Victory Garden

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The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. 

To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.

— Alfred Austin

 

I set out to plant my garden this year as a quest – as some sort of proof that Mother Nature is not out to get us.  I needed to get my hands in the dirt and remember that nature is powerful in its beauty and mighty in its magic.  Also, to try and forget that nature can be cruel, given our current pandemic.

But, planting a garden this year was more complicated than in previous years.  Usually, I just went to Lowe’s and bought some plants.  Easy.  However, with the pandemic upon us, I had so many more considerations: When should I go to the store?  When would there be the least amount of people there?  Should I go in the morning when they have just sanitized?  What about wearing a mask and gloves?

I waited a long time.  The fear was too much, and I was paralyzed with worry.  Finally, I decided to stop spinning and just get to it!  I asked my husband to go with me at 6am when Lowe’s opened.  I had my list and we grabbed up plants with breakneck speed.  No hemming and hawing over what would look good, or what is full or partial sun?  Just grabbed and paid, adorned with our masks and gloves.

I felt so much better after tackling that hurdle that I planted the whole garden and all of the flower pots as soon as we got home.  It was therapeutic to get my fingers into the soil as I lovingly patted down the new plantings.  Yes.  I admit it.  I talk to my plants.  My kids made fun of me as I wished all of my flowers, herbs and vegetables the best on their growth journey.  I also thanked the worms for helping my plants to grow; while the sun kept me warm and the songbirds created background music.

The dirt under my fingernails was like a badge of honor and a tribute to my mom.  I remember Mom planting gardens when I was growing up.  She was also a member of the Garden Club.  She loved the earth and all of the harvests she planted.  As I admired my little garden, I thought about a recent conversation with a friend about people working in their yards more during this pandemic.  She called them victory gardens.

When she said ‘victory garden’, it brought back memories of social studies classes when I first heard the term.  The idea of a victory garden stemmed from pervasive food shortages in Europe during World War I and World War II.  Americans planted gardens and shipped their bounties to European citizens to help.  Their horticultural efforts were also enormously beneficial stateside. “An estimated twenty million World War II Victory Gardens produced nearly forty percent of the nation’s fruits and vegetables” (Smith).

Companies during war time found that victory gardening held several benefits for their employees.  The act of planting communal gardens boosted employees’ morale during a very difficult time in our country’s history.  Coming together for a common goal gave citizens purpose and helped with depression amidst the backdrop of two world wars.

In 1944, manufacturing companies started victory garden programs  to help with absenteeism.  In a newspaper article from February 1944, a reporter wrote,  “One way a company can help make workers happy and more contented, thus reducing absenteeism and turnover, is to encourage victory gardening.  The food will come in handy this year, too.  The answer is that victory gardening pays.  The man who gets comfortably tired at weeding over Sunday won’t get down to work with a hangover on Monday.  The fellow with a thrifty garden underway won’t readily quit his job and leave the crop for someone else.  Closer friendships and associations – not only among employees but their families as well – create a wholesome spirit that makes for better all-around labor conditions” (Heuchling).

Victory gardens did not stop after World War II.  In fact, during the 2008 economic crisis, gardens sprouted up due to the rising rate of unemployment.  People found that growing their own food was not only cost effective, but a good way to get healthy, organic produce for their families.  Some people continue to plant bee gardens – gardens that are specifically designed to increase the honeybee population that is at risk of extinction due to climate change.

There is no doubt that victory gardens have a storied history combining love for the earth and benefit of humankind.  I found a great deal of comfort planting our little garden and an added bonus?  We planted it on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.  Who knew?  The days all blend together in this quarantine, but there must have been some cosmic pull to getting that garden planted on that day.

After Charlotte made the national news as the “#1 location to watch” for a COVID 19 surge, I remain scared, but resolute.  This garden helps me stay productive and positive as it is teaching me mindfulness, patience and hope. 

 

The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world. 

– Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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Citations:

Heuchling, Fred. “‘Gardens That Raise Morale.’” Nation’s Business, Feb. 1944.

Smith, Tracy. “‘Victory Gardens for the War Against COVID 19.’” CBS Sunday Morning,                              CBS, 5 Apr. 2020.

