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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.)
“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
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:
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.
I know I’m relatively privileged. I know I have it better than many, many people. (That doesn’t make it OK or OKer.)
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.
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:
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.
When I began teaching, 30 was a magic number. After 30 years, a teacher had earned full benefits in the public employee pension system and most could retire with an income close to the one they’d been earning.
Back then, it seemed to me that almost all colleagues nearing their 30-year mark were just a bit past their sell-by date. They looked tired. They sounded tired. Many said they were ready to go. I could hardly imagine ever being one of them. I knew, of course, that one day I would be, but that day was so far away it didn’t seem or feel real.
And yet, here it is. Here I am. I began my career as an educator at the end of January, 1990. 30 years ago this week.
A lot of things have changed in 30 years. In my initial teaching certification program, we had one half-day class on instructional technology that included a rotation on how to use a ditto machine. There was no mandated language arts curriculum in the Seattle public school where I did my student teaching, so I was able to make up my own. I had a snazzy new Mac with software on floppy disks, but no email or internet. There were no standards, no annual standardized tests, no school report cards. And–oh, yeah–no school shootings, no lockdown drills, and no room clears, either.
I finished my licensure program at an odd time of the year (December), and I was entering a tight job market. In a seminar on how to conduct our search for a teaching position, we were told that only one in eight of us would likely get a job. The eight of us earning a secondary language arts license all looked at each other when the presenter said that. Well, I thought, if only one of us is going to get a job, I need to be the best so I can make sure it’s me. I braced myself for a grueling search and at least six months of being a sub (the idea of which terrified me), but then I applied for a mid-year opening at a high school just outside of Portland, and the next thing I knew my young husband and I were packing up our belongings and heading south.
I don’t really know how to capture 30 years in a short blog post. I’ve been an English teacher, an instructional coach, and a district librarian. I taught grades 7-12, in 6 different schools, including an alternative school and a charter school. Twice I’ve been involuntarily transferred, which isn’t really the same thing as being fired (but it feels like it is), and once my colleagues recognized me as one of the best teacher-librarians in our state. In addition to teaching English, I’ve also taught keyboarding, humanities, and personal finance. Right now I am the librarian for every student in my district, grades K-12, a job that’s had me reading stories to Kinders and teaching seniors how to use databases.
Over the 30 years I have been on the receiving end of curses, tirades, tantrums, tears, and hugs (from both children and adults). Last year a 2nd-grader threw a pencil in my face and last week a 4th grader asked me for my autograph and last Tuesday high school girls outside my office talked in pretty graphic detail about their sex lives. I have kept confidences and reported secrets. I still choke up when I think about the autistic boy with finger-shaped bruises on his throat or the smart, loud, provocative 14-year-old who turned silent the day we read a short story about a girl with a sexually abusive father. I have both thrown out lifelines and blundered into situations I didn’t know enough about, causing damage I couldn’t repair. I’ve been frustrated, shocked, devastated, and disappointed, but also delighted, surprised, elated, and profoundly happy. I have never been bored. I have some regrets.
It’s such a cliche, but it’s all gone so fast. In my 30 years I have lived in 3 different cities, in 6 different homes. I divorced 2 men and raised 5 children. I graded at least 30,000 essays, give or take a few. (Probably give.) The years fly when almost every day feels like a race against the clock. Starting in year 5, I worked 3 shifts: I taught during the day, parented in the evenings, and after the children went to sleep I graded papers or planned lessons until I couldn’t stay awake any more. Every single week day. Well, I didn’t do third shift on Fridays, but I did it Sunday nights, and I can’t tell you how many sick days I took so that I could work all day to try to catch up. I also regret all the times I was not fully present for second shift because I let third shift intrude upon it, grading papers at soccer games or mentally planning the next day’s lessons during dinner.
It has always, in one way or another, been a struggle. Until a few years ago, I kept thinking that some day I was going to figure out the thing I was really meant to do. In the space that opened after the last of the children left home and I no longer had three shifts or a perpetual stack of papers hanging over my head, it occurred to me that it was probably too late to find that thing and that maybe I had been doing it all along. Maybe what we’re “meant to do” isn’t necessarily what feels most comfortable or enjoyable. Maybe it’s what feels most meaningful and compelling. Maybe it’s the thing we can’t bring ourselves to walk away from, even when part of us really wants to–and it’s not because we’re co-dependent or afraid of risk or incapable of doing something else, but simply because we can’t imagine anything else that could matter as much to us. Maybe it’s not so different from loving a partner or our children: No matter how hard it gets, we just can’t give up on it.
