I Art, Or Am I?

Years of writing about aging–and what  Judith Peres calls the “vicissitudes of aging” — taught me that age as a number, a construct, a device. With a degree in math and a poet’s sensibilities, I have cruised through time, thinking that it did not quite apply to me. Or to anyone, really. We would all somehow carry on along this blue planet, our mortal coil. Despite sorrows and losses, we could hold each other up, and forever was one more convenient imaginary number. I could split that, too….

My body differs and jolts me with its own realities. It contains time, no matter how I count it. These bones are no longer 18, nor these eyes, no matter what BuzzFeed or some Facebook quiz calculates of my vision. 

Watercolor Pencil: Testing my Hand

Ditto for my hearing: my grandmother was right when she urged me to “turn down that caterwauling.” I have said something similar when one-too-many Kendrick Lamar tunes has blasted through some speaker in my house.

Even Bruce Springsteen is my father’s age. And when I refrain from Dancing in the Dark in my orchestra seats at the Walter Kerr theater come November, my Verified Seats will be in the handicapped area, thanks (I guess?) to several autoimmune conditions that flare at strange times and make walking and breathing a challenge.

Bruce, RFK, August 1985

HOWEVER, I am the daughter and granddaughter and descendant of so many strong women (and men, but it is the women I knew best) who gave up homes, families, opportunities…for reasons I cannot presume to know, but assume must have been to better their lives.  Have I done the same? Not often enough, but I pray and hope and think that I have raised strong people.

And I, too, persist, though I no longer think I will last so long as my paternal grandmother, whom my kids knew as Meme, who lived into her nineties. Or some of my mother’s relatives, who managed the same. They had some grit that I have scattered elsewhere in the course of this living. Perhaps I will gather it again.

Whatever or wherever that grit is, I am now beyond half done this life, for that is how the years add up. And the blues may be simply knowing that I have so much yet to learn, and yet not done. I am not ever going to be ready red hats and purple sparkles. More like my hero, Bonnie Raitt, whose website has this to say of her newest album, Dig in Deep:

 … Bonnie Raitt continues to personify what it means to stay creative, adventurous, and daring over the course of a legendary career. “I’m feeling pretty charged, and the band and I are at the top of our game,” she says. “This period of my life is more exciting and vital than I was expecting, and for that I’m really grateful. At this point, I have a lot less to prove and hey, if you’re not going to ‘Dig In Deep’ now, what’s the point?”

Bonnie Raitt Owns the Stage in DC, July 2017

How can I feel half done here, with so much yet to do? For instance, how will I roam around Annapolis on 9/19 for the SketchCrawl when I’ve just learned to draw?  My mother, artist  Mary Lynch, works five days each week in her studio at the Torpedo Factory Art Center. What some people call a Muse she has described as a monkey on her back. She says she has no time to waste. She and Bonnie Raitt are about he same age, too. Like Bonnie, my mother is not playing a game, she’s not dabbling. She digs deep and creates objects that have not ever been made before.

Still Life with Fruit

For my 55th birthday, she gave me a portable easel, which Ian, my 15-year old, set up for me just last night. I have watched it most of the day, and worked at a small watercolor for a friend.

Portable Easel Awaits Artist

How to paint something large, when I have only learned to do small things? There is only today. Only these hands. This moment. Here I go. What will you learn, old friends and new? What’s stopping you? What motivates you? I’d love to know. Share your ideas in the comments. Let’s go. 

Wild-Eyed Poets and Basketball Stars

My father is a lifelong “wild-eyed sports fan.” A native Washingtonian, his childhood revolved around the Senators. One year, he bolted across home plate to shake Roy Sievers’ hand as Sievers crossed home plate after scoring a walk-off home run for the Washington Senators.

I’ve written a few short articles in The Washington Post about Dad’s near-legendary sports-triumphs: the time he sneaked into the White House, along with the Championship Washington Bullets, and had hot dogs with First Lady Rosalynn Carter. His longing to see his beloved Nationals take a pennant, or the World Series continues to keep him moving.

And there is the love he and my sister and I have for going to  Bruce Springsteen shows. Even Dad stands for the legendary encores, and the lights-up tent-revival sing-along of Born to Run and Thunder Road.

A bookworm, too, in his retirement, Dad has developed a callous on his elbow where it rests on his favorite reading perch, the porch swing of his house. Because I am a writer, he has always passed along must-read books and suggested writers.

For years, he has plied me with dog-eared copies of Sports Illustrated as proof that the greatest writers in any medium are sportswriters (my favorites include George Plimpton and his Miami Notebooks and just about anything by  Frank Deford).   Like Dad, I’m sure that at the top of their game, sportswriters are our true poets and storytellers–not, by the way, content creators.