Pandemic Perspectives

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To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; 

To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

-“Success” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

My great-grandmother, Lavina Towner Emigh, died on December 13, 1918 during the influenza pandemic that ripped through our country.  My grandmother was 4 years old at the time and used to tell us stories about her. I wish I had listened. The arrogance of my youth whispered nothing like that could happen to me.

Yet, here we are.

In 1918 and 1919, the Spanish influenza killed 550,000 people in the United States and 20 to 40 million worldwide (Montana Historical Society).  When news outlets call the COVID 19 pandemic “unprecedented”, I have to think our ancestors are laughing at our hubris.  There have been pandemics in the world before this one. And, there are unique parallels of the emotions and feelings captured in the archives of survivors’ first-hand accounts of the day.

A Charlotte Ledger article entitled “Charlotte’s Other Big Pandemic” exposed the myth of our current reality as ‘unprecedented’ in a recent article.  Author Tony Mecia introduced us to Lauren Austin and her groundbreaking doctoral thesis, “Afraid to Breathe:  Understanding North Carolina’s Experience of the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic at the State, Local and Individual Levels.”  The thesis features voices sharing eerily recognizable accounts. And, we have the chance to learn some lessons from the past:

The words of Professor William Cain, professor of mathematics and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill still ring true.  This excerpt was a letter written to his sister in October, 1918:

“I can only infer from your letter that one of you has caught ‘The Flu’, though I wrote you to tell me definitely, for B. Jr. has been in great danger.  I do not like her exposing herself continuously. As I write you, Drs. MacNider and Mauquess both caught it in spite of masks on, Mauquess having a relapse after 10 days from going out when he thought he was well” (Austin 223).

His letter continues with a stern warning:

“If any of you get symptoms, don’t do as I did (work on), but go to bed and stay there.  I did lie down for four hours every evening and took no walks” (Austin 223).

In Wisconsin, circulars were distributed to residents in October 1918 to urge them to stay in bed:

“Every case of influenza should go to bed at once under the care of a physician.  If you get a cold, go to a well-ventilated room. Do not kiss anyone. Patient should stay in bed at least 3 days after fever has disappeared…The great danger is pneumonia.  The patient must not cough or sneeze except when a mask or handkerchief is held before the face. The after-effects of influenza are worse than the disease. Strictly observe the state and city rules and regulations for the control of influenza” (Wausaw Record Herald).

The woman’s committee of the Council of Defense in Wisconsin was asked to help by visiting the sick:

“They were told to warn all members of afflicted households to wash their hands frequently and not to use eating and drinking utensils in common. All dishes should be thoroughly cleaned, all rooms kept clean and well ventilated and handkerchiefs, towels and linens used about the sick boiled or destroyed” (Capital Times).

They also had restrictions similar to our Stay-At-Home orders:

“Also not to spread or contract the disease from their neighbors by unnecessary calls or neighborly visits, nor by allowing children from various households to mingle on the streets or the premises.  The police have been ordered to keep a close lookout for all children found playing on streets or on premises other than at their own homes” (Wausau Record Herald).

The loneliness of Stay-At-Home orders was illustrated an interview with a Montana survivor of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic:

“People would come along, and young men, nineteen, twenty years old…And they’d stop and say hello to us. My mother was very friendly. She loved to see those people. She was kind of lonesome there, you know, just us kids and her. So when anybody passed by, she always stayed with them. And, you know, maybe a week later, they’d say so-and-so died, and they had been past our place. So many people had that flu, and young people, and they died” (Montana Historical Society).

Yet, through despair, survivors remember helping each other.  Edna Register Boone lived through the 1918 pandemic in Alabama:

“I was 10 years old and my family was the only family in the little town that did not contract the flu. Therefore, my parents became automatic nurses. They nursed every family in town. It was my job as a 10 year old to take food to people, to families, all of them stricken. Mama would put a gauze bandage around my face and she kept sterilized fruit jars on the stove at all times. She would fill the jars with soup or whatever there was, and I would take those jars to the home of an afflicted family, knock on the door and leave the food at the door for someone to come pick it up. It was not a pretty picture…No one was able to go shopping. No one was able to cook. They could bake a few potatoes, even if it was in the fireplace. I knew I had to participate. I knew that my family was being protected. I knew I had to do my part” (Alabama Public Health). 