Like the teachers who were ending when I was beginning, I now look a little tired and am past peak freshness. Thanks to pension reforms, skyrocketing healthcare costs, and the aforementioned divorces, though, 30 isn’t quite the magic number it was when I started; I cannot afford to stop working yet. Still, there is a window opening. Being at full retirement age means I could retire from teaching and do some other kind of work that doesn’t pay as much to bridge the gap between here and social security.
I wrote recently about the revelation it has been to notice what I want. That’s something I’m doing now in the realm of work. I read about or watch the kinds of things other people do, and I pay attention to what creates a spark for me, that feeling of wouldn’t it be cool to do that? I don’t think about what might or might not be possible. I’m just noticing where the spark is. I peruse jobs on LinkedIn that I’m not qualified for and ones that I’m over-qualified for. When I see someone out in the world doing something I think I might like to do, I ask them about how they like their job. As I work at my jobs each day, I pay attention to what I love and to what I don’t, and what information those feelings give me about the qualities I might want to have in whatever is next (even if what’s next is more of the same). It’s been eye-opening, all of it, and kind of fun. I never realized how much I shut some thoughts and desires down before they even rose up, just because I thought there was no way to incorporate them into my life. (That’s a regret, too.)
Make no mistake: I am tired (of many things) and a little wilted (some days more than others). But the more I’ve been paying attention, the more I’ve been thinking that I might not be done yet, and not just because I can’t afford health insurance. I can see now what I couldn’t really see in those first years: Energy and freshness are vital, but so is the knowledge and wisdom that come from deep experience. I’ve got a value that no new teacher–even the most well-read, creative, energetic, and dedicated–can have. My profession and our children need both kinds of educators. I’m thinking that (maybe?) 30 is the new 20. Maybe it is not time to leave, but time (again) to make some kind of transformation within this field that is probably the one I was always meant to be in.
Or maybe not?
It’s hard to know. I guess time–and attention, reflection, questioning, and opportunity–will tell.
34 years ago, I walked into a poetry workshop at the University of Washington, beginning a relationship that has endured longer than almost anything else in my life.
I didn’t want to write poetry. I took the class to fulfill a requirement, which I hoped to do so as quickly and painlessly as possible. As an English major with a writing emphasis, I needed advanced coursework in two genres. Essay writing was my preferred mode, the reason for my choice of major. I had tried my hand at fiction; it was not for me. That left poetry. Although I’d had some success with it in high school, I’d also had some trauma that left scars. It had been 5 years since I’d written a poem. The legendary Nelson Bently, the professor who ran the workshop, didn’t care about any of that (or much about the formalities of the university system), so before I could complete my tale of accomplishment and woe and need, he said, sure, I could begin at the intermediate level.
But this isn’t a story about Nelson, or even about me, really. It is about Robert R. Ward, whom I met in that workshop, and who has been my publisher, mentor, and friend for 34 years.
The workshop was open to everyone from beginners to grad students. Somehow, in ways that were invisible to me, Nelson made sure that the beginners were nurtured and the grad students were challenged. For those like me when I first arrived, commentary focused primarily on what worked. More experienced students received true critique. One of the sharpest of those giving it was an intense, bearded older man who usually sat in a corner and always intimidated the hell out of me.
I was 21 years old. A sorority girl. I had blonde, bobbed hair, and I wore polo shirts and pearl earrings. Robert, for reasons initially unfathomable to me, liked my poetry. He gave me feedback in written comments, in ways that showed me he took my writing seriously. Took me seriously.
I enrolled in Nelson’s poetry workshop–supposed to be a one-off–every quarter after that until I graduated. Robert invited me to gatherings after class at Pizza Hut, where Nelson ordered Guinness Stout and talked with us about poetry. I learned that Robert was the publisher and editor of a literary journal, Bellowing Ark, (and of Bellowing Ark Press, which published books), which is where some of my earliest poems were published. Although I admire and appreciate Nelson and all that his workshop was, Robert was the one who taught me how to write.
Robert always had a day-job. He’d grown up in a rural area and had practical skills. He’d had some wives. He had a twinkle in his eye and a hearty, genuine laugh. He insisted that the only true art is that which affirms the value of living. He was a modern Romantic, through and through. You could see it in Bellowing Ark‘s submission guidelines (here, from the 2009 Poet’s Market):
“Bellowing Ark…prints ‘only poetry which demonstrates in some way the proposition that existence has meaning, or to put it another way, that life is worth living. We have no strictures as to length, form, or style; only that the work we publish is, to our judgment, life-affirming.'”
