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Author: Rachel Barlow

This is Not a Cat Blog

This is not a cat or pet blog, but if it were, I’d write that I’ve always thought of dogs as the guardians of their humans and cats as our benevolent dictators. I’m not sure what I’m seeing in Jim-Bob this weekend, but I am seeing a lot of him.

When I wake up, Jim is curled up in the scooter chair right next to my bed. As I fall asleep, Jim is settling himself into the crook in my arm. When I get up for a bathroom run or to roll down the hall for a change of scene, he is behind me and then in front of me and then right next to me all the time.

I’m no cat psychologist, but he seems to be trying to reassure the both of us that everything is all right. Either that or, like any reasonable monarch, he’s making sure the peasants stay strong enough to keep his dish filled and his head scratched.

Tell Me a Story

Word Art

I’m a geek for historical literature.

I don’t always love the language — some 19th century authors seem to go out of their way to use 25 words where 2 might suffice — but I love seeing day-to-day lifestyles through the eyes of people who lived them. I’ll happily wade through six hundred pages of Vanity Fair because it’s a window into what the author actually thought about the early 1800s in 1847. Ditto for Tolstoy and Chekov.

The stories that give me the best time-travel value, though, are the ones written by women. So few history books describe the lives of women (not too many led armies or signed treaties), and, until recently, few women authored history books. Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott, however, gave us windows into their daily lives. How did they manage a household? What rules of the day did they follow in spirit or to the letter? What did they actually think about the business of marriage?

What did they think?

It’s a question that popped up for me earlier this month as I was gathering readings for Black History Month. A number of retailers were already sending marketing emails with book suggestions, but they were often books by white writers telling the history of African Americans, books that had been ‘redecorated’ for Black History Month, or, the perennial classroom favorite, To Kill a Mockingbird.

I love Harper Lee, and she will have a place in class sometime this year, but the initial idea offerings seemed uninspiring.

The first week was drawing closer, and I stumbled on an anthology of Langston Hughes’s writings. His poem, “Let America be America Again” has been enjoying renewed popularity on the internet in the last few months. I thumbed through the volume, marveling at the breadth of work he had generated in a relatively short life, thinking how he had set a great example of how varied a writing career could be.

And then it hit me (you can say it, that took a while).

I’d been looking for a way for my predominately white students to learn what African Americans thought and think about the American experience.  I, obviously, can’t speak about that experience as anything other a sympthetic observer. The kids are also quick to point out that English class is for English not History, but behind the grammar and the literary devices, English class is about learning to understand stories. 

It’s about understanding who’s telling the stories and why.

And for me, teaching literature is also about showing the kids where to find the windows into other people’s ideas and lives — and, then, why they should.

To do that this month (and beyond), I decided to lean on the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a great excuse to introduce favorite writers and poets  and artists from that era, connecting the kids to them through poets and rappers from this era. And, in the end, deciding to shut up and let the authors and artists who lived and still live Black History do as much of the storytelling as possible may have been the easiest and best way to get the kids to hear it.

Here’s to the Nice Guys

One of the best gifts any parent can get is a sign that they’re raising a nice guy or gal. The boots drying by the woodstove yesterday morning were my signs.

Thing1 came home from college for the day Friday to schlep his brother home from school and to help out around the house while the Big Guy and I were at the hospital. He had the wood bin loaded by the time we got back and, with the Big Guy, helped get me up the front stoop into the wheelchair.

He’ll go back to his glamorous life of studying (yeah, studying, all weekend 🤪) later this afternoon, and I’ll keep the picture of his boots drying by the woodstove as a reminder what a nice guy he’s become.

Premeditated Kindness

About 15 years ago, the Big Guy had an infection at the base of his very long windpipe that nearly cost him his life. For a week, the ICU doctors and nurses worked to find a drug that was strong enough to help him without killing him at the dosages he needed. Anyone who has come close to losing a loved knows that those moments of worry are when you take stock of how important a person is. What I didn’t understand at the time, is how those moments can implant the fear of loss like a scar on your psyche.

