A lot of people think that no good can come of checking your phone at 2 AM in the morning, but anyone who’s ever been getting ready to go into a meeting at 2 PM knows that there’s nothing like a quick glance at that glowing window to distorted reality that take your eyes off the prize so quickly. Even if it’s just for a second, that glance — that loss of focus – can almost make you forget what the prize is.
January 6, just as I was signing into an IEP meeting I’d been anticipating for weeks, I stupidly glanced at my phone. My kiddo, learning at home all year because of health issues, armed with nothing more than cheerful fortitude, had blown his math and reading goals out of the water. It’s the kind of conversation you love to have with a parent.
But there I was, clicking the start button for the meeting as the chaos in the capital, and not this kid’s triumph, tried to command my attention. When the other faces popped on the screen, the sea of smiles hinted that my colleagues had not seen the news.
For months, I had been aware of national and world news but most days, it was on the periphery, nothing more than a headline to be liked on Facebook. I felt guilty for not tracking events more carefully, but I also enjoyed the bliss of ignorance created by the wall that work had erected, obscuring all but the most vital events.
I pulled my head back to the meeting. The IEP team took turns telling mom about her kid’s amazing progress. We discussed our hopes and goals for him for the new year, and I realized that everyone in our meeting – Mom and teachers – had been channeling fears and frustrations with the chaos of the last year into things we could control. We’d unconsciously rerouted our energies into creating hope for ourselves, one kid at a time.
When the meeting ended, I checked my newsfeed again just to make sure the country hadn’t devolved into a full-fledged Civil War. Knowing there was nothing I could have done regardless of the situation on the monitor, I got back to the things I could control.
Then I went back to planning a meeting for the next kid on my list and making up a new game for the next day’s math class.
I didn’t completely tune out. A functioning democracy needs care and attention. It needs participants now and down the road.
Since January, however, I’ve let my list of meetings and to-do’s turn the news down to a faint din again because I’m not taking my eyes off the prize again.
The victories our team nurtures and celebrates are small but significant, and we know we’re not alone. There are setbacks, but, faced with two images of the world on January 6, I’m glad I chose the one filled with hope.
The last few months have been sketchy for me as the demands of mitigating the pandemic and navigating pneumonia with resulting lung issues forced me into a new job search. I am determined to continue teaching in the fall, but, along with millions of other Americans, I know that full time employment is anything but certain. Daily, I fight the paralysis of angst as I try to reconfigure my safety net in an unstable economy, so it sometimes seems counterintuitive that my primary source of serenity would come from the ever-evolving vegetable garden.
I am no longer, as the bard would say, green in judgment, but these are still my Salad Days — chaotic and nerve-racking.
Last evening I wandered through the garden, noticing new buds and gathering treasures. A short while later, a black bear wandering through the garden cut short a visit to the composter and the driveway. It knocked over a barrel but left the chickens alone. I immediately knew who was responsible for knocking down trellises and eating cucumbers as soon as they form, but I wasn’t mad.
I was amazed, and the giddy amazement that comes with remembering that bears surround us in Vermont (there are over 4500 of them) got me rethinking the things I can’t control. Weather and wildlife may exercise as much control over my harvest as my work, but the chaos isn’t always destructive.
Sometimes chaos is a wakeup call. It’s the change that lets me see the new lettuce flourishing and the wild black raspberries volunteering their surprises. It’s the chance to marvel that wild things still exist in this part of the country. It’s the force that refocuses my attention on the people who need help and the planet that needs people to live deliberately. It may upend parts of my life, but, as with the weather and wildlife, I am working harder not to fear change, but, at an age when many people seek calm, embrace it as a chance for new experience.
Pneumonia benched me well before Covid-19 invaded neighboring New York State, but my son’s severely compromised immune function was already forcing considerations about whether and how to keep working at the residential school where I teach.
Our school immediately implemented Herculean measures to reduce the likelihood of infection. The experiences of other assisted living communities across the nation, however, suggested that any infection, once introduced, would spread rapidly. I love my school kids, but knew working during the pandemic might mean living away from my family. When my body turned on me, I was almost grateful to surrender the decision and took a leave of absence as our family settled into the stay home directives that, while not all that new for most Vermonters, felt like a different normal.
When I started considering family safety, the virus was sweeping through cruise ships. There were a handful infections in Washington state, and the media zeitgeist was proclaiming that the virus “only” endangered the elderly and people with chronic illnesses (about 157 million people in the US), as if that made it more tolerable.
