Would, Should, Will Do

You would rather paint today, but there are things you know you should be doing.

You should be writing and working on your project, whispers your conscience. But the laptop closed with the last task. If you were really a writer, you would. 

Admonishment doesn’t fire up the keyboard. Instead it makes paintbrushes heavy with guilt, and now the screen and canvas are blank.  But you tell yourself you should be a writer (that’s what you’re better at) and not an artist, and end up doing nothing.

And — as Oscar Wilde warned becomes of people who exhaust their lives chasing identity instead of living in the moment – you become static, nothing.

You feel nothing until even doing the wrong thing is better than being nothing at all. And, even though you should be this thing and not that, you pick up that piece of paper, feed it into the ancient typewriter, and, for the moment, focus on doing rather than being.

Your cat, of course, is completely happy being a cat.

One Battle, Many Fronts

I’ve been sending out resumes for weeks, but today was the first morning in weeks that I set an alarm. Job searching is rolling a rock up almost to the top of the hill each day just to watch it crash into a ravine as the sun sets. It’s a slow-drip infusion of limbo, and last night, as the first hint of fall air blew through the window I realized that anesthetic has had me sleepwalking through the summer. 

But summer is almost over, and it’s time to pull out the IV and fight back.

For most of my creative life, I’ve been refereeing a tug of war between my writer side and my artist side. Last night, as I began thinking about the best plan of attack, that tug of war — fed by the knowledge that I can’t serve two masters — threatened to become a quagmire.

I sat trying to choose between two passions until I looked at my empty calendar for the next day and realized that the only master I should be serving is creativity. There may be many fronts — writing, gardening or painting  – but the battle is for the creative life.

Before I went to bed last night, I made two dates for today. The first, as soon as the sun and mountain mists would be moving, was with Mt Equinox and a canvas. The second was with my blog and the short story folder on my laptop. By the time the alarm went off and my easel was packed, limbo was in full retreat.

Journey of a Thousand Miles

Yesterday I went to the hospital for more bloodwork, including a coronavirus antibody test. Pain in my chest and lungs still keeps me mostly sedentary, with the exception of our daily walk. Even though I walk only a few additional feet traveling between my bedroom, study and living room, but it feels as if those minimal footsteps have, over the last month and a half, added up to a journey far longer than a thousand miles. 

Not long after I started this blog as part of a writing workshop, I began feeling, more than ever, as if I had missed my calling. I had tried to quell my financially unviable passion many times over the years, but, reviving another creative passion for drawing, more than ever, made my day job feel more like just a paycheck than the career I should have made for myself.

I searched for jobs that allowed more time for creativity, and, with teaching, that may come partially true in the summers (the teaching workday does not end when the kids go home). Guiltily, a part of me still hoped for finances and time to align long enough to devote most of the day to writing and art.

This disease enforced isolation is no vacation, but I have tried to use it as a sabbatical —  a time to ask, if time allowed, what I would really want to do with my life. 

I did write on my blog more frequently at first. Daily monotony threatened to flatten inspiration, but I knew a writing life is about showing up.

My chest and lungs make painting painful, so I signed up for an online drawing class. Wanting some structure and to develop my written craft, I signed up for an online fiction workshop. It’s impossible to serve two masters equally, and this was a chance to hone skills and discover which passion burned brightest.

Psychologists are saying now isn’t the time to worry about learning new skills. Civilization is experiencing massive trauma as hundreds of thousands die and millions lose their livelihoods. Working with children recovering from trauma, I have seen how trauma — even more than poverty – causes catastrophic disruptions to learning. Even thirteen-year-old Thing2, mostly estranged from any trauma in his short life, is withdrawn and, for the first time ever, unenthusiastic about school and learning.  

Drawing class was everything I hoped art school might have been. Deliberate drawing practice. Assignments I knew would improve my painting when the f-ing pneumonia (that is officially the new technical term for it) recedes. 

The fiction class was more difficult to dig into. I read the bios of the other students and took 2 days to write mine. There were Ph.D.s and young, bold recent college grads with  much better handles on the craft of fiction.

Then I opened the first lecture. Much of the it was a review of the elements of fiction I teach in school. Then I saw the first assignment – spin a story out of a snippet of conversation from the last week. 

Okay. 

