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.

Leading with Love

Every morning when we bring out the checks, Katie follows us. She watches and whines, urging us to be careful as we move the growing babies from indoor enclosure to box to the chicken tractor outside. She trails the Big Guy from room to outdoors and hovers as he releases the checks into the tractor.

When the chicks are settled in their outdoor home, she’ll sniff on all four sides, inspect the sky to see if any predators are selling above, and then give a pointed look at Jim-Bob, as if to say, “Don’t mess with my chicks”.

most mornings she’ll lie down next to the coop, watching the chicks scratch and argue over who gets this would chip in that white fluffy flower. To be sure, Katie has her explorations in the woods. From the moment the chicks are in the tractor, however, until the moment we begin moving them back into the house, she lets us and them –and even the cats – know that she is there to protect and serve.

She never growls or bares her teeth at anyone. when she sees Princess Jane get too close to the coop, she will physically move herself between the chicks and arrow little gray huntress, but there are no snarls or parks. When it counts, she firm but always as loving with Princess Jane as she is with the chicks.

No one will ever mistake Katie for a huntress or vicious guard dog, but as a vigilant and caring protector, she’s becoming quite good at keeping the peace.

Tree Noise

We may be the only house in Vermont where you can’t actually see a mountain. We carved our plot out of the middle of a hill, leaving as many trees as possible. The result is that we can see outlines of mountains through the branches in the winter, but most of our view is defined by the vertical lines of the tree trunks and the blur of green that covers them in the summer. It’s not a vista or a monument. It’s not white noise, it’s visual tree noise. 

I’ve always been grateful for that tree noise. After a stressful day, it brings me back to earth. It soothes and then inspires. Even when I was working at home, however, I didn’t understand its full potential. 

Normally, just a few days of being home gives me a co-morbid case of cabin fever and wanderlust. Pneumonia initiated my quarantine back in March, well ahead of the state lockdown. It’s still kicks my butt each day, but yesterday I realized that illness is not the only thing that, for the first time in my life, has turned me into a happier homebody.

Thing1 wanted to test drive his car after replacing the cooling system and invited the Big Guy and Thing2 along for a joyride. It was a perfect spring day in the Green Mountain state, so, of course, they said yes. Wiped out from sitting in the garden and mulching the onions (thank you Strawbale Gardening), I opted for a nap in the lawn chair.

The seasonal streams and wind sang through the trees, supported by their supporting chorus of songbirds and crows. I opened my eyes every so often to absorb the visual tree noise. Recently turned green after a last blast of snow, it took center stage again.

I’ve viewed most of our world lately from my fuzzy blue office chair. The tree noise has consisted mostly of branches and mud and snow, but whether highlighted by puffy clouds and a crystal sky or muted against a backdrop of purple and mud, the effect has been the same.  

The patterns and colors wipe away concerns and replace them with ideas and creativity. “Do I have the right shoes for that?” and “What’s my next career move?” become an hour of writing and reading. Paintings conceived replace wish lists made up of things that create happiness for the few minutes after they’re bought.

As those wish lists disappear, so does the cabin fever. We still order the things we need — groceries, essentials. I think, however, my days of trying to wander away from my worries or to purchase happiness and serenity may be over.

Wasting Not

When I was a kid, my parents moved to Peru for a couple years. My father researched infant nutrition and worked with a clinic there that served malnourished children. There was a glut under-nourished children there, and, while my parents were never wasteful before, experience left our family, especially my father, with a strong aversion to wasting even the smallest amount of food. I’ve been thinking about that experience a lot this week each time I survey my larder.

Ever since hurricane Irene, I’ve made it a point to have cabinets full of shelf stable food just in case. The canned goods and even the stuff in our freezers rarely goes unused, but just because it finds its way into a recipe, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get wasted. I’m not proud to say that every few months a refrigerator clean out yields fur-covered meat or green spaghetti and meatballs that end up being tossed, and I can imagine my dad’s disappointed face every single time.