One night early in March, however, I caught an interview with Yale physician, Nicholas Christakis, predicting the trajectory the infection would soon take. Identifying schools as disease vectors (as any parent or teacher weathering flu and strep season can attest), he advocated nationwide closures. “Flatten the Curve“ hadn’t been coined, but he was articulating the strategy: slow the spread, reduce the load on the healthcare system, and improve the odds.
As March and the pandemic progressed, Christakis seemed like Cassandra delivering disturbingly accurate warnings, heeded only when case numbers and fatalities began to skyrocket.
I remember marveling at extraordinary examples of solidarity by people from all walks of life filling my Facebook feed when Americans did adopt the social distancing guidelines already in place in Europe. There were some doubting the seriousness of the disease or disregarding how their continued mobility might endanger others, but videos of people making masks, entertaining each other, organizing school services and lunches for kids and families were brief testaments that we were all at least trying to be in this together.
Then the economy, already wobbling under volatile oil futures and markets, imploded. Poorly maintained government safety nets struggled to expand and accommodate millions of newly unemployed people. Suddenly the stay home directives were not just about flattening an abstract curve, they were about individual rights, paychecks, and haircuts.
I don’t have much sympathy for people screaming for haircuts, but at least 40% of adults in the United States don’t have $400 on hand to cover an emergency. That means a lost paycheck could easily translate to a lost roof or food. In regions that have not yet seen spikes in the numbers, the prevention can easily seem worse than the disease.
I had just started programming in 1996 when I first saw a program crash because an end-user had tried to enter the date ‘2001’ in a two-digit year field. We fixed that particular issue pretty quickly, but as we went through our other programs, we realized how many applications were vulnerable. Y2K work wasn’t just bread and butter for the next few years, it was steak and caviar.
That New Year’s Eve, I brought home a laptop to login to work and monitor for any SNAFUs. As midnight rolled around, I wondered if many programs would fail. Would the “major” systems around the world make the jump successfully?
The next morning, there had been a few hiccups but no apocalypse. Newscasters seemed almost disappointed that more things hadn’t gone wrong, glossing over the fact that the millions of programmers who had been updating systems for the previous three or four years had made that possible.
Right now, people are being asked to accept hardships to make sure that as much of our worrying as possible is for ‘nothing’. Some people, even offering themselves as sacrifices, are willing to play the lottery and advocate for reopening the country. With one journal, however, suggesting that school closures alone prevent “only” 2-4% of Covid-19 related fatalities (2000-10,000 lives depending on projections) and new reports of hospitalizations and fatalities among younger, healthier people, reopening the “country” is a lottery that will trade lives for paychecks.
But too many missed paychecks can also cost lives.
Some (including me) would argue in favor of securing the social and digital safety nets to enable as many people as possible to stay home longer and reduce illness and contagion. People advocating the alternative, however, do have valid concerns. Safety nets are expensive. Any vaccine could be at least a year away. There’s no confirmation, yet, that surviving the disease confirms permanent immunity, meaning that this could be a question of thinning the herd rather than building herd immunity. Stay home directives could be simply delaying the inevitable.
Less than a century ago “The Lottery”, by Shirley Jackson, depicted a modern version of a “brutal ancient rite” taking place in some version of Bennington, Vermont. Townspeople drew lots to determine who would be sacrificed by stoning to ensure a good harvest. The New Yorker and Jackson received mountains of complaints and abuse from shocked readers who could not countenance the idea of even fictional human sacrifice in a modern setting.
We aren’t choosing lots or stoning people to death, but in the end, we are being asked not just what we personally are willing to surrender for the economy or a flatter curve. We are being asked who we are willing to sacrifice to achieve either goal. How many and which people are disposable?
On our very micro level, I know I would give my life to keep my kids safe and fed. I also know it’s easier to be a martyr than a problem solver. At some point, the pandemic and the economy will force us to ask the tougher question of how to balance Thing1’s health (and life) against my need to work, against Thing2’s right to go to school and grow. When do we “reopen”? We’ll find some answers in logistics. Other answers will require making ethical choices far more difficult than drawing lots.
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.
“Want pancakes?” I asked.
“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.