My daughter Colleen is 10 years old and my son is 14. Contrary to Ms. Boone’s experience, they are living pretty well- albeit missing their family and friends.  I cannot imagine having my daughter or son deliver food to the sick at this time. However, we are helping local charities from a safe distance.

Apart from staying at home, most survivors were asked for their advice on how to survive a pandemic, if it ever happened again.  Garfield Johnson of Alabama gave some good advice:

“Well, you know, most folks don’t try to have a garden. I say it’s better to have it and not need it than it is to need it and not have it. Me and Harriet got three deep freezers and we’ve got them partly full. We give to the young ones – share it one thing and another (Alabama Public Health).”

The Saratogian, Saratoga Springs, N. Y. Sat. 14 Dec 1918

Mrs. [Lavina] Starr Emigh, aged thirty-two years, died at her home in Locust Grove [Town of Greenfield, NY] at 12:30 o’clock yesterday [13 Dec] afternoon following a short illness of influenza. She is survived by her husband and 8 small children; Zilpha, Burtis, Vina, Beatrice, Elsie, Lena, Dorothy and Alice; 1 sister, Mrs. Howard Emigh of Milton; 3 brothers, Thomas and Jerome, who are in the United States service; Clarence of Burgoyne; and several nephews and nieces.

Funeral services will be held Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock at the late woman’s residence. The Rev. R. D. Andrews of Greenfield Center will officiate and burial will be at Greenfield Center.

Five of the young woman’s surviving children are also seriously ill with influenza.

 

Special thanks to The Charlotte Ledger, The Saratogian, Lauren Austin, oral histories shared by the Montana Historical Society, Alabama Public Health and the archives of the Capital Times and Wausaw Record Herald of Wisconsin.

 

 

Quarantine Scenes

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“We Read to Know We’re Not Alone”

-Sir Anthony Hopkins,

as C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands

 

 

Last week, I was supposed to meet Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, during our college’s annual arts and literary festival, Sensoria.  We had been anticipating her visit for months, then COVID 19 struck.

I listened to a podcast this morning featuring her work.  She reflected on the iconic song, “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie.  She remarked how this song is relevant, but the songwriter got one pivotal point wrong.  She explained, “What Woody Guthrie forgot is we ARE the land”.  

This quote struck me as a teacher.  I sympathize with our students, but my feeling is we ARE our students right now.  We are all in this together. I am not dealing with the magnitude of their pressures, however, I feel at one with them.  Their issues are different, but the feelings of uncertainty and collective grief are the same. I just read my students’ posts on our Blackboard Discussion Board and my heart just hurts.

I want to say to my students:  

I see you.  I am listening.  And, I love you. Is that too much?  I don’t care.  

I want to take this time to share a love letter to my students for their bravery, devotion to their families and their fight to stay in our course despite insurmountable challenges at this time. 

To my students who are parents:

I hear you when you say that you have kids at home and it is hard to concentrate.

I am with you when you say you are scared.

I can understand your raw frustration when your kids are screaming and fighting in the background of our WebEx chats.

In their own words:

“The part of adjusting when I am doing school work now is that my little one is hanging on my hip.  That is the biggest challenge. In a matter of 4 days, I have decided to follow the governor’s orders and stay home, to not only protect myself, but mainly my child who is under age 2. I had a job four days ago and now, I have lost my job. This is the biggest change adjusting to.  I am back to being a full time mom, with a child stuck indoors and finishing this semester. As far as how am I feeling, I think stressed is the perfect word.”

“My son and I do yard work and go hiking and kayaking to pass the time by.”

“If I was to worry it would be for my four-month-old little girl. The only thing I need from you all is to keep all of the frontline medical workers and first responders in your thoughts. They are the real heroes during this pandemic.”

To my students who are worried about their grades:

I hear you when you say you are not good at English- though I would argue that you are.

I am with you when you say you didn’t sign up for an online class and you are uncomfortable with technology.

I can understand when you say it’s hard to write about things right now.  My brain is also full of static.

