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What’s on your list?

I’ve started a new game with myself and the people I talk to regularly. It’s called “What’s On Your List?” I didn’t dare it play it before, but I’m flirting with danger now as the pandemic drags on and allowing myself brief forays into considering wishes. Casual inquiries have shown me that I’m not the only one. Everyone, it seems, has “the list.” We’re all just trying not to talk about it.

You know the list. The one we’re all making (but trying to ignore) in our heads. The one that enumerates things we long for, everything we want to do again “when this is all over.” When we’re back to normal. Living in a time after a world-shifting pandemic. When we emerge, battle-worn and weary, blinking in the bright light of all we once took for granted.

My list was long when COVID started last year. It seemed like there were a lot of things I wanted to do—shop in stores, go on all the trips and adventures I had to cancel, work in schools like usual, resume my volunteering activities, work out at the gym, swim laps at the health club, go to parties and weddings and concerts and plays, eat out with friends, make plans, run errands, get back to the things on the calendar, have the holidays be normal.

Over time, though, as the wait for normal got longer, my list got shorter. I counted blessings a little differently. Spring and summer came, and I celebrated flowers, warmth, getting outside, a driveway drink in socially-distanced chairs with a friend in the sunshine. I was grateful to be outside without a mask walking in the neighborhood and breathing fresh air. Glad to be running into the grocery store on my own in a mask without quite as much anxiety and thankful for shelves that weren’t empty. Happy for virtual get-togethers, holidays we pulled off in altered form that weren’t so bad, and so damn appreciative of the wonders of Zoom. I altered my list as I altered my life.

As we start to see cases decline, vaccination rates rise, and scary curves trending downward, I’m tired of COVID and finding myself daring to dream about life after it’s gone. I purposely have refused to dwell on what I’ve been missing throughout the last 10 months. Wishing doesn’t make things so and wastes energy better directed toward staying happy right now—which is the only place we are. That’s survival 101. But as resistance weakens and hope grows, I have allowed myself to consider my small, still-there, wish list for the “after”…and occasionally to ask other people to share theirs. It’s funny how short most people’s lists are, how concise my own has become.

Something on every list is unique to the person, and I get some delight from what those one-off items reveal about people I love. One friend cannot wait to wander through a store—without a defined purpose or a feeling of fear, idly looking at things, trying on clothes in a dressing room, making up her mind whether to buy something or not. Another wants to watch a movie in a theatre eating warm popcorn and Raisinettes. A third can’t wait to get back to the gym and join a class of people working out together, mask-free. Some, like me, have a special place they dream of seeing again; in my imagination, it’s sunrise off the coast of Maui, and I’m perched on the tubes of a raft boat waiting for a whale to leap out of the sea. My daughter wants to ski. My mom wants to go back to Europe. For some it’s a full stadium at a sporting event. For others, just getting back to a school full of kids.

But most of us also have a few of the same simple things on the list. And I find that everyone I ask describes some version of them.

We want to hug our families.

We want to eat dinner out or in someone’s home with friends and family, talking and laughing.

We want to gather for birthdays, weddings, grieving, and holidays without complex logistics, fear, or masks.

We want to see people smile…with their whole face and not just their eyes…and we want to smile back.

And that’s pretty much it. When I ask people about their lists, that’s what’s on their minds. One unique “bucket” item or two that often involve a return to some beloved setting or activity. And the same simple longing for daily in-person connections with people we care about. We don’t miss restaurants; we miss the laughter and conversation with friends, the intimacy of gathering around a table together to share a meal. We don’t miss full calendars; we miss the sharing of our lives with others in so many different ways that matter. We don’t miss the daily grind, but we miss those we shared it with. What the pandemic has taken from us isn’t just a lot of “events”; it was the chance to be together.

And at the end of it all, we will need to remember that being together was really the only thing we wanted.

Teachable Moment

I had a classroom dream last night. Every teacher knows what I mean. You’re unprepared; you have no materials. Your lesson isn’t working. Students are uncooperative. Oh…and during this massive meltdown, the principal is ALWAYS quietly doing an evaluation of you from a desk in the back of the room. My dream also included a colleague entering with NINE very disruptive students she wanted me to “watch for the rest of this period” and a Spanish class next door that was breaking pinatas, but that’s another story…. Even my school nightmares get a little creative.

I think the reason I had the dream is that I’ve been struggling for days to imagine what or how we can teach our children to prevent anything like the events at our Capitol from happening again. I know the sacred responsibility of educating citizens. I’ve spent my life in schools. I’m happiest among teachers and students, doing the work of learning and growth. Educators have the most critical role in a successful democracy and a stable society. At our best, we can promote peace. Prepare ethical leaders. Raise young men and women ready to be good parents, workers, and voters. Give young people the capacity to hope, dream, rise, and make us all better with their lives. To contemplate the images of the people storming the Capitol last week, filling the airwaves with their fervent belief in conspiracy theories beyond the pale of any basis in reality (a pizza place where federal lawmakers order in code and are brought the blood of babies to eat?)…I cannot help but picture classrooms full of learners and wondering how we failed. I’m heartbroken. And I’m angry. But even more than that, I’m curious. What can we learn from this, and what can we teach?

Being a teacher caused me to see in every child the grown person they might become. It also means I often “reverse engineer” this vision. When I look at an adult life, I cannot help but imagine the child who started it all, the seedling from which it grew. I watched the images of violence and destruction in the seat of our democracy, and I wondered about these people as children. What could we have taught to keep them from becoming what we saw last week? To prevent them from being swept into a thoughtless mob mentality. To equip them with protective skills to remain invulnerable to the insidious call of the conspirator. To heal and strengthen them so their pain did not turn them to darkness and despair and hate. It takes ingenuity and organization to equip people for insurrection and lead them astray; how could we have turned these skills to better purposes?

