May 29, 2020 — “Shelter in Place.” “Social distancing.” How do these words make you feel? I experience varying amounts of uncertainty, loss of autonomy, the urge to protect, and curiosity about what is coming. Three words I’ve heard before in the context of threatened violence or severe weather over the plains of Colorado. But in this era of coronavirus they carry a heavy load. Three words with a brooding sense of warning; take cover, watch out, something destructive is coming. The safest place, until the danger passes, is where you are right now. Stay put. Don’t move.

The poet Mary Oliver in her poem “Today” offers this advice for navigating troubled times: “the world goes on as it must.” Yikes that sounds like harsh advice from a poet known for her caring tone. She seems to be saying, what did you expect? Life is challenging. Get over your difficulties. Move on. It is also possible to read her tone as a frank assessment that the world is value neutral when it comes to human concerns like-shelter in place. “The world goes on as it must”. It has no choice. It can’t slowdown or stop to attend to my wants and needs. Or perhaps her tone is soothing reassurance that despite the trials and tribulations, the natural pace and purpose of life persists. I just have to trust in the wisdom of the world. What then might be the wisdom in “shelter in place” and “social distancing”?

A student who knows my love of poetry and stories sent me a Facebook post by Cheyanne Thomas that offers a way for me to trust the bigger forces that keep the world alive.

“I have been feeling very caged in with isolation and social distancing, and my partner Joseph gave me a bear teaching: When a bear goes into hibernation, they do it for the health of their community and themselves. In the winter, food is scarce, hibernating allows other animals to have access to the limited resources. It slows the spread of disease and viruses among other animals during a season when immune systems are lowered, and energy is limited.”

It is also a time of conserving health for the bear, a time for reflection… it is a time that allows you to renew, to undergo change, to honor your place in life and food cycles.

It is not a time for anxiety or fear. When it is time for hibernation, a bear can finally relax. All of the stress of finding food, territory, and a mate disappears. The bear believes that they have done enough and trust in themselves. They know this process is necessary and they will come out the other side renewed.

Be the bear. Stay home. Rest. Know you are doing this for something much bigger than yourself.”

In the opening stanza of “Today”, Mary Oliver writes: “Today I’m flying low and I’m / not saying a word / I’m letting the voodoos of ambition sleep.” There are many things about this opening line that resonate with Thomas’s bear story. She invites me, and I hope you as well, to realize that at times it is important to “fly-low” to rest, renew, and retool. I know many faculty, staff, and administrators who have a hard time saying “no”. It is easy, and I know this all too well myself, to say “yes” to the work. To always “fly-high” and take on more and more responsibilities and projects. I find myself, even though I’m working from home, doing more work than when I drove to campus every day. I ask, how can that be? I guess it is because my “voodoos of ambition” are still wide awake and unwilling to hibernate. I’m a helper by nature and there is lots that can be done to heal, help, and care for others these days. But if I fly too high with my sense of indispensableness I can lose track of the ground where the real work is done. Mary Oliver reminds me to fly low at times. To slow down enough to get up close and personal to the world. To be present to the people and needs right around me. I only need to give myself the gift of stillness.

I tend to rush opportunity. I’m a doer. I lean toward action in service of others. Cheyanne and the bear remind me to be patient, resist the urge to emerge too soon and push forward, back into old habits. I don’t have to feel like my work is essential to the smooth running of the world. And in this case, I’m thinking of the world as my teaching, service, and scholarship. My ego would like me to think that when I retire or if I suddenly quit, that some important aspect of the university will note my absence. That may be partially true but not fully true. The work of academia was here long before me and it will remain long after me. Yes, I have much to contribute and I know my work and presence makes a difference. But Mary Oliver and the bear remind me that ultimately what matters is not me individually but rather the way the collected whole, the world, moves along. We are all in this COVID-19 mess together. This is a good thing because the challenges are too great for any one person to resolve or even begin to approach with clarity. We are the world and we must go on.

Are there any ambitions you can set down for the moment in order to see your work as it should be, not as you are driven to achieve? What does it take to give yourself approval to fly low? To be the bear? What is the emotion you feel when you hear that the “the world goes on as it must”?

