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

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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

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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

 

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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!

 

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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

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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

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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

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Maddie the Red and the Summer of Outside Reading

It is the last day of second grade and Maddie is daydreaming about summer. Swim team. Jumping waves at the beach. A trip to the lake to camp with her cousins. And best of all, she thinks, Mommy says that this Fourth of July, Maddie can light her own sparkler. Finally,, I am not a baby!

She is just beginning to feel the chilly water on the flume at the amusement park, and is bracing herself for the big splash when ‘Crack!’! Miss Pinto raps Maddie’s desk with her ruler.

“Clap, clap, clap!”

Miss Pinto slaps her hands together, a signal for the class to clap back and be quiet. Maddie loves Miss Pinto, with her crazy curls of red hair and her freckles, which, Maddie’s  mother says, are angel kisses.

Maddie has red hair too, and she daydreams that if Miss Pinto were her mother, she would understand why Maddie wants to color her hair black, straighten it, and ask the doctor how to get rid of the freckles. Maddie’s mother always  says that grown-ups pay a lot of money for hair like hers.

“They can have it,” Maddie snaps whenever she hears this.

She once  tried to cover her freckles with her mother’s make up, and and her hair with her Dad’s old bandana, but it was useless. She is Maddie the Red. Mommy says she loves Maddie: “Freckle to freckle and head to toe.”

Her mother doesn’t know how much the other kids tease her about her hair and freckles. They hurt her feelings and make her mad. Once she told a boy who wouldn’t leave her alone that his heart must be the size of her smallest freckle, he was so mean, but that made the teasing even worse. And once, when she pulled a tormentor’s hair, Miss Pinto sent her to The Office. After that, the whole class had to go to the cafeteria to hear a man talk about bullying.

But now it is the last day of school and Maddie can’t wait for her bus to be called.

“Now boys and girls, before you start third grade I want you to promise me that you will read at least 20 minutes every day this summer. All that outside reading will have you ready to go when you start third grade.”

The whole class groans. Maddie hates homework. Maybe Miss Pinto would not be such a good mother after all.  She would probably make her read on the Fourth of July!

When she gets off the bus, Maddie races home, letting the screen door slam behind her. All the pictures hanging in the hall rattle. Her mother shouts at her from her office upstairs.

“Maddie, how do we close the front door? Come up and tell me about the last day of second grade,’ she calls. Maddie grabs two just-baked cookies and a juice box, then runs upstairs.

“Last day of school!” Her mother smiles. “I always loved the last day of school, too! Report card?”

She holds out her hand and Maddie turns it over.

Maddie hesitates. “It was all A’s except for reading. I like to read, I’m just not great at it. Miss Pinto told the whole class that we need more outside reading.”

“Well, a little outside reading never hurt anyone,” Mommy says. “I’m off tomorrow and we’ll go to the library.”

Maddie hugs her mom, then disappears to her own room. She picks out 10 of her favorite books and puts them in her backpack. She fills her water bottle, takes a few more cookies and, at the last second, an apple. She packs the wooden sword she has had since she was five and wanted to be a pirate.

She even packs her sunblock and a hat.  Then she  jumps from the fourth step to the foyer, making a loud crash  and darting off before she gets in trouble.

Maddie pedals her bike as fast as she can toward the woods, where she and her best friend, Chuckie, had built a fort last summer. Then Chuckie’s father got a new job in another state, and they moved. Since neither one of them can have  a phone of their own, they write real letters to each other. Ever since Chuckie moved away, Maddie hasn’t been back to the fort. It makes her miss him too much.

“But Chuckie likes to read, so maybe he’ll rub off on me,” she thinks.

She  walks through the tangled, thorny vines full of their purple berries, slicing away with her sword to clear a path–but the fort is gone!  All that’s left are  the door and a faded “Keep Out” sign.

She can’t believe anyone could have just torn it down, not even the big kids from middle school could be so mean.

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

Not even the big kids could be so mean!

“Maybe the blizzard blew it  away,” she thinks. She says good-bye to the fort, which had been such a great fort, then swings her sword to get out of the woods and back to her bike.

She snaps her helmet on, then looks up and down the street, wondering if she can find a better spot for outside reading. She decides that The Climbing Tree in the neighbor’s front yard would be just right.

She gets a foothold on a low branch, then scurries up to the spot where the tree splits, with a ‘V’ shaped place that Maddie knows will make a perfect place for reading. No sooner has she settled in, book in hand, when she feels something moving in the branches above her.

