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.

Blooming – 2020 style

My Christmas cactus is having a difficult time this year. It has always been a late bloomer, but this year, it is really struggling. It has been pushing out teeny little buds that show great promise. Like many things this past year, these buds give me a brief hint of excitement and hope. But after a few days, they wither up and fall off. This cactus… it’s not even close to blooming, and I am wondering if it will bloom at all this year.

Truth be told, I have been having trouble blooming this year, as well. This year has been tough, and some days I feel like I just don’t have it in me to be my best. Some days I lack the patience necessary to think about tomorrow. The days blend together, and Monday becomes Tuesday and blends with WednesdayThursdayFriday until the weekend, and then the week starts over again. On and on and on it goes.

It’s been a tough year, but it has also been an important year. In its break from reality, its focus on silence, its fear of crowded spaces, this year has given us some much-needed room for reflection. I tried hard to take advantage of what this year offered, so I might be in a better space going forward. I refrained from railing against authority and complaining about not living life as “normal.” I embarked on a lengthy journey to reconnect with my self—the essential core of who I really am.

I’m not going to lie. This year was filled with tough lessons that weren’t fun but were very much necessary. It took a great deal of patience and tenacity to sit through these long months, especially when we began to see hints of how far we have strayed from where we need to be. Our goals and our focus have drifted away from being good people to amassing as many possessions and as much power as we can, no matter the cost. We have grown to focus not on who we are as people, but on what and how much we have. I have to believe this is not why we are here.

So I took this year as a correction. I am taking its lessons, and I am coming back to center. I am re-grounding and rediscovering myself and my mission for my life. The lessons I learned emerged—as many do—from loss, boredom, anxiety, and resolve. They came in the form of traits such as patience, resilience, tenacity, discipline, and a habit of self-reflection. They involve listening to myself in order to continuously rediscover and recreate who I am. And they involve looking carefully and paying attention to the little things so I will know better how to fill the spaces where need is great.

Stay with me for a few days. I’m going to take you on a journey through this past year and share with you some of the lessons that I have learned—lessons that I will take with me as I venture into 2021.

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}

Great opportunities

I was sorting through some papers recently when I stumbled upon the statement, “Great opportunities are being missed.” It was scrawled on a piece of paper, notes from a Zoom meeting back in the spring when the strangeness of the COVID world was still new and uneasy.

This meeting note-quote made me reflect on our life in COVID times. So many times, I hear people talk about how much we have lost this year. They focus on the school children, high school athletes, the students who didn’t get the big graduations and parties they deserved in the spring, adults who had planned weddings or other large gatherings, and all the funerals that were attended by only a small group of close family. We have lost so much this year.

It’s true, we have lost a great deal. We have lost hundreds of thousands of citizens globally and a quarter of a million in the United States. We have lost friends, siblings, parents, cousins, and children. We have lost health and jobs and homes. The losses have been immense and heavy, and they just keep piling on.

But I would argue that we have also gained a great deal. This year, a year unlike any other, we have been given an amazing opportunity to step back and examine the life we are living. We have had the time to reconnect with family and close friends in ways that we were too busy to do in the past. We have discovered hobbies and talents that previously slipped our notice.

We have gained an opportunity to look at life from a different perspective, turning situations upside down and staring at them until they make sense. We have stepped out of the boxes we once shut ourselves in to figure out how to do the impossible. We have learned to use technology we never imagined we would use. Often, we have constructed something from nearly nothing. We have learned to make substitutions and to be creative. We have developed flexibility. And we have grown our patience.

We have set aside our devices and connected with our families. We have spent more time in nature and outside with friends and neighbors. We have sent messages of hope and healing. We have read books, learned new things, and eaten meals together.

We have begun to rediscover the long-lost art of living.

If we focus on all that we’ve lost, we won’t notice all that we’ve gained. We will miss the opportunities presented in this horrible, terrible, tremendous, amazing year. We won’t see what is clearly in front of us. When we focus on the things we’ve lost, we miss the things we’ve gained.

As you are contemplating the past few months, take the time to reflect on the lessons of the year. Reach out to others who might be struggling. Look for opportunities that present themselves in this moment. Instead of focusing your sights on 2021, take a moment to appreciate the many lessons we’ve learned in 2020. It has been a year like no other, and the lessons we take away… they hold great opportunities we won’t want to miss!

