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.

White Noise

White Noise

There are times when you keep silent, knowing that whatever you could add to the conversation would just be more noise. There are times, however, when not making noise is giving silent approval to things that make life unlivable for people around you. This has almost never a blog about politics or society. It is mostly been about family and being a mom, and that is precisely how I knew I had to make noise. It is why I could not be silent about what has been happening to other families in Georgia and Louisville and Minneapolis.

I’m white. I live in a predominantly white state. I may have family and students of color whom I love and with whom I can sympathize. As a teacher, I can make sure that a diverse set of voices are represented in my curriculum. I can try to empathize, but I know that even empathy can’t impart how it truly feels to walk a mile, let alone thousands of miles, in any of their shoes. I know that, as a middle-aged white woman my skin color is armor. 

I first recognized the privilege that armor endows about 25 years ago, when, dressed in my grumpiest clothes and filthy vacation hair, I stopped at a convenience store to stock up for a road trip home. I wandered through the store, pulling items off shelves and putting them in my pockets as I browsed. The storekeeper ignored me, instead trailing one of my well-dressed but much darker traveling companions. I have seen it numerous times when being stopped for a broken taillight or blinker. The police officer watches me dig through my purse and assumes I’m looking for my license rather than a weapon. I was reminded of it again this week, watching with the world as another white woman deliberately weaponized her privilege against a birdwatcher of color in Central Park. 

I have also heard my privilege when listening to mothers of children of color and realizing what we have very different conversations with our children. We all tell our children to obey the law, but I tell my kids to know their rights. I’ve heard other mothers talk about the law but also about ensuring that her child knows all things he must do, about when and where he should or should not go to earn the presumption of innocence that my sons take for granted as their birthright as citizens.

 This month, I’ve also been thinking about the conversations no mother should have to have about her child. There’s the conversation that her child was executed in her own bed. There’s the conversation that her baby was gunned down while jogging. And there are the conversations about the killers who enjoy the presumption of innocence that their children never got.

 So I’m making noise. I’m bearing witness. Black lives matter. Black mothers’ children matter. 

Me and Imogen

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.

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.

Pole Beans

Pole Beans

The boys have been playing catch and frisbee on our walks around the house in the afternoons. Lately when Thing2 reaches for a deliberately off-trajectory frisbee, it seems as if his feet barely have to leave the ground for him to grab it out of the sky. The boys adjusted to living apart when Thing1 left for school and then adjusted again when he came back for the quarantine, but, as Thing2 grows faster and taller than a Kentucky Wonder pole bean vine, there seems to be an another adjustment taking place.

Thing1 specifically asked for Thing2 to be born, badgering us for a baby brother for almost two years. When we granted the wish (don’t ask me what we would’ve done if it had been a sister), Thing1 enthusiastically stepped into the role of guardian/teacher/benevolent dictator. He helped coach Thing2’s Little League team. He alternately shushed and comforted him through colicky rides in the back seat.

Thing2 accepted the paradigm and fell into his role of hero worshiper without question or deviation—even when it bugged the crap out of his brother. It’s a tossup as to whether a baby brother or an actor dog is more dogged in their loyalty. He followed his brother from room to room, and even from hobby to hobby. If Thing1 was good at a sport, Thing2 had to give it a go. When his older brother built a computer, he had to build one too.

And then Thing1 left. Thing2 had to find a new hero.

Our youngest has used the vacuum to bond with the Big Guy over a shared love of music and cooking. He has learned how to tech-support himself on computer issues. He has nurtured talents he discovered on his own and become his own hero, and when Thing1 returned home from school early, Thing2 very much wanted to spend time with him. There were no repeats, however, of a little kid banging on his older brother’s door, demanding to be included.

In the mornings, they each go to their corners to work on their academics. We eat dinner in the den together, but after about 20 minutes, the boys go to their separate activities. Thing1 tries to stay in touch with his new college friends as much as possible, and Thing2 will geek out on the computer or come hang out with me.

The one time of day come they really come together if over the daily games of catch. Thing1 is still slightly bigger and much stronger, but Thing2 is now a teammate, not an acolyte. There’s less coaching and more rough-housing, but, despite the extra bumps and bruises, the gaps between my two pole beans are getting narrower.