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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.”

Story Power

I come from storytelling people who linger laughing around the table or the fire long after dinner plates are empty. At a young age, I learned the simple price of joining them: the classical skills of a good listener. They expected audiences to engage with nods and chuckles, animated faces as realizations dawned, and interjected questions or comments. “What did you do next?” “So what happened?” The end of a story provoked sighs of satisfaction and instant reviews. We pronounced it “a good one,” or agreed how much we loved rehearing an old favorite. And that reminded us to ask someone to “tell about the time….” They’d take up the thread, and on we would go, late into the night. My grandmother used to tell us how her family’s first question of any visitor was, “So what’s news?” You earned your right to be there by producing something clever. Your value stemmed from your narrative. Our people treat newcomers like traveling troubadours. Storytelling rituals run in our blood.

I suppose it is no surprise, then, that all of us learned to tell a good story. Not just the nuts and bolts of events, you understand, but drawn-out, suspenseful, delicious details peppered with dialogue and plenty of narrative voice. “So then the woman behind the counter, this gigantic redhead in a polka dot blouse with a bow from the 90’s, she took one look at me and said in this snippy voice, ‘Nope, we don’t exchange things without a price tag.’ So I showed her where the seam had just dissolved into a jagged mess and said, ‘I think you should make an exception for THIS! And she looked at me like she was thinking maybe I’d worn it and then ripped a hole to get my money back. And I thought to myself, ‘I just bet you live with ten cats,’ so guess what I did next?” We learned how to keep people entertained with lively tales of everyday life. The refrigerator repair wasn’t just annoyingly late and inefficient; it was a saga for the ages pitting our heroine against the dark forces of evil corporate appliance bureaucracy and inept technicians. We howled over the comedic retelling of a long wait at the bursar’s office, surrounded by all manner of odd students.

And so I learned that small daily events are actually quite interesting. No day is dull. Something happens every minute, and in the hands of a masterful storyteller, all of it is part of an ongoing tale as captivating as Odysseus’ journey home. Stories taught us that most people are interesting characters with thoughts in their heads worth wondering about and that we should take a lively interest in our own adventures. They helped us learn to see the entertainment value even amid the ordinary.

Because I come from storytelling people, I know my own story as it spirals back through generations. My great-grandfather was a reluctant dairy farmer who wanted to be a doctor instead. Through my grandmother’s eyes and words, I’ve ridden on dark winter mornings with him into town to deliver the milk, and I have visited him at the hospital in Logansport where he ended his days, deep into dementia but “practicing medicine” as he talked to imaginary patients. I have visited the library with my great-grandmother, then enjoyed a special dinner after the lamps were lit and the opening of that first book with anticipation to be read aloud.

In stories, I have watched my mother break her arm, refuse the first boy who wanted to kiss her, and invite the one home who would break her heart. I’ve done laundry in the cellar in the 1940’s with my grandmother in the “new house” on Victoria Street while a mischievous cat, the star of many stories, twined around her legs. I’ve planted rows of petunias outside an elementary school with my grandfather and stood, hat in hand, with him on porches of suspicious families who weren’t sure they wanted to let this new white principal into their homes. Family stories took me to Civil War battlefields, skating sessions on country ponds, playing in the hayloft on Indiana farms, and traveling in foreign lands I’ll never see. I’ve driven in the Model T Great-Grandma Newhard flew out of because it was going so fast. I’ve skied Zermatt clad only in wet jeans and a sweater with a group of young Marines who decided to see Switzerland on a lark one Christmas overseas far from home. Over and over, I’ve fallen asleep lulled by the voices of my people murmuring low and laughing about all the people and places that feed into my own here and now.

The world is spun from stories, and storytellers know it. They see the woven yarn, the over-under patterns, the purpose of each glistening color in the big design. With the rise and fall of their voices, they link us—new to old, today’s experience to yesterday’s memory. Sometimes I marvel at my luck: I grew up among tellers of tales, lingering by the fire listening to the laughter, binding me to my origins and the world with only the simple threads of their words.

Or Can We?

The word “unprecedented” is getting a lot of use these days. The pandemic is unprecedented. The shutdown is unprecedented. We’ve got about 3 billion people under lockdown around the world—about 40% of humanity. We’ve emptied our streets, skies, factories, beaches, parks, playgrounds, schools.

Unprecedented.

Somehow, in the last month, we taught millions of people to socially distance, wash their hands, make a mask, interpret graphs showing linear and logarithmic extrapolations of infectious disease trajectories, comprehend in simple terms the complexities of virus transmission, and work/live/learn/socialize in quarantine from one another. In normal times, we cannot get most people to change their habits enough to lose five pounds or give up a habit that kills them, but in the month of March, we changed the habits of most Americans dramatically and without warning. Somehow, within days, many businesses moved their entire workforce online, altering immediately the way they collaborate, communicate, and produce. Somehow, our legislative branch moved with other than its typical glacial, partisan-laden speed to pass unprecedented economic support packages. Many of our governors and local officials summoned the courage to disappoint or anger huge numbers of citizens and issue what my dad would call “buck stops here” executive orders to close schools and businesses, force millions out of work, and risk the decimation of our economy in order to prioritize lives. Most of them didn’t dither, delay, or equivocate. They simply did it.

After months (or years) of contentious political debate about government over-reach and the evils of corporate greed, we found out in the last few weeks that we need both strong government and corporate resources/research/development to make us do hard things and to help us survive. In fact, we need them on the same page, working for everyone and not just their specific constituencies or stakeholders. We’ve seen in harsh light the truth we knew all along: we are stronger together, than alone. The dangerous fault lines in our society have never been more exposed…but neither have the possibilities that lie within our people.