Wonderings

I wonder what would happen if I climbed one of the amazing trees on the grounds of the Country Club where I walk on my lunch break. They are old-growth trees—mostly maples—and their branches are just low enough to reach from the ground or from the slight hill near where they are situated. I could climb up as high as I dare, take a seat, and observe the world. No matter that I’m in my office work clothes. I wonder how long it would be before someone tells me to get down.

I wonder what would happen if parents were willing to give their teenage children the freedom to develop themselves into the young adults they are capable of being. Often, we place restrictions on our children for our own peace of mind. We give them parameters of behavior—do this, not that—that [we believe] restrict them from making mistakes and recognizing their own limits. We do things for them rather than giving them an increasing amount of responsibility over their own lives. And nowadays, more and more parents use tracking apps on their children’s phones to keep track of them. While we believe these things are keeping our children safe, we are actually letting them know, loud and clear, that we don’t trust them… that they are not capable. I wonder what would happen if we eased up a bit, offered guidance when necessary, and showed our children that we trust them to develop their own interests and find their own way.

I wonder what would happen if I spent more time talking to my neighbors. Over the past year, some long-time neighbors have moved away, and several new neighbors have moved in. I haven’t spent the time to get to know them. I haven’t gone out of my way and broken with my routine to talk to them and learn about them. I have no idea about their struggles and their triumphs. I have not offered them a helping hand. In fact, I haven’t really been as “neighborly” as I could be. I wonder if it’s too late.

I wonder what would happen if we took the time to admire each other’s work. When I was walking one over the summer, I passed by a crew of landscapers who are working the bare dry dirt around a newly constructed building. They were shaping the land, smoothing it, and planting grass and plants and mulching around them. They took what was bare and plain and made it beautiful—stunning, really. And they worked long hours in the sun and heat of mid-summer. I stopped. “This looks fantastic!” I said to a worker leaning on his rake while he waited for his crewmates to come back from lunch.

“We’re trying,” he replied as a smile softened his weary expression.

“Well, it looks great! What an improvement just since last week!”

“Thank you,” he replied with a small wave as I resumed my walk. Why don’t we compliment each other more often?

I wonder what would happen if I got rid of all the things in my house that I no longer use. I could put them out for a Yard Sale, but instead of a sale, I could have a big “Yard Free.” People could come and take the things they want. This Yard Free would be mutually beneficial; I would get rid of the stuff that’s cluttering up my house, and others would be able to take the things they need and would use. All of my cast-offs would be put to use and not end up in the landfill. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the months of being at home, it’s that I don’t need nearly as much “stuff” as I own.

I wonder what would happen if we approached the world with love rather than hate. Hate is like Velcro. It has hooks that grab you, dig in, and cling. If you let hate take hold, it can be very difficult to disentangle yourself. Your emotions cloud over, and your physical body becomes a time bomb just waiting for the right moment to set it off. Hate is debilitating. Love can unwind us, help us to breathe more freely, and give us a sense of peace—with ourselves and each other. Love can help us live more freely and make better choices. Love allows us to see the humanity in everyone we meet.

I wonder what would happen if I started to live the life I want to live. How might my creativity and new outlook on life change those around me? I would stop filling my days with the constant work of multiple jobs and, instead, work to develop the endless possibilities that come with making different choices. I would climb more trees and take more risks. I would write more stories and spend time with people who inspire me and make me better. I would make more friends and broaden my perspectives. I would reach out to others and approach all people with love.

Curiosity keeps us moving forward. It helps us to imagine the possibilities of our lives and change the things that are not working. And now that I’ve put these wonderings in writing, I think I’m going to make some changes. I’m going to approach my life with a spirit of courage and adventure. What about you? What are some of your wonderings and how might they change your approach to life?

{Photo by Fidel Fernando on Unsplash}

Loss

Sometimes, I see something strange or out of place, and I am overcome with an inexplicable sadness. On Friday, I was out for my quick walk-before-work. A crispness has begun to creep into the air here in New Hampshire, and the cool morning temperatures are bittersweet. The close-to-home summer is coming to an end, and the leaves are beginning to turn color. The impending winter will bring more unknown to the year of the pandemic.

