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.

12 thoughts on “Of ants, grasshoppers, maps, and being lost

  1. Skye Leslie says:

    Hey darling Rita-

    So glad you’re going to take a week to come to a full stop. And do the things we can only do when we are not frantic about the realities which now confront us.

    Retired, I no longer am faced with the kind of challenges you face – in particular- the kind of work you do and the services, on all levels, which you bring to the students and colleagues.

    Yet, on some level, there are still challenges in my own life which can set my head spinning with repetitive regard toward that over which I have little or no control.

    There has been a sense of safety living here, in the outskirts of Central Oregon – especially regarding covid19 – as we have such a small population, are more widely scattered and are not a tourist destination in terms of this city being much of a draw.

    However, I do worry about my kids and grandkids. I’m concerned right now about my granddaughter, Alyvia. An AP student , active in community work and an outstanding soccer player – she was dumb founded in the spring when she discovered that her work would be graded as pass/no pass and still does not understand how all that is going to translate into scholarship applications – and added to that her community work and athletics were all terminated. As she enters (maybe) her senior year , she is filled with a lot of anxiety.

    All to say, in my life, and unfortunately, probably less applicable to the demands of yours ,my sense of the spiritual and all its attendant mystery is where I find the the greatest solace. That I cannot readily discern the future, despite any worry, concern or actual work I might put into it – provides me with a measure of comfort. That there are answers I will never have removes some of the grind on my nerves and a tendency to want to overthink and control everything – provides respite.

    I continue to think, move about my day, pray, volunteer some service, play around with recipes, walk my dog, inhale the high desert through sight, sound and smell. In many ways, and I pray it is not a hope which cannot be met, I consider the most profound act I may commit over the next 6 months is to campaign for Biden, vote for Biden and beg the universe for his election to the Presidency. I fully believe that even those of us who cannot abide Trump are not able to fully understand, yet, the deeply negative psychological and searing emotional impact – Trump has had on this nation. The confusion, lies, outright gas-lighting, lack of leadership as a statesman, the narcissism, exploitation of racism and division, failure to face covid 19, the loss of standing and regard in the greater world, the use of insult, innuendo, attacks on people and groups which are not based on truth – is rotting our roots and extinguishing our hopes and bringing us to a place where forward movement feels almost impossible.

    Your work, in the best most even field, is naturally fraught with enormous challenges. But, I want to encourage you to know that both the reality of an election and the inherent mystery found in this gigantic tribe in which we live but, at this time, may fail to understand are not forever, in my estimation.

    Hope will keep us going. Hope is so often found in the full stop at a mixing bowl on the kitchen counter, when our fingers are in soil, at a pause beside a stream, in the held breath with our kids within our arms. Add a dash of mystery, a pinch of an intentional life, a cup of the best of which we are capable, the advantage of a week’s pause and I hope you return to the table, if nothing else, refreshed for another round of the mysterious challenges of life.


    • Rita says:


      That last paragraph is pure gold. Hope is so often found in a mixing bowl, or soil, or in breath.

      I’ll be holding your grand-daughter in my thoughts. While many were (rightly) concerned about the impact of our sudden closure on seniors, it was the juniors (now upcoming seniors) I worried more for. I understand her worry and frustration. High school is largely a game, and it must be so disorienting and anxiety-producing to have the game board, rules, and perhaps even the terms for victory suddenly change when you were so close to winning. I hope some meaningful change in education comes out of all this–that it might become more about learning and less about accumulating points.

      It is always so good to hear from you. I’m glad to know you’re relatively safe and clearly in a space that feeds your spirit.

      Sending you love–

    • Skye Leslie says:

      Thanks so much for understanding about my granddaughter. You are so exactly right about having “been bound” to the “rules of the game.” Since about 3rd grade, Alyvia and 5 or 6 other kids pledged their allegiance to becoming standouts scholastically, athletically, as serving members of a community. They did this mostly out of their own zeal but with an understanding that high school’s game demanded it out of them. Just prior to Covid, Alyvia had put hours of research, study, pulling together graphics and genome models for an elaborate biology/chemistry project about which she was passionate and had some hope of contending for a prize. Covid hit. She got a “pass.” Her heart was and remains broken. I totally realize she’s not the only kid this has happened to. She is not unique and she’s an amazing kid and will deal with it. It was the rug yanked from beneath her feet which sent her reeling and with anxiety about her senior year. Again, thanks for knowing how hard this hit her. Love to you.

