What feeds us

“This book is for everyone who wants to learn to cook, or to become a better cook….

By cooking your way through these lessons, tasting and learning from your successes (and your mistakes), you will get to know some fundamental techniques by heart and you won’t have to look them up again. This will enable you to cook with ease and confidence, inspired by recipes–rather than being ruled by them–and free to enjoy the sheer pleasure of preparing and sharing simple food with your friends and family.

Alice Waters, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, p. 4-5

“You don’t need a thousand brownie recipes, you just need one great one. And if you dedicate yourself to mastering a short list of recipes, you can dramatically improve your cooking skills and your confidence….

Even if you only master 20 recipes in this book you will have earned the right to call yourself an accomplished cook.”

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, 100 Recipes: The Absolute Best Ways to Make the True Essentials, p. 1

In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a course called Expository Writing. I was so excited to teach this class; a pedagogical revolution was underway, and I was ready to dive headfirst into teaching in a radically different way from the one in which I had been taught. Fresh from college and steeped in theories of writing workshops and teaching writing as a process, I spent hours designing a course in which students would find their own subjects, explore their own ideas, and develop their own ways to express their experience and their emerging understanding of the world. I would release them from the kind of stifling, arbitrary restrictions that had characterized my own secondary writing instruction (best exemplified by the formal 5-paragraph essay, in which I’d been drilled), as well as from instructional practices that were now well-known to be ineffective for developing authentic writers. I knew that if I gave them the right ingredients (time, good models, authentic strategies, permission to make mistakes, and encouragement to tell their truths), they could all be good writers, and they would all find they had important things to say.

I was surprised by the resistance I encountered. Not all prisoners, it seemed, wished to walk out of their cages. Many students found the things I tried to give them unsettling, unnecessary, inefficient, or just plain wrong.

“How many paragraphs does this need to be?”

“How many sentences do we need to have in each paragraph?”

“If there aren’t any points for the free-writing, why do I need to do it?”

“What should my three points be?”

“Why do we have to write all these words that aren’t even going to be in our essays?”

Despite their resistance–which I met with energy and optimism and strong resolve–I was eager to collect their first set of essays. After encountering three or four that began with, “Since the beginning of time…” I rifled through the stack and discovered that at least half began with the same phrase. “What the hell…” I muttered and took myself off to the department chair, who explained that those students were likely the ones who had taken Honors Sophomore English from Mr. C, who had formulas not just for whole essays, but for each paragraph within an essay. They had spent an entire year perfecting the 5-paragraph essay.

To make a long, painful story short, I discovered that there is no such thing as a peaceful revolution, and that a first-year teacher from out of state with idealistic, unfamiliar, and suspiciously liberal ideas was no match for a traditional, charismatic, experienced, and wildly popular one who simplified writing to a recipe that any student could master through compliant diligence. I knew some things about writing, but nothing about departmental politics, teachers, or the values differences at the root of a philosophical divide that has been a prominent feature of almost every English department I’ve encountered.

Three years later I was involuntarily transferred to a middle school.

Several years ago, after my kids left home, I decided that it was finally time that I learn how to cook. I’d never progressed much beyond the culinary skills I’d developed while in college (supported mostly by a Campbell’s Soup cookbook in which every recipe required a can of said soup) because first my husband did all the cooking and then I got through single-parenting with what I called “survival cooking,” which featured a great deal of jarred spaghetti sauce, pre-made pizza crusts, and hamburgers. To help myself learn, I bought two books: Alice Waters’s The Art of Simple Food and 100 Recipes from the editors of America’s Test Kitchen.

In my first attempts with both books, I developed a new empathy for my students who had clung to the 5-paragraph essay and resented my attempts to take it away from them. Alice told me that I didn’t need culinary training, special foods, or a lot of specialized knowledge to be a good cook. I just needed my five senses, quality food, and a few essential techniques. She told me that I would learn by trying and tasting. But, when I tried to roast vegetables the way she told me to, they came out both charred and too tough to pierce with a fork. My vinaigrette was oily, flavorless, and so much more hassle than the bottled dressing in my refrigerator. I appreciated her vision of cooking as a “delicious revolution” that “can connect our families and communities with the most basic human values, provide the deepest delight for our senses, and assure our well-being for a lifetime,” but I was working full-time and couldn’t get to farmers’ markets for fresh ingredients every day or make every part of my meal from scratch or muddle through a series of failed dishes for the sake of learning. I was hungry and needed to eat. Like, now.

Like my students, I wanted recipes that worked, and I had more success with 100 Recipes. Everything I tried from that book turned out really well. True, most things took a significant amount of time and dirtied a lot of bowls and cookware, making the recipes impractical for everyday cooking, but I knew I’d end up with food that tasted good. Although I didn’t really agree with it, there was strong appeal in the editors’ assertion that if I could master 20 recipes, I could consider myself “an accomplished cook.”

Over time, I settled into strategies that worked reasonably well for my life with the resources I had. Sometimes I’d make a 100 Recipes dish on weekends that would generate leftovers to get me through a few days of the week. I looked for other recipes that weren’t as laborious for weekdays and developed a decent collection of them in my Pinterest account. I started making weekly meal plans and shopping each week for the ingredients called for in the recipes I would be using. I mastered a few basic techniques (still can’t figure out roasting vegetables, but steaming them is easy), and was glad to be eating better, healthier food than I ever had in my life.

After awhile, I rarely took Alice down from my shelf of cookbooks, and I began telling myself a new story about my students so that I could tell myself a new one about food and cooking. Maybe when it came to cooking, I began thinking, I was not unlike my former students who didn’t want to experience writing the way I had wanted them to. Maybe they felt about literary writers the way I felt about those I thought of as pretentious foodies. Maybe they were no more interested in creating with words than I was in doing so with food, and maybe that was OK. Maybe they felt incapable of doing anything with words that might both feed their soul and meet demands from teachers, bosses, or other bureaucratic powers. Maybe they were. We all have different passions, needs, and resources with which to meet them. Wasn’t I getting through life pretty well with good recipes and enough skill to execute them–and can’t many people get through life with a similar level of writing competence?

Then, the pandemic hit.

Things I’d been able to rely on finding in the grocery store weren’t always there, and we were advised to make as few trips out as possible. We were advised to stock up on staples, just in case. (Of what? Who knew? Not me.)

For the first time ever, I wondered what I would do if I couldn’t get the things I’d always counted on being able to get and didn’t know what to do with what was available. What would I do if I didn’t have all the ingredients my recipes needed? How do you plan for and buy a month’s worth of meals when produce is only good for about a week? How do you make bread? What if we couldn’t get vegetables? What does one do with dried beans, anyway? How do you preserve food when you can’t buy a chest freezer (because they’ve become scarce as toilet paper) and don’t know the first thing about canning because you’ve always been afraid you’d blow up the kitchen if you tried it?

I’d like to tell you that in the intervening months, I’ve figured out the answers to all those questions. I haven’t. I’ve muddled through, doing large discount grocery store runs once a month or so, supplemented with more frequent trips to a small, local produce market. I’ve baked some loaves of basic bread and pizza dough, but I’ve never figured out what to do with the dried lentils that I bought last March because I read somewhere that a well-stocked pantry should have them. I’ve wasted far too much food because it went bad before I figured out how to use it. I’m functional with a good recipe, but I don’t have a deep enough understanding of why recipes work (or don’t) to improvise well or make pleasing food without them. I’m too often missing one or two ingredients I need to make a good dinner.

Over the winter holiday break, when the quiet, easy days allow so many things to seem possible, I revisited Alice Waters. In her introduction, she shares 9 principles of good cooking, which seem to me not that different in function from Christianity’s Ten Commandments or Buddhism’s Noble Eightfold Path or AA’s 12 Steps:

  • Eat locally and sustainably.
  • Eat seasonally.
  • Shop at farmers’ markets.
  • Plant a garden.
  • Conserve, compost, and recycle.
  • Cook simply, engaging all your senses.
  • Cook together.
  • Eat together.
  • Remember food is precious.

Is it a stretch to connect food principles to spiritual ones? I don’t think so. Food is the most basic of our needs, and how we meet that need impacts nearly every facet of life in our families and communities–how we work, manage resources, and interact with each other. In Waters’s list, I see a path to a higher version of myself, one I might strive for, even as I know that, at times, I am sure to fall short.