As I strode by the dumpster in my condo complex, I spotted a nearly new red tricycle abandoned near the fence. I felt an immediate ping of sadness. I recognized this tricycle, and in my mind, I could picture the joy on the face of the young rider. The previous evening, as I pulled onto my street after work, this tricycle was being enjoyed to the fullest. My young neighbor was speeding around our circle, laughing and giggling as his father and an older neighbor boy stood watch. Until dark, they stayed outside, talking, laughing, and engaging with each other and their neighbors in a way I hadn’t seen them do all summer.

Now, this tricycle was placed here for someone else to take, to use, and to love—a gift for another child. There is no doubt the next owner will make his or her own memories on this trike, speeding away from his or her parents and laughing all the while. The former owner and his family, off to new adventures thousands of miles away, crammed as much stuff as they could into a moving van and their two cars, but just couldn’t fit everything.

The sadness I am feeling is a sadness of loss—loss of innocence in the case of this toy. But increasingly in society, there are deep losses that affect all of humanity. Sure, there is the loss of the ability to navigate the world without consideration for virus and illness and germs, but we’re all figuring that out as we go. The losses that are hitting me the hardest are the loss of kindness, the loss of compassion, and the loss of humanity. These losses… they strike at the core of who we are as a people. They stand in the way of our ability to get along, to come together as a community, and to make the world a better place.

In this moment, the tricycle is symbolic of the all the things we’ve lost, and I wonder if we’ll ever be able to regain some of our childlike nature. We need to re-learn how to get along with people—a lesson from our very early days when we learned to share and take turns. Someday, I hope we can go back to approaching other people with curiosity rather than fear. With love rather than hate. And with joy rather than anger. I hope we can give other people—friend and stranger alike—the dignity and respect each of us deserves. Then, and only then, will we truly be able to live in harmony.

Finding Our Way

Think back to when you were a child—maybe six or seven. You go to a birthday party in a fancy party outfit because… well, it’s a party, you really like the outfit, and you never get to wear it. It’s a bit smaller than it used to be, and it itches around the seams. But you are at a party, so your mind is on the fun you are having.

You come to the point in the party when the grown-ups say something like, “It’s time to play ‘pin the tail on the donkey’!” The children cheer for the activity and go running over to the adult in charge. You get in the line, and when it’s your turn, one of the grown-ups hands you a tail with a sharp, pointy, exposed thumb tack and ties a blindfold over your eyes. The blindfold is a bit tight, but this is a game, and you’re not supposed to be able to see. Anything.

The adult then takes you by the shoulders and spins you around, counting each spin. “One… two… three!” Then the adult lines you up with the tail-less donkey and gives you a gentle push. You put out both your arms [one hand leads with the pointy thumb tack] and you walk as close to forward in a straight line as your dizzy, disoriented, blind-folded self can manage. Meanwhile, your outfit has suddenly started to really itch, and you can’t refocus your attention. You reach the wall (or something solid), stick the thumb-tacked tail into the surface, step back, and remove your blindfold. At this point, you will either be ridiculously thrilled with yourself for getting the tail close to the donkey’s keister, or you will be sorely disappointed that you actually ended up on an adjacent wall and nowhere near the donkey at all. Of course, there is also a wide range of middle ground in this particular scenario. Remember these fun party moments?

If you have an educator in your life—a family member, a friend, or your child’s teacher—chances are, the above scenario is a fair depiction of the way they may be feeling right now. Navigating this “novel-corona-return-to-school” thing is not easy. There is no roadmap, only a vague sense of the path forward and the goal we have set out to accomplish. Disorientation pops up at every decision point, and the fluid undertow of plans that flip 180° from one moment to the next can leave even the most seasoned educator flailing to find firm footing.

As a disoriented educator blindly feeling my way through the beginning of the school year, here’s what I will offer. Be patient with your teacher friends. Be kind to them. Know that they are doing their best. Embolden them. They may be tired or frustrated or feeling uncertain, but they are not going to let on—they are going to keep moving forward, one step at a time, even when they feel they are moving backwards. Let them know you appreciate the work they are doing to navigate these early days and keep their students safe. Send them a message of encouragement. And pray for them—that they make the right decisions in the situations that present themselves.

Come to think of it… encourage and pray for for anyone you meet this week. Show them love. Let them know they are doing a great job. Not only will it make their day better, it will make the world just a little brighter!

{Image is a photo of a work of art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston}