’s superpower), impregnable even in the face of impending teen angst. 

But the era of Covid 19, with its empty hours is threatening to become his Kryptonite. 

Thing2 started the lockdown indulging his love of computer games in between online classes, but, as Spring Break rolled in, even the little remaining social outlet provided by classes laboriously organized by dedicated teachers dried up.

Superdude quickly exhausted his favorite reruns on Netflix, tired of zapping the last space invader, and started surrendering to the chosen time-killing strategy of depressed teens everywhere — sleep. He still joins in the family walks, playing catch with Goliath (Thing1) as we take our laps around the house and sometimes deeper into the woods, but in the absence of social stimulation, the boy who scripted fan-fiction videos, casting his friends and adding digital special effects is still.

We’re reinstating nightly card games (a fertile venue for burp and fart jokes). We work to entice him away from the land of Nod, but the part of me that abhors hovering also believes he needs to navigate some of this brave new world on his own and learn how to make new adventures. 

He’s doing some of this already — watching online cooking classes and connecting with the Big Guy over a shared interest – but the marathon has just begun. 

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.

Gallery Management

I’ve been pretty faithful about protecting and curating the figurines my kids have made over the years. I keep them on the shelf least likely to be jumped on by the cats.

In my new office I’ve added another shelf — the one I use to display greeting cards at art fairs. Right now it’s holding a different kind of greeting card, the kind you only get when a student says goodbye and lets you know, in the most colorful way possible, that your job mattered to someone.

Gallery 1 hasn’t changed much since Thing2 finished elementary school. Thing1’s recent creations all involve blocks of code that, while they bring plenty of tears to my eyes, are a little tougher to display. I curate it with the same zeal that the directors of the Louvre have for protecting the Mona Lisa.

The second gallery is evolving. Pieces in my classroom are already waiting to join it in June. It’s a different, evolving gallery, but it’s just as precious in its own way.

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.

Go Work, Young Man

One of the bonuses having lived with bipolar disorder for over 40 years is that you can see the signs of creeping depression in others. I see it in my students when they have trouble showing up to class for weeks at a time or sleep through most of their school day. I see it in myself when my energy level plummets despite having had plenty of sleep, and, at about 11 o’clock this morning, when I went to announce that pancakes were on the table, I saw it creeping over a still-sleeping Thing1.

The young man who takes most things in stride, who rarely admits to anything bothering him, has been quiet for the last two days since he came home for the semester. Some of the time has been spent texting friends that he won’t see you for a few months. Other moments have been spent looking for jobs that, because of the nationwide effort to socially isolate, won’t be available and, for him and his compromised immune system, are extremely bad ideas.

My first instinct is to S(Mother) him with love. To try to take away the sadness.

But that’s not what he needs.

Trying to get myself ready possible home working and needing more space for books, I’m organizing my study and art space again. The target destination for my desk and books hadn’t been repainted in over 13 years, so I made a coat of paint and some new flooring my project for the weekend.

The ache in my recovering foot, however, reminded me early in the morning that climbing on ladders and spending too much time rolling paint might not be such a great idea. Thing2 wandered into the office asking if he could help, and I suddenly realized I had a cheap workforce just waiting to be put to good use.

Since T1 was still in bed, I decided to let T2 (younger and hopefully less business savvy) do the collective bargaining for T1&T2 Handyman, Inc. I laid out my business proposition — The paint and, with a bit of supervision, lay down the floor, and we agreed on a price.

I texted “pancakes“ to T1 and then mentioned the job. Getting no answer I decided to climb the stairs to his room and drag him out of bed before the day was gone.

“Are you awake?” I asked.

Groan.

“Want pancakes?” I asked.

Another groan.

“How about doing a job today? I texted you about it earlier,” I said.

Suddenly I saw a little bit of movement under the covers. A muffled “what job?” could be heard.

I laid out the deal that T2 had negotiated for the two of them and got a verbal handshake from the senior partner before heading back downstairs for my breakfast. It took him 10 minutes to get dressed, load up his plate with pancakes and bacon, and head into my study to help T2 who was already painting.

He painted quietly for the first few minutes, ignoring his brother’s cheerful attempts to engage him in high minded debates about The Rise of Skywalker or the latest in video gaming furniture. It’s pretty tough, however, to stay detached when T2 is trying to be social with you, and soon they were chatting about the job and how they would spend their money. They had the room painted in less than an hour (T2 turned out to be a better negotiator than I gave him credit for) and were starting on the flooring almost before I could give them a quick tutorial on “measuring twice, cutting once.“

Thing1 commandeered the bringing in of the flooring from the car, perking up even more as he realized he was the only one of our trio who was strong enough do that particular job. As the day has worn on, he has chatted more, sounding more positive about the job outlook and asking what other projects he could do. And I realized that it isn’t just the money that he’s after.

For the last six months, living away from home, he’s been mostly independent. He’s done well in his classes and suddenly become an extrovert. He’s been tutoring and looking for jobs. He’s made plans for the next six months and the next six years. He’s been becoming a functioning and useful adult.

For the last two days, sequestered from society in the embryonic embrace of home, he’s been comfortable, but he hasn’t had as much opportunity to be useful. Right now I’m sitting in the living room having a snack to recover from the hard work of supervising my two young men and coming to terms with the fact what they are going to need over the next weeks is not to be protected.

They are going to need opportunities to be useful and a lot of them.