“It can’t be the wind,” she thinks, a split second before she spies a long black snake, curling its way through the leaves. Maddie is not afraid of snakes, but she does not like to be near them. She stuffs her book in her pack, drops the apple, and jumps from the tree before she even gets to the lowest branch. She looks back up to find the snake, but it is camouflaged.

She feels something on her shoulder

She feels something on her shoulder

Back on the street, Maddie sits on the curb to think a while about the outside reading. Twenty minutes a day, every day? She wonders if Daddy could put a hammock up for her, or maybe put a cozy chair on the porch.

She notices someone sitting and slowly swaying on the porch swing at Chuckie’s old house. She leaves her bike behind, and walks over to get a better look. She hopes against hope that the new people have a son her age, just like Chuckie, or a girl who likes red hair and playing animal hospital. Mostly, she thinks, she wants a friend.

A white-haired lady is sitting very straight and still on the porch swing.. She must be short, Maddie thinks, because her feet don’t  reach the floor. Every few minutes, she uses a cane to give herself a push. Maddie moves even closer, inching along the walkway to the house. She can see the woman’s face. It is crackled with wrinkles.

Just as Maddie is about to turn away, the woman spots her.

“Why hello there! Want to swing a while?” she  asks in a wrinkled sort of crackly voice.

Maddie steps up to the porch.

“Hello, my name is Maddie. My best friend ever used to live here. I miss swinging with him,” she says. She knows she is not supposed to talk to strangers, but this lady looks so old, older than anyone Maddie has ever seen.

“Would it be okay for me to do my outside reading here?” she asks.

The old lady chuckles. “I guess a porch will do for outside reading. Climb on up!” She pats the cushion at her side. “My name is Rosalind, but you may call me Miss Rose. Let’s see what you have here.”

Maddie pulls her books out, all ten of them.

Porch swing with Miss Rose

Porch swing with Miss Rose

“Would you like to hear one? Miss Pinto says I am good at reading out loud,” Maddie says. Outside read aloud! She thinks.

“Why so many books?” Miss Rose asks.

“I want to finish a whole week’s worth today,’ she says. She tells Miss Rose about her problems finding the best spot, the beaten down fort, the snake in the tree.

“How dreadful! Snakes! Not my cup of tea,” Miss Rose says.  “I’m sure your teacher didn’t mean for it to be so hard to find a spot. You are welcome to use my swing any time you want to read.”

She adds, “And you can read to me. I am a good listener.”

Maddie reads two books and guesses it has been twenty minutes. Miss Rose smiles at her.

“Well done, Maddie,” she says.

Maddie thinks it might be nice to have a new best friend next door, and she nods happily.

“Can I come tomorrow, after swim team?” she  asks. “I have to ask Mommy, too.”

“Of course you can, dear.” Miss Rose looks at her watch. “Time for me to head on in.”

Very, very slowly, Miss Rose uses her cane to lift herself from the swing.

Maddie jumps off to help her. There is a walker by the front door and Maddie brings it to Miss Rose.

“Till tomorrow,” Miss Rose  says, which is something she has heard her own grandmother say.

She retrieves her bike and pedals home. She can’t wait to tell Mommy about her new friend for outside reading. Outside reading will be better than she thought it would, she decides.

And there is still time to play before dark.

 

Key Words: early draft, first novel, children’s books, kidlit, reading

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Drawings for Stories in Process

I’ve been working hard to learn the craft of writing for children–it’s tough to do, but I’ve found a wonderful and supportive community where people trade ideas and offer helpful criticism. So, I thought I’d add a few images from stories in process. These stories all happen to be too long for picture books, but seem to be about right for a middle grades reader. So I’m having great fun writing fiction for the first time since 1994. Completely different process, world, challenge and joy.

Sleepover with Grammy

Sleepover with Grammy

From "Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer"

From “Maddie the Red and Outside Reading for Summer”

maddievfort

“Maddie the Red and the Outside Reading Summer”

Key words: MG books, middle grade books. Maddie the Red, outside reading, adventures for girls, summer break, 12×12 PB challenge

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On the Farm with Granny

Adding this to include as a representative illustration for a little story I am trying to write called, “Nanny Goat and the Purple Coat.”

 

Granny on the farm

 

key words: USDA Ag Farm Beltsville, research, sheep, lamb, PB, picture book

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