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

“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.

Posted in Life

The Gift of Spring

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My first iris of 2020

The older I get, the more I hate summer.

That probably surprises you, since I’m a teacher. I do love the freedom and relaxation of summer, and I definitely look forward to the break from work. But the temperature? I am completely over Texas summer heat.

In Austin, the high temps start averaging in the 90s in June. The rain tapers off and the highs steadily climb until, by mid-July, we’re regularly hitting 100 degrees. We average about 20-30 triple digit days a year, unless we have a bad year like 2011 when we hit 100 a total of 90 times. That is not a typo. We had 90 days of sweltering heat, and many of those were well over 100. That was the year we got our puppy, Uno. We had him three months before he saw rain. That was also the year we got a new fence installed in the backyard. It took twice as long as expected because the workers kept having to leave around 3pm for their own safety. The thermometer was reaching 110, 111, 112 degrees every afternoon. It was brutal.

Of course, Texas doesn’t have a monopoly on hot weather. Even in places like New York and Montana, they’ll see temperatures in the nineties during the summer. Also, when I complain about the Texas heat, people like to point out that at least people here have air conditioning everywhere. That’s true, and I’m eternally grateful for it.

Here’s the first problem: I like to be outside. Sitting inside in the AC is not the same thing as sitting outside in a fresh breeze. During the most stifling weeks of the year, even sitting in the shade is too much for me. My body just doesn’t handle the heat like it used to, and I sometimes feel physically ill from being out on Austin afternoons, regardless of shade and hydration. If I could escape it at all, ever, things would be different. But the other (and much larger) problem is this: THERE IS NO ESCAPE.

I’m a natural night owl. Before I was married, I’d often revert to vampire hours for a couple of weeks at the start of summer, but even that isn’t enough of a relief because in Austin, from about mid-July to mid-September, it NEVER COOLS DOWN. In the summer, Hubby and I walk the dog around 10pm because the pup doesn’t like the heat either, and that’s when the temperature will have finally dropped below 95. I could deal with the 110-degree heat during the day if I knew it would be in the 70’s by dawn. But it won’t. It’s the LOWS that kill my soul in the summer. 82, 84, 86… these are temperatures that will greet you if you go outside at 3am in August. That’s just ridiculous.

[Right now, you’re probably thinking, Did I read the title wrong? I thought this post was supposed to be about spring? It is. Sorry. Bear with me. I’m getting there. I didn’t plan on harping on hellish Texas summers for quite this long, but I obviously have a lot of feelings about them. Moving on.]

As much as I love having a couple of months off from teaching every year, I’ve wished for a long time that those months didn’t occur during the summer. If all I’m going to do is stay in the air conditioning anyway, I might as well do it in my classroom. Instead, why not let us out when it’s nice outside?

As bad as Austin summers are, our springs are amazing. We’ve got blue skies and butterflies and birds singing and sun shining, but the weather is never boring. There are plenty of good spring thunderstorms and cool fronts to mix things up. Plus, spring in Texas is bluebonnet season. I never tire of seeing that sea of blue along trails and highways. Every April, I stare out the windows of my classroom, wishing I could spend the day outside. Weekends of walks and hammocks and campfires just aren’t enough.

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Texas bluebonnets

Well, this year, in a very weird way, I finally got my wish. I’ve been given the gift of spring.

Ever since March 13th, when schools were closed due to COVID-19, I’ve been spending so much time outside. I walk myself in the mornings, walk my dog in the afternoons, read in a lawn chair on my driveway in the evenings, and have campfires whenever I want. I’ve even been sleeping on my screened in porch a lot and sometimes participate in my online meetings while sitting on the grass in the front yard. Even when I’m stuck inside, I keep one eye on the squirrels at the window and take brain breaks by watching the birds.

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I would never wish this pandemic on the world. If I could get the coronavirus to go away with a snap of my fingers, I’d do it in an instant. But, among the stresses and sadness and uncertainty of this situation, it’s nice to find something positive. This is my happy thing right now. I’ve been given the gift of springtime, and I’m going to enjoy the heck out of it.

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My coworker taking a much-needed break

What about you? What is your happy thing right now? What unexpected gifts have you been given by this experience?