The most recent addition to that list may be new-to-me novelist and sportswriter, Jack McCallum. His Summer 2017 profile of Tom Meschery, poet, teacher, and former NBA star. Check out Meschery’s blog on sports, literature, and news. But first, grab SI, find a porch or imagine one, and swing for a moment as you read.

Haiku-ing To Fall

I must not have realized how long it had been between posts. When I realized that potential clients and new readers might land here, I discovered just how much time had passed, and thought a quick update was better than none at all. So here, for the August doldrums, are a few haiku from Spring & Summer 2017. It is August, and DC continues its exodus until Labor Day. Thunderstorms have hit us today, and the rain makes on tired. I’ve just completed my first article for an AARP website, and a few other tipsheets for the Association of Health Care Journalists.

Summer was truly improved by an article on an osprey nest, and a coloring page in Bay Weekly! Below, a few haiku that seemed more beautiful than usual. Do you agree? If anything catches your eye, please leave a comment–haiku reply welcome, of course. Criticism, illustration–or even requests for cards.

 

My first coloring page in Bay Weekly

A few flowers turning toward the sun

A foursquare of photos, summer, and a haiku

My Son Turns 27, and I’m Twice His Age (Again)!

The worst advice I ever received about becoming a parent–a response to my worries at never having cared for a newborn or toddler–was that I would always be one step ahead of my children. When my eldest son, Conor, arrived, he immediately proved this advice to be wrong.

Happy Birthday, Conor! (Your hair looks great!)

His father and I knew nothing about babies,  and we definitely did not believe Dr. Spock, when he wrote to listen to ourselves, that we were the experts: We did not know how to put on the cloth diapers delivered by a service my great-aunt had given us. (The diaper delivery man was perplexed when there were only 7 dirty diapers after Week One, and just a few the following week…for a colicky baby, cloth diapers were perfect burping cloths, floor cleaners, shoe polishers, and more. When hundreds of diapers fell from a closet, my grandmother nearly choked on laughter).

St. Joseph’s Day Baby

Tony and I did not know whether the tape on disposable diapers went in front or back. We were unprepared for the fact that babies do not sleep all night, or that a colicky baby would test our sanity and our patience. Thanks to the family who were present almost daily–my Irish twin, Michele, and her then-fiance, Andy; my mom and grandmothers, the three Marys, and my great aunt Anna–we survived. In fact, my dining room became a lunchtime gathering place, replacing the HoJo on Route 1, where we’d met for lunch forever.

At the time, I had just left a writing job because when the baby arrived early, I was a few weeks shy of maternity leave. (It galls me that this issue is still an issue, and that most working parents do not have paid leave, and cannot afford the unpaid leave of the Family & Medical Leave Act. Thanks to tireless advocates like my friend, Valerie Young, of the Caring Economy Campaign.

Dad, flummoxed by my resignation, said, “Motherhood is the one job you’ll never be able to quit.” He was right: 27 years later, and I am still at it.

Still going….

As a new mother, I jealously guarded time spent with Conor, who was the most beautiful, precious, wonderful creature ever made. His red hair was a great surprise–as was colic, which set in after a week at home.

Grandmom Hourihan, Easter 1990 (no doubt telling me even then that I was just right)

When exhaustion struck me, my Grandmom Hourihan (Gram) would let herself in before breakfast, take the baby from my bed, then sit with him for hours
in a wicker chair. How she loved him! She taught him to talk at 9 months, then looked after him for a few years. His favorite book was What Do People Do All Day, which he was happy to read over and over again. It drove me nuts–but not my Gram.

My Grandmom Lynch (Meme to my children) came on her days off from the nursing home where she worked, bundling him up for long walks through the neighborhood, or holding him and singing, The Tennessee Waltz, while he took a rare nap.

Meme was visiting one day and agreed to watch my batch of kids; Conor was 12 or 13, and I knew he would help out. A few hours later, I came home to find Meme on the couch with an ice pack on her knee, and Conor sitting anxiously beside her. He was wearing a skateboard helmet, and a lacrosse stick was on the floor. I looked at Meme and asked what had happened.

“He asked me to come play ball with him, but I shouldn’t have tried to run,” she said. I pointed out that perhaps her helmet-wearing days were a thing of the past.

The point of these memories is this: Becoming a mother did not mean I’d receive, as if from the stars, instructions for the job. Any notion that I’d stay one-step ahead of him began to unravel the day his young cousins taught him to climb the stairs. He’s a bright person, with a quick mind and sharp wit. By the time he was four, he was lengths ahead of me.

Just for today, I am twice his age, just as I was when he was born. That will not happen again. And at last I know the only advice for anyone is this: Trust your heart. And be kind. For all that I expected to teach him about this life, he was my first teacher in what it means to love unconditionally, opening my heart until I sometimes thought it would break. He taught me all kinds of things I’d never heard of: the Navajo Codetalkers and geography, that I should read David Foster Wallace and–most of all–stop worrying about him and his  siblings.

Conor is in his second year as a volunteer for a literacy program, which matches community volunteers with elementary-school children who are unable to read, or read at grade level. Through his role as a coordinator at one school, he has forged his way to work with meaning and compassion. It is a great way to travel in this world.

Keywords: first-time mother, new parents, parenting, birthday, aging

Chronic Pain: Living What I Did Not Know

On March 13, 2013, a needle stab or two during oral surgery triggered chronic neuropathic pain, which involves my entire mouth and, on its worst days, my lips, nose, and palate. It is called burning mouth syndrome, a misery I would wish on no one.

I’ve spent the years since then trying to cope with life as a person with chronic pain, trying every medication and complementary treatment my doctor and specialists recommended. As Dr. Victor Montori told me–before I myself became a patient–patients have to complete many tasks, and work to regain health. Doctors must consider what else patients have to achieve while conducting the work of being ill.

Nothing ever really helps–or what sometimes helps causes short-term memory loss–and I’ve been forced to adapt to living with a condition that has upended my life. I’ve also developed several autoimmune diseases, which come and go and flare and vanish, a perplexing mix of symptoms and treatments.

Much irony in this, learning to live with multiple chronic conditions as I age. It’s a topic I’ve written about for many years, especially when writing about how to help frail elders and their caregivers. The issues sometimes seemed intractable, and the solutions often appeared to be simple.

I have since learned how tough all of it can be. In December, I agreed to participate in a new patient-centered medical home (PCMH) project. I signed on with relief, for I could no longer manage the dozen or so medications prescribed by seven different providers–none of whom interacted with the others! Even now, when a clinical pharmacist finally completed her review of my medications, with an eye for spotting any that might be discontinued, I have yet to see her recommendations.

It is not that I have not asked–but that her recommendations were apparently faxed to my primary care provider, who then faxed them to my care coordinator, who concluded that I should not see them until my next appointment with the PCP. Meanwhile, agitated specialists have called me to warn that someone has been calling them to suggest changes to my medications!

Whew! Health information technology (HIT)? Not there–the area’s clinicians have chosen HIT vendors whose programs suit the practice’s needs. This means that they might not connect with the records stored by other clinicians, or the hospital, or the diagnostic tests. I am still responsible for trying to convey the complexity of it all to each clinician, and hope that the independent pharmacist who fills some prescriptions (other than those required by my medical insurance to be called in for maintenance supplies) spots potential adverse effects or interactions.

When I voiced these concerns to my care manager, she noted, “Well, you are a highly educated person who is knowledgeable about what should happen. This [program] is still a work in progress, and it will require many tweaks.”

Tweaks? I’m tweaked! What about those whose health literacy is less sophisticated? I’ve found my own sophistication to be no match for the alternatives clinicians suggest to me. Often, I guess–do I like the sound of the medication? Have I seen it on direct-to-consumer ads? Have I tried it before? What do others think of it?

It seems a foolish and expensive way to make such critical healthcare decisions, yet off I go on this road less travelled. Please take some time to follow me for a while, as I chronicle the next few months–and the work I accomplish.

 

Key Words: chronic pain, pain, autoimmune disorders, care coordination, patient-centered, health literacy

Spiders In the Night: Aly Weaves a Tale

The fall cold always came overnight, in October, when the moon was a spooky thumbnail.

Aly loved October. She loved how the spiders spun ghostly webs to decorate the house for Halloween.

It was always coldest by late October, when her mother’s outside plants began to droop and wither. Thinking about the spiders and how hard they were working, Aly began to worry.

How would they stay warm, when even the flowers that her mother tended so carefully could not survive?

Spider Eye  by Ian Lynch Schuster pastel crayons

Spider Eye
by Ian Lynch Schuster
pastel crayons

 

Aly could not sleep. All she could think about was the spiders, outside and freezing in the silky dark.

She had to help them. She slid out of bed (she was already wearing her fleece jammies!), put on her socks and shoes, found her camping flashlight, then glided down the wooden floor, past her parents’ room to the living room. She grabbed her mother’s box full of old yarn. She went out through a side door.

The dark was scary. But Aly was brave as she walked along the porch and decks of the house.

