Year One: #PandemicLife Lessons

As we run headlong into year two of this crazy pandemic life, I wanted to take a minute to reflect on where we’ve been. I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge the efforts and experiences we’ve lived since last year at this time. We’ve come a long way in our acceptance of our current reality, so it’s a good time to reflect on what we have learned thus far. Some of the lessons of the past year have been re-learned from childhood, but others have been a bit tougher to swallow… and to maintain. Here are some of the big ones:

Personal space: This year, we learned personal space is an actual thing. In the past, it wasn’t always respected, and people sometimes got too close. They might accidentally bump into you when they were reaching over you at the grocery store. Or you might sit three people across in a space made for one-and-a-half on an airplane. But personal space is important, and now we have come to see that more space is better! Now, when someone who doesn’t need quite as much personal space as you gets just a little too close, you can politely take a step (or five) backwards—while they are advancing—without offending them. Just claim Covid and social distance.

Cover your mouth: Whenever you cough or sneeze (or breathe, for that matter) cover your mouth (and nose, friends). This pandemic has really driven home the point that exposing others to your germy droplets can be downright dangerous. Of course, when you do cough or sneeze, make sure you do it into your elbow, so you don’t go spreading those germs around when you then touch something. This elbow-thing has been tough for me (decades of using my hand to cover my mouth is a hard habit to break), but I think I’ve finally adjusted, and I am willing to admit not coughing/sneezing into your hand makes great sense when you stop to think about it.

Be patient: This is one of the biggest lessons of the pandemic. We have no idea how long it will be before we can reclaim our “normal,” so we have to be patient. Now, there are many people who have had enough and are not waiting. They are reclaiming their “normal” now. Personally, I don’t recommend this. I was exposed to Covid and spent 10 days waiting it out; I believe erring on the side of caution is preferable to too many more periods of quarantine. So I am being patient and gathering some projects that I’ve been meaning to work on: knitting, painting, reading, walking, praying, and making exercise a habit. That last one is a struggle… but there are some great videos on YouTube. By the time we come out of this cautionary period of social distancing, I will (at the very least) have compiled a library of good workout videos with which I will (someday) make exercise a daily habit.

Inner reflection: Sometimes, in times of quiet loneliness, we are forced into some inner reflection. In fact, that is actually a good thing. I would argue that in our society, we don’t do enough reflection and personal work on figuring out who we are as individuals. Instead, we keep ourselves busy with activities and friends and events. We have appointments and meetings and conferences, and we fill our calendars as full as we can. But not since last year. If you are looking to grow and evolve into a better person, you have to start with yourself—you have to look in rather than out. What we often fail to realize is that what we want is not out there. It is inside us. What better time for inner reflection than now, when there’s not a lot else to keep us busy?

As cliché as it may sound, history repeats itself. One thing we’ve learned this year is that people don’t want to listen to what worked 100 years ago because much has changed in the last century. What has really become evident this year is that lessons from history are lost once the people who learned them are no longer with us. Therefore, history repeats again, and again, and again until we not only learn the lessons we need to learn, we internalize them and they become part of who we are as a society. I heard about the Spanish flu when I was growing up from my grandpa. He was in France in World War I, and he had lived through the epidemic. He had lost many men in his division to the flu. We used to speculate that his penchant for raw onion sandwiches at lunchtime kept him healthy. True or not, we’ll never know, but there’s no doubt he would have had much to say about our current pandemic based on his past. But we’ll never know that, either.

It’s been a long year bursting with lessons, and the lessons will continue this year and into next. Hopefully, not much longer because I, for one, am ready for the lessons to become lessons of beating a pandemic and moving forward into a new “normal.” Let’s hope the lessons learned this time will inform society and help them deal more efficiently with whatever the future may hold.

Here’s hoping.

{Photo by Pepe Reyes on Unsplash}

Understanding

Understanding. I am trying to approach everyone I meet with understanding as I contemplate their unique perspective on the world and their individually challenging situation.

A bit before class last week, one of my students emailed me. “I’ll be on Zoom today. I have to babysit.”

Normally, babysitting is not an excuse to be out of class. Class is important, and if you’ve ever taken the time to figure out the price (per class) of a college course, it’s fairly expensive, as well. So no, I do not condone skipping class.