I know some will say, “Here we go again with the idea that schools are responsible for everything. What about families? Laws? Economics? Inadequate social services? Media? Are they not culpable? Are schools expected to undo every harm they cause? Impossible.” I agree. But I have also seen the power of a classroom firsthand. I know the discussions my colleagues across the country had to face last Thursday morning when the questioning eyes of children turned to them. My heart aches to think of the delicate work they had to do on such short notice, and I prayed they would be strong enough for the job. And I have such confidence in them. There are teachable moments in classrooms that transcend any other. Times when we respond to what the world has put in our students’ way and try to guide them to make meaning of it all. We are powerful beyond words in these moments and in the thoughtful planning and work we do to raise our future citizens.

So what was missing in this event and those that led up to it over the last years? How did so many people let dissatisfaction with their lives and cynicism about our institutions get stoked into a conflagration burning the very scaffolding on which they stand? People who supposedly stood for law and order attacked and killed police officers. Those who claimed to be patriots desecrated the flag and the seat of our nation. Those who felt cheated and lied to conspired to cheat others and spread falsehoods. The same folks who argued that only they could see the fraud being perpetrated on the nation let themselves be duped by a salesman who said from the beginning “you knew I was a snake when you picked me up.” Elected officials voted to decertify the results of the same elections that elected them…without seeing the irony in this. People who knew better played along with fire and gasoline without regard for the combustible nature of these elements. We burned.

In my dream I was frantically redesigning my curriculum in flight—poorly, I might add—but I think that means something. Redesign matters here. It doesn’t matter if we study Shakespeare, poetry, a dystopian novel, a research question, grammar, composition, speaking skills, persuasion, or short stories. Those aren’t the lessons; they are simply the canvas on which we paint…the backdrop for the real work schools do of preparing citizens deserving of the responsibility of living in the longest-running democracy in the world. Putting it back together. And preserving it. Making it better. Strengthening the fabric without ripping it apart.

I’m not sure if this means we double down on teaching and practicing thinking skills, the lessons and outcomes of history we learn or are doomed to repeat (did anyone else think the images of last week looked like the storming of the Bastille?), scientific knowledge and mathematical literacy that help people critically consume new information.

Maybe we work harder to teach and practice skills for democracy. As citizens, we must be able to debate without impasse—acknowledge disagreement without shutting down on each other. Remain uncomfortable but present in the face of people and views we find repugnant, examining the perspectives of others to sharpen and refine our own ideas. Build beliefs on evidence and facts after consideration of multiple views. Listen to those with whom we disagree and allow ourselves to find some common ground? Accept that we really can’t learn much from anyone who already agrees with us on everything. Seek growth over validation. Identify weak arguments, cheap flattery, and easy answers and demand better from each other.

We have already begun to talk more in schools about so-called “soft” skills—helping kids learn to assess motives of those who seek to persuade, collect, or use people for their own purposes; to exercise self-control and patience in moments of frustration or strife; to feel agency for improving their lives; to see beyond short-term outcomes or the promise of easy fixes; to separate truth from lies while remembering we all have bias and perspective; to know what is good; and to love others.

And, no, I don’t think schools alone can do all this; but we can lead. If the last year of parents trying to shoulder some of the work of schools alone has shown us anything, it should be that our educational system is a critical part of our nation’s infrastructure. Far from being ready for replacement by computerized bots, good schools and teachers are vital to this country’s health and future. More now than ever.

I don’t know the next steps. I’m still thinking about this. For now, I’ll simply emphasize that what happened last week is not something we can look away from. We have to look deep into it no matter how ugly it is and try to see what we can do next. What questions can we ask about teaching and learning that must happen to prevent what got us here? Those of us who’ve spent a life in schools have the great gift of agency to help protect our future. What can we do to strengthen the fabric of our democracy?

Maple Street

Every year, without fail, I introduced my middle school students to a Rod Serling Twilight Zone episode called “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” We’d choose parts and read the script like a play, then watch the episode which I had on tape (yeah…tape). After I helped the kids make the paradigm shift that tv used to be all black and white, they’d settle in to watch—complaining now and then about the fact that it should be in color.

The gist of the play is this: a small pleasant group of neighbors suddenly find that the power is randomly going out and flickering on/off in various homes and appliances. Cars are starting on their own. Lawn mowers are stopping and starting for no mechanical reason. Street lights are blinking. Homes go dark. The friendly neighbors are perplexed at first. There is head scratching. Problem-solving. Collaboration on ideas to call authorities or fix things themselves. But next comes anxiety, a creeping unease, fear, frustration, anger, accusation, paranoia, and…finally, even violence. Midway, someone floats a conspiracy theory that there are aliens hiding among them in disguise. By the end of the play, these friends and neighbors have turned on one another in grotesque and scary ways. It’s appalling. It’s ridiculous. It’s…human.

The kids‘ faces were fun to watch as we read aloud. Unlike many stories they’d already heard or seen on tv, this one was so old it was new to them. They would chuckle as the hysterical neighbor lady started accusing people of being from outer space. They would frown as it began to dawn on them that otherwise reasonable people were believing her just because their electricity was acting crazy. They would gasp when the “sound effect” line read “gunshot.” And then…at the end…when the camera pulls back for a view of these normal, nice, friendly people just like us fighting in the middle of Maple Street, they would shake their heads in disbelief. Such silly people. Thank goodness, we aren’t like them.

But the real kicker in the Maple Street story (as with all Twilight Zone episodes) is the coda. The final image as the camera pulls back is of two alien beings watching all this happen from some “overhead” view. The older one says to the newbie, “Understand the procedure now?” and proceeds to explain that you don’t have to invade or attack to capture a country. You simply sow seeds of panic and sit back to let people destroy themselves. The younger alien is a little astonished at how easy it is. “Is the pattern always the same?” The other assures him that it is.

I loved watching the kids puzzle out the cryptic meaning of the narrator’s final words: “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices – to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own for the children…and the children yet unborn.” Even a seventh grader quickly grasped that they were the children referenced.