She opened the yarn box, full of tangled, colorful strands. Gently, she scooped up spiders, all curled into tiny balls for the night, and set them in the box. When it was full, she put the lid back on and crept inside.

Sleepy as could be, she stopped in the kitchen for a glass of milk and chocolate chip cookies. She put the yarnbox on the counter. And then she fell asleep at the kitchen table.

She awoke to her father and mother shouting, “What on earth?!”

Somehow, the spiders had escaped the box and the kitchen was draped with webs of all sizes and shapes. Every corner and nook had a spider web. Even the tea kettle was draped in fine webs, and the coffee pot was nearly unrecognizable.

“Mary Alyson!” her mother said in a voice that meant trouble. “What is going on here?”

Aly shrugged her shoulders.

“At least now they can help inside the house, too, Mommy,” she said.

Her mother sighed. Her father put his shoe back on. It was Halloween, and the day had just begun.

 

Key words: orb weavers, Halloween, spiders, moonlight, creepy, brave girl, knitting, picture book

 

Halloweensie: When Spiders Decorate

Aly loved October, when spiders spun ghostly webs to decorate for Halloween.

Fall turned cold early. The thumbnail moon was spooky. Aly worried about the spiders, freezing in the dark.

Aly knew how to help. That night, she tiptoed outside carrying her mother’s yarn box, full of tangled skeins. She gently gathered sleepy spiders, setting them in the box. Once it was full, she went inside and left it on the kitchen counter.

 

Aly woke to a ruckus in the kitchen: Daddy whacking at scuttling spiders, Mommy waving a broom.

Interior decorating! Halloween would be a wooly tangle!

 

What’s Yupo? Learning a New Technique

A few months ago, an artist friend from a Facebook creativity group began to post gorgeous paintings she had made on paper called ‘yupo,’ which is synthetic paper. Among its advantages are that you can wash off what you don’t like, you can blow the watercolors around the page–with your lips or a hairdryer, you can add gouache and then stencils and who knows what as you create something from very little.

While visiting friends last summer, I gave their daughter $20 to run down to the local art shop, buy 2 sheets of yupo, and get something for herself. Well–the two oversized sheets were $20. (Better prices online, from Office Depot to Blick and  Jerry’s Artarma.) So I chopped the oversized sheets into the 6 x 8 inch pieces I’m more accustomed to working with, and waited a while to figure out what to do with them.

I finally learned, thanks to a class last week with the Muddy Creek Artists Guild, of which I am a happy new member (though I still hesitate to say that I’m an ‘artist’.) An instructor showed us one approach to painting on yupo–clean the paper with rubbing alcohol and, once it has tried, splash a bit of water here and there, and then add up to three complementary colors. You can swirl the paper, or patiently watch the colors swirl. I’m glad I took a picture at this point, because mine was so beautiful that I made it into a card (for sale soon on my Etsy site!).

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy -- $15 for set of 5!

On sale at JustByJanice on Etsy — $15 for set of 5!

The next step was to pick up the still-damp paper and move it across the room, to set it on the floor with all the other yupo-work, where a fan blew the images dry—and all over the place. I did not have my final one made into a card!

Yupo, large

The next time my daughter came to visit, we took my watercolor pencils and small sheets of yupo, and came up with our own designs–mine, the giraffe with runny mascara and hers the Monet-like abstraction. I may frame them both.

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

Giraffe with bad mascara and Monet lilies

The point of all this was that it was joyful, intriguing, and fun. When was the last time you played with watercolors? And why did you stop?

Key Words: yupo, watercolors, Muddy Creek Artists Guild, creativity, learning

Girls to the Front

Last month, my youngest daughter graduated from college–applying her great intellect and innate creativity to make the most of her 4 years there, despite significant health challenges. While earning her degree, she became an advocate for many issues, such as #blacklivesmatter and a #livingwage. She also did things about it, leading a crew at Habitat for Humanity, tutoring vulnerable children, distributing meals, and so much more. To me, she is proof that the universe is built on love and action.

So I drew a new turtle, this time just a single small one, heading out to sea, nothing to guide him beyond decades of nature and genetic. Like my girl, fearless and brave, swimming to whatever beautiful thing catches her eye.

IMG_1247

Sea Turtles: I Will Not Be Broken

Trying to draw many pictures inspired by songs, poetry, or phrases and people I encounter. This is my image of sea turtles on the Atlantic Coast, from Maryland to North Carolina, trying to make their way to the safety of the ocean. Relative safety, but at least from their nest to the ocean, out of some harm’s way, no doubt into other’s. Here it is.

 

I Will Not Be Broken

I Will Not Be Broken