But this is not a normal year. In fact, there is little that even faintly resembles “normal.” Excuses abound in Covid time. “I have a doctor’s appointment.” How can I argue that? “My mom’s car broke down, and she took mine.” Yep, Mom has to get to work so she can make money. “It’s snowing and I have to get home to help out with my little brother.” “I was exposed to Covid, and now I am in quarantine.” Ugh. So many excuses.

I am a proponent of attendance in class, but I also try to be flexible. In the past, I would have asked for a doctor’s note, a court summons, or whatever. Documentation can excuse you from class.

But this year is different. This year has been tough. Everyone has a different situation. I don’t know who has younger siblings that might need supervision. I don’t know whose family is struggling and whose parents have lost jobs. I don’t know which of my students has taken on a job (or two) to help with the bills. I don’t know unless they tell me. And some students aren’t ready to be that vulnerable.

But I do know that people are struggling. I know that my students are struggling. The world, as they knew it, disappeared just as they were preparing to graduate from high school and move out in the world and work on their independence. It has been almost a year since that time. We are all tired of this. We all have pandemic fatigue. We all want to see a relative or friend, go to a concert, attend a wedding, have dinner out with non housemates…. There is so much we are missing about our former lives.

So I take a step back and I ask myself, is it my position to question this student’s situation, or is it simply my position to express understanding? I am not going to judge anyone in a year like this.

Like everything else this year, I am exercising flexibility. If you tell me you have to Zoom into class because you have to babysit, I am not going to ask. I’m going to send you the Zoom link and see you, virtually at least, in class.

Everyone is struggling. Not necessarily in the same way. In fact, not likely in the same way. Understanding is what we need. From where I sit, understanding is the best path forward.

{Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash}

Social Constructs

2020 Lesson Number Four: Social constructs are flexible

There are social constructs that have become so much a part of our lives that we have forgotten they are merely social constructs. This year, for example, there has been much talk of students falling behind in school—of not completing the “required curriculum.” Parents have expressed great concern that their son or daughter will fall behind and not acquire the skills necessary to progress to the next grade level. The student won’t be able to pass some randomly selected marker of achievement. Or the student will have a decreased opportunity to attend the college of his or her choice.

What is lacking in these conversations is the recognition that all students are experiencing the same school and learning issues. All students. And not just in the U.S., but all students around the world.

What if instead of expecting students to reach some imaginary marker, we change the bar? What if we decide that the skills necessary to move to a new grade level might be a little different than they have been in past years? What if we recognize that this year, students might have acquired a whole new set of skills that we didn’t expect?

Students might not have acquired the same skills they normally would for their grade level. But now, they have gained an awareness of how to take precautionary measures to coexist with others during a global pandemic. They have learned, firsthand, about supply chain shortages, supply and demand, and hoarding. They have lived through a major historic event and seen what is possible if we all pull together. And they have experienced the tragic consequences of an infectious disease spreading through the population. Students have learned to navigate mask-wearing and Zoom classrooms; they have learned self-discipline and an ability to minimize distractions in a distraction-laden environment; and they have developed skills to deal with uncertainty in a life that once felt completely safe and well-planned. They have learned to give back to their communities, and they have planned socially distant events and pitched in like never before. They have watched over loved ones and taken on roles that they might not have been ready for. They have grown and stretched and matured.

It is fair to say that this year has been a lengthy lesson in some challenging life skills. So what if we shift our focus from all the things these kids can’t do and all of the things they didn’t have a chance to learn. What if, instead, we give them credit for all the amazing and meaningful things they did learn and all of the life experience they gained. What if we look at this year as one big lived-history lesson?

Since societies are the ones who determine school curriculums, they can determine the changes to the expectations. I, for one, believe that if you made it through 2020, you have some life skills in your tool box that will serve you well for years to come. I don’t believe anyone is falling behind. I think we are all falling into place.

{Photo by Marcelo Silva on Unsplash}

Accepting Technology

2020 Lesson Number Three: Technology is not always our friend, but we can come to terms with it

I do okay with many technologies, though I would never say I was an expert. I regularly use instructional technologies. This past spring, I did okay as I simultaneously learned several different virtual meeting platforms. For me, the challenging technologies are GPS technologies that require me to relinquish control in order to follow someone else’s directions to a place I have never previously traveled to.