You could see it, too, in the Editor’s Note that accompanied each issue, as in this excerpt from July/August 1993:
We have heard that poetry should only be; poetry, an artifact, cannot carry meaning because there is no meaning. Truly, it has been said that there is no beauty in nature, only the pretense in men’s minds. This is a lie of the reductionists, those who imagine themselves the rulers of nature….
Poetry comes, first and foremost, from the land, from the earth, that gave us all birth; poetry now runs as thin as the streams of our childhood because our poets have cut themselves off from the land, have hidden themselves in towers with no windows where they practice their emotionless and intellectual dissections, have become, in fact, one with the reductionists and apologists who deny beauty, and the soul’s deep and necessary connection to nature. Life is a true thing; a primary source of beauty that is available to all who would choose to look. The poet’s task is but to open our eyes.”
Sometime in the late 80s, he fell in love with Paula Milligan, a bright light of a woman who was one of our band–for, yes, I had become one of a band–and they later married.
I moved away from Seattle in 1990, but Robert and I kept in touch and he continued to publish my poems. In the late 90’s, he told me that I had a book, and that he wanted to publish it.
He helped me cull and shape more than 10 years of work into that book, and in 2002 The Play of Light and Dark, my only book of poetry, was published. It went on to win the Oregon Book Award for 2003, an experience that brought me so many other good ones; I met wonderful people and traveled to places in Oregon I wouldn’t otherwise have seen. None of that would have happened if he hadn’t supported my work from those first days in the poetry workshop.
Still, Robert could be a curmudgeonly crank. In many ways he was not an easy person. I heard often from those who wanted to sell my book that he was a most difficult publisher to work with. Each copy was hand-sewn by him, so there was no such thing as a swift response to a request for copies, and although I don’t remember what his terms were I remember that others didn’t like them. He didn’t have much use for the literary establishment or traditional measures of success. As it turned out, I didn’t, either, and am a curmudgeon in my own ways, so ours was a compatible partnership.
In the years that followed the book, Robert and I engaged in a prolonged conversation through correspondence and occasional face-to-face visits. Throughout, he expressed a belief in my work and its importance that I have never been able to have for myself.
Paula, 13 years younger than he, died unexpectedly in 2016. It was about that time that he told me his years were limited, too. A bad heart, he said. He chose to forgo surgery to repair it, knowing that it would change his life and in doing so change him, and he wanted to go on living as the self he was. He preferred fewer years living the life he had than, potentially, more years living a fundamentally different one.
Somehow, although I believed that he was going to leave us sooner than later, I didn’t really comprehend it. The last time I visited, we went for a walk and he seemed as healthy as he’d ever been. I was sure we’d meet again.
The last time we exchanged letters was nearly a year ago. In his last letter he promised to write more soon on a topic about which we disagreed. He didn’t, and I got busy and preoccupied with my own troubles, and I wasn’t writing anyway, and I let myself forget what he’d told me after Paula’s death: None of us are guaranteed anything, especially time.
I didn’t try to reach out until late in the fall, and when I did I realized I’d missed messages from him in the spring. I wrote right away, but I didn’t hear from him. I didn’t worry much; long pauses were common in our conversation. I tried again a little later, and again after that. I worried that he’d taken offense at my disengagement, and that that’s why I wasn’t hearing back from him. That wouldn’t really have made sense in our friendship, but I think I was looking for any reason other than the most likely to explain his lack of reply.
This week, I learned from a friend of his that he died last June.
I searched for an obituary, and this is all the one that I found said:
Robert Ross Ward was born on May 30, 1943 and passed away on June 13, 2019.
Perhaps it was learning about this loss on the morning we all woke to the possibility of new war brought about by our dishonest and self-serving President, or perhaps it was learning about it on the day my son left to return to his Marine base two states away, or perhaps it was learning about it the day after I’d put the decorations away after our best holiday in years, or perhaps it was none of those things, really, but simply the realization that someone who has mattered to me for 34 years is gone, and there will be no more letters, no more of a particular kind of refuge that he offered me at critical junctures, no more wise counsel when I most need it, no more deep and unwavering belief in the importance of my work. Whatever it is, the loss of this person who is officially remembered only for the dates of his birth and death has gutted me.