I mean, the only conversations I’d had were, “Hey,” with the kids when they woke up and “What should we do for dinner?”  I can make a silly post out of those, but a story?  And, did I mention, I suck at plotting? Could we start with something easier? 

I was scratching my unwashed head when I heard gunshots from the other side of the mountain. It turned out to be a neighbor scaring off a coyote. It was also the most original conversation I’d heard all week.  I wrote my story in less than an hour and received enthusiastic feedback from the instructor. 

I stopped worrying about the better writers in the class and focused on craft. It wasn’t an entirely new body of knowledge, it was a different way of approaching it, and the approach recharged my writing life. Every day since, I’ve dashed off a blog post, read and then written a short story, many of which, I hope, won’t end up in a drawer. I’ve even returned to old duds to give them better lives. The work and time have become my sabbatical and, though I doubt I’ll ever stop painting, helped me focus on my true passion. 

My lungs will improve, and either from home or at a school, I will be teaching again in the near future. I have, however, already begun planning how to fit making a livelihood into a life’s work and not the other way around again. Some people may, psychically, be in a place to invest in new learning, and I take my hat off to them. For me, however, using this time to examine which parts of “normal” I want to restore has been just as valuable.

Everyday Art

In my classroom there are long rows of hanging shelves containing multiple copies of different novels for my kids to read. Next to my little brown desk, however, I keep single copies of various books that I am reading with students one-on-one or, in my “free” Time at the suggestion of various students. My little stack of books is a colorful sculpture, an homage to the conversations I have with the wonderful young people who come through my door every day.

My and Thing1’s health situations have necessitated close adherence to the “stay home“ directive. I am treating this time at home as training for retirement when, again, there will be infinite time to write and paint as part of a last career. I’ve inaugurated a daily schedule of writing in the morning and drawing practice in the afternoon (chest pain from pneumonia still makes painting impossible).

Writing is a conversation with the zeitgeist, but, despite efforts to focus on the sparkle in the solitude, the conversation seems a bit one-sided lately. I can’t do much about the solitude, but, looking to put some sparkle in the conversation and, at least mentally, reconnect with my kids at school, I’ve started a new book sculpture next to my/Princess Jane’s fuzzy blue chair.

What do you have in your book sculpture these days?

Don’t Go There

Still on the Group W Bench together

It started with a writing prompt a few days ago. Write a scene with no more than four characters that happens in one room. It was a good assignment, but at first it took me to some very dark places before I remember I was in control of this story. I don’t have to go there.

I’ve tried to treat the last month of Sparkling (and, at our house, often smudged) Solitude as a gift of time, but, as many people are finding, worrying about loved ones, finances, and the world of suffering happening beyond our driveway more than dulls the sparkle. As I wrote, I realized that, while my own respiratory issues have kept me off the frontlines but not terribly fearful, Thing1’s nearly fatal history with a chronic illness that makes him particularly vulnerable has caused more anxiety than I like to admit.

My prompt response grew into a story about a family cursed with endless time and a dark choice that might save their firstborn. The scene grew out the worst night of Thing1’s illness, but, in the story, the husband and wife debating their children’s fate begin to fall apart, and I couldn’t figure out how to put them back together. I had written myself into a corner, but, as I took a break to finish cleaning the pantry, I remembered that during that seemingly endless night, the Big Guy and I had not fallen apart.

We had pulled together. 

We may have squabbled briefly about how fast the ambulance would arrive in a blizzard or if the emergency room would do anything we weren’t already doing or if we could even get there. We had nothing but bad options as our firstborn faded on the couch. In the end we did the only thing we could do. Pulling ourselves together as a team, we decided everything and every phone number until there was nothing else to try and Thing1 started to improve. 

That night wasn’t a gift. Thing1’s illness hasn’t been a blessing in disguise. Those challenges were crucibles so hot we sometimes felt our resolve begin to melt, but when that heat abated, hope solidified around our family, forging an infinitely stronger bond. 

So now I’m back to my made-up husband and wife, still at a terrible crossroads with endless time and a horrible illness and choice in front of them. There is a temptation — for the sake of art – to finish tearing them apart. There is the option to treat the endless time and choice as a curse. 

But I don’t want to go there.

Sounds of Scribbling

When grading papers or doing homework, I always have music or reruns on in the background. I want white noise.

