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After They’ve Seen Paris

“Is it always this dead on Friday nights?” The college boy had home for ten minutes and the perfunctory welcomes and unpacking were done. He had been away for less than three full months, but the question highlighted how a few months can make an entire lifetime.

“I drove through the center of town, and there was no one out– at 9 o’ clock!”

“Well, it’s almost winter,” I said. The dairy bar has closed for the season, and the school sports teams have finished their fall championships. Absent a benefit supper at one of the churches, there is little to pull people away from their woodstoves at this time of year.

This should not be a new discovery for Thing1, but after a few months of being surrounded by midnight cookie delivery restaurants (yes, that’s a thing) and pick-your-favorite-food places, he has made no secret of the fact that his tiny hometown is, well, tiny.

The tininess is what drew us to the Arlington, VT area almost 20 years ago. We know most of our kids’ friends’ parents. We see their teachers at Little League and suppers. The  country store — the only store in our valley — proudly boasts, “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,” and, for the better part of the last 2 decades, the entire family has been on board with that philosophy.

But now Thing1 is discovering the other philosophies outside our mountains and valleys — as he should, and we’re discovering that, even though he’s home for the holiday, there’s a little, adventuring part of him that may not come home again for a long time.

In my head, I knew even three months ago that, once he’d “seen Paris”, he might not come back as the confirmed country boy we’d known all these years. But knowing something in my head and watching my first-born become the adventurer he’s supposed to be adds a bittersweet sting to the cutting of yet another apron string. It’s a realization that, even as he’s making his identity, I may be on the precipice of creating a new one for myself as well.

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Been Here, Done This

Apple Maps was pretty quick about changing our navigation, and we thought the digital deities surely knew about the Christmas light tractor parade that was about to start. but it was 20 minutes to start time, and we were thoroughly stuck. There was a truck parked behind us and another in front. Thing1, back from college just the night before, walked had a few hundred feet forward to confirm that, yes, we were stuck for the next hour at least.

It wasn’t the worst place in the world to be stuck. OK, five minutes into our wait I realized I’d had one too many Diet Cokes, but the car was warm, and we knew we had almost a front row seat for when the tractor parade did start passing by.

Still, my mind managed to take me to all the downsides of the night. Wasn’t this a colossal waste of energy and resources in the face of a climate crisis on a planet whose ecosystems are threatened every which way? Couldn’t they have put a sign at the end of the road to warn us it would be closed? Surely there were better ways to waste the weekend.

And then I realized, I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now. I think of an idea for a story and then find a way to shoot it down before it had a chance to germinate. I think of an idea for a painting and instantly follow up with thousand reasons why it’s a bad one.

I’m stuck. And even though I’ve never been on this particular street in upstate New York before, I have definitely been here before, watching the signs of depression setting in.

At this point in my life, I know I’ll get through it (that was not always so). The ideas will start finding their way on paper, and the barriers will drop. But as the twinkle-lit tractors started appearing, worry about the next few weeks or months started to eclipse any pressure from my bladder.

For the past 10 years, I’ve been working at home, and, when the depression has started, there has been some room to let a few things fail. I could go a day or two without washing hair and no one would know. I could binge eat at my desk while I typed, using my DIY psychotropics to navigate through the down swings.

This year, however, is a different. This year I’m working with students, and there is no downtime. Teachers have to be on every day. Teachers in our school also have to be aware that most of our students are dealing with their own mental health issues. They are recovering from trauma. They may be dealing with their very first episodes of depression or mania, and they can’t afford for their teachers to let anything fail.

For most of my first six months teaching at our school, my experience navigating bipolar disorder has been an advantage. I don’t talk about it with students (it is not appropriate), but it helps guide my dealings with them. I can sense when someone needs a little extra help. Certain warning signs are instantly recognizable as more than just textbook examples.

But this month will be different. This month I need to get better at helping myself so that I can keep helping them. And, just as I don’t during the good times, I can’t share it with them-either intentionally or by having an off day.

The one thing I realize I want to do is find ways to help them understand that while bipolar doesn’t get better as you get older, you do learn ways to manage it. Thinking about that lesson plan seemed to make the tractors go faster and, for the first time in weeks, I thought of something I really needed to write.

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Baby Steps

One of the unexpected gifts of InkTober has been the reminder that life is more about progress than perfection.

This is the opening layout for my book “The Truth About Trolls”. Normally I’d be looking at every out of place line that I don’t love, but after a month of mad drawing, I’m learning to look for the opportunities and the successes.

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What the Heart Needs

One of the ironies of my career change to teaching English and Special Ed is that, while I feel that an English teacher should be writing with every spare minute of time (and feel more confident about writing than any other skill), in the few minutes of each day that I devote to creativity, I end up drawing.

It is what the heart wants, even if the head is saying I should/need to write. Part of me wonders if one of the pitfalls (or blessings depending on how you look at it) of a career that demands so much emotion and thought and writing is that, at the end of the day, there is only room for the emotional release that is drawing or painting.

I recently came across a letter from Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo. He had just received oil paints from his brother, and, during the year of waiting for the paint, had devoted himself to drawing. In the letter he mentioned how grateful he was for the time to draw, it helped him see the beauty in the paint so much better.

For my part, this last month of drawing has helped me see the beauty in my students and my life even better. It is not writing, but it is still a conversation with life.

I don’t know if the next season of creativity will feature brushes or strokes on the keyboard, but I do know that the main goal is to keep the conversation going, one way or another.

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Student for Life

Inktober officially ended last week, but I’m still wrapping up the last few drawings. I’m also trying to get grades in and work on IEP‘s for students as courses for my masters get ready to start. Every once in a while I feel exhausted,but most of the time this new life of feels like the ultimate renewable resource.

I’ve been thinking about that since a few days ago when a friend wrote on his blog he thought of me as The Student (I’d been in his writing classes for many years). It was a wonderful post, but I also laughed a little because I used to cringe a little when I thought of myself becoming an “eternal“ student. I know it’s the label people assign to someone who just can’t find a major or is constantly going into a new class. It’s meant to make someone sound aimless, but, the other day, I liked that all-meant label.

I spent most of the last decade in a job that I liked but it was not fulfilling. It was challenging but not stimulating. Now, as a special education teacher, I feel like every synapse is firing every waking minute of the day. There are immediate classroom concerns to consider. There are lessons to be planned. There’s new material to read to be ready for the lessons. There’s new material to read to become a better teacher. There’s new research to be done to find a better tool. In other words, it is to be a student for life – to have every synapse firing every blessed moment of the day.

That doesn’t make me feel aimless or embarrassed. It makes my head tingle.

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