Go Work, Young Man

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

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

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

But that’s not what he needs.

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

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

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

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

“Are you awake?” I asked.

Groan.

“Want pancakes?” I asked.

Another groan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s In My Job Description

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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.

 

Radio Silence

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 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.

 

The Windchime

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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.

The Ministry of Organization

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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.

A Day with the Boys

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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.

Good Parents Never Retire

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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.

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