We used the text to discuss the thin veneer of civility that keeps us from the edge, the importance of keeping a grip on our humanity, the need to seek what binds us and solve problems together…focus on the real issues, not the scary distractions. I didn’t have to lead the kids to these big ideas. “Maple Street” was a fun text because I could sit back and watch them uncover truths about the fragile nature of decency and compassion and trust—profound ideas they worked out on their own. In thirty years of teaching the story, there were moments that made my heart leap—times when some thoughtful kid would make a connection that was incredible, arguments they worked through that made my heart hope for the future. Such is the work of teaching. Sometimes in a classroom, the clouds part for an instant, and you get a peek at what humanity might become long after you are gone from the earth.

I confess that Maple Street has been on my mind lately as I struggle to comprehend the polarization of my country. We could dissect the causes endlessly, but at the end of the day, America is Maple Street, and we have come close to turning on our neighbors instead of uniting to solve common problems that concern us all. I don’t have answers for what we do next, but I know one of the main truths the kids always used to arrive at after lively discussion: knowing who we are and what we are capable of is the first step to overcoming it. We are stronger united than divided, but we are fragile enough to become our own destruction. We must know that division destroys if we are to stop ourselves from participating in it.

Maple Street needed quiet, resolute voices and strong, brave ones calling people to suspend disbelief and fear and try to trust each other. Those voices didn’t have to be elected leaders. They could be you…and me. The flickering lights are voices insidiously sowing seeds of distrust and doubt. To them, we must reply, “I don’t understand all my neighbors, but that will not make me hate or hurt them.” Suspicion destroys love. Every time. We have to guard against it like the sneaky first wave of attack on our humanity that it is.

Full and honest disclosure: I truly don’t understand all that leads people to feel joy in a MAGA rally. I don’t get it. Our current leader is everything I never wanted my children to learn or be. I’m not enamored with him or many of the policies he supports. But I am trying to accept that there are people who are my American Maple Street neighbors for whom he is inspiring. People who have felt worried, disrespected, powerless, afraid, or something else I don’t understand. Though we disagree, we are not enemies. We each believe with similar vehemence that we possess truth and are on the side of good. And that makes it all the more important not to assume the opposite of each other and not to give in to fear. Will we convince each other? Probably not. So what’s next? Can we find some things we do want to do together and start in? Can we mow the lawn and lend each other tools? Have a potluck and talk about our children? Build a park? Try to get to know each other’s worries?

Democracy is a fragile experiment; our country is vast; and our people represent perhaps the widest variety in any country in the world. Splintered media, fractured institutions, fear of others, and too much “hit and run” on social media have stressed our understanding of one another. But the lights are flickering on and off for us all. We need to focus on why and work together to keep them on for everyone.

Full script of “Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” found here: https://ccms.buncombeschools.org/common/pages/UserFile.aspx?fileId=3313039)

Back to School

“It’s gorgeous weather up here today,” Mom texted. “We may head up to Saugatuck. I have that ‘back to school’ feeling.”

I knew just what she meant. Earlier in the week as I was walking the dog, I noticed a subtle change in the sun’s angle, a scent on the breeze, the way the light seeped through the trees, the color of the sky. Nothing you could put your finger on. Just a collection of signals that set my “back to school” senses flaring.

Mom retired from teaching middle school nearly twenty years ago, and I waved good-bye to my last group of school buses three years ago in May. But “back to school” is instinct for us both. After decades in the classroom, you find August and September exert a pull on your heart perennial as the tides. Something in the air I’m breathing this week makes me think of crisp stacks of paper, new notebooks and markers, rearranging desks and chairs, decorating my classroom to welcome new kids to love, and standing at the door to greet them. This time of year, I viscerally miss watching awkward adolescents pretending confidence and nervously straightening their carefully-chosen new clothes. I can picture them—darting daring glances at each other, choosing their seats with care, comparing shoes, and eyeing me with skepticism and hope to decide if I’m worth trusting. I can almost feel the exhaustion of these early weeks even though I am not living them—the emotional pull of working to be worthy of their trust, knowing that these early days are critical cornerstones for a year of changing lives and hearts and minds.

I would usually spend these weeks memorizing 150 names in two days— Is DJ the one with the mischievous smile and the fade or is that Donnell? Serena is the angry one. Lydia is shy and has the long bangs. And who is Mark? I would read stacks of “Who Am I?” compositions; and respond with encouragement to memoirs about last-second basketball victories, amusement park vacations, friendship, and aching loss as we kicked off writers’ workshop: “That’s it! I love it. Keep going. What happened next?” We would listen to my favorite songs, poems, and stories—introduction to the power of words. We would read our “I Am From” poems to each other and start those first steps toward sharing and being vulnerable. I would begin falling in love and figuring out my quirky new family for the year—starting to see needs and hurts and buried stories to uncover. Just like always.

Back to school looks different this year for teachers and students, but some things never change. Just as Mom and I still scent the air, note the angle of the light, and know it’s time, the hearts of teachers everywhere still recognize “back to school.” Back to school is not a place or even a time; it’s something far more powerful triggered by the rhythms of the year. Your senses call you to the fresh page, the new book, the unwritten story. Back to school is always—and never—the same.

As we greet new faces and build community, back to school remains a sacred space for beginning, year after year after year—and nothing can change that. No mask, virtual platform, desk arrangement, plastic shield, or protocol can alter the importance of beginning. I know so many of my colleagues are grappling with fear as school reopens, or feeling torn and frustrated about how different a start this is. I know I would feel the same, wondering as I greeted kids just what this strange year would hold. I’ll offer this encouragement to all, however. The virus is a dangerous living thing, it’s true, but back to school…we need to keep in mind that it has a special DNA, and in those of us who spend our lives in school and love it, this time of year creates its own powerful life force. If we focus on the same things that have always called us back, year after year, nothing will defeat us.

