From my desk, I face a huge window that looks out on the third-floor void between my corridor and the theater pavilion. Light comes in from the glass ceiling. It’s not a view of the outside, but I got that before work when the world was normal. There are far worse workspaces. Some of the offices have windows to the hallways only. It’s a big building with hundreds of teachers.
Depending on what I teach each day, I might be spending most of my time in a black room, with black floors and black curtains. 6 hours maybe. But it’s not as bad as it sounds. On those days, we’re moving around. Literally lifting each other into the air. Or were, when the world was normal.
Yesterday I unplugged my little reading lamp and emptied the bookshelves. Shredded the student’s diaries and doctor’s notes, etc. The whole time unconciously praying that when I come back in August everything will be normal.
If you had told me two years ago we’d be living in a culture where I could be reprimanded for touching a student’s shoulder, it would have sounded like a dystopian novel. I’ve written a lot over this last year about the lack of touch and what I was concerned it would do to me. I’m not at all sure what role this physical isolation has played in my relapse of bipolar symptoms, and I’m not sure knowing is possible or even meaningful in terms of cause and effect. It is interesting though to consider a connection between the two as a metaphor.
I normally teach contact improvisation. We lean on each other – learn to trust each other to hold our weight. We work together as a group to lift one person at a time and “fly” them around the space. We touch in turn, responding to the quality of touch. Not necessarily mimicking: but registering and choosing how to respond.
We breathe together.
Of course, there is a basic trust required in terms of appropriate touch. Our “private” body parts. But there are other layers of trust required, the most significant being care. Does the person I am leaning on care for my well-being in this moment? It’s not an intellectual exercise but a physical communication without a rubric. You can’t measure presence and support by pounds-per-square-inch. Hands tremble, sometimes almost imperceptibly. And often we can “sense” the reason for the trembling. Our mind doesn’t form an explanation, but our body understands first.
A touch on the shoulder can be invasive, a touch on the breast neutral.
Is the heel of the hand pushing hard into the center of the thigh muscle, or is the palm cupping the leg in a lift? Is the person observing the breath for signs of distress?
Do they care: here and now? Are we present together?
For a year and a half, I have been teaching online or focusing on theory in a large auditorium, everyone sitting a meter apart. Even movement class has been all about observation and external expressions. I have had moments with individual students. Individual counseling both in terms of personal lives and academic development. But I am not sure I was present often enough. Am I am not thinking, “for their sakes”, but for mine.
When a student begins crying one feels helpless enough, covering their hand with yours, squeezing their shoulder, offering them a tissue. But to sit there with little but facial expressions and words – so inappropriate in the moment – that is real helplessness. I’m not claiming to have a magic touch to help students feel better. I’m only speaking to my own experience: no one likes to feel helpless.
Being in the present moment is key for me. Probably because I have so many difficulties with my memory. As pathetic as it sounds, I think that teaching is what keeps me tethered to a community in a way that I am comfortable with.
I make few long-term relationships with the students, but in my day-to-day present tense, I experience meaningful connections.
I don’t need to be teaching contact improvisation to do this, but I do need to be in the same room. Less than a meter apart.
Today the number of local cases of Corona19 jumped again. And the vaccines are delayed… again. I have no idea what kind of classroom I’ll be returning to in August. And the uncertainty isn’t easy to sit with.
I am fine with solitude. But feeling lonely in a building where nearly a thousand people wander in and out of doors, is hard.