I'm trying, with limited success, to work three jobs. I got the one that pays the bills for 40 to 50 hours a week. I've got the one I took on when the Big Guy and I decided to become parents. And I've got the one that I'm still auditioning for – The one I get up at – still early, Buddy, don't you want to go back to bed? – 4AM to scribble in my notebook and doodle in my sketchbook for.
I slept in today. It was 5 AM when I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the shower, but I figured I had enough time before the rest of the house was awake – Stop that, kid – to get through a story revision – No you cant have the remote when everyone still asleep. Thing2 usually does his own figuring on Saturday mornings, however. Like most seven-year-olds he has a sixth sense that tells his body clock when it's a school morning and went to get up early. Today the body clock was working perfectly, and as I sat down with my notebook and a short story I'm updating, somebody padded out in his jammies and socks.
Now, I'm sitting on the recliner with my story in my notebook and no daylight or molecules between me and my seven-year-old. i'm still editing and writing. I don't know if these are the kind of working conditions that Louisa May Alcott had to suffer through when she was an aspiring writer, but I figure scribbling away with a giggly seven-year-old – Cut it out! wrapped around my writing elbow is in my next job's description.
I can get used to that. The pay isn't so great, but the benefits are hard to beat.
For the last month, I’ve been wondering if my bipolar disorder had evolved in to something more insidious as the chorus of demands created by a stint of intense overtime at work and holiday social obligations amplified, drowning out much of what matters to me – fitness, writing and even family from time to time. I had been joking the last few days that – even as a work-at-home-mom – I spoken to my kids no more than twice a day lately (Once to tell them to get on the bus, and another time to tell them dinner is ready and go to bed).
There’s an old saying goes, “When mom ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”. I never believed that. I was thought I was putting my family’s health and happiness first – even when I wasn’t so happy. But Saturday, as the Big Guy and I arrived home from a cross-state work party too late to get to another outing and knowing I had to throw together a potluck contribution for the town’s annual holiday Christmas party (the only place with a Santa who actually knows if Thing2 has been naughty or nice), I realized I wasn’t happy. And I wasn’t making my family happy either. I was running on empty which doesn’t leave you much to give the people you love.
Saturday night Mother Nature gave me a sign. Actually she threw up an eight inch powdery white stop sign. And Sunday, the din stopped.
We knew the storm was coming, and, while the forecasted 5-10″ isn’t’ enough to morph my Saturday grocery shopping list into disaster planning mode, I knew the weather would likely keep us housebound in the morning. I did a mental inventory of our hot chocolate and popcorn supplies, but I also began making a list of the commitments outside my door that I could now reasonably avoid a day.
Sunday quickly became a day of rest. For me, it was a day of no iPhone, no email – work or personal, no iPad or TV. There was no Facebook and no news. After a late-night saturday look at the weather map, there was Radio Silence.
Sunday, with the cacophony shut out, I was finally able to hear the things that matter. Three of them are still sleeping down the hall. The other I am nursing for the first time in over a week.
After the storm, the windchime is still in its spot. It was a gift from the Big Guy’s sister who is not my sister-in-law. She’s my sister.
We didn’t have to go through all the in-fighting that adolescent sisters inflict on their parents. She lives in Southern New England, so we see each other a few times a year. Over the years, we’ve become friends and then truly family.
She brought this chime as an xmas gift a few years ago, and I keep thinking when we build a deck (which could be very far in the future given our ability to procrastinate building decisions), I’ll design a special spot for it. Now it’s hanging form a post that’s sunk into a corner of our very over-grown stone patio. I actually like it there. It seems to survive all kinds of storms, and it’s seems like it’s there to remind me to suck it up and stand firm when things don’t go perfectly.
It’s a lot like the giver in that way, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot the last few weeks as the storms of late autumn bluster through our mountain. My day job has claimed all my daylight hours and even most of my waking night time for the last few weeks. Everything else has disappeared – running, writing, down time. Even if I can set the alarm for my 4 AM writing time, often I do the numbers, realize I’ve slept four hours and reset the clock.
Sometimes it seems like it should be nothing. Writing’s just a hobby, right? But it’s also who I am. Not doing it makes me incomplete. Not providing for my family, however, would create an even bigger hole.
I’ve been there before and not by choice. A few years ago the Big Guy spent a week in the ICU because our then lack of health insurance had deterred him from seeking medial attention until a minor infection became an absess that nearly ended his life. It took years to pay off that bill, but it isn’t the fear of another ruinous bill that helps me accept being incomplete right now. It’s not even the determination never to let lack of insurance determine when we get care. Right now, what’s got me up at 5AM, girding my soul for another soulless day is that wind chime.