The Essential Work of Schools

I’ve been reading and listening to people share strong opinions about whether or not we must reopen schools for in-person learning in a few weeks, and I can’t remember a time in my thirty-year education career when so many people had so much to say about the role of teachers and schools.

On one hand, I’m glad the spring shutdown and shift to online or other substitute methods for learning forced people to take stock of the critical functions our schools and teachers serve in the lives of children and communities. On the other, I’ve heard my share of people whose sole conclusion from this reflection time has been that they really had a good babysitting deal from public schools and can’t possibly do their own work without that free childcare. Both things are true. I simply hope those who’ve reached the second realization think hard about the first. Children are not Amazon packages, produce, or a week’s worth of household trash…and the people who deliver learning, nurture their growth with rich and healthy daily experiences, and care for them during your working hours…well those people are a unique breed of “essential workers.” If we learned one thing during the last months, I hope it is that teachers are not fungible, easily replaced by machines and unskilled amateurs, or unimportant.

In the first weeks of the pandemic, I—like many others—found myself grateful and ashamed that I had not realized how dependent I was on the work of delivery people, food supply chain/grocery staff, sanitation workers, and health care providers. I had time to think about the entire team of people who keep an organization like a hospital running—the cleaning crews, the cafeteria staff, the ambulance drivers, nurses, doctors, administrators, maintenance, security staff…I know I’ve just scratched the surface. The same was true when I went to the grocery store. I’ve always appreciated cashiers and baggers who help me directly and the folks in the deli and butcher shop prepping food I select. But I found myself so appreciative for the first time of the men and women showing up to work behind the scenes of an industry I don’t work in or understand well: field workers harvesting produce or packing chicken to get it to stores, manufacturers of cleaning products, people who drove the trucks all night, the folks who unloaded it all tirelessly and stocked the shelves while we filled our carts. I’d been rather oblivious to the huge number of people I had depended upon to live. I’m not proud of that. It’s just true.

In the last months, we’ve all been given a chance to ponder just what and who are essential to us. I have appreciated the staff in our senior living facilities—men and women who have masked up and reported for duty with our most vulnerable populations, doing exhausting and dangerous work for not much per hour. When the power went out, I pictured the crews at IPL going in at night to help get things running or the guy up on a telephone pole after a storm restoring service. We’ve all experienced the frustration of waiting from 10-5 for a technician to show up, but I found myself more grateful than ever for people with the complex skills to diagnose and repair a broken refrigerator or HVAC unit or plumbing. These are gifts I don’t have and can’t fake. As a volunteer for the board of a children’s shelter, I’ve listened to stories of police officers showing up to a 911 call in the middle of the night, rescuing kids in dangerous situations, and taking them to the shelter where essential workers never stopped staffing the place during the pandemic and caring for those children. So many people kept working during this time at risk to themselves. Postal workers. Food service workers. Cleaning teams. Researchers. Transportation workers. Utility providers. Firefighters. Military personnel on ships and shores far from home.

That brings me to teachers…and schools.

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the automation of learning. Since early 2000, entire charter enterprises sprang up (and often faded) predicated on computer-driven instruction in online academies or schools that delivered digital lessons with less-skilled aides supervising a lab full of students on laptops and fewer professional teachers. Technology, some said, would make teaching and learning more efficient. Some charter innovators even said computers could be leveraged to replace teachers, and learners would still progress. If the last months taught us anything, however, I hope it is that virtual learning can do some of what a school or a teacher does, but this is a human enterprise, and schools and the people who make them possible are essential.

Schools aren’t perfect. Not every teacher is great. For the most part, however, I hope the current situation helps us appreciate that the schools that meet the needs of 57 million children in our country every day are critical in our society. I’ll say that again: 57 million children attend public schools in the U.S. Over 3 million teachers serve them. Millions more school adults support teachers and learners to ensure they succeed. That means about 1 in 5 people in the United States walk through the doors of a public school every day to work in the field of learning and human development. Schools are massive, complex, essential enterprises…the heartbeat of our democracy, the safety net for our children, and the hope for our future.

When I have heard people argue that “children are low risk for the virus” as a flippant reason to reopen schools, I think to myself that some of them may have no idea of the part of the adult iceberg beneath the surface of a school—just as I had not really fully considered all the important people who made my grocery store possible. Just to be clear, when we talk about “reopening” schools fully, we are also talking about these millions of essential adult workers:

  • bus drivers and monitors
  • bus mechanics
  • teachers
  • custodians
  • office staff
  • administrators
  • instructional assistants
  • substitute teachers
  • counselors
  • cafeteria staff
  • professors preparing/supervising student teachers
  • department of education staff
  • speech and language pathologists
  • translators
  • security officers
  • home/school and homeless student coordinators
  • technology teams and IT specialists
  • school psychologists
  • social workers
  • behavior/occupational therapists
  • school board members
  • maintenance crews
  • playground and building inspectors
  • safety specialists
  • school nurses and clinic staff
  • treasurers
  • library staff/media specialists
  • college counselors
  • athletic directors
  • coaches
  • community volunteers
  • And more I may have forgotten

Any teacher will tell you he/she would rather be with students in person; that online teaching is grueling to design and deliver, let alone do well; and that returning to work given the case counts in some counties and the conditions in some school buildings is terrifying to some of them. Are they essential workers? Yes. Should we risk their lives if we can provide alternatives until it is safe for them to work? No. We need them well. In case people are unaware, we are already facing a shortage of teachers in this country. So keeping them healthy and able to return when it is safe is important, even if it means hybrid or online learning must continue a while. Are those alternatives as good for kids? No. To say otherwise is to deny the critical and important work that all those people I listed above do for 57 million children every day. I will add that, like many workers in this country, there were some years when, if it hadn’t been for my husband’s income, if I had to teach and pay for childcare for my own kids, I would have netted less than zero for my week’s work. We don’t pay many essential workers anywhere close to their true value to us, and that’s a fact, so if some schools go back but teachers’ children need care, it is a fact that many cannot afford to return to their jobs. I say this fully aware of the ironic paradox that the many essential workers I have grown to appreciate during this time have faced the same problem with their own childcare needs in the past months when schools were closed. Schools provide safe and enriching places children to learn and grow, surrounded by supportive professionals, so parents can do their own jobs with peace of mind and focus. That’s not free babysitting. That’s a critical national asset. It’s time we said so and valued the people who make it possible.

