Greater Lakes


A Greater Lake, Oil, 9” x 12”

In the almost 50 years and I’ve been going to this spot on Lake Michigan, there is always been some beach. The lake has been changing for the last decade, however. It has been getting bigger — greater — swallowing up break fronts and beaches. It changes the way people enjoy the lake, it makes me appreciate, even more, how powerful mother nature can be.

Prints and originals (when still available), can be purchased on Etsy here.

Give and Take

Prints can be purchased on Etsy here.

I started this post almost a month ago on the first day of the first real vacation I’d had in over a year and a half. It was a gift of time from my new employer — a recognition of the weighty work to come as a middle-aged, career-changing English and Special Ed teacher at a residential school for kids with complex trauma and other disabilities.

My own teen years were marked by a smattering of unsuccessful suicide attempts resulting from undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  I was 15 or 16 before, thanks to a poorly-planned school assembly, I realized that everyone else in the world does not think about suicide at least once a day.

An official diagnosis of manic depression came several years later after my aunt, also a special educator, suggested the possibility. It took even longer to learn how to channel depression and mania into writing and, later, painting. Embracing creativity with the encouragement of mentors and friends, however late, pushed me to pay it forward.

Now, self-medicating with creativity is second-nature, so it was a happy accident that, as a graduation present, the kids and the Big Guy gifted me with an electric blue journal emblazoned in gold with the words, “I’m a teacher, what’s your superpower?” As the big day approached, I thought I would turn to it and to my blog every evening after school, but there were turning points ahead.

The first official day of teaching started uneventfully with reviews of classroom expectations and the summer school agenda. That night, a sense of fulfillment kept me planning lessons until almost midnight, and the blue journal stayed closed on the nightstand.

As the weeks progressed, the real challenges fully emerged. For our students, trauma is a concrete wall between them and their educations. One student may spend classes with her head on her desk. Another may not join the class at all, while others may act out with language that, in ‘regular’ school, would and has gotten them suspended indefinitely. The goal at our school is to get kids around that wall by keeping the classroom door open and engaging them in any way that their psyches can tolerate at that moment.

The last 4 weeks have been a roller-coaster adventure in real-time differentiating for the special needs of those students. In one period it’s meant doing a class read-aloud instead of assigning a book. In another class, it’s meant finding reading material to which withdrawn students can relate emotionally. In every class, the goal is to get heads off desks and kids back into class long enough to start having small successes.

And, at night, the adventure has meant creating a better graphic organizer for one set of students or making worksheets for a new book that has helped get a long-absent kid back into the classroom. It’s meant staying up late working on material for bulletin boards that shout, “You Matter” at the students in one way or another.

And it’s meant that the blue journal has stayed closed.

Last night, the Big Guy, Thing2 and I went to see Yesterday, a movie about an almost-washed up musician named Jack. Jack wakes up after an accident caused by a world-wide power blip that has erased the memory of the Beatles from everyone but his and two other non-musician’s minds. Jack begins recording Beatles songs and, of course, becomes an overnight success. I won’t reveal the ending except to say that there is a lovely ‘What if all you need really is love?” moment that challenges our ideas about success and had me and the Big Guy bawling.

There was also a moment that almost had me yelling, “Bullshit!” at the screen.

Near the end of the movie, the main character has a crisis of conscience (he’s passing off others’ art as his own, after all) and flashes back to a moment of doubt when he considered giving up music and going back to teaching full-time. In the flashback, Ellie, his best friend, manager and only fan, assures him he does have the talent to succeed at music. She also warns him, “If you go back to teaching, all your creative energy will go into that, and you won’t have time to make the music (art) you’re meant to make.”

Well, bullshit to that.

I thought, as an English and Special Education teacher, that I would be writing non-stop after each night. It didn’t happen.

One night, after a day marked by a student screaming obscenities and flinging herself around  the hall as she tried to process a recently disclosed trauma, however, I sat on the couch, desperately wanting  to write about the tragedy of this kid’s situation (while guarding her privacy). But I kept stopping. I could feel the emotion, but I couldn’t process it intellectually at that hour. So instead, I pulled out my sketch pad.

I started sketching Thing2 as he watched TV. I sketched an impromptu still life of a soda can and crumbs. A few nights later, I painted a favorite stand of trees. And, at the end of each art session, I’d feel as if I’d spent an hour with my favorite shrink.

The result has been painting at night and in the field on the weekend. It’s been selling art and spontaneous painting lessons with curious onlookers. It’s been opening up to the world and to my art again. And it’s been realizing that, just as “the love you take is equal to the love you make” all the creativity you use in the classroom or at work actually generates more creativity. You just have to find the right outlet. For you.

And then you have to pass it on.

I think John, Paul, George, and Ringo would agree.

Wintry Road

Wintry Road, 8”x10”,oil on canvas, $125

Prints and originals (when still available), can be purchased on Etsy here.

New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken, so the only ones I make tend to be diet related (something I excel at breaking). The end of 2018, however, marks what we hope is a new beginning for Thing1 as he charts his course for recovery, and I’m trying to use the lessons of the last year to make it a new beginning for me as well.

Yesterday marked a blissfully boring beginning of the year for me as well. It was my day off. My one obligation was to get to the grocery store and then do some illustrating.

We got a halfway decent snowfall yesterday. It warmed up in the afternoon, causing most of the trees to lose that confectionery look, but it was still a lovely day for errands. The clouds were churning, and as I passed the church yard in Shaftsbury, Vermont, they raced far enough east to let a little sun shine through over the Green Mountains and the valley.

I’m always mindful of the weather and the living landscape. It inspires me and informs my art, but yesterday, before inspiration took over, I felt something else. I felt grateful, not just to live where we do, but for that one moment of sun on snow. As I got to the supermarket parking lot in Bennington, I realized a good practice for the new year might be to start living every day looking for those moments of gratitude.

Last week my parents visited so we could celebrate a late Christmas. We took a day to visit the Clark institute in Williamstown, Mass which is featuring an exhibit of works by William Constable and Joseph Mallord William Turner. I’m a huge fan of both painters, even though the two rivals produced very different interpretations of the landscape at the same time in history. Turner is passion, informed by travel and poverty, shaped at least a little by mental illness. Constable is observation and studied precision.

I once felt that Constable’s precision reflected an intellectual detachment from the landscape, that his work lacked passion. Seeing his paintings up close again and reading more about his life and work, however, I realized that what I was seeing was a love for the landscapes that had given him joy. I realized I was seeing the work of someone who was grateful for every part of his life.

It can be hard to be grateful when all hell is breaking loose around you. But when you think your child might die, when you see someone you love in pain, when work is stressful, or when you’re doing something as ordinary as getting a car unstuck from a snow bank, focusing on the things you appreciate in your life can also be therapeutic. I know I am more determined to see those things during the crises.

But, one of the lessons of 2018 that I’m trying to take into the new year is to not save gratitude for the hard moments. As I was sitting in the car, thinking about the burst of sun that had washed over a landscape that I have learned to love, I wondered if choosing to live gratefully every single day, even if it just means recognizing the smallest of moments once a day, might yield more lessons in 2019.