This may come as a shock, coming from someone who blogs (I don’t brag about it either) about being a bad housekeeper (blogs – not brags), but I am not naturally organized. Staying organized always seemed like a juggling act that required advanced skills. I pick my battles, but the need to organize my day is forcing me to pick a new fight with my life.
There are certain balls I can always keep in the air. Apparently having kids endows you with some hormone that keeps you from letting their priorities slip through the cracks (thank goodness), and the desire to eat regularly keeps me signed in at work on a daily basis. But the house, writing and fitness are a few things that tend to hit the ground more often than I’d like.
The house has always been the lower priority, but almost a solid week of intense cleaning and vacuuming dictated by a sudden flea infestation put it at the top of the list. With kid not yet in school, I’ve been able to juggle a few things, but fitness and writing have become casualties more than I wanted them to. A few days ago, out of desperation, I pulled out my organizer and created a weekly schedule.
The plan was to get up early and write, then exercise and then clean before the kids got up or had to go to school. The morning writing is relatively new – the morning thing is new. I’ve traditionally been a night owl, but last winter decided to try and change my body clock. It worked – sort of.
At the time, I was a serious caffeine addict. Over the summer, a change in my diet helped me mostly kick that habit. At first, I keenly felt the absence of my old stimulant, but better nutrition and fitness helped to compensate during the day. The one time of day I still notice the dearth is in the early morning, and I finally realized that maybe even moms need more than 4.5 hours of sleep a night.
Last night my body, intensely aware of that need was not able to convince my brain that it was time to shut down. Minute after minute passed as I watched my planned six hours of sleep dissolve into five and then four. In the past, I’ve gotten up and written, but the last few days worry has inspired my insomnia, and I did what I do best – worried. About braces for Jack, about the lemon I call a car sitting the driveway, and – naturally – about every flea (phantom or in-the-flesh) that might still be crawling toward our beds.
Finally, I picked up my alarm/organizer and, surrendering the idea of writing or doing yoga this morning, I set the alarm to go off an hour later. Then I scrolled over to the organizer trying to find another hour in the day. It took an inordinate amount of time to remember that once I would have used this kvetching time for creating, but when I did remember, it was an ‘A ha’ moment (the nearby slumbering Big Guy just incorporated it into a dream). Fortunately, I hadn’t scheduled worrying into my night yet, so the slot was free. Suddenly there was time in the morning to walk the dog, clean, get exercise out of the way, eat, get the kids out of the house, and get to work. And there was time to sleep.
This morning the alarm went off an hour later. There was an actual to-do list (something that’s only existed in my imagination until recently). Another hour later, the must-do’s were done. The worry was gone, and there was an unscheduled hour, so I sat down to do what I love to do best – write – and what could only have happened when I started to what I hate to do most – organize.
Once upon a time I would have traded blood and organs for the chance to be a Work At Home Mom (WAHM). A few years ago, I stumbled onto the right ad on Craigslist and, without making any deals with the devil, joined the growing legions of moms who work from home. For the most part it’s been a win-win. I’m home on snow days and sick days. There’s no dry-cleaning to worry about, and the gas and rubber saved is significant. It has also, however, taught me a lot about the difference between quality time with my kids, twelve-year-old Thing1 and six-year-old Thing2, and simply more time.
Our town has school choice, so Thing1 and Thing2 go to different schools in different towns. The schools are a mile apart, and, while the calendars often overlap, there are somedays when one school is closed and the other is not. Yesterday was Thing2’s day off, and, enjoying a unprecedented state of organization last week, I remembered to schedule a day off for myself.
The kids are in school full-time now, but summers and holidays mean that I’m often scrambling to entertain them while I work. More often than I’d like, this results in kids playing on iPads or computers and me snapping at them to stop fighting over this or that toy. It’s more time together, but it is not quality time.
Ironically, spending more time with my kids has fueled my desire to carve out more special days with one or the both of them. It’s a tradition that started when Thing1 was still Thing-only. Mommy-Thing1 days started with a special breakfast and then a visit to a museum or even just a day on the couch watching a movie of his choice. It’s one-on-one face time, and it’s become a sacred ritual for both kids.
