June 17, 2020 — “Normal” is a word I hear often these days. It carries with it the allure, of well, normal. I sense that it is often used with good intention. A longing for stability and certainty about the world and our place in it. And as a leader and teacher I think there is a good reason to express a certain degree of skepticism about its meaning. Especially in the current context of a global pandemic, world-wide economic decline, and the calls for justice by Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. A return to “normal” feels to me inadequate for the deep work that I need to do and that the institutions that I’m part of and love also need to do. In my head I hear the lyrics to a Bruce Cockburn song: “the trouble with normal is it always gets worse.” And by worse he means the divide between the haves and have nots, the rich and poor, and the empowered and disempowered. His song from 1983 is a prophetic warning to question normal as an operating principle, then and now.

This moment, now, compels me as educator and leader to address the realities of structural racism in every institution, especially schools, that support and perpetuate the pandemic of whiteness as normal. I don’t know how you are doing with this moment. Perhaps you carry sadness with you or fear. Rapid change and loss may well have brought weariness, bone weariness and a sense that you don’t know how to keep moving forward. Or even what forward looks like right now. You may be welcoming the change that is sweeping the world and the possibility found in chaos. You might sense that disruption is clearing away old habits and offering new ways to grow and heal. Regardless, I invite you to be fully present to your emotions. To feel them in your body. To know that they are real and contain the energy of transformation for self, others, and the field of education.

The questions I’m holding today are many and varied. Where should I look for wisdom, sense making, or something tangible to anchor to in hard times? What can I do when it feels like everything around me is in turmoil? Faculty, staff, students, and administrators are preparing for the fall quarter. I wonder how anyone can really plan amidst all the changes we are going through individually and collectively? I wonder how can we pick up the shattered pieces of social structures that empower some and disempower others—without recreating systems of oppression? I feel simultaneously charged and disoriented. I don’t really know what the best course of action is. I find myself searching for the generative space between deconstruction of power and privilege; and the construction of newness grounded in liberation and freedom for all. What can I do, is a daily question for me?

Two sources of wisdom have helped center me lately while keeping me open to personal and social change. The first dates to 1948 and the eve of the atomic revolution and potential world destruction. Four elders were appointed by the Hopi Nation to share ancient wisdom and prophecy. One story tells that now, a world in crisis, is like a mighty river. The eleventh-hour is here and so is the time to act.

There is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore. They will feel they are torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our eyes open, and our heads above water.  And I say, see who is in there with you and celebrate.

I hear in the prophecy of the Hopi elder that fear plays an important role in the way I and others choose to respond to this moment. The pain and loss associated with climate change, COVID-19, economic collapse, and the death of so many Black, Brown, and indigenous people feels like a mighty river. It is sweeping normal away and flushing out the no longer useful ways of being.

What can I do? I can let go and join the river as it flows to its destination, not my hoped for normal, but the river’s natural end point. What is of most use to me is the truth that once I let go and stop hanging on to my white-male-heterosexual privilege, for instance, I will find myself in the company of many others. In community we can celebrate and rejoice together as power is reconfigured in service of everyone, and every learner. Now is the time for me to give up privilege in order to give it back to all.

The second wisdom story comes from a June 5, 2020 National Public Radio StoryCorp conversation between a Black father (Albert Sykes) and his 9 year old son (Aiden).

Aiden: So, Dad, what are your dreams for me?

Mr. Sykes: My dream is for you to live out your dreams. There’s an old proverb that talks about when children are born, children come out with their fists closed because that’s where they keep all their gifts. And as you grow, your hands learn to unfold because you’re learning to release your gifts to the world. And so for the rest of your life, I want to see you live with your hands unfolding.

I like thinking in metaphors. They help me get beyond my rational mind to the living heart of truth. Albert Sykes offers me an understanding of change that combines the destructive and constructive image of a fist. What can I do? Now is a time, as many social justice educators argue, to raise a fist and break apart the power structures that oppress and kill (emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically) so many. At some point, the closed fist will open, in its own time, to reveal gifts. New ways of knowing and being that the wounded world and broken schools need for healing.

Neither wisdom story offers a systematic and structured plan for change. They can’t be condensed into an email of next steps and phases or written as a five-year strategic plan. I find the wisdom that speaks to my heart takes its own time to settle in and create the conditions for growth and change. I need to sit with this wisdom and let it work me, rather than me applying my expectations and timeline to it.

Now is the eleventh-hour, a time to act. For some that means jumping into the river and swimming with fellow radical educators and protestors. For some that means sewing masks, painting slogans of empowerment, or pursuing other ways to disrupt and deconstruct the system. For others it means writing scholarly articles or leading professional development grounded in social justice practices and principles.

What can I do? I can look for companions with closed fists waiting for them to open and reveal gifts of insight, change, and the way forward to a more humane, compassionate, and just world. What can you do? What is in your fist today? What gifts do you carry? What is your unique wisdom to share with all of us?

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”?


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