We cannot mandate that all schools reopen fully for in-person classes. Each situation is different; each district (sometimes even each school) has different safety considerations for the children/staff/community, and these will evolve and shift with the conditions as they should, as they do in severe weather or other safety calls we have to make when we are responsible for vulnerable humans. We aren’t delivering packages; we’re caring for people’s most precious treasures, and no school person I’ve ever known takes that responsibility lightly. Hard calls are ahead, and some people will be angry and unsatisfied as those impact their personal situation. Digital substitutes for real school will be imperfect and frustrating. That’s a given. But let’s not lose sight of something more important here.

The more important question I think is this: how will we take care of our nation’s schools and their essential staff now that we have seen how critical they are to us? Will we fund them better? Resource them according to their real needs? Stop talking about how disappointed we are with public education and respect the difficulty of the work and the vastness of the enterprise now that we’ve seen that it isn’t easy to replace or supplant? Most important, will we do a better job in the days ahead of honoring those who choose to do this essential, life-saving work?

Joy

On Wednesdays, the Memory Care unit helps patients Facetime their families. They haven’t allowed visitors since March, and my father-in-law probably doesn’t fully grasp that fact. We haven’t made one of our monthly weekend trips to Florida to see him since February. Even to me, February seems a million years ago now.

When your brain no longer makes new memories, the old ones are precious. The people caring for my father-in-law know that, so a few weeks into the lockdown, they tasked a staff person to carry around an ipad a couple days a week helping residents connect virtually with their families. They cannot give us an exact time to expect a call. Caregiver work is unpredictable. Having been in schools all my life, I get that. People are neither a routine process nor a typical product. So much of getting it right means responding to what presents in the moment, deviating from the plan.

So most Wednesdays, at some point in the day, I’ll see a Facetime call coming in, and we drop everything to answer. I say the same words every time as soon as I see his face appear and the caregiver’s hand pulling back from the screen. “HELLO! It’s JENNY!” I prop the iPad in the exact same place at the kitchen table and pull up two chairs. I call the dog. She knows just what to do now and jumps up to gaze at him. As soon as he sees the blue kitchen walls and the dog, he exclaims, “Jenny! And your white dog!” I signal to my husband who is working at his desk downstairs that his dad is on the phone, and he joins me at the table…always sitting to my right, the dog between us. And once my father-in-law sees his son’s face, he beams. The joy is so real you can feel it through the screen.

We don’t talk long. And we have learned it doesn’t matter what we say so much as how we say it. No polite chit chat. No questions like “how are you?” No rapidfire tumble of words about our own lives. We say the same simple things each time. We cue the same old stories…sometimes several times within a ten-minute conversation. We have learned the way to start them: not “do you remember?” but “I was just thinking about…”.

Sometimes the story that worked last week evokes no reaction, so we cycle through the tried and true “I was just thinking…” starters until his eyes light on whichever one gets through today. We retell and help him relive the time he and Tom spilled the big can of white paint on new carpet, the time he bought the Triumph Spitfire without telling Tom’s mom, the golden retriever three dogs ago who liked to pick up all the neighbors’ Sunday newspapers and bring them to the doorstep…the big youth hockey rivalry against a better-equipped, wealthier team…IU football and their chances this year. It doesn’t matter that these are the same stories. What matters is bringing the light to his eyes.

Joy is a powerful tool. It can cut like a knife through loss and sadness. Watching my father-in-law laugh till he nearly cries as we reconstruct the scene of the white paint spilling back in the summer of 1985 makes me glad in a way I can barely explain. Seeing his face light up when his eyes land on my husband never fails to remind me of the powerful reservoir love builds in us.

It is sometimes hard to accept that the days of him taking a deep interest in our lives are past. He cannot process the present, and the future does not concern him now; he is leaving it to us. I realize that, like most parents, he spent decades listening to us, making our stories the focus, rarely offering his own. I don’t think we often paused from our recitation of all the exciting things happening in our lives and updates on our kids, our work, our adventures to ask our parents, “How are you really? Tell me about your life story.” Our role was to tell; theirs was to feed the tale with interested questions and marvel at our responses.

Now it is our turn. We choose the stories he loves to bring what memories we can to the surface from the murky depths. And in the midst of his terrifying journey, we try to bring some light. We evoke laughter. And when we get it right, we unlock joy.

There is so little he needs right now and so much we cannot do. We cannot reverse time nor the ravages of neurons. But joy…that we can help with.

On Leading

I’ve been thinking about leadership a lot these days as I’ve watched elected officials and community leaders struggling to meet this moment. The confluence of the pandemic and its economic fallout, racial protests and the action required to dismantle centuries of systemic racism, the collapse of confidence in government, and the stress of so many unknowns about the months to come is a powerful mix of challenges. No leader is super-human, but we do need extraordinary leadership now.

It’s important to note that most people are not leaders. They simply go where they are led—sometimes gratefully, sometimes grumbling every step of the way. Make no mistake, however: the goers and the grumblers cannot lead, no matter what some of them might think. Back-seat drivers can neither see the road nor steer, and they have no stomach for speed or hazardous conditions. Second-guessers were never in the room for the hard stuff, trying to discern a path through complete fog with cliffs on either side. The Monday morning quarterbacks…yeah, they can’t really throw a pass anyone could catch even when they aren’t under pressure. And there is always pressure. This is real life, after all.