In their own words:

“To be most sincere I’m not feeling that great. I’m a high school senior and all I wanted was to at least graduate after 12 years of hard work and endurance. I feel like the one thing that I have left has been taken from me and it has been very hard for me trying to figure out my life, from working.. making enough money to survive.”

“Dropping out of high school in the first half of junior year gives me a different perspective. I knew I was never going to experience walking across the aisle for a diploma, go to a prom, or enjoy being a senior. I also lost contact with a lot of friends from high school because I didn’t see them anymore. Going to CPCC everyday in a way fixed it, as I enjoyed seeing everyone on campus and because it is such a small campus, I feel like I knew everyone. Now, it feels like I dropped out all over again except this time, it wasn’t a choice.”

“I can agree with you about the grades. I was not doing so well with my chemistry class in person.  How am I supposed to do well online?”

To my students finding out they are suddenly unemployed:

I hear you when you say you are afraid you can’t pay your bills and you worry about putting food on the table for your children.

I am with you when you say your uncertainty is crushing.

I can understand your anxiety being at an all-time high.

In their own words:

“My job had to shut down, which has been the largest source of my stress because I now have no income. I am unable to file for unemployment because my job did not file taxes, so after learning that I will not be able to receive financial help by the government during this time, it added a lot of stress.” 

“I feel deeply for local businesses who have had to shut their doors because I am in the same boat. My job is owned and operated by all Vietnamese people whom I love deeply, but there is a large language barrier. My boss has been coming to me every day asking for updates on what is happening throughout the world and specifically our county because they do not understand the news. Over my time working with them, I have taught myself how to communicate effectively with them so I have been explaining what is going on. We have been shut down for over a week now and we thought it would be just for 2 weeks, but after the Governor’s update from last night, it will be for at least another 30 days. I had to tell my boss and co-workers this information and they were devastated and asked how can they could continue to afford to live and it broke my heart to have no answers for them.” 

“I am in a similar situation. I work with kids in an after school program, but because school is canceled there is no after school program, and I am currently jobless at the moment. The whole situation is less than ideal. I didn’t even get to say bye to the kids, I just had to up and leave.”

I am also very proud of my students for so many reasons. 

I am proud of your kindness and how you stand up for your fellow students.  From sharing recipes you found on Pinterest, to yoga websites, you have been there for each other.  When one of your classmates told us he was getting bullied for being of Asian descent during this crisis, you were tenacious in your support of him:

“I am also Asian and I feel a little afraid of going out in public.  Although, nothing bad has happened to me yet and hopefully never will.”

“Though I am not Asian, I go to a Chinese church.  Don’t worry. Most people here are very nice and even if someone is being mean to you for no reason, it is just because they’re not smart enough, so don’t concern yourself with that.” 

“We can use our written communication skills to encourage and uplift others. Not only through technology, but also the old-fashioned way of writing letters. Words are powerful. We all have the ability to support others during this time of uncertainty.” 

I am immensely proud of how you have used the research skills you have learned in our class to be able to find credible sources during this pandemic:

I think a lot of people who get their news from a single source are really missing the full picture, and I am glad for this course for helping me to understand that. For example, it is good to understand that the polls showing confirmed cases are not an accurate depiction of the spread of the virus, since we aren’t testing everybody that is sick.”

“This course has helped me to look for what information is actually reliable and what side of the story some news outlets may be leaving out. It also has helped me to ensure I am fact-checking information I hear from other people since many people are panicking and spreading false information. For example, I had heard from someone that pets can carry the virus and first took that as a fact, but when I was politely challenged by my sister, I looked into it more and found that the CDC has no evidence claiming that pets can carry the virus.”

“I have easily been able to identify false information, and even try to tell my parents they are receiving false information from certain sites, and they do not believe me!”

This student even called out a fellow student for using Twitter as their primary news source:

“Also I don’t think Twitter is the best place to get your news unless it comes from a well known and reliable source. It’s just more believable that way. Not to say that other lesser known news or information sources don’t have the potential to give out quality information. I wish you would have specified exactly what the bits of information are that you have gathered from Twitter and later compared to other news sources.”

I am proud that ALL of you called out people in your age group about not observing social distancing regulations.  You are getting a bad reputation in the media and it is not fair.  Not all millennials and members of Generation Y are irresponsible. Students, like you, are leading the way!