Because, I am surely going to fall short. Re-reading her food principles, I felt resistance rising almost immediately. What a lot of privilege is assumed in this list! Shop at farmers’ markets? What about people living in a food desert without transportation? Plant a garden? What about people living in apartments, with no land to call their own? Then I remembered a children’s book I love–Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table, about the former basketball player turned urban farmer –and I get more personal and local (me, and the life I’m able to live) to identify the real source of my resistance: Every one of her principles, if I were to live by them fully, would require new learning, habits, and ways of being. Can I do that? Do I need to do that? What would I have to give up to do that? How do I do that?

I don’t know. These kinds of things–the things I know I need for physical, mental, and spiritual well-being–always feel within reach when I am on a break from work, but just two days back and I am again in the throes of migraine and broken sleep. Dinner Tuesday night is yogurt and a bag of microwave popcorn. And then all hell breaks loose in the capitol.

Over the years I taught, my stance toward the 5-paragraph essay shifted as I tried to figure out how to be a better teacher for my students. Some years, I even tried teaching it the way my colleagues across the philosophical aisle did. The last few years, I landed on a compromise that seemed to work for all of us: I taught my high school students that it is a tool that can be useful for standardized tests and a scaffold that can help them understand basic principles of expository structure, but it is not an end in itself. I dubbed formulaic prose bloated with abstractions and cliches “McWriting,” a characterization palatable even to those who prized it. We talked about how all of us, sometimes, love a fast food burger, even though we know it’s nutritional crap. How sometimes, we just need to kill our hunger and we don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money to cook a beautiful meal.

“Hah, Ramstad!” a student crowed one day, waving a paper in front of me. It was an assignment written for a different teacher. “Total McWriting and I got an A!”

“Well,” I said, “at least you know what it is. I guess I’m glad you know when and how to use it.”

He grinned.

“And when not to,” I added, a statement more of hope than fact. He shook his head at me and went to his seat.

I knew that he didn’t see himself as the kind of writer I hoped he might become, but I never lost belief that he could. I never lost belief that he should. While in the classroom, I never gave up on my students as writers the way I gave up on myself as a cook. I never lost my belief that they needed to be able to tell their stories from scratch. When I told my students that everyone has the capacity to be a good writer, I believed it. When I told my students that stories–the reading and writing of them–have the power to save lives, I meant that, too. The stories we listen to and tell ourselves have everything to do with why and how the world is what it is. These are things I still believe, to my core, which leaves me, at the end of a week in which those who lack the ability to tell true stories from false have wreaked formerly unimaginable havoc, in a place of wondering.

How did I get to a place where I could stand in my kitchen and tell myself a story in which it didn’t matter if my students couldn’t tell their own or understand enough about others’ to see into and through them? Was I wrong to search for some middle ground; did my acceptance of McWriting for some situations undermine every other message I gave about the value of telling stories true? What skills do we all need to sustain life in situations for which there are no formulas guaranteed to save us? What kind of stories do we need to live and tell to get to a better place?

Why your students won’t turn on their camera

Or talk in the chat or during whole-group discussions.

Or participate in your Nearpod/Jamboard/Flipgrid/cool tech tool du jour activity.

Or stay off of other tabs/devices.

Or complete your assignments.

Well, I don’t really know, of course. I’m not your students. But I can tell you why I turn off my camera/remain silent/get on my phone/do other things during the Zoom meetings and professional development sessions I’m required to attend.

I do it because there is no new learning happening for me.

Or I do it because I don’t understand/don’t know how to do the task I’m supposed to be doing and don’t have what I need to solve that problem.

Or I do it because the content of the meeting/PD is not relevant to (or is maybe even counter to) my goals and the context in which I’m working.

Or I do it because I have other things I need to get done and attending the meeting/PD rather than working on them makes me so angry/frustrated/anxious I can hardly stand it.

Or I do it because I’m struggling emotionally or physically—sometimes with things that aren’t even about work—and don’t want to reveal that to others.

Or I do it for reasons that have nothing to do with the person leading the PD/meeting but have everything to do with pressures I’m feeling from other people in the room.

Or I do it because I think the person leading the meeting/PD doesn’t really want to hear what I have to say.

In short, I do it because I am so uncomfortable that disengaging a little feels like the only way I can safely and appropriately manage my feelings/behavior and remain engaged at any level.

When I first left the classroom and became the person standing at the front of the room during staff PDs, I got really frustrated—and judgy—when adult peers engaged in behaviors I’d long associated only with students. They talked when I was talking, they got on their phones, they didn’t follow directions, they rushed through assigned tasks, they were off-task (often doing other work tasks, but not the tasks I’d given them).

“They are being PAID to be here,” I’d grumble to fellow instructional coaches. “It’s their JOB to show up and participate positively.”

Yeah, sure, 2010 Rita. You were right–but not very effective.

As I started my second year of developing and delivering PDs, I decided that maybe I needed to do a better job of walking my talk when it came to learner engagement, and I was much more purposeful about doing the kinds of things in my PDs that I was suggesting teachers do in their classes. And waddya know? Things went much better. By the end of that year, I’d developed a new mantra: Learners are learners. Whether you’re 5 or 55, a lot of the same principles apply: We all want to see purpose and meaning in the things we’re being taught how to do, we all want to believe that we can do them, and we all want to feel positive connections with our co-learners. If we don’t, we disengage or find work arounds or go through the motions.

My behaviors might lead my bosses or co-workers to conclude that I don’t care (or am lazy, unprofessional, undisciplined, etc.). What I would want them to know is that, paradoxically, the opposite is true: I care so much about doing my work well that if something in or about your meeting/PD isn’t congruent with my values and goals, I do what I have to do to get through it enough to get on with what I think my real work is.

What I wish the people in charge of running meetings or delivering PD could know is that I turn off my camera or get on my phone or do another task or refuse to share my thoughts because doing so is the only way I can remain engaged at all. It is me choosing these behaviors rather than engaging in others that would be far more problematic: leaving the meeting completely, blurting out my negative/angry thoughts, crying on screen for all to see (and feel uncomfortable about).

I wish they could know it is me doing my best to manage a bad day. And this year, there are more bad days than usual.

Teaching and learning is always a two-way street, and there are some things students bring into a classroom that our best efforts cannot truly mitigate. (Also: Teachers are human, and sometimes the choices we make are the only ones possible for us in any given moment, and we should be given grace, too.) So, I’m not putting all responsibility for my issues on the people at the front of the room. But maybe it would help students–and teachers and parents!–if we accepted that our students and kids are not fundamentally different from adults; they are just younger. No matter our age, we all want to feel connected to others, safe to be ourselves, and able to succeed in the things that matter to us.

I’m sure not perfect in this. I still get frustrated (see: human) and when too many things are pushing on me I can go right back to a rigid, judgy place (with folks of any age). But when I can remember and live the truth of this, it’s so much easier for me to accept and respond without judgement to what I might label as resistance; instead of concluding that someone doesn’t care, I wonder what it is they care about that I might not be seeing, which opens up all sorts of possibilities for different ways of engaging.

Wouldn’t so many things be better if we could all do this more? Especially now, especially in the hard weeks just ahead of us.

Oh happy day

It didn’t really sink in until I was out, around other people. I’ve been needing a pair of slippers, something warm to wear around the house with a sole that can go outside. Frustrated by the too many choices that my feed started feeding me once the algorithms realized what I was in the market for, I decided to go to a local shop in a southeast Portland neighborhood and get whatever version of it they have available there.

It was raining when I left the house, but the sun was breaking through by the time I got there. I bought the slippers quickly and easily (fewer choices is so often a gift, isn’t it?), and then Cane and I went for a walk in the neighborhood.

Walking neighborhoods is a thing we’ve been doing for years. Some people get out in nature, but we like to get out in communities. We study what people do with their yards and homes, we muse about what homes can tell us about their inhabitants and our collective history, and we talk about what’s going on in the world. It’s a thing that’s remained constant in spite of all that we’ve lived through in the past four years: separation, kids leaving home, moving, pandemic, and the Trump presidency.

It was that constancy–and the contrast we could both feel between the walks of the past year and yesterday’s walk–that made the meaning of yesterday finally sink in. The very air felt different: lighter, brighter (in spite of the clouds). It came from the people we passed by; everyone seemed to be carrying themselves differently, and I could sense the smiles behind the masks.