      • Rita says:

        Oh, I can see why that would be so hard for her! But, I hope there’s opportunity in this for her, too. While I’m not discounting her hurt, I hope it provides an opportunity for her to think deeply about why she does what she does. (I wish I’d done that much earlier in my life.) I hope she loved working on that project just for its own sake. Or if she didn’t, that she gains something valuable from realizing that. I have a daughter who worked really hard in much the same ways. That’s no longer the path she is on, and I think she’s healthier and happier than I’ve seen her in years. The uncertainty we’re all living in now is so disconcerting, especially for those of us who like to plan and maybe have some little issues with control. 🙂 Layering that on top of adolescence is a real, heavy challenge. I know that the decision to make everything pass/fail was an attempt to ease anxiety for our youth, but I totally understand how it had the opposite impact on some.

  2. Marian says:

    There’s so much in this post that resonates, Rita.
    When the pandemic hit us in March, our local newspaper carried an opinion piece in which a doctor was quoted as saying, “We aren’t asking you [non-frontline-workers] to go to war; we are asking you to sit on your couches and watch Netflix”—and my first thought was that this doctor knew little about psychology or how capitalism worked. You’re right—The Ant and the Grasshopper absolutely is “a story grounded in fear, judgement, and cruelty”—and I can see that while admitting that I, too, am an ant, who comes from a long line of ants. This work ethic is at the heart of northern European (and therefore North American) culture, and it’s that, I think, that made me shake my head (and fear for repercussions) when I read that opinion piece in March—no one wants to be told they are not essential or that their work is not valuable.

    On the now essentialness of school (and the fact that it must also now provide “healthcare, social services, meals, and child care”), I don’t think we can fully discuss this without also talking about how we got to this place. How much of the work that people now do—which they cannot do unless schools free them to do this work by providing more than *just* education—is actually essential? And, because everything is connected, how much of that work is dependent on the exploitation of other people or the planet? If we’re to have any hope of solving the many crises we’re currently in, we’re going to have to figure out what to do about all the non-essential work that so many of us do, and conversely, what to do about all the essential work that so many of us are not doing. (I’m thinking this is going to be an enormously difficult conversation in the US.)

    “Music is its own kind of food, isn’t it?” I would hate to live a life that didn’t include music, or books, or movies, and yet my ant indoctrination was so thorough that any time I give to music or books or movies can only come after I’ve completed a sufficient amount of work. “Work,” for me, includes tending my garden, cleaning my house, and cooking, and this part of your post has brought to mind Kate’s comment about wanting to find people who shake with rage and yet find joy in baking or gardening. When Kate said that, I wanted to jump in and say “that’s me!” but something stopped me. I think it was the word “joy,” which I’m now seeing as too exuberant a word for non-grasshoppers. You’ve said doing these things will help you “get grounded in the landmarks [you] know”; this is precisely how I feel when I do these (seemingly) mundane (yet essential) tasks.

    • Kate says:

      Marian, the section in your comment about exuberance made me laugh, because I recognize myself in the a grasshopper. 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.

      Rita, I’m so glad you are taking the time that you need for yourself. Jesse and I have been talking a lot about how in times like these it can be very easy to put the urgent in front of the important because the urgent FEELS important (and sometimes is) but it can drain energy from where we really need to focus. Taking care of you – by finding those touchstones, getting the rest (mental or physical) you need sounds like a really good way to focus on the important.

      Looking forward to hearing your postcard next week!!

      (Oh and as an aside, I spoke to the principals of both schools and they’ll be home, but following along with virtual learning. The schools haven’t hammered out exactly how that will look, but they are making it possible for parents like me to keep their kids in the system while not sending them physically to school. HUGE relief. I appreciated your input a great deal!)

      • Rita says:

        Hi Kate,
        I’m so glad you’re feeling like you’ve landed upon a workable solution for school. Although I’m greatly limiting my news intake this week, I’m aware that our numbers of cases just keep rising. I won’t be surprised if most are in mostly virtual learning by September. (When does school start for you? I know we’re among the last to start.)

        It feels so strange to be living through an event that has upended daily life in such significant ways. I think so many of us never have that we just don’t quite get it or know what to do about it. I know there’s some balance to be found between accepting the disruption and striving to maintain normalcy. There’s benefits to both stances. I guess the trick is knowing what of the previous life to let go of and what to cling to.