When the big guy and I were first married, we didn’t have enough money to throw away food. We’d buy a whole chicken for Sunday night near Boston’s famous Haymarket and have a traditional dinner with stuffing, veggies and potatoes. Monday night we’d make a peasant soup from the leftovers, stretching it out through much of the week.

Back then thrift was more about the benefit to our budget and less about being mindful of our blessings. These days, when I see whole chickens on sale, nostalgia prods me to buy one or two for the deep freeze for a future family Sunday dinner.

Sunday a last blast of winter was on the way, and I decided to dig a chicken out of the freezer for a comfort food meal. The boys tend to make short work of roast chicken, but, in recent years, I’ve gotten away from extracting every last meal from those leftovers.

As social isolation becomes more of a way of life, the Big Guy and I have both become more determined to not throw away food. Sunday as I thought about the blessing of simply having the chicken on hand, then of my dad, and then of the need to ration our larder for the short term, I filled up stock pot to make a peasant stew from whatever would be left.

When dinner was over, I was happy to see enough meat on the bird to make a good soup base. As good as it felt to make that one bird last through several dinners, however, chopping onions for my stew on Monday became an unexpected gift.

I sautéed the onions and celery, thinking how much this reminded me of the first year or two of our marriage. The smell of the spices in that plain old chicken-noodle soup transported me back to our tiny, cozy basement apartment in the city and to the start of a family tradition that started before we even thought about having a family.

It was as if being mindful of the things we have and the importance of not wasting them made it easier to be mindful of the moments in life that have brought and will continue to bring true joy and, ultimately, strength.

Front Row at the Renaissance

I love special education because it’s all about finding the spark in someone and helping it glow. It’s an act of hope informed by evidence. I’m housebound now and spending too much time on social media. The temptation to give into fear or despair is great, but the same internet that serves up daily examples of greed and malfeasances has also recently, for me, been a source of evidence-based hope, fueling optimism, rather than worry over what comes next.

A few weeks ago when the pandemic was still just a probability in the United States, I noticed the occasional half-humorous meme warning that we were about to have front row seats for Armageddon. I laughed nervously at the gallows humor, knowing that, in any apocalypse, my lack of fitness and survival skills will ensure me a spot on the scaffold.

Last week, the pandemic probability morphed into actuality. One news organization and then another reported a sharp spike in gun sales. I wasn’t able to muster a nervous laugh about that story, but it still didn’t convince me that the inevitable next phase will be apocalyptic.

I’ve had the chance to teach Romeo & Juliet twice this school year. Both times I prepared by indulging in a bit of gratuitous research, tracing the history of the play to the various Italian poems and novella that influenced it. My journey through Italian Renaissance lit is never complete without a quick review of Boccaccio’s Decameron (yes, I’m a lit nerd and a sucker for back story), a collection of tales set against the backdrop of the Black Death of the 14th century, told by a group of young Florentines self-isolating in the sparkling solitude of the countryside.

I’ve thought of that book frequently this March.

The Italian Renaissance wouldn’t begin in earnest for another century after the book was published. A number of historians do point to the upheaval caused by the Black Death as one driving force in that movement, but, for me, The Decameron, is, for me, a symbol of one of the seeds sown in a dreadful epoch.

Two weeks ago Italy announced increasing restrictions on movement for its citizens. I remember worrying and wondering how people would react. Italy had good reason to impose the restrictions. Hundreds of people had been dying daily, but good reason doesn’t always illicit the desired response.

Less than a day after Italy announced a nationwide quarantine, however, a video of the residents of Siena playing music on their balconies for each other emerged. I wondered if this was just an outlier, but every day and then every few hours, new videos appeared, each showing Italians playing out a modern Decameron playing music instead of telling stories.

The same stories emerged from Spain and then France. From Ireland came stories of apartment blocks organizing outdoor BINGO.

I wondered how or if people in United States, when faced with quarantines and devastating statistics, would make the same choice. Would we let art and community be our shields?