So leadership matters. In fact, I think as I consider my lifetime, it has almost never mattered more than it does now. Thus, I think we must consider what we expect from those who lead. You may have your own list, but this is mine: a powerful set of tools I have seen the best leaders in my life use well.

Courage: Leading is not for the faint of heart. Every step into the unknown requires bravery. Courage isn’t hearty, false bravado, though. Some of the most courageous people I know are quiet, steady types who know that putting one foot in front of the other is sometimes the hardest thing to do in complex times. Some say fortune favors the bold, but my experience has taught me it favors the brave…because leading is rarely about leaps. Instead, it is usually about taking steady steps into the unknown and deciding when to reverse or change course. It takes a special brand of bravery to admit the path you championed or chose is no longer the best one. The best leaders I’ve followed were not only brave enough to choose a path among confusion options, but also to say, “We’re going the wrong way” when it was necessary.

Optimism: When you set out for the other side of chaos, and you tell others, “Follow me!” you stake their lives, their hopes, their futures to your own decisions. The thought of what could go wrong can be paralyzing for those who are not inherently optimistic and hopeful. But hope, as one of my colleagues was often fond of reminding us, is not a strategy. Optimism is not blind hope that everything will be ok. Optimism is the belief in our ability to drive for a positive outcome together. It is optimism that yields the confidence to say “we’ll figure it out” and to step forward rather than cowering in the shadows.

Curiosity Mixed with Humility: The best leaders I have ever known were curious people…question askers who listened hard to answers and followed with more questions. They had a deep interest in the talents, knowledge, and skill sets of others—so much that they were constantly asking for help or different perspectives. They saw patterns and possibilities even in the humblest places, could learn something from anybody, never thought their own context so unique and special that they could not find value in the truths and experiences of others. Strong leaders are voracious learners. They devour knowledge and seek new ideas—instead of feeding daily from the same trough that assures continuity and assuages ego. Because they are always learning, they evolve, change their minds, grow. They allow their teams, colleagues, and friends to influence them; and surround themselves with strong people worthy of that impactful role because they value the way that iron sharpens iron. They know they are strong because of the people around them, and this tempers arrogance and keeps pride in the right place. They are ever-mindful that we succeed together more than alone.

Conscience and Vigilance: Leaders don’t sleep well. They toss and turn. They lie awake in the dark hours before morning worrying about how particular decisions may have impacted others, how the course they are setting may result for those who depend upon them, how the random action of any one of their followers may upend everything they have worked for in a moment. They worry about protecting the vulnerable, and they have a moral compass they wrestle with in the midst of chaotic times. Hard decisions stay on their hearts and on their shoulders, so that even when forging ahead, they feel the drag of the wake our actions sometime leave. Strong leaders worry about the what-if’s, the left-behind, the roads not taken, the way the future may diverge from the present. They don’t take long to bask in the comfort of today’s achievement or the status quo, always planning and moving instead to prepare for what lies ahead while others rest a moment. Leaders never forget that people have trusted them to lead. Trust comes with a heavy responsibility. It is both an honor and a burden they can never put down.

Energy for the Tedious Stuff: Some people think leaders do the big stuff and leave the details to others. First lieutenants. Executive assistants. Middle managers. Division heads. Rough drafters. Perhaps that is true of some leaders, but the best I have known are not afraid of weeds, of rolling up sleeves for more than photo ops, of wading through big stacks of information or data or the ugly myriad details of difficult tedious decisions. The best leaders get their hands into the work—not just to show everyone they’re “one of us,” but because they know that leading isn’t the work; the work is the work.

Self-Reflection and Honesty: The best leaders know their own weak spots. They are brutally honest with themselves about failures big and small. They know the person in the mirror well, and they know when that person is being inauthentic. They call themselves out, and they set their own bars high. When sycophantic spin surrounds them, they don’t succumb to its siren song. Instead, they listen for their own voice and speak the truth to themselves even when it isn’t what they want to hear. They don’t need others to be their internet providers or router; they are each their own hot spot. They make time for reflection; it comes as easily as breath. A stumble is not a fall to those who make sense of experience and act on that knowledge. The strongest leaders I’ve ever worked for knew when to say, “We got that wrong. We can do better.” And then we did.

I note that I haven’t listed typical “leadership book” skills: vision, emotional intelligence, communication, team building. I don’t even mention work ethic—although certainly leaders “keep no office hours”. My list of what I hope for in our leaders is short, but—as we have seen all too often—so hard to find. Still, as we look at what this time demands and the complexity of the future we are traveling into together…well, I think we must find leaders with these strengths. We cannot afford to do less.

Light…

One of our oft-retold family travel stories involves my first trip to Stonehenge, which I had always longed to see. My husband and I signed on as parent chaperones when our son’s high school soccer team planned a trip to England. We received the itinerary from the coach months in advance. At the planning meeting, I happened to mention my disappointment that we were going to be so close to Stonehenge, one of the ancient world wonders, but weren’t taking the boys there. He asked if I thought they would prefer that to Shakespeare’s birthplace (which was a planned stop), and despite the fact that I’ve spent years introducing students to the Bard and his plays, I threw Shakespeare right under the (tour) bus. “Oh, I don’t think they’ll like Stratford nearly as much,” I said. “A bunch of high school boys walking through an old house? Trying to get excited about Anne Hathaway’s cottage? But…Stonehenge! They’d be able to say they saw one of the world wonders. We’ll be driving almost right past it on our way back to London from Bath. It’s barely even a detour.”

What can I say? When I’m passionate about something, I can be persuasive. The revised itinerary arrived the following month. When I called the coach to express my excitement and gratitude for considering my thoughts on the matter, he said it was the least he could do “for the only mom on the trip.” Yup. No other moms wanted to spend a week on a bus touring soccer pitches and making sure no one lost a passport, a wallet, the contents of his stomach, or the rest of the group. I still consider it one of the most memorable trips of my life, and we’ve done a fair amount of travel.