I am a firm believer in maps and atlases and relying on one’s internal sense of direction. When I get in the car and I am not sure where I am going, I like to have a map and directions printed out and at the ready—especially if I need to double-check my route. Lately though, have been using GPS more often, and it makes me feel adventurous, spontaneous, and carefree, like I am a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of girl. I am not. Nor am I yet an avid fan of GPS. But I swallow my pride and use it because it is convenient and it saves paper.

I drive, and my Google gal narrates my trip via her built-in maps that are, apparently, updated regularly. And this is great, really. Except when she gets interrupted or distracted by a phone call, as she did back at Thanksgiving. While I was on the phone, she remained silent. Then again, there wasn’t much to narrate at that point since I was traveling on the same highway for several miles. Thankfully, my phone call ended just in time for her to continue my journey. I followed her directions (exactly, point-by-point), but when she announced I had arrived at my destination—a grocery store where I was to meet my daughter to bring her home for Thanksgiving—there was no store in sight. In fact, I was in a questionable section of a town I didn’t intend to be in. My “destination” seemed to be the warehouse of a moving company with lots of large moving trucks, but not much else. And there was no one around. Anywhere. I pulled into the parking lot, reset my GPS, and headed to my true destination, still 20 miles away.

And despite the way it might seem, that experience was a good one for me to have with my Google gal. That experience humanized GPS technology in my mind. It allowed me to see that I was right in my desire to have a back-up plan in place. But it also improved my relationship with my GPS.

Now, I affectionately refer to her as, “Girlfriend.” When she gives me directions (“take the next exit onto Route 2 east,” for example) I respond with, “You got it, Girlfriend!” When I cross a state line, she welcomes me to the new state. “Thanks, Girlfriend! You too!” I reply.

We have a new comfort level, me and my GPS. She does her best to lead me to my destination, and I, in turn, recognize that I may… or may not… arrive where I am going. But now I accept that any journey could become a grand adventure in an instant.

{Photo by Ali Kazal on Unsplash}

What you wish for…

2020 Lesson Number Two: Be careful what you wish for

Remember all those times you thought you wanted to stay home from work? You might have had visions of how nice it would be to switch jobs so you could work remotely every day? How many times did your kids express an interest in staying home from school, “I’ll get my work done from home, Mom. I won’t get behind. Besides, we’re not doing anything today, anyway. Or maybe I could do online school…?”

At some point in recent years, some of our students began to ask if they could email their papers to us rather than physically attend a writing appointment. While we had the technology, at the time, we held to our position that if students attended in-person classes, they should come see us so we could have a conversation about their papers. After all, it is much easier to ask questions and carry on a dialogue about what is working and not working in a piece of writing when we are sitting side-by-side with the writer.

The other day, I was listening to an interview on NPR in which they were talking to students about remote learning and Zoom classes. One of the younger children they interviewed—maybe 10 or 12 years-old—was talking about how difficult it is to sit in front of a computer all day. He mentioned that he wanted to be with his friends and be involved in activities with the people in his class. He said, “It’s hard,” and his voice shook a bit as he began to get emotional.

Sometimes, we think we want something, but we lack deep knowledge about what that thing might actually look like. We simply have a thought that it would be better than our current reality. No doubt, we have all day-dreamed about working from home at one point. But sometimes, when we have an opportunity to live out that dream, we realize we are wrong. Very wrong.

This is one of the valuable lessons we can take from this past year. While it might be okay to work from home some of the time, it is also really nice to interact with our co-workers and friends. It’s nice to discuss ideas, to work through them, to engage in office banter, and to go for walks when we need a quick break. It is nice—and highly valued—to interact with people in real life. To engage in conversation and to connect in ways that can be challenging in scheduled one-hour virtual meetings. It is nice to be able to say to someone, “Hey, I’m going to the cafeteria. Do you need anything?” or “You look like you could use a break. Why don’t you step away from your desk for a few minutes?”

