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.

A(nother) Year of Living Gratefully

Wintry Road, 8”x10”,oil on canvas

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.

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