For several days before Stonehenge, I could barely contain my excitement. I talked it up to the guys, bubbling with facts about the mystery of the giant standing stones, the legends associated with these circles, raised over 2500 years ago, and the fact that we still aren’t sure why they were set up precisely for the sun to come through the rocks in certain ways at the summer and winter solstices. Perhaps they were sites of ancient gatherings, rituals, religious celebrations. And who placed them there? Archaeologists think that one of the two kinds of stone (bluestones) were brought by Neolithic people to the Salisbury Plain from Wales over 100 miles away. They weigh two to five tons each. How ancient people got them there to build this monument is still a puzzle. As the boys listened, I promised awe, magic, mystery, history. They were intrigued. My son rolled his eyes; he is used to my enthusiasm. He and my husband joked that I should be careful not to fall through a time portal, Outlander-style, because they were not coming after me. I tolerated their amusement at my expense. I was that eager.

As we approached Stonehenge, the small tour bus we were on rumbled along the open roads through vast fields. The boys were confused. We were out in the middle of nowhere. Were we lost? Shouldn’t we see it by now? I kept my eyes peeled for the giant stones. There they were! From a distance I saw the circle across the open landscape. Seen from miles away, they looked like they were six feet tall or less, and the circle seemed small, huddled in the vast midst of nothing. Only then did I realize that the boys were expecting something grander, more along the line of skyscraper-sized rocks. “Is this it?” More than one looked confused. My son and husband snickered.

We got out and approached. Tom didn’t even ask if I wanted the guided tour headset device that provided a brief lecture for EVERY marked point of interest rather than the paper map with its several-paragraph overview of the site. Only later would I learn that he told my son, “Listen, we’re not rushing your mom here.” Days of looking at soccer jerseys and stadiums were being repaid in the opportunity to walk at my own pace and linger in this spot, if not for as long as I wanted, at least for reasonable homage to this major bucket list check.

The boys walked around the circle of standing stones laid by ancient, unknown hands faster than they’d trot across the field for a warm-up before a game. They had “seen” Stonehenge, horsed around a little, purchased drinks at the snack stand, and were back on the bus in about fifteen minutes flat. To their credit, not a single one complained to me that I spent 45 additional minutes enjoying the site while they waited (something I did not realize till later). They were gentlemen about it. And they had phones, so…you know. It was fine.

I was not disappointed with Stonehenge. Ancient sites never leave me feeling anything other than the presence of time and stories before mine. My family has to set limits when we explore places like the Roman Forum or Machu Picchu because I will stay forever wandering old streets and putting buildings back together in my mind, peopling the landscapes. My daughter—once she was old enough to stop finding everything I do super-annoying—finally explained to me that my way of exploring these sites is baffling. “Mom, I wish I knew what you’re looking at when we are in a place like this,” she said, gesturing around at the Forum. “I feel like I’m looking at ruins in a museum, and you’re staring at it like you’re watching a movie of people living their lives 1500 years ago.” It’s true. Stonehenge loomed mysterious that day under the cloudy gray skies, and groups of travelers surrounded me, holding tour radios and taking selfies. But I remember standing with the wind lifting my hair, blocking out the sounds of tourists, and imagining a procession of ancient families making their way across the Plain to this place for some important annual gathering, some meaningful ritual. I stood, feeling the magnitude of the mystery and wondering what happened to all of those people. I’ll never forget it.

I’m reminiscing about Stonehenge today because it’s in the news. Were we not living through a pandemic, thousands would be flocking to the stone circle today to celebrate the summer solstice. The site is still closed, however, and the organization that manages Stonehenge has asked people to stay away this year for public health reasons. Several news reports indicate officials still expect to deter determined visitors. Modern-day druids actually consider Stonehenge their place of worship, and some will show up there today, virus or not. Others will just go for the party they imagine will still be possible. And some may just hope for the chance to stand with the smallest crowd ever to watch the sunset through the ancient stones on the longest day of the year. I get it. It would be tempting to think you could be one of a mere few standing together when the sun rises. That would be an unbelievable moment for sure.

Some years ago, on New Year’s Day, our family rose at 3 AM, donned our warmest clothes, and traveled up a winding road through thinning air to the top of Maui’s Mt. Haleakala to watch the sun rise on a new year. Standing there with other travelers, all of them silent as the first rays peeked over the edge of the earth and shot through the clouds to land on our faces, I looked around and remembered Stonehenge. For millennia, people have found something powerful about gathering together to celebrate the cycle of light. Anyone who has ever watched a sunset or lifted their eyes in gratitude one early morning on the way to work at sunrise knows what I mean. Perhaps as humans, we are somehow made to look sunward—just as plants are geo- and phototropic. Light calls to us, and we turn. Having experienced the awe that comes with sharing such moments in community, I find myself dreaming that one day I will stand with other gathered travelers to watch the Midsummer sun lingering over Stonehenge for myself. Thinking of that makes me smile. But today…as we enter the longest day of the year, in a year that has already been full of challenge and not a little tragedy, I find myself reminded of the power of light…and the ever-present hope that it will draw us together.

Now what?

My country is on fire.

I am reading the news with an eerie sense that it’s history…the violence, property destruction, arson in our cities could be grainy black and white footage of Selma, Little Rock, or Montgomery in the 1960’s of my youth. But we’re over fifty years past those scenes, and what I’m watching now is the result of history—decades of ignoring the fact that we have never honestly tried to become one nation indivisible.

The cracks between us were such easy conduits for hate and distrust to navigate, so they crept in everywhere—in trickles or in waves—and made themselves comfortable. Like ice in our veins, they hardened and cracked us further apart. We knew at some level this was happening, like you know when you’re living an unhealthy life—eating and drinking with reckless abandon, letting your body go to ruin, realizing some choices are probably bad, knowing you don’t want to see your cholesterol numbers. This needs to change, you think. Still, doing the hard things is hard. The bill won’t come due for awhile, you think. Maybe I’ll clean things up before then…one of these days. That’s how we’ve squandered these decades, watching the gulf between us widen—with some people trying to act, some waiting to act, and some glad no one is acting.