Sometimes, we forget how vital human connection can be–and not connection through an electronic screen. But when we are without it for too long, we begin to appreciate how very much we rely on others for simple things—a hello or good morning, a quick chat and a laugh or two, and a break from a tedious task—and we begin to appreciate how much of “normal” life we’ve been missing.

{Photo by my beautiful daughter}

Waiting

2020 Lesson Number One: Waiting is an important part of life.

Over the years, our culture has evolved into a society that rejects waiting as undesirable and something to be avoided.  We have found ways to remove the need to wait from our lives. We are able to find out the gender of an unborn child so we don’t have to wait nine long months and wonder about the child we will meet. When we have an idea we want to explore or research we want to do, we have a wealth of information at our fingertips—no more waiting for the library to open and then waiting to obtain a physical copy of a book or magazine that might have to come from another town or state. Nope… information is now available (from the comfort of your couch) at any time of the day or night. Need something that you don’t have in your house? Place an order, and if you are willing to pay a little extra, you can have the item by tomorrow. Not feeling well? No need to wait to see the doctor. Just take to the internet and diagnose yourself! That way, you can decide if you really need to bother the doctor, and when you finally get an appointment, you can tell the doctor what is wrong with you. (Note: I do not support self-diagnosis via the internet and nether do most doctors).

When all is said and done, we don’t get used to waiting anymore. We expect instant gratification. We have forgotten that there are things we cannot control, regardless of the time that passes. We have lost the benefits of waiting—of delaying gratification and anticipating what will come… in time. And most importantly, we have forgotten the art of using waiting time to benefit our lives and ourselves.

This year, we had to wait, and we had to figure out how to deal with long stretches of time spent waiting. On March 13, when so many of us were told to go home and stay there for two weeks, we thought it would be just that—two weeks. But two weeks stretched to a month, then two, and before we knew it, we had been at home for four months. Or six months. Or more.

People took up new hobbies. They worked on developing cooking and baking skills. They learned to knit. They took up yoga and meditation. They made home improvements and became master gardeners. People began taking walks in nature, playing outside with their children, and connecting with family members. People connected with each other as they reflected on what was to come and how our society—and their lives—might be different on the other side of COVID.

Waiting is not a waste of time, as society has programmed us to believe. Waiting is one of those in-between-spaces where we think nothing is happening. And yet, waiting is a valid and valued part of life. Waiting is where the pieces of life come together. Waiting—and working through problems and ideas in our heads and lives—is where meaning is found.

This year, we learned to wait, and hopefully this new skill will help us to create a more meaningful life when we finally settle into our new normal.

Wits’ End

Hey you!

Yes… you.

How are you doing? I don’t ask that question in a quick greeting-in-passing kind of way. How are you really doing? Are you hanging in there or hanging by a thread? Are things under control or are you so out of sorts that you can’t tell if you are coming or going? Are you questioning anything? Everything? Have you been able to remain organized or do you wish the world would just pause so you can take a breath and pull yourself back together? Are you at your wits’ end?

Wits’ end, as scary and frustrating as it can be, is often a good place to start anew. It is a place where we are forced to take a look around and survey the landscape, size up the current situation, and create a plan for the future. Wits’ end is generally a turning point that can move us in a new direction.

Daily life has become exhausting and fragmented like a jigsaw puzzle that won’t quite fit together the way it’s supposed to, the way it used to, or the way we think it should. Troubles mount and the consequences of coronavirus continue to challenge us, and it is tempting to lash out in frustration. Or dissolve into a puddle of tears. And it just drags on.

These tough times require patience, resilience, and an ability to dig deep and lean in. We are navigating challenges on a scale no one has seen in a very long time, and the ability to dig deep will determine how effectively we move forward.

The challenges, the loss, the grief, the instability… they just keep coming. But you are not alone. You have friends and family and neighbors and community members who care about you. We are all navigating the pandemic—and its consequences—in tandem. We are all trying to envision how the various fragmented pieces of present day life will fit into the big picture of the future as we create a post-pandemic world that will likely look much different than our current and previous life.

Life is uncertain and this year has been a living illustration of that fact. We cannot imagine how things will look in another month or two or ten. However, if we let go of our expectations and recognize that this pandemic is changing us and will continue to change us, we can build a future that is better and brighter than before. If we harness all of our kindness, patience, love, and support and channel it into our work together, we can create an amazing future.

It’s going to take time. We are deep in the throes of what this year has brought us, and there is no magical switch that comes when one year changes to the next. But there is hope.

So when you are feeling weak or lost or hopeless, lean on those around you. Ask for help. Recognize that you are stronger and wiser than you were last November. Give yourself a pat on the back for all you have endured over the last few months. Before you take to social media to lash out at the world, remember… we are all human in an unpredictable world. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. With others and with yourself. We are all—every single one of us—at wits’ end. But we are all doing the best we can to grow and change and become stronger under the circumstances.

{Photo by Erik Eastman on Unsplash}

Noise

Society has been so very noisy lately. The news media presents constant, overblown and loaded stories every two minutes. And if you pay attention, the discussions around those stories can be heated and hateful. To lessen the noise, I try to spend some time in silence every day. I take some time to process. Some time to think. Apart from the noise.

Back when I was a kid, we read the news in the evening paper. The “news” was a bit dated in today’s terms, as it was sometimes nearly a day old. However, it was WAY ahead of the news in the days of the Pony Express. We watched the local news at 6:00 and the world news at 6:30. Then the news went off, and we were done with the barrage of horrible events and scandalous activities of people who would never be held up as role models. Today, with the news rolling in at warp speed and the constant repetition of all the bad things that are happening, we don’t have the advantage of 20+ hours a day of news-free moments.

But here’s what I want to remind you. We create the life we want through our actions. Let me repeat that: We create the life we want through our actions. This fact is very important as so few people realize the power they have in their own lives.

We have created this noisy world. We have created an increasingly divided, contentious, hateful society by propagating division, contention, and hate. Indeed, we have allowed events to simmer and bubble and boil over by continuously poking at the edges—at the two extremes—rather than coming to the middle to have a civil discussion.

At the same time, we have paid too much attention to the media. Our attention has allowed media outlets to present stories that are overblown and increasingly biased. Through our attention, the media persists and morphs and develops and increasingly slants to one side or the other until we all slide off, scrambling to get back to a humane and compassionate position. If we pay attention to the loaded tweets and social media posts of a family member, a celebrity, or a world leader, those tweets and posts will grow and morph and go viral, pulling in more and more people who are up for a fight.

However, if these posts and the ballooning media fail to get our attention, the originators of these posts and stories will have to change. The media will have to become more factual. The bias will need to diminish. The outlets we pay attention to will have to become more responsible in their presentation. And our friends, family, and celebrities who are posting irresponsible facts will not have the following they have become accustomed to. If we stop focusing our attention on these things, these things will have to fundamentally change.

I’ve been thinking about silence a lot lately. If we pay attention to silence, to our breathing, to relaxation, to family and the things that matter to us, those things will grow in importance in our lives.

We create the reality we want through our actions. Choose wisely.

{Photo by Elijah O’Donnell on Unsplash}

Birdsong

I was out walking on Friday afternoon when I finished working—something that has become part of my “quaroutine.” I have found that a walk between work and preparing dinner helps to clear my mind and allows me to shift more fully to family time. Working from home can sometimes blur the work time/family time distinction.

Toward the end of my walk, I had almost turned around but decided, instead, to venture across the street into a different neighborhood. I had checked the time, calculated how long I had before my son returned from work, and decided on an extra mile. It was, after all, a gorgeous day with bright sun, a slight breeze, and flowers blooming everywhere.

As I walked, birds sang, but one song in particular stood out. The song was both foreign and familiar—not one I recognized from the birds in my own backyard, but one I had heard before. It continued to sing as I grew closer. I looked up toward the sound, and at the very top of the tree, I spotted orange plumage against the spring-green leaves. An oriole!

In an instant, I was right back in the heat of a summer long, long ago. My dad had a cat living at his workplace, and the cat had attempted to catch an oriole. Unfortunately, the oriole had not emerged unscathed. It had a broken wing and could no longer fly.

Dad brought the bird home in a shoebox. From somewhere in our house, he scrounged up a birdcage, and he lined the bottom with newspapers. He got out a roll of white medical tape, and he set to work carefully removing the bird from the box and taping the tips of its wings together. This would hold the broken wing in place, and prevent the bird from thrashing about. He placed the bird in the cage with some birdseed and some water and placed the cage on a table on our enclosed front porch.

That bird lived on our front porch for what now seems like most of that summer. At first, every time we walked out the door onto the porch, the bird would panic and flit around the cage trying to get away from us. But after a while, the bird calmed a bit. We discovered that it preferred fresh berries and fruit to birdseed, and the sweet black raspberries from our backyard bushes became its main food.

After the requisite amount of time, Dad announced that it was time for us to let the bird go. I am not sure how he knew “the requisite amount of time,” but I believe he had consulted a local bird expert about broken wings and healing and bird care.

On the day of the announcement, Dad took the bird from the cage and painstakingly worked to remove the medical tape. He worked the sticky residue from the bird’s feathers with some harmless solvent—again, most likely a tip he had gotten from his bird expert source. We put the bird in a box and took it to a forested area of town near a pond and an open field. We parked the car and carried the box across the field toward the wood line. Dad set the box on the grass, removed the cover, and gently lifted the bird out. He held him for one final time.

“Here we go,” he announced as we all hoped and crossed our fingers that the bird’s wing had healed. Dad held the bird out in front of him at arm’s length and gave him a gentle toss away from him. The bird thrust out its wings and dipped toward the ground, but about a foot from the grass, it lifted up, flapped its likely stiff wings, and soared up into a tree where it landed on a branch. We all exhaled breath we hadn’t known we were holding in. Our bird sat on the branch, a bright orange spot, watching us for just a moment. Then, it flew away, farther into the woods and out of our sight.

And here was an oriole, serenading me as I walked the streets of this neighborhood. When I got back to the tree where it sat, I slowed and paused to search the tree to see this beautiful bird one more time before I went home. But the bird was uncomfortable with my proximity. It flew from the tree, its orange body bright against the clear blue sky. For a moment, it seemed to pause mid-flight. Then it flitted to and fro, completing a little dance before it flew off to sing from a distant tree.

That bird was an incredible gift to end my week. It brought me a few moments with Dad in my memories from a long time ago.

All of Us

April first. Spring is arriving to my yard with bulbs sprouting into crocuses and hyacinths, dotting the fading winter browns with color. Lying in bed this morning as consciousness began to awaken, I breathed in the depths of April. The difficulties of April. The heaviness and huge expanse of April that stretches out in front of us.

This afternoon, I went out for a walk. My afternoon walks keep me sane and give me time to reflect. There were lots of people outside. Some were walking their dogs. Others, like me, were just walking themselves. In the woods, I saw two teenage girls sitting together on a rock, shoulder to shoulder, bent over the same phone. Up the road a piece, in a cul-de-sac, a group of children played together as if it were any normal nice day. They huddled in groups discussing the game they would play.

It seems that many people are missing the social distancing point. Playing with friends—even outside—is not social distancing. Sitting with your friend on a rock or walking side-by-side with your friend is not social distancing. Hanging out with friends does not create the necessary distance.

The toll this virus is taking is already staggering. If we are going to beat it and “flatten the curve,” we have to be vigilant. We have to take on a new mindset. We have to assume everyone we see has the virus, and when we go out of our houses, we have to act like we have it. We have to stay away from people, and we have to protect ourselves and others. This is our main job right now—to stem the deadly tide of this enemy.

One of the reasons this virus spreads so fast is because it hides in people with no symptoms. It spreads through undetected infections and asymptomatic carriers. Look at the choir rehearsal in Washington state back in mid-March. None of the people in attendance had symptoms and yet the virus spread through 45 people in that group. No one knows for sure whether they are infected or not. We can’t take chances unless we are willing to risk our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

All of us, Friends. It’s going to take all of us to get through this virus and to beat it. Don’t hang out with friends. Don’t meet up with a group in a parking lot and stand six feet apart. Don’t drive with a carload of friends to a state park to hike. Don’t go to a store that’s open because it’s an essential business just to get something to keep you busy. Just don’t.

Do your part. Stay home and stay away from others. Do your part for all of us.