I realized, only since knowing he is gone, that every time I wrote here, I was writing with him in mind. Although he never commented, he referenced many of these posts in our conversations. It feels so strange to know that a person I’ve been writing to for so long is no longer in the audience. I’m wondering how that will change the writing.
I know that last sentence would please him, with its implication that there will still be writing. Robert believed in the necessity of poetry (in whatever form that poetry might take) in the world, absolutely and without wavering. He championed and shared the work of so many people who affirmed through their words that life has meaning and is worth living. It doesn’t matter that there is no official record to say what he did with his life. It doesn’t matter that most of those works never found a large audience and are already forgotten or will soon be. What matters is what always mattered to him: the work and those who read it. Not fame or acclaim or longevity. Just the work, and its impact on whatever audience it happened to find, and how that impact might ripple out into the world.
We are living through a frightening, unstable time. Robert and I viewed many things differently, but we agreed about this. His death–or, more importantly, his life and his beliefs and his many words to me–have me thinking hard about what work needs to be done in the face of all that is coming. About what work I need to do. I know that some of you write, and struggle with writing, and wonder about how to best use your life’s energy, given all that is happening right now. Since learning of Robert’s death, I find myself returning, again and again, to words from Dylan Thomas that appeared at the top of the masthead in every issue of Bellowing Ark, and in remembrance of Robert I want to offer them to you now:
…Look: I build my bellowing ark to the best of my love as the flood begins…”
Whatever your ark might be, but especially if it is built of words that affirm that life is beautiful and meaningful and, above all else, worth living, I hope that you, like Robert, will make it with the best of your love and invite as many people aboard as it will hold.
It’s what I hope to do. I can’t think of a better way to honor my friend.
Leaving for work on the third Friday of the school year, I noticed my strawberry plants.
No, wait–that’s not quite right. I’d noticed them plenty of mornings before. They are directly in my line of sight when I walk out my back door to the garage. I’d noticed them drooping (and then browning and then shriveling) every morning, and every morning for at least two weeks I’d thought, I really need to water those when I come home tonight.
And then I wouldn’t. They weren’t in my line of sight when I came home, and even if I did remember them I was too tired/busy/late to do anything about it. (Or so I told myself.)
See, I had them hanging from the roof of my shed, which means that even though we had plenty of rain last week (thank you, weather gods), the poor strawberry basket didn’t get any because it was under the roof overhang. And the thought of dragging out the hose and giving it a drink of water–something I love doing in July–felt overwhelming in September. (See: tired, busy, late.)
I kept telling myself every morning that tonight, this night, I would water the poor thing. But I never did. And then, the third Friday of the school year I made myself go up close and really look at it to see if it could even be saved and then I beat myself up a little bit for letting it get so bad and then I wondered why I’m so lazy and can’t just do a better job of taking care of business.
Suddenly, lightening struck.
Not really, but out of nowhere I realized: I could just take the basket off the hook and put it on the pavement that doesn’t have any roof overhang covering it and the rain would water it.
No, it wouldn’t look as nice sitting on the pavement as it did hanging off the cute little shed roof. But half-dead wasn’t looking so nice, either. Wouldn’t it be better for the plant to be healthy in a less-optimal location than dead in a prime one?
For me, September has been multiple migraines, two rounds of antibiotics, 12+ hour work days, one sick day, fast food lunches, and lots of driving from school to school to school. (Last Thursday I never made it to my desk.) On the third Friday of the school year I finally paid attention to the strawberry basket, and looking at those dried up leaves and shriveled berries that could have been lush and plump–and that I might have eaten!–if only I’d stopped long enough to realize there was another way, I understood that, of course (of course!) this basket was a metaphor for every educator I know living through the month of September. (And most of the rest of them, too–but especially September, second only to May–not April–as the cruelest month.)
To suggest that all we need to do is somehow move our metaphoric basket to a place where we can get a little rain is not to ignore or dismiss or diminish the systemic and structural and resource issues that plague education and leave so many of us only half-alive by the end of the third week of the school year. But still, I’ve been wondering if there are things I might do to keep myself healthy that are as simple as moving my strawberry basket to a place where I don’t have to water it. And I’ve been reminded that we can’t just ignore our basic needs day after day after day because we’re too tired/busy/late to tend to them. Unless, you know, we want to end up like this:
Which doesn’t serve anyone. So, if you haven’t already–go water yourself this weekend! (Yeah, I know that sounds a little inappropriate. Or maybe I think that just because I’m surrounded many days by humans who love fart jokes. Whatever. Go take care of yourself!)