May 19, 2020 — When you are stressed, anxious, and struggling to make sense of your teaching or leadership, where do you turn for grounding? Centering? Anchoring? I have a tendency to do one of two things in my efforts at refocusing. One strategy is to go for a walk, mostly in nature where I often find a new way to see old problems. Perhaps it is seeing a plant pushing through the hard surface of blacktop pavement. Perhaps I find a rock that is rounded with age and the turbulent forces of nature. Now I have affirmation that with time and patience my troubles will push through to the light. Or perhaps they will be refined by life into a gentler and more accessible form. My other go to, when I’m looking for a connection to deep meaning is music. I don’t have a particular artist in mind. I just keep my heart open to lyrics that bring me to a new place of meaning and understanding. In this age of the coronavirus I find myself relying heavily on both meaning making strategies. Do you have strategies for navigating stress into clarity? Are these tactics still working in the era of COVID-19?

The weeks of sheltering in place have been tough for just about everyone. But they seem particularly tough on teachers and other members of the helping professions. They must shelter in place while attempting to construct learning experiences for their students who are also sheltering in place. This requires, it seems, an ability to set aside personal wants, worries, and needs in favor of serving the wants, worries, and needs of another person. Teachers are creative when it comes to imaginative responses to difficult instructional settings. I have heard stories of teachers recording messages, creating YouTube videos, organizing drive by instruction, and generally doing what is needed to engage students in learning. But it often feels like teachers are in a holding pattern, waiting for a return to “normal”. How much longer can everyone hold out? What is the goal toward which everyone is working?

We keep hearing that the measure of success in combating COVID-19 is flattening the curve. All our sacrifices and losses will be worth it when the number of infections drops, and we no longer need to be so careful and intentional about social distancing. This makes perfect sense when considering fact. The science of controlling a pandemic that spreads through physical proximity is clear. But that is not how I feel. My emotions and embodied response to the coronavirus doesn’t feel like it tracks along a predictable line. It can’t be plotted on a graph across time. I wonder how teachers are feeling these days as they attend to the needs of students while finding time for their own selfcare. How about you? How are you feeling right now? Does the logic of flattening the curve bring you solace and fuel your commitment to remain isolated from students, friends, family, colleagues? I’m finding it harder and harder to believe in the calculation of a flattened curve. I have no doubt that it will work, but right now my feelings and emotions are what I need to convince, not my mind.

I need a new metaphor that offers meaning to my feelings. One that is dynamic enough to honor my emotions, which are anything but flat. One day I’m up. One day I’m down. I’m looking for understandings that place fact and feeling in productive relationship, not opposites to each other. The image of waves moving across the surface of the water is an inviting metaphor for me. Sometimes the waves, like my feelings, can be nearly still and other times they can crest at incredible heights of unease or joy depending on the context. The poet Judy Brown offers a helpful fact about waves. They are as much their trough (low spot) as they are their crest (high spot):

“There is a trough in waves, / A low spot / Where horizon disappears / And only sky / And water / Are our company.”

I know this loneliness of the trough. My emotional bottom. I’m tired, frustrated, and just want to go to the store and buy peanut butter, cereal, or onions without having to cover my face in a mask or work to stand six feet from another human being. My mind knows why this is important, but right now it is not my mind but my emotions that need convincing.

I’ve noticed a curious thing about my emotions and feelings. They don’t typically respond to logic. They operate on a different circuit. You might say they have a mind of their own, a different kind of logic that is wired for a different kind of understanding. Judy Brown seems to sense this as well. She knows that negative emotions, like troughs, also rise and lift. The key is time and perspective:

“But if we rest there / In the trough, / Are silent, / Noticing the shape of things, / Then time alone / Will bring us to another / Place / Where we can see / Horizon.”

I don’t need to change my feelings. I only need to be present to them, to notice how they shape my response to COVID-19. And with patience I know that the curve of my feelings won’t flatten but rather rise, caring me to a new place and new emotions. Eventually the wave will lift, and I will see new possibilities. New ways of being. It is true that sometime the emotional wave of the corona virus will lift me to a new way of seeing and understanding. But for now, I’m in a trough. What about you? Where are you on your emotional wave? What are you noticing and paying attention to? What new perspective feels like it is waiting you?


Copyright © 2018 University of Denver. | All rights reserved. | The University of Denver is an equal opportunity affirmative action institution
X