Posted in Life, Poetry

Pandemic Painting & A Better Year Ahead

This weekend I sat down and re-read my journal entries from March through July of 2020. I wanted to re-experience those first few months of the pandemic, to see it again from a little distance. (I stopped at August because I wasn’t ready to revisit the school year again.) It was so surreal reading my thoughts in those initial days of confusion and fear. I wrote every day at first and then about every other day for many weeks. Seeing those entries again made me shiver. Here are a few excerpts that gave me pause:

* March 30, 2020:

This morning I got up before 7AM, showered, and went to HEB. It wasn’t bad. I got there about 15 minutes before they opened and lined up outside (6 feet apart, per the orange lines) with a couple dozen other people. Inside, there were reminders to stay a safe distance from others and lots of signs limiting numbers of items (4 cereals, 4 cans of chili, etc) and parts of the store were blocked off to keep people moving in an orderly direction… We have enough food to last us another couple of weeks. Now it’s just stay-at-home-stay-safe. It looks like we’ll be in this mode until the end of April.

* April 2, 2020:

Headlines this morning include:
“US braces for ‘horrific’ weeks as deaths top 5,100”
“Cruises with sick, dead passengers awaiting approval to dock”
“Coronaviras pandemic alters life as we know it”

* May 10, 2020:

I want to remember this… When the world goes back to normal, I want to remember these long ambling walks through my neighborhood, how hours went by without me checking my watch or making a list in my head of all I needed to do when I got back home. I want to remember how my feet felt on the pavement, how I knew every sidewalk scratch and screech owl by heart and watched the chalk art evolve from fresh and bright to faded and rain-streaked. When I’m late to work, stopped at the light at Slaughter Lane, when I’m collapsing on the couch after school, when I’m standing in line at HEB looking at Facebook on my phone, I want to remember the sound my ball made as I bounced it lazily while listening to my audio book and strolling the same streets at 5AM, noon, 8PM, midnight– how it felt when the ball landed perfectly in my palm with a *smack*.

Reading these journals makes me want to reach back in time to that version of myself and give her a hug. But then I’d be tempted to give her the truth, too, about what else was coming and how long this was really going to last, and that just seems mean.

But good things came out of those months, as well. For instance, I found some new creative outlets.

In June of 2020, I randomly started painting. I already had some old acrylic paints and brushes. I ordered a few more and some small canvases online and made myself an “easel” by propping flattened cardboard boxes on the windowsill in my office. I grabbed a button-down tunic shirt that I’d never worn but couldn’t make myself give way and made that my painting frock. Then I tossed a pillow on the floor to sit on, got a paper plate for my palette, filled a Rudy’s Bar-B-Q plastic cup with water, turned on some music, and started painting.

On July 18, 2020, I wrote in my journal:

I’ve been painting. I’m not great. I’ve had no training except for a few “Painting with a Twist” sessions and watching my dad draw, but I find that I can make things look mostly how I want them to look, and I’m learning as I go along—how to mix paints for subtler shades and how to turn the brush on its edge for a finer stroke or use a thick bristly brush when I want more texture. Mostly though, I just like putting paint on a canvas. It’s so relaxing. Sometimes I sit for hours and paint, until my back aches and my legs are tingly from falling asleep.

I’m still at it, and I think my paintings are improving, but honestly, I don’t care that much. I just paint for fun. It’s something to play with, and the freedom of it is what makes it so enjoyable.

My dad’s cat, Spunkie. I almost forgot to paint her whiskers!

I also enjoy playing with words—collage art, found poetry, book title poems—and the pandemic offered more time for that, too. This pastime is even messier than painting and often encompasses much of the house. If I’m making collages, there are little bits of paper everywhere and no fans or pets allowed in the area. To make book title poems, I end up taking dozens of books off my shelves, stacking them and restacking them in precarious piles and rearranging them over and over again until I’m satisfied with the result.

Book title poems in progress

I love making book title poems and have shared several of them here over the years, but this summer I decided to create something more tangible with them. I chose twelve of my favorites and made 2022 calendars.

Most people agree that 2020 was, in general, a terrible year, and there are many who say 2021 isn’t much better. But I have high hopes for 2022 (don’t you?), so I’m getting ready early.

I made three sizes of calendars: an 8×4 desk calendar, an 8.5×11 wall calendar, and a 12×12 wall calendar, but they all include the same poems. I’m selling them on my Esty store, so if you know a book-lover or a poet who would enjoy having a unique calendar next year, consider getting your shopping done early and buy them one of these! If you order by July 31, you can get 10% off by using the coupon code: NEWYEARINJULY

For me, summer is a season of creativity because I’m off work and can indulge in my hobbies. This summer, I’m grateful to be vaccinated and feel comfortable enough to venture out into the world again. There isn’t any part of me that wants to be that confused, stressed woman of last summer who was stuck at home feeling trapped and scared, but I’m thankful that she used her shelter-at-home time to try some new things and make some art.