Before the Big Guy, I was very closed off. I had had miserable experiences with men, driven by bipolar-shaped misperceptions and memories of sexual assault with which I had not yet come to terms. But, as anyone who knows my husband, a six-foot-six premeditated act of kindness (my 6 PAK — go ahead, groan), it is impossible to stay closed off for very long after you get to know him.

The problem with opening up, of course, is that you make yourself vulnerable. With most people, being vulnerable means being open to the possibility that they will hurt you. With the Big Guy, however, the most likely danger is that a foot gets stepped on or that you are in firing range of a post-diner breakfast burp. I don’t mean that we never have serious differences or that he’s perfect, but in the 25 years that I have known him, I have never known him to say something intentionally hurtful to anyone. I wish I could say that about myself.

When he got that sick, however, I realized there was one way he could really hurt me, and that was to leave. And, unintentionally, I started doing what I had always done best. I started closing parts of myself off.

In the name of making sure I could support Thing1 (then the only little Thing in our lives) on my own, I ditched an attempt at a creative career (I was doing wedding photography for a while) and went back to more conventional, technical work that offered stable benefits. I began looking at all the things in our life at home that I needed to learn how to do for myself. I began making sure I didn’t need to lean on the Big Guy.

The problem with working so hard not to lean on someone logistically is that you also begin to stop leaning on them emotionally, and, in a marriage, you’re supposed to lean on each other. When you stop letting yourself be vulnerable, it becomes harder to accept and easier be annoyed by the other person’s vulnerabilities. I have been keenly aware of those moments over the years, and, even though I have felt guilty, fear of losing him has often kept me completely opening up again.

Yesterday on that most romantic of holidays, I had to lean on the Big Guy in a big way.

I had foot surgery yesterday morning. The Big Guy did what he always does. I woke up to bedside-table sized flowers and candy to come home to. He had prepped the car so I could drive one last time for the next week. He made sure crutches were in the car for the walk back into the house later. He was one gigantic Premeditated Act of Kindness.

I try to make sure that I am giving the Big Guy what he needs logistically and emotionally. I try to make sure he has a safety net with me. As I watched him yesterday, however, trying to keep my focus on the details of the pre-surgery to do list, I felt my heart really beginning to lean again. As the sedatives kicked in, I became very conscious that I need to fully open up again in a premeditated way because there’s nothing random about real love.

The first sparks may be serendipity, but the long, slow burn of true love is fueled by a lifetime of premeditated kindness and caretaking. And he deserves that.

Orange Tabby Therapy.

We got back from the hospital in the early afternoon. All three of my boys helped me into the house where a borrowed motorized scooter was waiting. I scootered straight to bed where valentines flowers and chocolate were waiting and, after a quick bite, passed out for the rest of the evening.

Jim-Bob, our orange tabby, was initially quite displeased by the new arrangement. He did not like presence of the wheelchair or the extra glasses and pill bottles on the bedside table where he likes to climb before he hops onto the bed and curls up in my arms. He woke me up a few times in the early evening with the sounds of a glass or a book being shoved unceremoniously off the table onto the floor. He still wouldn’t come onto the bed — my cast appear to spook him.

About midnight I woke up as the first round of painkillers wore off to note that he had overcome his dislike of the wheelchair where he was now sleeping and, apparently, watching over me. I moved him as gently as possible onto the bed so I could use said wheelchair to get to the bathroom and back. As soon as I was in bed again, he hopped back onto the wheelchair. This time, after an ibuprofen, I gently pulled him back onto the bed for a little snuggle that turned into an official Jim-Bob curl-up and sleep-over, and, as his purring reverberated into my arm, the pain seemed to disappear.

It could have been the miracle of modern medicine, but at least some of my money is on the pain killing effects of orange tabby therapy.

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