If you had asked me a year ago whether it would ever be possible to halt the traffic of our modern civilization, quiet the noise of industry, clear the skies over our cities, empty the streets, and move huge numbers of people to sacrifice in order to increase the possibility that the lives of unknown others might be saved…well, even as an optimist, I would not have believed. And yet, the machinery of society has ground to a stop. People have stayed apart in greater numbers than anyone could have predicted. Citizens can see the sky in India, China, and Los Angeles. CO2 levels in the air have dropped. Seismologists can hear the sounds of earth better because the rumble of the most pervasive species on the planet has stilled. Researchers around the world are sharing information without waiting to ensure who will own it or buy it. A number of employers are temporarily paying workers who aren’t working. People are talking about whether everyone should have health care after all…and whether a living wage and equitable educational opportunities would make the economy stronger even if the cost for them is great in the short term. And suddenly the work of overlooked millions from teachers to nurses to waste collectors, postal workers, grocery staff, and warehouse teams is acknowledge by a grateful public who suddenly have stood still long enough to see that what makes their own life possible is…others.

I am not Pollyanna. I acknowledge the grim and ugly realities of this crisis. Disparate impacts on rich and poor, white and brown. Harm to the helpless, homeless, imprisoned, and undocumented—whom we have not cared enough to protect. Weak leaders who chose denial over action. Greed that did not relax in the face of need. Selfishness and fear that prevented abundance and adherence. Ego that got in the way of service. Spin that blocked truth. Ignorance of the plight of people different from ourselves that gave us a skewed view of the impacts of this horrible turn of events across the spectrum of society. We are human after all. Perfection eludes us even as this upending turn of events brings out so many of our better angels. We’d rather celebrate good news about birthday parades and heroic medical workers than face the inequities of who’s packing our food and picking up our trash while we quarantine. That’s a truth we must continue to see and to speak.

Trade-offs are real. Sure, we grounded planes and the sky is clear. But thousands are furloughed who work in the airline industry—worried sick about rent and feeding their families if the planes don’t fly again in the same numbers as before. And who among us is willing to forego the visit we “must have” to far-off family members, the vacation, the important business meetings just to keep the air clean once this is over? Will we be willing to pay more for goods and services so that those providing them can earn a living wage and have healthcare? Will we be courageous enough to vote to increase our taxes to protect the climate or elect people who will make the hard decisions that make us pull our gasoline-fueled cars off the road or do other things to change our ways? That seems implausible. The inexorable pull of “business as usual” will sing its siren song as soon as the virus is under control, and we will sigh collectively in relief and return to our past without looking back to this present.

But I wonder…

When this crisis ends, won’t it be harder to say, “Oh we can’t do that?” Won’t it seem possible that we could accomplish impossible things? End our reliance on fossil fuel? Collaborate to pass social reform and economic support for all? Get assault weapons out of the hands of our citizens so we’re safer on our streets and in our schools. Close the gap between too much and not enough. Acknowledge the benefit of both corporate success and strong government. Care more about people who aren’t us.

Won’t it sound strange after what we’ve done this spring to say we really can’t strengthen infrastructure, build global alliances, create systems to support each other around the world, make quicker progress on research, and do something about climate change?

Once we had the ability to blissfully deny that we could mobilize most of the world’s population to do hard things. But now…I’m not so sure. Isn’t the most honest response now, “Or can we?”

We have never promised to leave our children a world that is allied, equitable, safe, and sustainable. Instead, through our actions and words, we have said to those children, “We can’t guarantee the future” because, honestly, we have been too busy protecting our current comforts and ensuring the status quo keeps those who benefit from it secure. We have decided we cannot change “the way things are.”

But in a whisper, I hear the voice of this crisis saying in the background…”Or can we?”

When this is over, what’s next?

Priorities

Things that don’t matter right now:

Good hair days, nail polish wearing off, updating your wardrobe, spring fashion colors, shoes, finding the right jeans or bathing suit, vacation plans, meetings, office politics, getting credit for your ideas, replacing the car, catalogs, robocalls, the dog’s fur getting too long, freshening up home decor, redoing the bathroom, wrinkles (in clothes or faces), replacing that watch battery, being annoyed that the kids haven’t called in a while, someone’s “tone” in a conversation, sports seasons, plans that change unexpectedly, family drama, determining who left that pile of stuff on the counter for three days, late mail delivery, airline delays, non-essential projects at work, aspirational weight goals, old arguments, grudges, wondering whether we really need two different music streaming services, the weird recurring 99-cent charge on the credit card bill every month, upcoming appointments…and next month’s plans.

Things that matter now more than ever:

Hearing the voices of people you love, saying things you should have said more often, internet connectivity staying strong, family, the magic of utilities we take for granted, delivery people who brave the world to bring us things, food, having a little bit saved, leftovers, messages from old friends, a really hard run to get the stress out, music, books, poems, flowers blooming, compelling tv/movies or really dumb shows that let you think about nothing, friends, reviving Pizza Night as a tradition, puzzles, games, staying well, being alive, breathing in and out with ease, trash pickup, grocery stores, eating right, positive people, a good night’s sleep, memories of happy times and places we love, spring coming, sunshine, dogs, being together IRL or virtually, laughter, people who ask “how are you doing” and want to know, time, getting outside, people who lift our hearts and inspire us by the way they care for others, really good news reporting, science, expertise, leaders who keep giving it their best even though they are really tired and overwhelmed, innovators figuring this all out, neighbors, smiles, creativity, patience, resilience, courage, love…and hope.

Just saying…