At one point, a rainbow emerged, and we stopped to take a picture of it. Everyone we could see stopped, too, pointing with their hands or their phones. A woman driving by noticed us and stopped her car in the middle of the street and just looked at it, smiling.

It felt like magic, like a gift, like a poem.

Later, I watched video of the celebrations around the world, bells ringing in Paris and London, and I felt the weight lift even more. It was further confirmation that it hasn’t been just me, just us–these thoughts and feelings we’ve been carrying for years now. What we’ve been living through has been real. The despair was real, the injustices were real, the threat was real, the trauma was real. When you live for an extended period of time at the mercy of a gaslighter, in the midst of those who confirm the gaslighter’s version of reality, it becomes easy to doubt your perceptions, and even easier to lose hope. To know that people the world over were celebrating, too, was to know that it’s all been real. It felt like the kind of relief you feel when you finally get a diagnosis for an illness: yes, it’s terrible news, but it’s not all in your head.

I spent far too much time yesterday joyscrolling or hopescrolling (it seems the collective hasn’t yet landed on a term for the opposite of doomscrolling), trying to take everything in. Because I am me, I don’t find myself in the place of giddy relief I often saw others in. Don’t get me wrong: I feel tremendous relief; however, my relief is tethered to my understanding that this is only a reprieve. It is a chance, a reason that hope is not an unreasonable thing to cling to, but what’s happened here is not over. Not by a longshot.

We got lucky. I say that not to discount the tremendous amount of hard work that so many, many people have done over the past four years (because yesterday would never have happened without it) but if Trump hadn’t been so atrocious and if the pandemic had not laid bare to so many of us how inept and dysfunctional our government has become, I doubt we could have roused the majorities we needed to win in a system that is so obviously designed to uphold minority rule in our country. And that system remains in place, abetted by a media landscape that allows propaganda and disinformation to flourish unchecked in a population with so many who don’t understand it or know how to navigate it (or, perhaps, don’t care to).

This view of mine can take me quickly to a dark place. What can I do to change this system? I mean, really: I am a white, late-middle-aged woman with no special talents and no significant resources, authority, or influence. Changing the system feels like the work of those who have more of all those things than I do. As I watched those who have led resistance efforts of all kinds express their relief and joy and feelings of vindication, I wished I could have done more, felt able to do more to make the results of this election happen. To be completely honest, though, for most of the past four years it has felt like it’s taken everything I’ve got to function well enough to keep working, care for those who are mine to care for, and remain informed enough to know what’s real and what’s not. I haven’t known how to do more, or felt able to.

Luckily, somewhere in all the scrolling of the past few days, I saw words that Jena Schwartz shared from Omkari Williams that hit me right in that feeling of powerlessness and inadequacy that I hate when it comes up in me:

“Today it is so clear that we are not there yet. How do we get there? How do we begin to move the needle towards that vision so that we never find ourselves in this situation again?

I think it begins with starting close in. I believe that we need to go back to square one and do the hard work but with a different energy and focus. I believe we need to take stock of who we are as individuals and look hard at where we aren’t living up to the values we espouse. Then we have to have the hard conversations. The conversations where we don’t put being “nice” above being honest. The conversations that so many of us are raised not to have…

We need to notice and challenge the places in ourselves where we don’t stand up for what’s right. We need to stop accommodating people who are in the camp of let’s just keep this civil and things will change eventually.

This is not about violence, in word or deed. This is about clarity; clarity of understanding, clarity of conscience, and clarity of intention.

The path to a just world is clearly one that includes that righteous destruction of the unjust systems that we currently have. We, each of us, needs to take a stand. We need to make a decision about who we are and what we will stand for and then actively live that out each day. No time off. No letting things we know are wrong slide by with an excuse from ourselves or others. We need to speak the truth as clearly as we can and as often as it’s needed.

The lines have been drawn. There is no middle ground. It is time to stand for what we know is right, justice and freedom for all. Start close in and then expand out. Let’s get to work.”

We all have different resources, talents, and limitations, but it seems to me that what she is asking is something that each of us can do: Be clear with ourselves about who we are and what we believe in, and then show up as our authentic selves in this world, in the spheres we inhabit, in the opportunities that come to all of in the simple acts of living our lives.

I am not going to make structural changes in our formal systems, but I can–along with millions of others of us–make cultural changes in the community I inhabit, simply by being honest and open about who I am and what I stand for, even when it’s not comfortable to do so. Those acts that can feel so small in a moment can ripple out in ways we’ll never know, and those cultural changes we can all influence are the things that eventually cause our systems to either adapt or collapse, allowing something more aligned with our culture to take their place. That adaptation/collapse happens through bolstering the efforts and resolve of those who do have that other kind of power, and in times–like this past week–when we all have a chance to directly impact what happens to us.

Each of us can look for where we do have talents, skills, and interests and focus our energy there, trusting that if enough of us would just do that, change can happen. I think I realized my limitations at a pretty early age and decided that I would focus the talents and skills I had into being the best teacher I could be. I knew I wasn’t going to directly change the world, but that I would have influence on what kind of world it might be. I had faith in the ripples.

In recent years I have felt as if (obviously!) that wasn’t enough. But maybe not. Maybe not. This election is the victory of only one battle in a war we’ve been waging since Europeans came to this continent and began taking it and its people over. Maybe the best thing to come of it will be a renewing of hope and faith that will bolster all of us regular folks to keep doing what we’ve been doing, only maybe a bit deeper and harder.

For me, the challenge going forward is two-fold:

  1. To remain engaged in the world. Because of the privileges I have, it would be easy for me to simply shut it all out, to tell myself that the fights are for those younger than me or more powerful than me. I need to resist that feeling.
  2. To be more authentic in the world, especially when doing so threatens my own comfort.

I’m not gonna lie: This sounds easy but will be a challenge. I so easily get discouraged with this country and my fellow citizens. It’s easy for me to go to a place of feeling that what I do doesn’t really matter, that the systems are too big and powerful, that people are too uneducated (by design) or too traumatized (through injustices of all kinds) or too spent with all it takes too many of us to simply survive in this world to make different choices than the ones we are. Maybe the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, but sometimes it looks like something stuck in an endless loop, in which every step forward is pushed back, over and over and over again.

Maybe that is how it is, and maybe how it will always be. But so what? We are all alive here, and now, and even if the gains we’ll see come January disappear in another four years, well–it matters that for the upcoming four a lot of things will be better for a lot of people. And maybe one of the gifts of the past four is that a lot of people like me will be less complacent and more hopeful and better able to be strong in the ways that we can and need to be, and maybe this lighter time on the loop will last longer or have deeper impacts. Or maybe it’s not a loop at all, but a spiral that just feels like one. Maybe each time we circle around, we have to go past suffering and ugliness again, but it’s a continual climb upward, rather than forward.

Near the end of our walk yesterday, I saw something that stopped me:

Flaming leaves were everywhere, so thick I almost didn’t see the flowers poking out among these. They look like spring flowers–and I saw bulbs with new shoots poking out of the ground, too–and I know that’s all kind of wrong, but it’s also beautiful, too. Just like us: All kinds of wrong, all mixed up, things just as they’ve always been at the same time they are profoundly different, a weird and horrible and wonderful kind of gorgeous.

Complex radical something, in simple terms

As I returned to work this past week, I thought I was the only one crying every day.

Turns out I wasn’t.

Do you know how many different types of grief there are? There are a lot. Complicated, anticipatory, chronic, delayed, distorted, secondary, masked, collective. Oh, and normal. (There’s more, but I got tired of typing them. Grief is tiring.)

I found lists of types of grief when I went looking for information about “complex grief”–a term I thought I’d read somewhere along the way–but that seems to be the same as “complicated grief,” which is what mental health professionals use for grief so long-lasting and severe that it interferes with normal functioning.

I didn’t find a word for the kind I’ve been seeing and feeling, not just at work but all around me. I wanted a word for the grief that comes from bearing witness to all the varied types of grief being carried in those surrounding you, while carrying your own, while still carrying on with what is expected of you. If there were, I suspect a lot of us would be suffering from it.

I spent too much time on Friday and Saturday trying to write about this, but the draft I labored over has too many words. They exhaust me. (I took a long, deep nap on Saturday afternoon.)

The grief isn’t just about schools and teaching. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s all of it, the whole big ball of change and instability.

Friday night I watched a pre-2010 romcom, something I’ve been doing throughout this summer. These movies fill me with nostalgia for a pre-smartphone world. They fill me with nostalgia for a time when I took for granted things I didn’t even know I had, that I now know the contours of through the spaces made by their absence. I see many of those things in the subtext of these movies that are silly and unrealistic and fun and oblivious to so many, many things. (They are a lot like pre-2010 me.)

I watch them to escape. I watch them also to ground myself in what’s real now. I watch the beautiful (almost always white) actors and actresses (can we still use “actress”? probably not) who were born in the same decade I was dance their way through familiar cinematic choreography, and, in the cases when something in the plot hinges on communication that is not face-to-face, send an email or whip out a flip-phone and talk, and I cannot pretend that we are not now living in a fundamentally different time. The things that were so vitally important to them! The sources of their anguish! While watching, I usually Google the cast of the movie so I can see what they look like now. They almost all look old now in the ways I do, their beauty fading or faded. (My god, we were so beautiful! Why can’t we see, when we are young, how beautiful we are?) On my phone I see the physical manifestation of time passed, which grounds me in the truth that the era in which those movies were made and made sense is not the one in which I’m currently living.

I think the romcoms are part of my attempt to embrace radical acceptance. The opposite of radical acceptance is denial, and that’s a road I’ve followed to far more poor life choices than I’d like to admit.

Radical acceptance of the world we’re living in now is painful, but not as painful as it is to fight the world as though we’re still living in the one we once had (or thought we did).

Radical acceptance is bringing me a kind of peace and calm I’ve never experienced before.

Peace and calm does not mean I’m OK. It does not mean I’m happy. It does not mean I am without pain. (It comes with pain, but the right kind.)

It does mean I am no longer beating my head against walls that will not be moved by my brain splatter.

Radical acceptance might look like defeat, but I’m finding it brings a different kind of power that is keeping me in the fight.

On the last day of the first week of my return to school/work, I didn’t cry once. This felt like progress. Educator friends and I posted funnynotfunny comments on FB about using crying as a metric in setting our annual professional goals.

This is how we are going to get through. Community. Empathy. Humor. Truth-telling. It’s how people have always gotten through hard times, though some of us have lived such fortunate lives thus far that we haven’t had to learn that until now.

My colleague friends and I will all write official goals that won’t matter much to the real work we’ll be doing this year. That we’ll have to do that doesn’t really matter. What matters is creating real strategies for meeting this time we’re in.

There’s a lot I don’t know any more, but these are my goals, driven not by any set of data but by what I need to do good for those I serve:

Know what’s true.

Own my truth.

Take care of myself.

Love my people.

That’s it. It’s enough.

New year’s resolutions

Recently, I read Courtney Carver’s Project 333: The Minimalist Fashion Challenge That Proves Less Really Is So Much More. If you’ve been with me since way way back (2010, probably), you might remember when I first tried Project 333, in which you chose only 33 items of clothing to wear for 3 months. It’s a project/challenge that dramatically changed my relationship with clothing and shopping for clothing (and other stuff, too). I highly recommend it.

Clicking on one of the links in the book took me to The Renewal Workshop, a company that takes old clothing from partner companies and refreshes it for resell. Clicking around on their site, I found a statement about their company values (here and here), and how they try to use those to guide their work.

Organizational values isn’t a new concept, and I’ve participated in the crafting of more missions/vision/values statements than I care to recall. However, I do know that when these documents are actively used in decision-making, they can be powerful. And powerful is something I’m longing to feel these days.

For most of the summer, I’ve been dreading the return to work. I have felt powerless and hopeless and probably about 10 other kinds of -less. Deciding to renovate my home office (which I mentioned here) was a small step to reclaiming some power and agency.

As I’ve worked in the room, making decisions about what to include and what to leave out, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of having a set of guiding values, and how I can have visual reminders of them in this space.

Connection

That’s my grandmother at 12, and also at 76 (at my wedding reception). As you might be able to infer, she was a bit of a pistol. When I was growing up, I thought she was the most social person I knew. She always had people around, and she was always doing something fun. She seemed happiest at the center of our large pack of family. Although I adored her, I didn’t think we were much alike.

What I’ve realized, now that I am as old as she was when I first knew her, is that she was, perhaps, as introverted as I am. And that I love my people as deeply as she did, even if I express it differently. What I knew, growing up, was that if I ever needed a place to go, she would take me in. I–and anyone I brought with me–would always be welcome. She was our connector and our safety net.

Probably because I am highly introverted, I don’t have a wide circle of people. But the people I have matter more than anything else to me. Many are family, and some are friends. Some are people I work with. I want fostering and caring for meaningful connection to be at the center of my life. Because I am introverted and my job requires a lot of interaction with others, this can be a challenge for me, but as I enter a new school year I want to place connection with others at the center of my decision making. I want to think about who and what I am saying yes and no to in the choices I make, and which choices will allow me to strengthen valuable connections with others. I want the people I love to know me as someone who will always take them in.

Stewardship

This is a value I have struggled to live by. Living when, where, and how I have, I’ve learned that it is easy to throw things away. To care for them carelessly, knowing that cheap replacements are readily available. For a whole host of reasons, I don’t want that kind of relationship with resources. Instead, I want to care well for the people and things that are mine to care for.

This is from a quilt that was pieced hand-stitched by my great-grandmother. She came to this country from Germany in the early 1900’s. When I look at this quilt, it’s clear to me that she used what she had, that she didn’t have much, and that she also took care to arrange her materials as pleasingly as she was able. I can see attention to line and color. I see craftsmanship and labor. It an unfinished piece—there is no batting in it. I long thought I would finish it and use it, but I don’t want to destroy it, and honestly, it is too fragile to use as a blanket.

Part of good stewardship, I think, is determining how to use things. Simply preserving them isn’t enough, and in my line of work (library services), particularly, there is often tension between using and preserving. This unfinished quilt is my great-grandmother’s art, and I don’t think art should sit hidden in drawers. What use can it serve there? I know that displaying it, where it will be exposed to light and dust, will shorten its life, but I did some research on how to display quilts in ways that minimize damage to them. I think hanging it here, as it is, strikes the right balance between using and preserving.

This, I think, is how to be a good steward of the resources (things, people, time, money) entrusted to me: seeing value, considering purposes and uses, and finding solutions to maximize benefits and minimize costs.

Health

Health is the foundation of everything, right? Without physical, mental, emotional, and social health, we cannot do and be all that we might. In its extreme, we cannot live.

The larger plant I’ve placed on my desk is a peace lily. The first time I married, a friend gave me one as a gift. She said it was the perfect symbol for marriage: a plant that produces beautiful blooms, thrives in multiple conditions, and withstands drought. I want a healthier marriage with work. I want to be more like a peace lily. I hope the need to care, in the most concrete of ways, for the health of other living things, will remind me to value the health of myself and others in the choices I make about how to work.

Creativity

I believe that we are all creative beings and need positive outlets for making and doing. I believe there is value in creating for the sake of creating—both for the creator and for those around them. When we cannot create, our health and relationships suffer. Creativity helps us find solutions and solve problems and see possibilities. Creativity is joy, and we need joy as much as we need love and safety. It’s not a frill, an extra, or a nice-to-have. It’s essential, especially in times such as the one we are living through.

I have adorned the walls with art made by those I love most (including me!), and my favorites are the ones my children made when they were young. Many (all?) of us are born artists (a term I’m using very loosely), but the world has a way of killing that part of us. I want to make time for creativity in my life and work, and I want to protect and support it for the children and adults I serve.

Boundaries

As a life-long people-pleaser and do-gooder, developing, communicating, and living by boundaries is an on-going challenge. When we suddenly shifted to working from home last spring, I worked all over my house, and I came to realize that it wasn’t good for me. Home had once been a sanctuary from work, a place where work wasn’t. And then work was everywhere, all the time. Home lost some of its meaning for me.

I’m appreciating the opportunity to work toward better integration of work and home. I don’t want work to be something so depleting that I need a completely separate place to recover from it. Because of working from home, I can no longer use that strategy (which, as longtime readers here know, wasn’t really working for me, anyway). Setting better boundaries is the way to do that. This year, I plan to limit work to this one room with a door. To help me remember the upside of boundaries–that they protect us and those around us, spur creativity, and allow us to say “yes” to the people and projects that align with our values–I painted the closet door pink. Color is fun! Boundaries, done right, allow for more fun, and a lot of other good stuff, too. (Also, too much white is boring and sterile.)