“It bothers me to see friends and people I know defying the guidelines and posting on Instagram saying “ItS cOrOnA TiMe” and “SoCiAl DiStAnCiNg” when people are dying and they are being selfish by unknowingly spreading the disease.

I think it is so unfortunate when you see videos of people on spring break or just out and about not taking any of this seriously. The longer people ignore the CDC and WHO, the longer we will all have to be in quarantine.”

“Nonetheless, having this time to stay at home has given me an opportunity to really settle into a more present lifestyle, something that I have been trying to improve upon as a student. I am grateful for the opportunity to stay home and spend more quality time with my family and build stronger routines for every aspect in life such as wellness, and self-care. Also, being allowed to continue our education online and finish the semester as strong as possible is also a blessing.”

“My family and I watch both American and Serbian news from home and it’s astounding how differently the virus is portrayed in different areas of the world. Over in Europe, there seems to be a much more urgent vibe to the situation and more panic, while in the US we have kept pretty calm about the situation up until now.”

But, some students observed efforts to work together during this crisis:

“This pandemic has affected almost every nation on the planet. What has been amazing to see is that nations and leaders that otherwise have been adversaries have reached out to one another to offer aid to fight this disease. Humanity is simply reaching out to others and offering help and support when it is needed most. I think that through this course, we all have a positive outlet for learning and furthering our education which is a productive use of time while our lives are all affected by this pandemic. Being that the course timelines and expectations have changed, it is important to reach out to other classmates when needed and to offer help when you have the chance.” 

“I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we need to come together as a community. In times like these, we are really able to see how much our well being depends on the actions of those around us, and who we choose to have around us.”

“More than just being kind, which should be a trait that everyone has regardless, we need to rely on each other and lean on each other. Martin Luther King Jr. had a wonderful quote that is especially true in times like these, ‘Through our scientific and technological genius we have made of this world, a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.’”

Remember

By Joy Harjo

Remember the sky that you were born under,

know each of the star’s stories.

Remember the moon, know who she is.

Remember the sun’s birth at dawn, that is the

strongest point of time. Remember sundown

and the giving away to night.

Remember your birth, how your mother struggled

to give you form and breath. You are evidence of

her life, and her mother’s, and hers.

Remember your father. He is your life, also.

Remember the earth whose skin you are:

red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth

brown earth, we are earth.

Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their

tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,

listen to them. They are alive poems.

Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the

origin of this universe.

Remember you are all people and all people

are you.

Remember you are this universe and this

universe is you.

Remember all is in motion, is growing, is you.

Remember language comes from this.

Remember the dance language is, that life is.

Remember.

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79

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As mothers and daughters, we are connected to one another.  My mother is the bones of my spine, keeping me straight and true.  She is my blood, making sure it runs rich and strong.  She is the beating of my heart.

                                                                                        -Kristin Hannah

Mom would have been 79 years old today. 

I was feeling melancholy, remembering her special day would be coming and I found myself thinking about her hands. 

Mom’s hands were strong.  She could open up any jar in the house.  She was a dental hygienist for 40 years, so her hands were battle worn.  They worked in tight places all day long with sharp instruments and lifted heavy x-ray aprons.

Her strong hands were the only ones I wanted to rub my back when I was sick. When I had severe asthma growing up, her hands would pound on my back.  This was not an abusive situation. These were the 1970s where there were no inhalers like we use today. Mom’s hands methodically thumped on my back to release the pressure in my lungs and allowed me to breathe.

One day in elementary school, my teacher called me “dummy”.  Although this condemnation would hurt any child’s feelings, the wound was deeper because I had always liked this teacher for her hands.  They were like my mother’s. When I cried that night in my mother’s arms, I remember her saying, “No, honey. Our hands are different. Mine are the ones that are smacking her in the face for saying such a thing to a child.”  Always the fierce Irish mother.

I am not the only one that reveres her mother’s hands.  Fanny Singer, daughter of renowned chef Alice Waters, recounts memories of her mother’s hands in her memoir, Always Home:

“One of the most distinctive things about my mother is her hands, though I would imagine that the hands of anyone’s mother would seem distinctive to them.  Those are the hands, after all, that soothe us through so much of our childhood, that change our diapers, and swaddle us and hold us, and comb our hair, and apply unwanted sunscreen and antiseptic and band-aids.”

Singer also commented about the strength of her mother’s hands, “But, there is also something in the strength of her fingers – whether it is innate or from the years of kitchen work – that I find especially unusual.  In this, her hands are a sort of mirror of her determination.”

The author’s reverence for her beloved mother’s hands are surprisingly the same as mine:  “But if there’s a portrait of my mother’s hands that is most etched in my mind, it is the way she holds a piece of fruit as she deftly slips the skin from its flesh….The finger-feel, the knowledge in her fingertips, strikes me a singular, though I know it is the gift of many chefs:  determining the difference between lusciously yielding flesh and a fruit that is over the hill.”

My mother and I had similar hands and feet.  A bit of useless trivia, for sure. But when we were in hospice with Mom and the nurse asked us to continuously check to see if her hands or feet were turning blue – that would be an indication that the end was near- I couldn’t help seeing my own hands and feet.  Part of me was dying in that bed right along with her.  

That scene lead me to write this poem:

Heartbeat (Hands, Feet in Drumbeat)

Same hands,

Kneading meatballs together 

Same feet,

Walking in the sand

 

Same hands,

Waving goodbye, leaving for school

Same feet,

Strolling through London

 

Same hands, 

Admiring wedding bands

Same feet,

Fatigued from dancing

 

Same hands, 

Holding chubby baby hands

Same feet,

Running through the grass

Different hands, 

Full of IVs

 

Different feet,

Running through the ICU

 

Different hands, Different feet, 

Turning blue

 

Different hands, Different feet, 

Saying this final farewell

 

Different hands, different feet

Different…

Happy birthday, Mom.  I will miss you and love you forever.  You and your beautiful hands.  

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Excerpt from:  Singer, Fanny. Always Home. Knopf, 2020.

Drawing:  Special Bunny from Gail Adinolfi

Phone

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Let difficulty transform you. And it will.
In my experience, we just need help
In learning how not to run away.

                                                                     – Pema Chodron

 

 

I teach English at a local community college. Since our courses are now being delivered online, instructors needed to check on their students who have not logged into our courses to offer assistance. I did not anticipate what I encountered on the other end of the phone. These students helped to broaden my perspective and made me realize how much this pandemic has affected our community in different ways. Surprisingly, their stories dovetail with an article I read yesterday about the pandemic spurring feelings related to grief.

In the article, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief”, Scott Berinato explained that what we are actually feeling is loss similar to grief. The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance. Here are some observations of grief based on these conversations with my students:

Anger – anticipatory grief
“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain. We feel it when someone gets a dire diagnosis….there is a storm coming” (Berinato).

I called student #1. She is an A student, but has not signed on to our class in a few weeks. When she answered the phone, chaos erupted in the background. A demanding voice shouted, “Who is on the phone? Hang up! Hang up!”. My student apologized and said she was closing her door. She explained that her mother is very fearful that this pandemic could cause her family to be deported. They are living in a state of utter fear that ICE agents will be at their door. She wondered if her mother would take any of them to the hospital if one of them became sick. The ragged fear in my student’s voice was palpable. All I wanted to do was give her peace, but I was just another person demanding something of her at the moment. I talked with her a while and just listened. It was cathartic and she thanked me for my time. That’s the least I could give her.

I thought about this student having to manage a very tough situation in her home. Stress can get magnified during times like these. And, if you are a parent, all you are concerned with is the health and welfare of your children. I felt for this mom in the background – scared and unsure – with the added stress of wondering whether or not she will be forced out of her home.

Sadness
I spoke with a single mom whose voice spoke volumes as soon as she answered the phone. Defeated is the best description I can offer. She sounded exhausted and explained she has 3 small children and she’s all alone in the house with them. She apologized and said she was sorry for not being in class. I assured her I would work with her, explained there are resources to help her and then asked her how she was feeling. We commisserated, but I am not so arrogant to think we are dealing with the same situation. I have older children and a husband who is a partner in this fight with me. This woman is all alone. We talked, laughed and she cried a bit. I believe I was one of the first adults she had spoken to in a while. I offered to talk with her again this week. We can lean on each other during this time, I told her. I just hope leaning is enough for this mom.