        Your comment to Marian is illuminating for me. Being an ant often makes me angry, burnt out, and sick, too (usually in that order). I am unlearning so many ideas in recent years, and understanding that they are, indeed, ideas and not facts. Being socialized as I was, I took it as fact that working hard was virtuous and that we all have the capacity to work hard. And, the desire for rest is just that: desire. Not need. I’m understanding now that those are just ideas, and ideas that serve others with more power than me. Still haven’t figured out what to do with this growing understanding of mine (about what are needs vs. wants for me), but it is nice to be able to start releasing guilt/shame/etc. over not being more OK with how things have been.

        • Kate says:

          I think we start Sept 1 this year. I’m not sure. Usually we don’t start until after Labor Day but it’s late this year. The district hasn’t formally put out their plan this year, but if I absolutely have to, we’ll homeschool. I agree that we’re all trying to find the balance between normalcy and acceptance and I’ve realized that everyone’s calculus on that is/has to be different. As long as people are listening to science and being respectful, I’m okay with differing behaviors.

          While I was cleaning the kitchen this morning, I was thinking about your and Marian’s comments on work and it’s value and how we’ve framed it. It’s too much for a comment section, but I’m grateful to both of you for always getting me thinking. One last thought: I recently read something in regards to current feminism/racism discussions along the lines that we should hold ideas up to the “who benefits if I believe this idea” test. I’d argue that the balance between work/rest would be easier to find if we held up our work activities in the same way. (Easier said that done, but a jumping off point perhaps?)
          Kate recently posted…Tuesday ThingsMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      You and I are on the same page about work and its costs and the impossibility of our current economic system and cultural values around work. And, yes, an enormously difficult conversation here. In fact, I don’t know that we can even have a conversation. We don’t seem to be able to talk through anything right now. At least most people are now wearing a freaking mask. At least they are here in Oregon, where it is required in all public spaces–though I do not want to say that’s happening in the whole state; Portland is a liberal town, and mask wearing is a political act. (See previous re: inability to have a conversation.)

      Yesterday I thoroughly cleaned my floors and bathrooms, and it did bring me joy. I’ve been doing an overhaul of my laundry room, and it seems that whenever some space in the house is being worked on, the whole house goes to hell. I finally decided that the laundry room could wait a day, but the bathrooms and floors could not. I have a hard time finding that kind of joy when my work-for-pay is taking over too much of my life. Then, house work just feels like more work. It means there isn’t enough time for “music.” That is part of what makes the school year challenging for me. I’m going to try to get my fill of it in the weeks I have left away from that. I know it’s a thing that needs steady replenishment, but I’m hoping to focus on some projects that might make house work easier/lighter. Like making the laundry room more functional.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I always appreciate them.

    • Rita says:

      Hi Marian–
      I thought I’d replied to this, but just now see that I didn’t! I probably wanted some time to think about your words, and then never got back to them.

      And now, as I’m trying to formulate a response, I’m understanding why I decided to come back later when I first read your words. There is so much to say, I don’t really know where to begin. We haven’t even begun to really talk about how unsustainable our economic system is, from almost any vantage point. The relentless drumbeat of “return to normal” is being pounded by those for whom the system is working, right now. I am afraid that whatever the new order will be, its emergence will be painful. As the emergence of new orders usually are. (Plenty of pain right now, but I fear not enough. We humans seem to need to do things the hard way.)

      You and I are peas from the same pod when it comes to work. Kate’s words are often revelatory for me, which is part of why I appreciate them so much. I don’t know if I find joy in such work, but I do find a great deal of satisfaction, which I suppose is a kind of joy. As I’ve been allowing myself to be immersed in this kind of work over the past week, I am feeling grounded and making my way to joy. I’ll try to work out something coherent to say about all of it.

  3. Kari Wagner Hoban says:

    Oh Rita, I don’t know what I would do without your words in this pandemic. Honestly you, and Katie and a few others are saving me. This book I am writing me came to be from the Universe and things that have been swirling around. Sometimes I think it’s from all of you good people putting such good vibes into the world. When we think we aren’t making a difference, sometimes that is when we are making the most difference of all.
    Take this time off, it is well-deserved. You have my heart right now, I will put good energy into the Universe and sent it your way. I hope it gets there to you and you can feel it the way I felt it when I needed it desperately.
    I love you.
    I am only a messenger click away if you need to talk.
    Kari Wagner Hoban recently posted…The Perfect HomeMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      I love you, too. We’ll get each other through all of This. I feel that energy, just so you know. Feeling so much lighter today than I have in months. I don’t know why. Doesn’t seem to be something I can will or control. But it’s a gift, and I’m accepting it. Sending some right back to you.

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