Space

White space is an important design principle. It helps us see what’s important. Space is the yin to connection’s yang. Both are necessary in our work. I need space to be healthy, to create, to care for people and things; without those things, connection isn’t really possible.

When I left work in March, I left a desk full of clutter–papers, stacks of books, a bag of Valentine’s Day treats, and more. It’s all still there. Clearly, I didn’t really need all of that stuff to do my job. This week, I went back to my office to get the things I’ll want or need to work from home. The things I felt I’d really need fit into one box.

To renovate this room, I first cleared everything out of it, so that I could be purposeful about what I allowed back in.

Deciding what to bring back and what to release was hard! It wasn’t the practical stuff that tripped me up. It was all the meaningful stuff–photos, family things, art. It was a good exercise, though, to really think about what matters.

The pandemic, in its (horrible, hard, often cruel) way, is providing a similar kind of clearing out. So many things that filled my work hours have been stripped away. Of course, I don’t have much say in some of the things that remain or that have been added, but with the things I do get to choose, I’m appreciating the opportunity to consider what needs to be part of the work and what doesn’t, and how to make space to see clearly which is which.

Light

For a few years, I taught in a cinderblock room completely surrounded by hallway, with no windows or skylights, which meant that I had no exposure to natural light during the day. So often, when I emerged from it to go home, I was surprised by the light I found; I’d have had no sense of the weather all day and felt startled, almost, if it were especially bright with sun or moody with clouds. It was terrible, being that cut off from the natural world day after day after day, especially in winter when the sun would already be setting as I walked to my car.

I painted the walls of this room white to maximize brightness. This south-facing window gets sun for much of the day. As I work this year, I want to remain light (in all senses of that word) and to seek enlightenment. I want to see things clearly, shine light on truth, and join my light with others who are doing the same. I want all of us to stop working under artificial light that keeps us out of touch with what’s really happening in the outside world.

The value of this room renovation isn’t really in the room. Sure, it’s a nice space to look at and be in, but it was the process of thinking about the room and its purposes that will mean more to me (and, I hope, others) over time.

Every year as summer wanes, I go back to work resolved to engage with it in a different way. I promise myself that I will keep getting exercise, that I will keep eating real food, that I will devote more time to what is important and less to what is urgent, that I will carve out time for friends and family and creative work, and that I will just not let it all get to me.

So far, every year, I have failed to fulfill such resolutions.

This year feels different. There are two sides to everything, and one side of this time in which so much is collapsing is fear: economic, social, physical, and political threats are all around us. On the other side, though, is opportunity. When so much is gone, changed, and changing, it is easier to let go of what was and try to figure out what can be.

What this country has been asking of its educational system and its educators has been untenable for a long time. Having that truth laid bare over the past few months has released something in me; I can no longer pretend (to myself or anyone else) that we can–or even should–do all that has been asked of us, which gives me permission to let myself off the hook for trying to.

The root cause of the failures of our educational system extend far beyond the system itself; nothing that I, personally, do is going to change or fix that. While I believe to the center of my core in the value of a strong public education system and its necessity to the well-being of our democracy and its citizens–that belief is the reason I entered the system and have never been able to leave it–I can see that the system is crumbling and all of our many band-aids are failing to save it. Coming to accept this truth has been not unlike the experience of losing faith. The despair has been real. But also: This kind of letting go feels freeing in a way that I don’t yet have words to express.

The question, then, is: What to do now? This system, flawed as it is, is the system our children have right now, today. They only have one childhood, and it is now. Many of those with means are opting their kids out of it, but many families remain. Many educators remain, too, out of our own economic necessity. What does this mean going forward, to know that vulnerable people are depending upon us in a system that is broken and we feel (probably are) powerless to fix?

It doesn’t mean that those of us who remain simply give up and go through the motions and take what we can get. I mean, it can, and I’ve certainly known educators who have chosen that route. (We’re all human. We are not heroes or saints. This is a thing humans do in response to threat, defeat, and hopelessness. They do what they have to do to survive. We should acknowledge that reality so that we can better mitigate it.)

For me, it means focusing on what agency I have and exercising it. I am under no illusion that this set of values I’ve laid out here is going to magically transform my life or my experiences in the coming year. I am sure the coming year will contain a good deal of struggle. But I am all out of fucks to give about some things that used to drive me: pleasing my bosses, building a career, preserving norms and “right” ways of doing things, reforming the system. Those things no longer feel relevant. That opens up a lot of space for me to choose different actions than I might have in the past, and this set of values will be the lens through which I make such choices.

I believe we are all, no matter what kind of life we’re living and what privileges we do or do not have, at a crossroad. I’m going to do my best to choose a path paved with love, for others and myself, and to be, in whatever ways I can, light and space that connects and cares for others in ways that are healthy for us all. I don’t have to save the world, but there are things I can do to make my little corner of it better than it might otherwise be. Maybe if we all did that, some of the threats barreling toward us would start to change course?

What feeds us

A paycheck, of course. It is what literally feeds us. In a poem about my grandfather that I wrote after his death, I said that he “worked to eat to work,” and isn’t that true of all of us, really, when you drill down into the essence of why we work?

There is nothing wrong in that. There is much that is right, and it doesn’t mean that food is the only thing we might gain from our work. But what if the work eats us, too? What if we can’t get the balance right, between eating for ourselves and feeding the mechanisms that allow us to eat?

When our schools shut down in March, I felt an immediate easing in my life. There was more give in my day. I no longer had to pack lunches. I spent less time on laundry and other clothing tasks. My commute is short (moving closer to work is a strategy I employed in my perpetual quest to make life more manageable), but working from home gave me back a half-hour every work day. When I needed a break from my computer screen, I could get up from my desk and throw in a load of laundry or unload the dishwasher. My weekends were no longer filled with a litany of small chores. I had more time in the place in which I feel most comfortable, and more hours free from interaction with others, which always depletes me, even if I treasure the interaction.

It all felt so much more healthy.

Good thing, because as we settled more fully into “distance learning,” work became even more stressful than it had been. By June, despite the easing of some stressors, I felt jangly all the time, a wire stretched tight and constantly thrumming.

It has taken weeks to return to any kind of calm, but my body has finally stopped humming. I have had nights with 8 or more hours of sleep (not continuous hours, but total hours). I’ve been migraine-free for more than a week. I’m no longer taking hours-long afternoon naps, and my brain has released most of its (bad 80s) ear worms.

I am quiet, on the inside as well as the outside.

Joy has returned to work, the kind that fills my waking hours now: Pulling weeds, cooking food, painting the house trim, washing laundry, making beds, cleaning bathrooms, doing taxes, going to medical and dental appointments, catching up on life chores I can’t seem to get done during the school year. This week I cut flowers and put them in a vase because beauty is starting to matter to me again. A day full of this kind of labor creates the right kind of fatigue.

I’m feeling like myself again, the self I think of as my true one.

In response to a recent post here, Kate said,

I am 100% a grasshopper. I work (obviously) but I mostly do what I love (or at least love the finished project) and always make sure to pack in lots of play and rest because 1) play is fun and 2) I need lots of rest. I admire the ant (I married one) but whenever I try to be one, I get angry, burnt out, or sick.

And it was a revelation.

Somehow, Kate’s words dislodged something in me. Maybe because they have come on the heels of all that has been revealed through the pandemic, but it’s that one little word she used: need.

What if rest is not a want, but a need?

I, too, get angry, burnt out, or sick without enough rest–which means, every year for the past 30, starting in late September and lasting through mid-June, I am often angry and/or sick and/or burnt out. This has long felt like a character flaw, or–if not that, exactly–something I should be able to do something about.

Maybe it was the messaging I received from the German side of my family, or the example set by the Norwegian farming branch. Maybe it was being so close to my grandparents, children of immigrants who came of age during the Depression and weathered WWII as young adults. I grew up understanding that life was not supposed to be easy, and that the way to get through it well was to work hard and do good and be the best you could be at whatever you did.