When I write early in the morning, the only soundtrack I need is the sound of scribbling which, surprisingly, sounds like two cats purring and a little dog happily groaning as light starts to fill my office and they realize that they are sleeping in the sun.

Making Good Decisions

My problem is not finding enough couch-friendly inspiration to keep busy on a rainy quarantine Friday. The problem is picking one creative battle and ignoring the distractions of social media and mindless TV watching to stick with it.

The day was about, as we say at school, “making good decisions”, in this case just one thing decision.

I sat down at my desk. Good decision number one.

I checked out my index card box full of scenes to write then looked at the text of a children’s book I’ve been agonizing over for far too long and then almost got up to go through the sketch books on my shelf. I was deep into indecision land, which is never a good choice.

Jim-Bob, our orange tabby, came to the rescue, offering some of the Orange Tabby Therapy I usually rely on to get to sleep. As he always waits to do until I’m about to get up from something, he hopped up on the desk, walked to the space between my arms and laptop, turned around three times (a trick he learned from Katie the Wonderdog), and plopped down on my arms, leaving me just enough control to keep typing in the document I just opened.

Apparently, we’re working on the novel today, and OTT(Orange Tabbt Therapy) includes a little decision-making psychotherapy.

By-the-by, Jim also had a suggestion a new, work-at-home, pandemic edition of the Olympics, which, for no particular reason, should include a “Type with your Pet” event (I convinced him there should be a division for all pets even though he’s quite convinced no one would have interest in watching anything other than a cat).

OK, back to my stack of creative to-do’s.

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.

Ladies (and Gentlemen) of the Club

We lost an hour of sleep on Saturday night. I couldn’t fall asleep until after midnight on Sunday night, and I had to be up by 4:30 on Monday to drive to a teachers’ workshop in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

I was excited, but, for once, I wasn’t nervous.

When I worked in IT, I had a few professional development opportunities that sent me to fun locales, but the courses were usually more competitive than collaborative. There was always an unspoken challenge to prove you were the smartest person in the room (I am rarely smartest person in the room — Except when Jim Bob the orange tabby is here. Then I am the smartest person in the room).

Today was different. I’d done my homework. I had just finished a course at University of Wisconsin on today’s exact subject, and I knew it would be fun and useful.

I was bleary-eyed when the alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button once. Then I remembered what day it was and snapped right out of bed, hobbled in and out of the shower and donned my favorite scarf, a Maria Wulf creation that had been waiting for a perfect occasion on a perfect spring day. I was out the door and over the mountains before the sun was fully up.

When I got to the workshop/conference, the room was filled with a few dozen other Special Educators who hooking up their WiFi’s and getting acquainted. The news on the way up had told me I should be terrified to be in a crowd this size, but as we shared jokes about the rhymes we are all using this week to get our students to wash their hands better, I decided this day was worth any risk.

We talked about programs. We talked about helping kids with trauma and disability. We talked about our kids and our “kids,” and I suddenly got a feeling I’d never had at any professional conference before.

I sell art at art shows and craft fairs in the summer, but I always feel like an imposter, secretly certain that everyone can see how much better all the other artists are (I rarely worry much about writing since I need to do it badly enough that I don’t care if it’s bad or good). I was in IT in one role or another for over 20 years and, even when I knew I knew my job, I never felt like I really belonged.

Today was like being a ballplayer who had been moved up from the minor league to the “show.” Talking with people who care passionately about helping children and who were as nerdily excited as I was about the best techniques amplified the feeling.

It was a club, but, instead of competing with each other to be the smartest in the room, the members were sharing ideas about how we could help each other to our common goal.

I realized I felt like a real teacher today — like a professional. And, for the first time in any career, I felt like I belonged there.

And it’s a good club.

Rest for the Working

During the first week of my recovery I wrote constantly. When the second, unexpected week of incarceration began, I still wrote more than usual, but, after teaching for almost a year now, I discovered I suddenly missed being around people. Ten years of working at home once had me trained to prefer solitude, but last week I went searching for social interaction in the worst possible place — social media.

At first it was a quick check of the latest news from friends and family. Then it was looking for silly memes. And then it deteriorated into watching videos about all that’s wrong with the world and how to be afraid of it making me wonder if it’s just an accident that S&M and Social Media ended up with the same initials.