Denial
One of my younger students answered the phone, “What?!”. After identifying myself, she said “OK”. I told her I was there for her if she needs anything and she said, “I’ll log in today, if I get the chance.” She responded to me as though I was her nagging mother. I get it. I kind of am in this scenario. I assured her that was fine. Quite frankly, at the time I wanted to get off of the phone with her as much as she wanted to dispatch me. However, looking back on the conversation, I need to check myself and my knee-jerk reactions. I have to realize that we all deal with grief and stress in our own ways. I hope this student will allow me to help her complete our course. I will keep an eye on her just as I am doing with my other students.

So, what do we do for help? Berinato offers advice through an interview with an authority on grief, David Kessler.

Kessler says, “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, “I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,” or “I cried last night”. When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion…” (Berinato).

“Your work is to feel your sadness, fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then, we’re not victims” (Berinato).

Kessler goes on to explain feeling your feelings in an orderly way:
“Sometimes we try not to feel what we’re feeling because we have this image of a “gang of feelings”. If I feel sad and let it in, it will never go away… The truth is a feeling moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go on to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us….Let yourself feel the grief and keep going” (Berinato).

It is important we understand that people are living this altered state of self-distancing in very different ways. Reach out with love and compassion. Help as much as you can. We really have no idea what others are facing at this moment. I was lucky enough to be provided with a glimpse.

Special thanks to Jeannette Coggins for this article:

Berinato, Scott. “‘That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.’” Harvard Business Review, Mar. 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-you’re-feeling-is-grief.

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Searching for JOMO

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Someone I loved
Once gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years
To understand
That this, too,
Was a gift.

                                                   – Mary Oliver

JOMO: acronym for “The Joy of Missing Out”

I am a homebody. I used to love it when we had snow days and couldn’t go out. The feeling of turning off the outside world and snuggling under a blanket was always something I craved. However, staying at home today has a very different tenor.

The reason to stay home now is not a choice, but a mandate. Stay home and be safe. There are few answers about how long we have to stay isolated. Also, there are few assurances that life will be the same when we emerge from our dwellings. The media does nothing but ramp up our stress and trigger our deepest fears.

Yet, I am searching for joy. Where is the JOMO = joy of missing out?

There are some examples:

  • A local drive-in movie theater opened its pasture for the season. The movie started with the national anthem.
  • Neighborhood social media sites are heavily populated with posts offering to help those who are sick or elderly. People offering to deliver food and medicine to those who are afraid or are otherwise housebound.
  • My dad came over the other day for a “window visit”. We greeted him at the front door window and bowed to one another, followed by “air hugs”. The kids were able to see their beloved Papa – we showed him how much the kittens have grown, and I was relieved to see his sweet smile again.
  • Our daughter took a virtual tour of Anne Frank’s house online. She was delighted as she just read The Diary of Anne Frank at school. She is going to take virtual tours of art galleries that her Nonna sent links to access.
  • One must not underestimate the power of a kitten resting on your lap to reset your mind and relieve your stress. Our kittens, Axel and Allie, have been relishing this time that we are home. They are different from other cats. They actually like us.
  • Our son played XBox with a family friend. This friend of his is more like family and it’s so nice to hear his voice on the line while they battled each other on Madden.
  • My husband and his culinary skills. I am so beyond grateful for his cooking talent. He is making the most fantastic and healthy meals for us. And, I am baking with the kids. We are all going to gain weight, but c’est la vie!
  • Slowing down with family – we have been playing board games, writing daily journal entries to keep an artifact of this time and looking through old family pictures. The stories that come from these pictures are teaching our kids their family’s history.

I know this appears all idyllic, but our lives are far from perfect right now. There are still sibling rivalries that have turned into epic battles due to stress. My husband and I have been irritable. I have put myself into time out on several occasions- finding solace in my bedroom with headphones on to just get some quiet.

But, I can’t help thinking how lucky we are. We have working appliances to cook our food, clean our clothes and keep us warm/cool in this changing time. Our water is clean and everyone is healthy. We have the ability to work from home, which I absolutely do not take for granted. My family and I do not have to leave my house to work or fight this virus. For that, I am truly grateful to all of those heroes who must do the hard work needed for us to stay safe.