There is nothing wrong in that, either, but my decades-long struggle to be OK during the school year has felt like a personal failing. I have tried everything I can think of–changing schools, changing levels, leaving the classroom and changing my role. I have tried changing how I do my work, in multiple ways over the years. I’ve tried implementing a variety of schedules and routines and boundaries for work and chores and sleep and even play. A personal trainer. Therapy. Downsizing and simplifying.

Every summer I regain my health and vow that things will be different when school starts. Every fall I return to insomnia and migraine and anxiety and fatigue within weeks. By November it feels normal–it is my normal–and I forget, in real ways, that it can be any other way–until break comes round again and I remember: Oh, this is what it feels like to be rested.

Throughout my life, since high school, I have regularly struggled with extreme sleepiness. I have endured painful meetings in which I felt tortured by the need to keep my eyes open and my literal inability to do so, despite being on full display to the others at the table. I have fallen asleep standing up. I have fallen asleep while reading bedtime stories aloud to my children. I have fallen asleep during sex. My children came to accept that we usually could not make the full trip to their grandparents’ house without me pulling over to take a quick nap in a fast food restaurant parking lot because I couldn’t risk falling asleep at the wheel.

“Do you think I have narcolepsy?” I asked my therapist once.

He snorted. “No, I think you’re chronically sleep-deprived.” (He really did snort. I suspect my obtuseness about some issues really tried his patience.)

We, as a society, are so full of judgment about sleep. We associate daytime sleeping with laziness, boredom, sloth. Unless a person is ill, we seem to assume that a person who needs sleep in the middle of the day is a person who is not managing their life well.

Why?

What if some of us need more rest than others? What if–as is the case with so many other things–our needs for rest change as we age? That’s a stupid rhetorical question. Of course our needs for rest are different at different ages. We accept and accommodate this in babies and teens; why do we not do so for adults? And why do we not accept that different people have different levels of need for rest?

But let’s go further: Why do we assume the problem is within the individual, rather than, perhaps, an individual’s circumstances? What if the problem is not individual, but societal, rooted in the ways we organize our work and time? Why do we not see the chronic sleep deprivation of so many of us (1 in 3 Americans) as a public health issue, a systems question, and an equity issue?

Rest, of course, consists of more than sleep.

I have attempted schedules in which I go to bed with plenty of time for adequate sleep, but there is then little time for anything but work, necessary chores, and sleep. No time for reading, music, creative play, relationship nurturing–the things that make life most worth living. No time to just be. What if Kate is right, and these things are not wants, but needs?

Of course we can live like this. I have for decades. Many, many people in the world live with far less rest than I have. But can we be well?

These might seem like frivolous or tone deaf questions to be asking in the midst of a pandemic, when living is no longer a given for anyone, even the most privileged of us. Perhaps, though, this is the best time to be asking them.

As I contemplate a return to in-person school in the fall, and read articles in which transmission (which will mean death for some) is a given and something “schools will need to prepare for”–because returning to in-person school without resources for adequate safety measures is increasingly being framed as an intractable necessity rather than as a choice our society is making–I am seeing more clearly all the ways in which what I’m going to be required to do is just an extension of what’s been required for all of my life.

And I can’t tell you, today, what my response to that will be–because the bottom line is that I work to eat–but I can tell you this: I am utterly sick of it and from it, both literally and metaphorically. I have zero interest in being a martyr or a hero, nor do I have plans to be either. If I get sick from work and die from it, it will be tragic, not heroic. And the tragedy will not be the loss of my life, but that the loss was preventable.

We all get what we pay for in a capitalistic society. Hope everyone will remember that as we send our kids back to school this fall.

Of ants, grasshoppers, maps, and being lost

This week, man.

So many of you who read here are educators or supporters of educators–and if not that, reasonable human beings who are well-informed and understand how science works–so I don’t think I need to spell out the sources of my fatigue, frustration, anger, and sorrow over the past week.

Thursday, I was asked to explain how I see the role of school librarians evolving over the next five years. That sort of gobsmacked me. How will anything evolve over the next five years? After the past five years, and especially the past five months, how can any of us think we can know how things will be in five years? How we will need to be?

When it comes to preparing for the future, I have always been more ant than grasshopper. That has, in many ways, served me well, but being the ant requires knowing your geography, your climate, and your resources. It means knowing what you’ll need to survive the winter and how to preserve and store what feeds you.

After becoming a teacher, I learned quickly how important it is to use the summer to prepare for the coming school year. I learned how to store up what I needed to be OK (or OK enough) to get myself to the following June. For the first time ever, I don’t.

How does one be an ant now? Should one be an ant now?

I have long wondered why I’ve so needed the summers to recover and prepare, why working in public education has been so taxing for me and many of my colleagues. Sure, the hours are long, but many people work long hours. We don’t have the resources we need, but many people struggle with resource scarcity in their work. Over the past month or so, the debates about policing and school re-opening have illuminated for me something I couldn’t see from within our system (as is so often the case when we are trying really hard to be OK in untenable situations): The struggle comes not so much from the hours or the lack of supplies and tools; it’s from the weight of all that schools have come to carry, which includes not just educating everyone (a heavy enough bundle in itself), but also providing healthcare, social services, meals, and child care. Now, some would have us believe that the very functioning of the entire economy rests upon us.

I see that, perhaps, part of the reason my summer preparations haven’t really been getting the job done in recent years is that I haven’t really understood the landscape in which I’ve been trying to live.

As I think about how to be an ant now, I understand it’s not so much that the geography around me has changed as it is that I’m seeing it from a different vantage point. It’s like I’m suddenly viewing it from miles above, perhaps looking down through the window of a plane. Of course I’ve been aware of shifting plates, erupting volcanoes, rivers that have changed course and jumped their previous banks. Now, however, I can see the totality of those singular impacts, and how those of us working in country have been so consumed with responding to the seemingly small (yet never-ending) immediate crises of opening cracks and raining ash and flash floods that many of us failed to comprehend the bigger emerging picture. Now that I can see the landscape whole, I find myself lost. The topography doesn’t match any of my maps.

So, over these past weeks, I have been doing the kinds of things people do when they realize they are lost: forging ahead and hoping the way will reveal itself, spinning in anxiety, looking for trail markers, railing at the sky, hoping someone else will appear who can show me the way home.

I’d forgotten that the first thing we are supposed to do when we are lost is stop.

I’ve decided that, perhaps, the best thing I can do in the next week is to step off the trail: no deep dives into news, no Facebook or Twitter, no talk about the fall. No doing school-related work or thinking or worrying or wondering about school-related work. I think I need some quiet. I need some true rest. I need to get my bearings. I need to be more grasshopper than ant, making what passes for my kind of music.

I think I will take the week to read books, care for and talk with people I love, try some new recipes, take walks, tend my garden, clean my house in ways both literal and metaphorical. Maybe I’ll do some writing about something other than fear, loss, and grief. I think I need to get grounded in the landmarks I know before I can hope to navigate terrain that once felt so familiar, but now feels foreign.

Perhaps, in the quiet, I’ll read or write or think my way to a new narrative that serves me better than that of the grasshopper and ant, which, at its core, is a story grounded in fear, judgement, and cruelty. That doesn’t sound like any kind of guidepost to me. Music is its own kind of food, isn’t it? And we all need to eat.

I’ll drop a postcard next week to let you know how it’s going.

Took a recent visit to my old neighborhood. Think I need more of this.

Coronavirus diary #4: the wrong kind of hard

Some years ago, when I was in the midst of making an important and difficult choice, my mother asked me the most useful question anyone has ever asked me:

“What kind of hard do you want?”

It cut right through any illusion I had that there was an option without pain. Her question gave me the gift of clarity: Knowing that no matter what I chose, it was going to be hard, I could see more clearly what my options truly were.

My third week of the pandemic contained all kinds of hard, and almost none of it felt like the right kind.

I am going to preface everything right up front with a disclaimer of sorts. If anyone is privileged in our shared disaster, it is me. I am getting paid. My nearest and dearest are safe and healthy. I have water, food, heat, internet, and toilet paper. I am not living through this in close proximity to addictions, abuse, or toxic people.

But this is all still hard. There are still losses, challenges, pain, and fear of future loss of all kinds for everyone, no matter how (relatively) good we’ve got it right now.