Thing2 and I started the day with breakfast and haircuts. Money he had earned was burning a hole in his pocked, so we took a quick trip to the toy store and then went to visit a friend who’s recovering from surgery. By the time we got home, my day with Thing2 was drawing to a close, and a planned evening with Thing1 was about to begin.
The Dorset Theatre was in its final weekend of its production of The Crucible, and, since we don’t have a regular babysitter, the Big Guy and I had decided to take turns attending. We’ve been dragging Thing1 to plays for a while now (with increasing levels of enthusiasm), and I decided we would go out to dinner before the play. Thing2’s palate is getting more adventurous so we ended up a Thai place in Manchester, VT.
The restaurant was a little more upscale place than we usually go with either child, but Thing1 warmed to the subdued atmosphere. Absent distractions, we began to have a different Mommy-Thing1 day. Thing2 is still at that stage where Mommy and Daddy are at the center of his world, and our special days are basically one big mental cuddle. But Thing1 is at the border of adolescence, and the independence that accompanies that stage of life means that our special days have changed in content and character. Last night, as our special day consisted mainly of very grown-up dinner conversations about technology and society and later about the play and the performance, I began to see for the first time how that change is bringing us closer.
There are a lot of things I love about my parents. I love that they never pull out a tape recording of all the things I said I’d never do as a parent when I do exactly that. I love that they are flush with great advice but wait until it’s asked for. I love that, as I begin to understand their point of view on so many things, they never say, “I told you so.” And I love, that at the ages of 70 and 72, they’ve never really retired – not from their jobs or from parenting.
My dad knew he wanted to be a doctor pretty early in college. He’s been in medicine in one way or another for most of his life (not just his adult life – his life). His career has changed over the years, taking him and us around the country and even the globe. What never changed was his drive to learn. My mom started her career as a history professor when my sister and I were a little older, and, while her job didn’t involve as much globetrotting, she had the same insatiable lust for learning as my dad.
When they got closer to their retirement age, we expected they might slow down and transition into being full-time grandparents. My dad, however, kept traveling for one lecture or research project, and my mom kept reading and writing and teaching. They did have tentative plans for after retirement, but they constantly seemed to get pushed further down the road.
My dad announced his retirement first. I wondered how long it would take this man who was constantly traveling to go stir crazy (or make my mother crazy). But he already had plans. He barely seemed to stop for a breath before launching himself into a different incarnation of his love of medicine and learning and service. He may have left his job, but, even now, years later, he is still a medical man. It was not just a job or even a career, it was and remains a passion.
My mom continued this pattern. Her job ended, but her work continued. Like my father, her retirement was marked by the end of a paycheck and the beginning of projects. She joined another history organization, investing almost as much time on research and writing as she had before retiring. She’s been retired for several years now, but she is still every bit a historian, and, with my dad is still busy teaching me some valuable life lessons as she navigates this phase of her life.
They don’t work as many hours as they did when they were employed, but even when they’re on vacation, they will retire to their office/bedroom for a little research or writing. Most days I like my job very much (absent a winning lottery ticket or writing the next Harry Potter, I’ll probably be doing it till I retire). Only unwillingly, however, do I let it intrude on my family vacations, and it wasn’t until recently that I ‘got’ why my parents invited their ‘work’ into their holidays and their retirement.
What helped me ‘get’ it was finding the Writer’s Project at Hubbard Hall led by author Jon Katz. I always loved writing, but there had been times when life got too hectic and I let it fall by the wayside. The Project demanded that everyone who was intent on staying with it needed to write and share regularly through our blogs. At first, this was as an act of discipline. Then it became my regular indulgence in ‘me’ time. It was not until we went on vacation with my parents, however, that I began to realize that it was giving me a brand new perspective on my parents and on work.
Determined to have a real vacation last year, I only took my iPad and left ‘work’ at home. But from the moment we left our dirt road for the paved highways, I wrote. Every place we stopped I wrote. At night, I wrote after everyone else was in bed. When the kids were busy with their Tinker Toys or at the beach, I wrote. And, as I watched my Mom and Dad withdraw each day to their office and invite their lifeworks into their vacations, it struck me that, for the first time in my life, I had done the same thing.
Finding the Writer’s Project was serendipity, and it would have been worth selling blood and organs to join had it been necessary. But watching two people living their passions as I rediscover mine has enriched the experience in ways I couldn’t anticipate. The workshop encourages us all to follow our passions. My parents are showing me how to thrive on them for the rest of my life.
For the past few weeks my waking hours have been spent mostly shut off from the world.