I could end this post with some big pronouncement, but quite frankly, I have nothing. I have no answers, which as a mother and a teacher is frustrating. All I can think of doing is trying to remain calm through exercise, meditation and awareness of my actions. To help others – trying to be as understanding and patient as possible. To practice as George Saunders called it, “muscular kindness”.

Too often we underestimate the power of
A touch,
A smile,
A kind word,
A listening ear,
An honest compliment,
Or, the smallest act of caring,
All of which have the potential to turn a life around.

                                                                 – Leo Buscaglia

Critical Winter

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“In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

-Albert Camus

 

“What do you consider the most humane? – To spare someone shame.  What is the seal of liberation? – To no longer be ashamed in front of oneself.”

-Friedrich Nietzche

 

 

Today, I thanked my students, just for being there – for allowing me the privilege to teach them.  I realize that as teachers, we often forget the gratitude and focus on criticism. It is our job to judge.  We are paid to dole out feedback and award grades. And, our job description tends to make a person…well, critical.

But, how do we as educators, as writers, as humans, get beyond criticism to show people love while helping them get better?

A mentor of mine was talking about criticism the other day at lunch.  She said, “Criticism without compassion is brutality.” I sighed in response.  What a great quote! I asked her to elaborate and she said anyone can judge someone, but it is an art to give compassionate criticism.

I have always been criticism-adverse.  Really. Who isn’t? Any time I submit work to be published, the anxiety game is on.  And, I’m just waiting for the fallout. Or, the silence. Not sure which is worse.  

I blame my parents.  I was brought up with two supportive and very loving parents who guided me and made me feel like everything I did was wonderful.  Jokingly, I tell my friends I was brought up in a “Praise Parade”. Although I am beyond thankful to my parents for their unconditional love and support, they did not prepare me for the harsh world of receiving criticism.  

How does one take criticism well?  How can you make sure to spare a person’s heart, while providing sufficient and honest guidance to help him or her improve?  The interesting thing is I am a fervent practitioner of “Praise Parade” principles with my friends, family. Yet with my students, I tend to stray from the parade route.  I do acknowledge their growth and praise them for learning, but I may be a bit curt and technical in the feedback I give them. I acknowledge this mechanical style of feedback can be strident.

Just this morning, one student submitted her draft and said, “I know it’s not good, but I will take all of the tough criticism you can give me.  All I need is your help.” This plea proves that students relate education and coaching with shaming. Why not? This is probably all they have received in the past.  She assured me “she could take it”. Why do we have to take it – to brace ourselves for the onslaught of brutality?

There is a quote floating around social media by Larry Martinek that states, “Children don’t hate math.  What they hate is being confused, intimidated and embarrassed by math. With understanding comes passion, and with passion comes growth – a treasure is unlocked.”  English comes with the same kind of baggage. People feel intimidated by writing and have already deemed themselves failures before even walking into my classroom.

I do not have a definitive answer, but I have been thinking a lot about about criticism and want to employ these changes with my students.  I am reading a wonderful book, Atomic Habits by James Clear.  In it, he suggests, “Focusing on the overall system, rather than a single goal…an atomic habit refers to a tiny change, a marginal gain, a 1 percent improvement.  They are little habits that are part of a larger system. Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic habits are the building blocks of remarkable results” (Clear 27). 

So, using this important book as a guide, let’s make a change.  Think about adding 1% of love into each criticism. The awareness of the person’s feelings, and leading with love and a sense of compassion can truly help a person become better at whatever task they are undertaking. 

I plan to infuse part of the proud tradition my parents started for me into my teaching.  I can still do the work of teaching/coaching, while charting onward with the “Praise Parade”.  

And, Joy Harjo, the Poet Laureate of the United States (who incidentally is coming to our campus in April), agrees with praise as protection of the soul:

Praise crazy.  Praise sad.

Praise the path on which we’re led.

Praise the roads on earth and water.

Praise the eater and the eaten.

Praise beginnings; praise the end.

Praise the song and praise the singer.

 

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

Praise the rain; it brings more rain.

-Joy Harjo, Excerpt from “Praise the Rain”