I think that would be OK if all the hard was the right kind. When I was home for two weeks, it wasn’t the wrong kind, which is probably why I felt mostly OK in it. While I felt some guilt when comparing my situation to that of healthcare or other essential workers, I knew I was doing the most important thing I (personally) could do, and I felt solidarity with others in it. It wasn’t hard to stay home, even when there were places I wanted to go, because lots of others were doing it and there was consensus on the necessity of doing it. For the first time in years now, I felt a fledgling sense of unity with my countrymen, and in the midst of the hard, that felt really good.

This week, all of the public school educators in my state went back to work remotely. On Monday morning, our schools had four directives: Feed our kids, be ready to provide childcare for essential workers, personally connect with our students and their families and provide supplemental learning opportunities, and pay our staff. This, too, felt like the right kind of hard for us to be taking on.

By Monday night, though, our state’s department of education issued a new directive: provide distance learning for all, to include awarding credits for high school students, and get it up and running in the next two weeks. Even our administrators didn’t know this was coming.

This is the wrong kind of hard, and by Friday afternoon I was full of something that I eventually identified as rage. It was hard to tell, because it was leaking out of me in the form of tears (and had been for days), but that’s what it was, all right. Rage.

I suppose it might have been some tipping point of the wrong kind of hard. This week has revealed so many kinds of hard that didn’t have to be, because of actions driven by corruption, ignorance, ineptitude, greed, and at least one giant, narcissistic ego. Instead of being united around actions to best serve all of us, we are fighting each other over necessary supplies and asinine displays of political loyalties, and as a result people are dying. This is the wrong kind of hard.

So, there is that, and it’s the foundation of my rage, for sure. But this week, as I and all the educators I know dove into our challenge in the midst of this strange, horrible time, it quickly became apparent that what we are being asked to do is the wrong kind of hard, too.

Despite my frequently dire tone here, I am an idealist and an eternal optimist. (It’s why I’m so often angry and railing.) “This is an opportunity,” I have said to anyone who might listen. “Here is our chance to do things differently, to see our mission differently, to really think about what matters in education.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I mean, maybe. But not this week, and surely not next.

Instead of releasing much of the utter crap that permeates public education, it feels as if our state has doubled down on it (as have many states). We love to talk about equity and “trauma-informed practice” and “culturally-responsive teaching” until we’re blue in the face, but we are about to embark on delivering “education” in a time of tremendous trauma in ways that are likely to exacerbate it, especially for our most vulnerable students.

How do I know? Because of how it has already, before we’ve even begun delivering instruction, been traumatizing their teachers. In my interactions with colleagues this week I learned that they are worrying about our students dealing with cramped living situations (4 generations in one apartment), hunger, income loss (all adults out of work), adult-level responsibilities for siblings (a high-schooler caring for 6 younger children), abuse of all kinds, and being sex-trafficked (two different teachers shared this worry).

And in the midst of that, they are trying to re-imagine what teaching and learning might be, figure out how to learn all manner of new tools, take care of their own lives, and have some kind of integrity in a system that, in what passed for the best of times, routinely failed our students with disabilities, our students of color, and our students living in poverty.

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist or an educator to imagine how that’s likely to go. Could we just, for once, get real here?

Education is profoundly important, but two months without assignments and tests and grades in the midst of a traumatizing crisis is not going to be a thing that damages our kids forever. Increasing the trauma by adding to their families’ stress and creating inequitable opportunities (and consequences) might, though.

I wish we could acknowledge that: 1) We are living through a crisis that is taking a tremendous toll on every one of us and will have repercussions that will alter the course of many (all?) lives forever; and 2) many of our systems (including schools) were broken before this started; and 3) seeing the brokenness and the fragility of all kinds of things we rely on for stability is traumatic; and 4) given #1, #2, and #3, perhaps trying to patch things up and make them work kinda like they used to isn’t heroic or the thing to do right now. Perhaps, instead, the thing to do is take care of fundamental, human needs (food, shelter, safety, mental and physical health, connection) and pay attention to what that can show us about how we might all live better when the acute stage of this event is over. (As a good friend told me on Friday, we aren’t close to the end yet. We aren’t even close to the end of the beginning.)

Like I said, I’m an idealist and an optimist. (And I’m not being sarcastic.)

What I know about educators and most human beings is that we can and will dig deep for the right kinds of hard. When you see groups of regular people rising up and pushing back (which is already happening), it’s not because they are lazy or greedy or want more than their fair share. It’s because they care deeply about something and they have been pushed to their limits doing things that are the wrong kind of hard and that damage things they value. Like kids and their families.

This was a hard week.

Dots

We can’t go back to normal: How will coronavirus change the world?
“Any glance at history reveals that crises and disasters have continually set the stage for change, often for the better…. But crises can also send societies down darker paths.”

Is Your Grocery Delivery Worth a Worker’s Life?
“Fearing retaliation, American workers are generally far more reluctant to stick their necks out and protest working conditions than are workers in other industrial countries. But with greater fear of the disease than of their bosses, workers have set off a burst of walkouts, sickouts and wildcat strikes.”

The Virus is a Reminder of Something Lost Long Ago
“Habits of mind and lifestyle do not change easily….Some powerful force must strike to awaken us from our slumber. Now we have been struck. We have a chance to notice…”

None of This is Normal
“Normal is gone. There will be a new normal. We’ll get there. We’ll get through this. But things will change and that’s going to be okay. Maybe better than okay. Maybe we’ll come out better in the end. But we don’t have to be better now, we don’t have to be better overnight.”

Philly Teacher: School district was right not to rush distance learning…
“In this moment, we shouldn’t ignore inequality, but demand that addressing it be central to any policy put forward. We need to stop thinking about education simply as a commodity that our students are losing. At their best, public schools can serve the community by transforming education into a social commitment to our future.”

Hey, Parents and Teachers

I see you all, scrambling so hard.

I see your schedules for study and reading and exercise. I see you sharing your digital resources, not hoarding a single scrap of anything that might help someone else help their kids. Heck, every once in awhile I chime in, too, throwing a helpful URL into the ring where you’re all fighting to hang onto something that feels right, if not normal.

Sometime in the past day or two, though, I started wondering if maybe you all need a different kind of lifeline. So I’m offering this one:

In the fall of 2005, my twins were in second grade, and their teachers began what would end up being the second-longest teachers’ strike in Oregon history. Their dad and I were both teachers in another district, so we were still working. We didn’t have a good daycare backup, and we were (of course) on the side of their teachers, and so we prepared to buck up and hunker down for however long a haul it might be. Somehow.

Just a few days in, home with the kids, my husband decided that now was as good a time as any for him to tear up the vinyl in front of our dishwasher and finally find out what was creating a growing bump in the floor. We’d had a dishwasher guy out who said there were no leaks, so we knew it wasn’t the washer.

I didn’t understand the implications of the photo he emailed me that morning–what all that black stuff underneath the vinyl was. By the end of the day, however, through a series of emails and phone calls, I knew I was only going to have a few minutes to pack up anything we might need for the night because the black stuff was mold and we had to get out of the house.

I didn’t try to make my kids do any schoolwork that night. It was all still a bit of an adventure. Each of the few days after that, though, revealed a new level of not-normal and not-adventure. Long story short: Two-thirds of the ground level of our house was full of mold. We’d have to move out while a crew removed the flooring and a good chunk of drywall from our kitchen, dining room, and family room. All of the kitchen cabinets had to come out. Machines would have to run 24/7 for weeks to dry everything out, and then we’d have to rebuild.

This was all going to take awhile. And the teachers were still on strike.

The vacation condo we’d gone to “for just a few nights” was going to be home for…who knows how long? We tried to settle into a “new normal” in which my kids were not living in their house, without most of their things, and not going to school. They were 8 years old.

Some days they went to school with me, sitting at desks next to my high-schoolers, pretending to do “work” I’d given them. Some days they went with their dad. As the days turned into a week, and then another week, I started to get anxious about all the school they were missing. They were in second grade! A crucial year for reading and math! For everything!

After dinner, I’d sit with them at our not-ours kitchen table and write out math problems. Addition and subtraction with multiple digit numbers. I stumbled over trying to conceptually explain tens and hundreds and borrowing, which my bright children rather stubbornly (it seemed to me) refused to understand. For several nights, our already-stressful days ended with more stress.

Finally, one evening, my daughter gave me a talking-to.