Looting and burning aren’t a plan. They are attention-getting devices to wake us up to the hard truths we would rather ignore. My heart aches as I consider what the protestors want to happen. “Change” is so vague and so elusive. What is the change? Is it arrest and conviction of a hateful man given too much power over vulnerable others he was sworn to protect? Is it deeper rooting out of those like him in positions of sacred public trust? Is it calling our lawmakers to accountability for building a place where the rule of law is just? Is it wishing that every citizen could check hate at the door and work to build a society where we could live together in peace? We have to name what we want to be next even as we howl that what we have is not acceptable. And, yes, I know that some of those rioting in our streets are simply high on the excitement of destruction. No one needs to be told they are false standard-bearers. To focus on them takes our eye off the ball of truth. Let’s admit they exist, acknowledge they disgust us, and be courageous enough to hear the real message instead of letting those non-examples hijack the moment. No one whose heart is truly calling for a change thinks some guy stealing a tv is helping anyone but himself. He is not calling us to anything higher.

Movement is easy to simulate. Real change is a long, painful process; it offers easy spots along the way to bail out or regress. It takes steady pressure, deft threading of the needle, so many tiny stitches. My imaginary debate partner now taps me on the shoulder to say, “Yes. Change is slow. But we’ve waited long enough. Don’t speak to me of patience. The time for patience is past. Let’s burn things down. We tried it the other way, and we’ve failed. It’s time for revolution.” And I must acknowledge that there is so much about this argument that is compelling. Still, the part of my life that was about leading people through change tells me truly that there is more to consider. Revolution isn’t change. It is simply the signal that change must come. Even as we watch those who are calling us to action, they are not the ones who will make change. So I push back with my debate partner. I understand, I say. But don’t let the fire and smoke blind us to the truth of what must happen next. Honor the demonstrators for their courage to speak, for their spirit to fight for something more, but know that they are not the ones who will do the work. Pin your hopes on the everyday people with the patience to do the tedious job of figuring out what is next, the ones with the endurance to stick to the task, those who will keep calling us to do the big and small daily acts that will normalize the world we must build. Look for them. Those who come after. They clean up the mess. They fix the shattered glass and rebuild where others destroyed. They tend to the broken. Ponder how to heal. They somehow have to figure out where we must go next. Without them, the revolution doesn’t succeed. Without them, we fail all over again, just in a different way.

We have made the mistake before of hoping leaders will emerge to direct our steps, to tell us what comes after. Today, in addition to that hope, I think we are each called to lead, to consider our own acts of irresponsibility or thoughtless recklessness. Where did we pass by or stand by without stopping to think or change? Where was the moment we decided that we would substitute “thoughts and prayers” for allowing ourselves to feel the pain of someone else’s life, trapped in skin that we have often made an unbearable sentence? We all come equipped with brains that evolved to seek patterns, jump to quick judgment in moments of perceived threat, and align with tribes to survive. Fighting our wiring demands we understand that and maintain constant vigilance to avoid and to rewire automatic responses. Rewiring neural paths takes many repetitions of doing the new thing. It also takes a reason to incorporate the new learning.

Putting out the fires in our city streets won’t quiet the fires that burn inside people. If we want to move forward, we need to think hard about what comes after protest. We must each do the harder work of asking “what’s next?” Demand of ourselves and others a response that comes from love and not anger or hate. I say this because I want to live in an America that is trying to get better. We are the greatest experiment on the planet. But our success, in fact our collective survival, is ensured only if we can learn to live together. Peace is not just a better option; it is our only option.

This Way Out

I expect in time that we will leave our homes, emerge fully into the world, squinting in the bright light of being among each other again. It’s hard to imagine a day when we will not scuttle to and fro, heads down, masked for safety and adherence to the social contract. What will it be like to look someone in the eye across a span of inches instead of feet? To stand so close again that we can feel the warm breath of another human being on our cheeks? The mere idea of such danger now creates an instant assault on the nervous system, escalates breathing and heart rate. What have we learned, and what have we forgotten in these days apart? What is the cost of so much safety?

Tunneled into bunkers built of abundant caution, we will need to help each other find the way out. Old exits are blocked with the wreckage of this moment and our hastily-erected barricades. Old maps are useless. We will need new roads and modes of travel to find our way back to the past. We may need to scavenge for the salvageable remnants of what we used to do, dust them, repair what was broken, and learn to do life again in the new spaces we rebuild.

We’ve been under high pressure for an extended period of time. Like deep sea divers ascending slowly to avoid the bends, we cannot shoot back to the surface of our lives. Our physical bodies know what our minds might ignore: when you’ve been deep underwater for awhile, you must decompress and acclimate in order to emerge intact. Moving fast is not possible.

Many truths assault us all at once, and we cannot will them away. We are not going back to normal, just forward into the unknown. We are still at risk, just a little better armed and more alert. We’ve learned that distancing is safe and fellow humans shed invisible danger as they go; those lessons will be hard to forget until they are no longer true. We reflexively cross the street to avoid each other. We have traded a sense of abundance for panicky self-preservation, built walls of supplies to calm our fears, let go of small civil acts of courtesy in the name of safety. We will need to reteach and repair the simple trusts on which we built our days before, put mortar in the chinks in our confidence, rewire our limbic systems to allow approach, and learn to let ourselves be together without activating internal alarms. That will take time…and effort… deep breathing…and a fair amount of grace. Our inner voice may sound a warning, and we will need to learn to honor its intention, even as we try to quiet its noise. In time, we will be able to soothe ourselves with the conviction of truth, saying, “You can turn off the alarm. Tomorrow is never promised, but we’re as safe as we can be for today. We’ve got this. It’s going to be okay.”