Working weekends torpedoes your social life, and, when you work at home with most of your work friends in different cities or states your social opportunities are limited to begin with. I compound those factors with a relatively introverted personality — I had almost perfected the shut-in lifestyle before I decided to go back to school to keep my brain from atrophying. So when plans go awry, as they did this weekend, you really feel it. Feelings get spackled over and patched up, but I find what really puts a new coat of paint on the weekend is getting a glimpse of the people and things that make life – shut-in or out-and-aloud — worthwhile.
Thing2, a study in social-butterflying, had his Saturday calendar filled before I knew that someone’s kid had been dropped off. He and his bestie headed out to re-enact their favorite Star Wars battles in the muddy, snow speckled yard. It’s a warmer day – in the fifties, and the boys disappeared into the woods for awhile, reappearing to prove that they were still breathing but dirty, only when I rang the school bell that hangs outside our front door. Katy-the-Wonder-Dog waited for them to tire out and, when they took a break, sitting down on the stoop on the deck, she went over to them to add a few kisses to her social calendar.
I stopped working long enough to appreciate how sometimes just watching that part of the world go by is as satisfying as any day out.
The big five-OMG is just around the corner. Friends and family began asking how I wanted to mark the beginning of the next half century almost a year before it was due, so I felt some obligation to not try to ignore this one birthday.
Just before Thanksgiving, I remembered Thing1’s birthday climb a year earlier to the top of Mount Equinox in Manchester, VT and decided that would be a fun activity (I swear I was completely sober). We thought about doing it as a fund-raiser for a charity that helps children with Ulcerative Colitis. As I investigated, though, I realized a mountain climb in April in Vermont could still involve snowshoes in some parts and would certainly exclude family members who can’t climb on a completely dry day. Finally, wanting to make health and family part of ‘my day’, I settled on running a fundraising 5K with Thing1 and Thing2 and extended family.
There was only one problem with the plan.
It means running a 5K.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, but, even though I’m roughly the shape of a cream-filled donut (and, at the time of this writing may contain almost as much chocolate), I will not be rolling across the finish line in a wheelbarrow.
Which means running that 5K.
Enter Thing1 with his concerned but not reproachful fitness training approach.
Thing1, you may recall, had his entire colon removed at the end of October and then had everything reconfigured in December. You could say it involved a couple of big operations — so big they kept us in the hospital until our bill for 2018 finished its own 500k. He should, by all rights, be still recovering.
Somehow, however, Thing1 is in better shape than the rest of his family, a fact that made him the de-facto personal trainer for Team Barlow. He takes his duties seriously, mapping out a hiking route each day (lots of hills and huffing and puffing), telling us that by the end of March it will be a running route (lots of dubious looks from his team).
The first day, I had to stop in the middle of the first hill. I had to stop in the middle of the second hill. When I stopped in the middle of the third hill, Thing2 stopped with me.
Thing1 was always just a bit ahead, often at the top swell of the hill, waiting for us. He would make a lousy drill sergeant (he’s too nice), but, as he called, “You can do it,” to me/us for the umpteenth time, I thought for umpteenth time what a great superhero he is (his super power is inspiration).
The next day I didn’t have to stop until the third hill. Thing1 was running ahead and then running back to ‘keep it challenging” (yeah,he said it going up a hill). Thing2 was running ahead and then walking slowly to give me time to catch up.
By the third day, I had started running bits and pieces of the route (I still have to stop for a second on the last hill). Today, we’ll walk/run for the fourth time.
I know the race route will be on one of the flatter roads in Vermont, flat being a relative term here, but we are keeping this route until ‘my day’ at the end of April. We may not be running the entire route by then, but my team will be finishing it together.
It’s a good way to kick off the next half-century.
I had already decided to make 2019 the year of finished projects, but I was a little unsure of where to start and how best to prioritize them.
Last night I stumbled onto a new Netflix show, Tidying Up, and, having seen reviews of the host’s books on Amazon, decided to give it a whirl. I knew that the host, Marie Kondo, made her fortune helping people de-clutter. Some of the reviews had panned her strategies as being doctrinaire and extreme, So I hit play with healthy amount of skepticism.
Ten minutes into the show I was hooked. I recognized the people she was helping—parents of children a little younger than ours. they too had started the show as skeptics, but as they begin to think their relationship with their possessions, they begin to see the beauty and the advertised joy of illuminating what doesn’t make your life better.
I listen to the show last night as I struggled to settle on an illustration style for a book I’ve been working on for too long. I played with colored pencils. I played on the iPad drawing tool. And finally I got out what worked for me at the very beginning: a number two pencil and a $10 pan of water colors. It took me an hour to redo the first drawing, and it was the first time I’d been happy with the results for this book. I’m onto the next pages, issuing methods that I “should“ be using in favor of the one that works when I’m illustrating.
Focusing on the method that brings joy worked so well, I may actually have to try it on the house. My days of being able to write about being the world‘s worst housekeeper may be coming to an end.
The first wave of firewood arrived shortly before the heatwave. Conquering Mt. Cordwood is a family affair, and it has to happen quickly, as more is on the way.