Then came news of school and business restrictions from my parents’ home in Ohio. Almost immediately a video of two young children serenading an elderly Columbus lady on her porch appeared. Soon after, apparently anticipating the school closures, other teachers and homeschooling moms pro-actively began offering online resources and encouragement. In the next two weeks, from a medium that so often foments division and anxiety, I would instead see and continue to see outpourings of art and photography, soul-feeding poetry and writing, impromptu concerts, and, caremongering.

As the pandemic grows, some people may arm themselves and prepare for an apocalypse. There is another option, though.

The other course of action is the one so many generations before us have taken – it is the choice to get busy rebirthing our souls. It is the decision to use this time of sparking solitude and, inevitably, of profound grief and even fear, to nurture the seeds started by the creative sparks that are connecting and uplifting us.

It is to reserve a front row seat for renewal – for Renaissance – instead of surrendering to the inevitability of a cataclysm.

Me?

I’m not waiting to go back to school to go full-on Special Ed.

I’m going to comb through the piles of evidence from the last few weeks and the months to come, looking for the sprouts that need care and the sparks that need stirring. I’m going to commit acts of hope.

And, based on the evidence, I think I’ll be anything but alone.

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.

Living in Lessons

Tree of the Knowledge of Good

I don’t tend to be a mourner. I shed a few tears, maybe a sob here and there, and then the person I love lives on in my memories and, if I’m lucky, in the lessons I’ve absorbed from them.

I’m blessed to have been born with a small army of Great Aunts. I don’t mean that  they were a generation removed from mine. I mean that they were and truly are great – awesome. They adventure. They dive into learning. They are helpers and nurturers. They have always been what I want to be when I (eventually) grow up. Kind. Brave. Extraordinary.

One of my League of Extraordinary Women passed away on Sunday night. She was a prominent fixture in our lives when Thing1 was born, helping us navigate the German healthcare system (where he was born). A counselor and mother, she helped me learn to trust myself and my love of Thing1 when I was getting my parenting sea legs.

I am thinking of her even more intensely this evening as I take a break from writing IEPs to absorb Thing1’s news from his latest visit to Dartmouth Hitchcock where he spent a good part of his senior year and what should have been his freshman year of college. We are learning, yet again, that having a chronic illness means that he has, what his doctor once warned was, a permanent diagnosis, inspite of having had a colectomy.  Now, instead of thinking about summer jobs, he is faced with another, riskier surgery or the very real possibility of cancer by the time he’s in his thirties.

He always seems to take the news in stride, but I know he’s frustrated and a little frightened. Hidden in my office where he can’t see me, I give into a few sobs before acting on the lessons my very awesome aunt taught me everyday.

I know if she were here, she would offer a hug and tell me to trust my love for Thing1 as we help him over this next hurdle. She would remind us that we have the strength to get through this together and that it’s okay to cry. And, as she showed us everyday of her life, even when her own child faced a debilitating illness, she would remind us to care for others around us. She would show us how not let fear steal the happiness we do have with each other.

I will sob for a few more minutes before I get back to writing IEPs, and then I’m going to remember her by living her lessons.

 

Selfless self-care

One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.

All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.

I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.

I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.

This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.

When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“

and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.

Get Centered

IMG_6120

 The other day as we wended our way down the hill towards our house, wrapping up a walk that, for some reason, had caused Katy-the-Wonder-Dog many fearful pauses, the afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and we had something more than a walk.

I wanted to step up the pace for the last quarter mile and burn some calories. Katy decided sunny dirt was more worth sniffing than cloudy dirt. We trotted and paused a few times and then as the sun sank closer to the mountain across the way from us, she stopped and sniffed the air. 

“Katy, ” I coaxed. She ignored me, closing her eyes and turning her face to the sun and the mountain. I noted the line of light highlighting her and sank down to take a picture, but before I could tap the shutter button, I felt the sun on my face and closed my eyes for a moment too. 

The walk had been cross training. It had been a bathroom break. It had been huffing and puffing. Now, in the slightly warmer sunny air, it was something better. I opened my eyes to see Katy still meditating (if dogs meditate) on the sun and the sounds of the dozens of seasonal streams that were flowing down the mountains.  