“Mommy,” she said, with what I could see was a great deal of patience, “I know you are a teacher, but I don’t want you to be my teacher. You are Mommy, and that’s all I want you to be.”

I looked at her, and it was as if I were really seeing her for the first time since everything had started falling apart.

“OK,” I said. Fair enough.

I decided that we all had enough to contend with as it was, and I pushed the math papers aside with as much relief as both small sets of relaxing shoulders expressed.

The strike was not insignificant. Our kids missed school for a month, and re-entry wasn’t easy. But 15 years out, I can look back and tell you that my kids would not have been better off if I’d insisted on continuing my efforts to teach them what I thought they needed to learn.

I was so in the thick of stress from worrying about money and the house and trying to keep everything as normal as possible that I couldn’t see the stress my kids were under, too–and that nothing I might do would make anything feel normal.

After that evening, we came home (to not-home), ate dinner together, and sometimes played games and sometimes watched movies. We read books before bed, and snuggled, and tried to enjoy living in a place that others went to for vacations. We didn’t know when anything was going to end; days kept being added to projections for when we could move home, and the strike just kept going on and on. So I finally stopped worrying about it, because there was nothing I could do, anyway. I knew we’d be back to normal eventually, no matter what I might do or not do, and that the kids were going to be all right as long as they felt loved and safe.

As it turned out, the old normal never really came back. It was a good six months or more before all of the repair was done on the house, and we made so many changes in the process that it never really felt like our old home again. It was a nice one, but a different one. By the time the house was whole again, all the cracks in the foundation of my marriage had widened to chasms we would not be able to fix. Those weeks in the condo were some of the last in what I now think of as our life before, and I am glad that the memories I have of that time are mostly sweet ones.

The second-grade girl who resisted my math instruction became a high-school student who exhausted her school’s math offerings by the end of her junior year. So, presumably, no harm, no foul from the second-grade delay in learning how to add and subtract. She’s now a college senior who was in Sweden when her school announced that it was going all-digital for the remainder of this year (and–oh, yeah, come move all your stuff out NOW), and was still there two days later when the US announced it was closing the border to travelers from Europe. She’s still there, trying to finish her thesis and work remotely for her jobs that have that as an option and get answers from her financial aid office and attend her online classes virtually from a different time zone with sometimes spotty internet connection, all while trying to wrap her head around the reality that she may never see some of her friends again and that she can’t make any solid plans for her life after graduation. Yesterday she let me know that one of her housemates now has a fever and a cough.

So, to all you parents and teachers: I feel for you. You keep doing what you need to do, however it seems best to do it. A pandemic is not a mold infestation or a teachers’ strike, and what we’re living through is a whole other level of not-normal. But maybe that’s even more reason to stop and take a deep breath, and take a good, hard look at everything around your children/students. Maybe instead of focusing on all the things your kids/students aren’t getting right now that you think you must provide, focus on them and what they’re telling you they really need. There are all kinds of ways to learn, and maybe, right now, there are more important things for them to know than anything they might typically learn while sitting at a desk or in a circle at carpet time.

With love and respect,
Rita

Some Dots

Homeschooling while working from home during a global pandemic bingo (because laughing right now is really important, and humor has a way of making a wicked-serious point)

Working from home with kids? Survive the quarantine with these proven tips… (from a former teaching colleague who’s funny and smart and wise as hell)

The case for shutting schools down instead of moving them online (because while No Child Left Behind resulted in really bad policy and practices, our solutions need to consider every child’s needs and resources)

An open letter to high school seniors (from Louisiana’s Teacher of the Year)

GBSD home learning resources, grades K-5 (I really like the game board format of these resources, and I like the mix of digital and non-digital activities. This might have worked a whole lot better than anything I tried back in 2005.)

Facts about the unschooling philosophy of education (what better time than now to reconsider everything you might think about teaching and learning?)

Migraine trigger #248

“In January it might seem like teachers would return from a vacation and feel rested, ready to jump back into the classroom with energy. That’s partly true, but Aguilar has also found that the time off can decrease people’s tolerance for stuff they have to deal with in the classroom. They’ve felt like a normal human for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.” 12 Ways Teachers Can Build Resilience So They Can Make Systemic Change

Oh, y’all.

Did you see that last sentence? “They’ve felt like normal humans for a few weeks and they don’t want to go back.”

So much there to unpack. I mean, what is “a normal human” anyway? What is normal existence? Seems to me that for more and more people “normal” life is some combination of low wages, various forms of oppression, unaffordable housing and healthcare, corrupt government officials, insecure/inadequate retirement, and fear of rising authoritarianism/the deep state/what crap white people are going to do next in response to their fears. (I’d put in links to substantiate those claims, but: migraine.)

And, do you see that assumption that not feeling like a normal human is just part of what it means to be a teacher? I know the article title implies that we’re to develop resiliency strategies so that we can remain in the system and the fight to change it–to which I can’t say anything but, Yes, of course. But can we for just a minute acknowledge how that’s such a tricky line to walk? How it may be counter-productive to keep patching ourselves with band-aids when what we really need to be well is surgery? Because then no one sees that we’re bleeding out, maybe until it’s too late?

I’m under no illusion that a teacher’s life on break is “normal” for any but a privileged relatively few of us (and I’m deeply grateful for the breaks I get, because I know many people don’t have anything like that kind of respite), but c’mon. I don’t think that’s what the Aguilar means.

I’m guessing she (and all of us) might define “normal human,” as one who is reasonably healthy with manageable stressors.

Since coming back from break, feeling so healthy and determined to stay that way (as opposed to the exhausted, brittle, fragile way I felt in the weeks leading up to the break) I have been self-caring the shit out of myself. I have been practicinggoodsleephygienemealplanningeatingplantsavoidingcaffeinestayinghydratedtendingrelationshipsreframingstoriesholdingboundariesowningwhatsminenotowningwhatsnotdoingcreativeworkpracticinggratitudeshiningalightonwhatsgoodkeepingabudgetbeingmindfulstayinginthemoment, and…

…my self-care is stressing me out, which I think is the opposite of its intended outcome. At the end of too many days, I’m just too depleted to do much of any of those things. All I want to do is to pick up a pizza and collapse on the couch in front of mindless TV and numb the fuck out.

But I’ve been doing them anyway, because I really, really want these things to work. I really, really want to be/feel healthy more of the time. I want that more than I want to numb out.

And it’s not like I have unreasonable standards or am trying to win some gold medal in the self-care Olympics. I cut myself slack as needed. On Thursday, recognizing physical and mental depletion, I realized I could not spend time with a friend and make my scheduled session at the gym and make/eat a healthy dinner. I chose friend (social connections/relationships) and healthy dinner and cut the gym (and doing laundry) and felt just fine about that choice. But migraine came anyway, sending me home early on Friday and messing with my weekend as well as my head.

What I’m trying to say is…hell if I really know what I’m trying to say. I’m too damn tired to figure out what I’m trying to say, and I need to get off this screen so the migraine doesn’t show up for a third day.

So, just 4 more things:

  1. This isn’t just about teachers. I spend most of my time with teachers, but this struggle isn’t limited to teachers. It’s about systems and conditions that touch many of us.
  2. I know I’m relatively privileged. I know I have it better than many, many people. (That doesn’t make it OK or OKer.)
  3. I don’t want any advice. I’m already doing all of the things Ms. Aguilar and so many others advise to build resilience. I AM DOING ALL OF THE THINGS. Your experiences–including things that have worked for you–is very welcome if you’d like to share that.
  4. Sorry for shouting there. It’s just, I know, OK? I know the things. This post isn’t really about the things. Sorry if I haven’t taken the time to express what it’s about more clearly.

One of the things I promised myself I’d do is write more regularly here. (Suggestion #10: Play and Create.) And I gave myself permission to sometimes do it quickly and to live by William Stafford’s wise counsel to lower my standards if that’s what’s needed to get words on paper. Or screen. Whatever. Practicing that hard with this entry in the notebook. (See: migraine.)

OK, just one more thing:

  1. Thanks for being here. Human connection really is one of the things that makes a difference.

Off to meal-plan and get to the grocery store early enough to avoid the crowds.

Learning Swedish is my current zoning out method of choice. It’s something I’m doing with my daughter (building relationships, being connected), and as I told her this week, it’s cheaper than therapy and healthier than drinking. I always feel better after a few lessons.