It takes a little over 4 cords of wood to heat our earth-sheltered house. We don’t use any other heating source. Some years we cut more than others, but the Big Guy and I mind paying to have it delivered far less than we minded paying for oil in our old house. We know the woodcutters, and it’s nice to have the bulk of the money coming into the community.
Denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It’s a pitcher of Kool-Aid, and as the heatwave wore on into its fifth day on Thursday, Thing1 and I were sporting faint purple mustaches, reality about to crash through the walls — again.
Heat advisories all week had included warnings for people with chronic illness. The advisories didn’t specify what care the chronically ill should take beyond staying out of the heat. Thing1 and I, however, still mentally had him in the ‘warning doesn’t apply here’ category, and, when Thing2 suggested going to the driving range, I got my keys.
It was 92 degrees by the time we put our money in the honor box in the barn that doubled as a pro shop and plant nursery. Thing2 and I were happy to make contact with the ball. For Thing1, every shot matters. He’ll hit one 200 yard ball for every three his eleven-year-old brother knocks into the ruff. Thursday Thing2 swung his way through half the basket before Thing1 had teed off four times.
“I need to sit down in the shade.” Thing1 grabbed his water and headed down the small hill to the car. He sat on the shady side, hand resting on the open door, sipping and breathing slowly.
“Do you want to go?” I asked, ready to put my foot down and force an exit. Thing1’s illness, however, has kept him indoors most of the summer. I wanted him to enjoy a normal day out.
He shook his head ‘no’, waited a few more minutes, and trudged back up the hill for a few more shots. We quickly realized practice was over for him, and he went back to the car for a minute while Thing2 hit the rest of the bucket. We headed home thinking Thing1 only needed a dip in the Green River and some rest to be better for work the next day.
Friday morning, Thing1 woke up with a fever and a phone call from the hospital telling us that his latest blood test showed his anemia — a side effect of the ongoing six month flare up — was worse. Neither of us was surprised. His lips had no color. His energy level, briefly improved in June, was almost non-existent again. He didn’t work Friday and stayed in bed all Saturday, determined to go to work today.
This morning he woke early and got breakfast. He headed out for his shift, and I took another mental sip of Kool Aid hoping he was over the worst.
<<I’m coming home.>> It was three hours into his four hour shift when the text came. <<If I stay any longer I won’t be able to drive.>>
We texted back and forth, arguing if should be driven. He was already on the way home by the time he managed to text enough teen tone to convince me of his alertness. He spent the rest of the day on the couch, hydrating to control a new fever, once wondering aloud if his body will ever let him out of limbo. Thing2 waited on him, bringing him water while I worked.
When work was done, the Big Guy and I sat on the deck as he grilled burgers for dinner. We talked about the fragility of Thing1’s plans for school in the fall and beyond. The wall of reality was crashing in.
Thing1 used his last bit of energy for the day moving from the couch to the table. He looked at the burgers.
“I’m not really hungry,” he said. “It smells great. I know I need it, I just don’t have have any desire for it.”
Thing2 had spent the day monitoring his brother in an unnatural state of quiet and was bubbling with energy as the Big Guy served the burgers. He waltzed to his seat, a speaker-connected iPad in his hands and a devilish grin on his face. He tapped the screen and a loud fart emanated from the speaker. He tapped again and a Beavis and Butthead laugh echoed into the surrounding forest.
Tap, fart. Tap, goat laugh. Tap bark causing the pets to look in our direction andThing1 to smile and then quietly chuckle.
“All that science and technology for a fart joke,” Thing1 murmured. Then he grinned at me and the Big Guy and reached for a burger. Thing2, never one to let an audience down, serenaded his older brother with more creative fart sounds as he ate until, as happens with all great jokes, the farts grew stale. But the farts and the technology had served a higher purpose.
It’s still early evening. Thing1 is already in bed as I write this. We have a visit to the hospital this week, and I’m pretty sure both of us are no longer drinking the Kool Aid. Thing1 is in the ‘really chronically ill, better heed the warnings category. He’s in the ‘no idea what his plans are past tomorrow category’. We’re off the sugar high of denial, but just because the walls fell in, doesn’t mean we’ve fallen down.
One of my favorite books growing up was Alice Walker’s Possessing the Secret of Joy which traces the voluntary circumcision of Tashi, an African woman trying to mediate her gender and and cultural identity. Through her physical and emotional recovery in the aftermath of the mutilation, she discovers and reveals to the reader that “resistance is the secret of joy.” I’ve never wanted or been able to forget the story and the beauty of Walker’s writing, but that missive burned itself into my subconscious. It resurfaces in chaotic times, it is guidance.
Since Thing1’s illness intensified this year, my resistance has been finding the right drug, the right strategy to get him well enough to start his adult life. As squeaky gassy sounds from the iPad surround us at the dinner table, however, it becomes clear that resistance is not about finding the solution to every problem. It’s about recognizing that some problems won’t be solved, but life will go on, and, if you’re willing to seize it, joy — however dinner table inappropriate — happens anyway.