It was as if someone had gently said, “Stop.” Stop, for just a moment, worrying about being able to run 3 miles or pay bills tonight or find time for everything on your list and get centered. 

A dog down the hill barked, and Katy’s head turned in that direction. I started the trot toward home and to-do’s again utterly unperturbed by the length of my list and committed to finding time to get centered more often.

Wintry Road

Wintry Road, 8”x10”,oil on canvas, $125

Prints and originals (when still available), can be purchased on Etsy here.

New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken, so the only ones I make tend to be diet related (something I excel at breaking). The end of 2018, however, marks what we hope is a new beginning for Thing1 as he charts his course for recovery, and I’m trying to use the lessons of the last year to make it a new beginning for me as well.

Yesterday marked a blissfully boring beginning of the year for me as well. It was my day off. My one obligation was to get to the grocery store and then do some illustrating.

We got a halfway decent snowfall yesterday. It warmed up in the afternoon, causing most of the trees to lose that confectionery look, but it was still a lovely day for errands. The clouds were churning, and as I passed the church yard in Shaftsbury, Vermont, they raced far enough east to let a little sun shine through over the Green Mountains and the valley.

I’m always mindful of the weather and the living landscape. It inspires me and informs my art, but yesterday, before inspiration took over, I felt something else. I felt grateful, not just to live where we do, but for that one moment of sun on snow. As I got to the supermarket parking lot in Bennington, I realized a good practice for the new year might be to start living every day looking for those moments of gratitude.

Last week my parents visited so we could celebrate a late Christmas. We took a day to visit the Clark institute in Williamstown, Mass which is featuring an exhibit of works by William Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. I’m a huge fan of both painters, even though the two rivals produced very different interpretations of the landscape at the same time in history. Turner is passion, informed by travel and poverty, shaped at least a little by mental illness. Constable is observation and studied precision.

I once felt that Constable’s precision reflected an intellectual detachment from the landscape, that his work lacked passion. Seeing his paintings up close again and reading more about his life and work, however, I realized that what I was seeing was a love for the landscapes that had given him joy. I realized I was seeing the work of someone who was grateful for every part of his life.

It can be hard to be grateful when all hell is breaking loose around you. But when you think your child might die, when you see someone you love in pain, when work is stressful, or when you’re doing something as ordinary as getting a car unstuck from a snow bank, focusing on the things you appreciate in your life can also be therapeutic. I know I am more determined to see those things during the crises.

But, one of the lessons of 2018 that I’m trying to take into the new year is to not save gratitude for the hard moments. As I was sitting in the car, thinking about the burst of sun that had washed over a landscape that I have learned to love, I wondered if choosing to live gratefully every single day, even if it just means recognizing the smallest of moments once a day, might yield more lessons in 2019.

Saturation Point

Saturation Pointweb

 

Newsfeeds filled with atrocities committed by Americans against Americans as well as with the specter of Nazi banners and slogans taking center stage at the home of one of America’s top universities this weekend made it easy for anger and worry to reach their saturation points.

 

Anger is counterproductive. I believe it is important to bear witness, but I also believe anger and worry are toxic.  They change no minds.   They don’t get to the root of the hate.

 

For me, the only thing that deflates the anxiety is paint on a blank where I can meditate on the things that do drive out hate — education, kindness,hope and the faith that we can and will be better.  

 

Saturday and Sunday as I painted a familiar field in Arlington, I ruminated on the things that have made Vermont — and, by extension, this country  — great for me. Generosity, seeing neighbors helping neighbors and finding joy in their successes have been the hallmarks of our life here. The memory of collective kindness doesn’t just soothe the soul, it inspires it to pay the civility and love forward.

 

These ruminations always bring me back to the words of Martin Luther King:

“Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction.”

Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” 

 

Ironically, in the week of a weekend filled with hate and murder, it seems more vital than ever to remember those words and think about how best to realise them.