I rise before dawn to write and read – forcing myself to shut out the world that beckons from the internet. At 7 AM, I’ll wake my boys and spend the next 45 minutes getting them dressed, fed, and chauffeured to school. Then I’ll come home and take care of the few chores I do on a daily basis before sitting down to work until dark again. I’ll re-emerge from my work area in time to make dinner and start the cycle all over again. The short winter days ensure that I rarely see daylight, but the thing I have noticed the most as my job demands more from my family life with the waxing tax season, is that spending less time with my family often means that I spend less time with my blog.
I first noticed this one recent weekend when basketball practice inspired another post and a story for an e-book I’m working. I sat down in the the gym at 8:15 AM on a Saturday, watched Thing1 and Thing2 finish an argument over something important (like which is the better color – red or green) and, as Thing2 began his basketball dance, I felt the urge to pull out my notebook and pen. I didn’t stop writing for the entire morning. Doodles and ideas flowed.
Sunday was equally productive. The ideas and stories overflowed into Monday, but by Tuesday, I spent most of the previous two days away from my family. When I put the kids to bed, I realized I had seen them for 2 waking hours. Simultaneously, the story well seemed to go dry and stay that way for a day or two.
Part of me has been resentful of this new routine. As great as it is to work at home, it can be really difficult to explain to younger children that, even though you’re home, you’re not available. And, through the door, I can hear the evening antics and arguments as homework and its tribulations unfold around the kitchen table. The fairy tale is unfolding without me.
But even as I’m already feeling left out and dreading the seemingly lifeless hours in the day ahead, I’m finding an unexpected story this morning. This story is about the very light causing the shadows. It’s about the good fortune to be shut up in a warm room and to have enough food to feed a family at the end of the day. It’s about not fearing about necessities. But most of all, this tale is about realizing how fortunate it is to have a reason to feel the absence of the stories happening just on the other side of the study door.
I one of the lucky few. Most days I like my job. Every day I like my coworkers. But there are some days, when I’m on a writing roll (in quantity, not necessarily quality) that I begin wondering how much I could get for a slightly dented, c-listed kidney so I could finance a writing life.
I joined a writing workshop with author Jon Katz at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY, a community theatre and arts center back in May of 2012 with the idea of improving my skills and, hopefully, finding to make a writing life. I was nervous about both aspects. The workshop had an application process, and, while I think any artist has heard him or herself say, “I could do that” when embarking on a new work, I was secretly terrified that, surrounded by real writers, I would find out that maybe I could, but I shouldn’t. I was equally terrified that Mr. Katz would (as a few workshop leaders in the past had) have to explain the unpleasant facts of the writer’s life to us and make us understand that only a select few can ever enter that special circle.
Mr. Katz has had an long and successful writing career, by any measure, but, like many people, has seen his career go through rapid changes with the onslaught of the digital age. I went into the workshop aware that the internet had driven down the incomes of many creative professionals – stock photos can be had for $1.00 a piece regardless of their production cost, ebooks at $.99 abound – and I was doubtful that anyone could still make a living writing unless they were already an established author or a movie star with a scandal to sell. But Mr. Katz had invited us to Hubbard Hall to peddle optimism and encouragement – not negativity.
He spent the first hour of the first workshop talking about all the opportunities for writers – established and emerging – and by the time we took a break, I was ready to race home to my computer and wear down the keys a bit. I still hadn’t figured out what I would write – his first assignment to us was to create our blogs – but I knew something would come. And then he gave us a piece of advice which has – for the most part – wiped out writer’s block for the last 7 months. “Look for the stories that are close to your life,” he said.
I thought about that for the next few weeks as we set up our group page on Facebook and each of us began testing the waters with our blog ideas. The blogs began evolving, and we could see each other developing as artists. I stopped calling myself a wannabe-writer, coming to the conclusion that writing is where I belong.
So now it’s Monday morning, and work is about to begin. I’m sitting at my kitchen table watching the snowfall and getting ready to sign on to my employer’s group chat, but before I do, I burn a little of my writing candle. I’ll work till I can’t see the snow anymore, and after dinner is done and homework for the kids is checked, I’ll burn a little more. At one point I wondered if burning the candle at both ends was a good idea. At some points I tell myself it’s just until I can have a full-time writing life. The reality is, though, that this fire at both ends does not consume me, it sustains me, and it’s just enough to keep the dream alive.