Posted in Life, Writing

Finding the Plot

As a writer whose work is regularly interrupted by piddly things like my job, I leave a lot of books and stories unfinished, sometimes for months or even years at a time. When I come back to a piece to start working on it again, it’s often hard to remember where I left off. But it’s not just the cobwebs that have grown over the words that obscure my vision. Sometimes even brushing away the dust and rereading the beginning aren’t enough to remind me where I was headed. I’ve simply lost the plot. Other times, I do remember where I was going, but the destination no longer makes sense.

When this happens, I have to sit back and ask myself, “Well, where do I want to go from here?”

The question is both freeing and terrifying. Is it really up to me? I can decide?  Well, of course! It was up to me all along. I’m the writer. The story is mine to tell. But that doesn’t change the fact that deviating from a set path—even if I’m the one who mapped it in the first place—feels wrong.

Living in the spring of 2021 feels a little like coming back to an unfinished story long after putting it in a drawer. After more than a year of staying home and distancing from others, of not traveling and not eating in restaurants, my loved ones and I are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and ready to resume a somewhat normal life. But that’s proving to be harder than I anticipated.

I think of the things we used to do: tasting each other’s drinks at happy hour, blowing the candles out on birthday cakes, letting 130 teenagers flow in and out of my classroom every day without once sanitizing hands or wiping off desks. Can I really go back to doing these things? Do I want to? I’m having trouble finding the plot, and when I do, I’m not sure I want to keep going in the direction I was headed before.

The coronavirus has already been a horror story and a love story, a story of sacrifice and of survival. The tale is not over yet, and I worry there may yet be unexpected twists on the way. As we venture back into our lives—safely, carefully—let us rewrite the future and create a new, happier ending.

There is merit in the willingness to revise.

Posted in Life

“Sometimes” / A Holiday Memory

This year, like most people, I did the bulk of my holiday shopping online (and am still waiting for a few gifts to arrive from wherever they are currently lost under a pile of packages at the post office). But usually, I prefer to do my shopping in person. I like wandering the aisles with a list but also allowing for things to jump off the shelves and grab my attention—that perfect something for someone that I never would have thought of if I hadn’t seen it. One year (I think it was around 2007) I set a goal for my holiday shopping: only buy local. I had such fun running around the city, shopping at Kerbey Lane and BookPeople and Waterloo Records and the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar.

One Saturday just before Christmas, I had a few things left on my list, and I set out to get them. I was on a timeline (I can’t remember why—it’s hard to remember the days when I had places to go and people to see) and doing my errands fast. I zipped into Uppercrust Bakery for some unique holiday treats and scurried into Trudy’s for a gift card. I was making good time.

My last stop was Spiderhouse, one of my favorite coffee shops in Austin. All I needed there was a t-shirt. I had a tradition of buying my cousin t-shirts from cool Austin places, and this year I’d decided he’d get one from Spiderhouse. This sprawling indoor-outdoor, old-house-turned-into-an-all-night-coffee-shop was often hopping. No empty spots in the parking lot, long line at the counter. But on this day, I lucked out. I got a premier parking spot and stepped inside to see only one customer ahead of me. What luck! I would make it to my (whatever I was going to) on time.

The barista behind the counter was a twenty-something guy in a poncho with long blond dreadlocks, a friendly smile, and big stoned eyes. (That’s cool. You be you. I don’t judge.) He finished the transaction with the girl ordering coffee, then turned his large pupils on me. “Hey,” he said.

“Hey!” I said. “Do you sell t-shirts?”

Barista Dude stared deep into my eyes and said, “Sometimes.”

I nodded.

He nodded.

I realized this errand was not going to be as quick as I had hoped.

“Cool, cool,” I said slowly, placing my palms on the counter. “Do you have any t-shirts right now?”

Barista Dude crinkled his brow in thought, then said, “Yeah, I think we have some in the basement.”

He smiled.

I smiled.

He nodded.

I nodded.

“Awesome,” I said, choosing my next words carefully. “Do you think I might be able to see one?” I raised my eyebrows and shrugged at him as if we were co-conspirators in some great game.

“Yeah!” Barista Dude said. And then realizing that the ball was still in his court, he pointed a thumb over his shoulder and said, “I’ll go get one.”

I nodded encouragingly, and as he trotted off, I yelled, “Extra large if you have it!”

Barista Dude emerged a couple of minutes later with a single t-shirt, size extra large, and it was perfect. Black with a motorcycle on it and the Spiderhouse logo. I sighed in relief and said, “I’ll take it.”

It ended up being more than I’d wanted to pay for a t-shirt, but I didn’t argue. I honestly didn’t have time for that conversation, but also, I knew at this point that I wasn’t just buying a t-shirt anymore; I was buying a story. I paid for my prize and hurried off to (wherever I was going).

When I gave my cousin his t-shirt at Christmas, I told him about my experience buying it. Everyone laughed, and some of my Dallas relatives said, “That’s so Austin,” which I guess it is. It’s become a running joke between my hubby and I to answer a direct question with, “Sometimes…”

This year, I ordered all my gifts, and I’m glad I did. But I don’t want online shopping to become a habit. I look forward to going back out into the world, interacting with people, discovering unexpected surprises, and getting the bonus of a good story along with my gifts.

***

Happy Holidays!
May your packages arrive on time or with a good story to tell.