After a day or two, despite the exhaustion of living with the pain in my recovering foot, I began having trouble sleeping. Then I started getting antsy when I opened my laptop to write. I started kvetching over homework assignments from my online class and all the things that we should be fixing in the world.

Monday I got back to work — to my girls. There were the initial hugs and greetings, and then it was back to the usual, constant redirecting and behavior management that goes with working with students with emotional disturbances. For the first time in two weeks there was drama and tears, occasional profanity and impromptu after-school meetings. There was still homework online and more comforting of teenagers.

There was suddenly far less time to peruse the feed telling me what’s wrong with the world — or at least I stopped worrying about trying to control the things I can’t. There’s still a daily dose of S&M (or is it SM?), but, like backing off of percosets after surgery, I’ve stepped down. And, diving back into work, putting my effort into the things I can control, or at least influence, is suddenly enough good vibes to start putting me right to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

 

Blessed Boredom

I got as much homework as possible finished before the surgery, leaving a little to do on Sunday. Sleeping off the anesthetics and first round of pain killed time on Friday night, but Saturday was completely unscheduled. The unusually un-booked day unexpectedly gave me one answer to a question we’ve all asked ourselves every time the Super Lotto reaches fantasy levels:

“What would you do if you won the lottery and you didn’t have to do anything at all?“

Most of the worst pain from the surgery has receded. Ibuprofen and snuggling with Jim-Bob takes care of the rest. For the next few days, I am cursed–or blessed–with hours to fill.

Normally, I fill Saturdays with a rush of errands and housekeeping (what I call housekeeping) and, occasionally, a night out with the Big Guy and the kids. When the sun falls, witching hour begins, and I retreat to my office to write or paint, often feeling as though picking up the brush is more something I should be doing even on nights I desperately want to.

Saturday morning I got myself into the scooter wheelchair and retrieved sketchbooks and watercolors from my office. I grabbed a journal and iPad and made sure all my supplies were within reach on my nightstand before hoisting myself back into bed for the rest of the day.

This was the creative time I have been trying to carve out of the frenzied schedule that I’ve built. Somehow, however, even surrounded by supplies and time, I couldn’t think of anything to draw. Nothing on Netflix or Facebook or the Internet held any interest, and I knew I had hours of restlessness ahead of me.

The boys were still in bed. The Big Guy was making breakfast and getting ready to go to the dump, and I was alone with thoughts and daydreams and all the other flights of ideas that happen when you start to get bored.

I stared at a painting on the wall for a few minutes, trying to think of something to draw. Then, without thinking,I picked up my phone. Instead of opening another social media app or webpage, however, I automatically opened the Notes app. I hit the microphone and started to write. For the rest of the day, I migrated between my journal and iPhone, posting and writing poems and making an attempt at flash fiction.

By one in the morning, I was still writing and reading and writing, and I laughed, trying not to wake up the Big Guy. I spend so much of my hectic schedule trying to carve out creative time, knowing that the frenzy is partly a search for whatever it is I was born to do—that thing we are each driven to do. It’s also the excuse for not trying or, subsequently, failing.

It took winning the surgical lottery, being thoroughly bored to cut through the chaos to give into a more creative fervor and, now recognizing the continued process as its own reward, enjoy the blessed boredom.

Thanks Mom

I am spending my Saturday evening working on my first response for my first assignment for my first class in my masters degree program. As I was working through my outline, I suddenly realized a piece I had printed out two years ago and saved because it might be useful had suddenly become useful. I laughed, not because a well thought out plan had come to fruition but because I have finally become my mother. It’s a good thing.

My mom is a history nerd. She will happily stay up until two in the morning researching the most arcane facts about the former Soviet Union or the Gilded Age. When we were kids we used to giggle about her DIY library of notes xeroxed from various Library‘s and her wall of timelines (I would steal that timeline for my classroom now if I could). What sticks with me as an adult, however, is how Curiosity made her so creative. It made her a great teacher, and it’s still putting life into her life.

So as I was going through one of my binders of notes that once had me worried that I would be on an episode of “Hoarders – Teachers Edition”, I had to giggle a little. My curiosity tonight prompted a discovery and even a little creativity, and I realized I have my mom to thank for it.