It’s still morning, but two hours have slipped out of use. It’s Parkinson’s law. The tasks I have to do will expand to fill the time I have to do them in. Except with this rare free day, I am sure that the tasks I have to do will expand exponentially and I will get less done than I otherwise would.

Like the morning writing and painting. Running. Yoga. These things that used to click into the routine – a habit chain. One can only blame Covid restrictions for so much. One can only blame menopause for so much. One can only blame grief for so much.

I was complaining about an imposition on my class schedule at work and a colleague said that it was “possible to be more flexible”. I nearly took aim and cast my pencil at her heart. After two years of taking every day as it comes, tossing out curriculums and calendars, teaching to a quarter-class whatever I can justify – on the fly – I am keenly aware that there is a point at which being flexible transitions into an amorphous existence.

Goo. And not the good kind. The kind that doesn’t provide a steady perspective for investing emotionally. For caring.

It is the definition of demoralizing.

Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization isĀ a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment

The New Internationalist

Is it any wonder I am desperate to find my way back to a routine? To find a new focus, unrelated to my employment? To students?

I laughed yesterday. It took me so by surprise I was concerned for a second that I may have “clicked”. The setting wasn’t comfortable. The people I was with were students with whom I have a tense relationship.

It was a silly translation mistake that stuck illogically in my head. “Mus” is mouse, but pronounced “moose”, but I will spare you the rest. The images that I just couldn’t shake, couldn’t make sense of for a full minute or two, brought on a wave of sincere, spontaneous laughter. My whole body felt it. It was a release of tension that I could compare to so many other bodily functions, but won’t.

How rare a moment.

Last night I googled how to put more laughter in your life and found silly lists of suggestions: follow funny people on Twitter, etc. But as important as thoughts are, thinking “that’s funny” is not laughter. Laughter isn’t a thought, it is a physical activity. And like so many other physical activities, maybe it really is best when done with other people. Laughter is a weirdly contagious activity. Like crying.

Maybe part of the problem is that I spend most of my physical time in the company of teenagers who are far more inclined to share their tears than their laughter with me?

Or – you know – maybe it’s just me.

A few years ago I took private lessons from the yoga instructor I still go to. The problem was, I could lower my body into chaturanga, but then my brain couldn’t seem to connect to the muscles that would push me up into upward dog. I repeatedly fell on my chin. It was like someone had cut the necessary wires. I had to re-map my nervous system. And there was no way to “think it” into being. I had to move.

For Christmas this year, I gave E. a scratch-the-peaks map of Norwegian hiking routes. The thing is, the map isn’t the hike.

And I’m thinking: here, I have this map for a better life – one with more laughter, with meaning – but I can’t seem to connect my brain to my foot to take the first step. It’s all just theory at this point. Theory and some falling on my chin.

Again last night I thought about something I wanted to explore this morning on the page. Well: screen. And I thought to make a note on my phone, but then figured it was so obvious that I would remember.

Obviously, I did not remember. I bet it was profound, though. And would have lead to a book auction for the small creature taking form from my navel-gazing and ethical brooding. There went that opportunity.

Instead, I sit here on a flat Thursday thinking my glasses really need cleaning. Glancing over at Leonard and feeling guilty again because he is more overweight than I am. Then wondering if he wants some peanut butter. Because I do.

There are nine teaching days left before the end of the term. Before grades are due. Since exams are canceled this year, it makes things more difficult. Every year I remind the student that I am not here to give them a gold star for what they can already do, for natural talent, but to teach them to explore, stretch and reflect.

Sometimes growth doesn’t mean improvement.

A holistic education is not a matter of ticking off the mastery of specific techniques. We can move sideways in our understanding. Moving inward in ways that risk looking like retreating. My job, as I see it, is comprised of mapping out the territory, prompting the exploration, and witnessing. I watch their faces for small signs of confusion. I watch their bodies stiffen when they believe they’ve hit a wall, loosen when they find a new way to engage with the project at hand.

It is personal. It requires the privilege shared space and time.

One thing I have liked about the Norwegian secondary education system is that the students get a grade for the year’s work. And then an external examiner comes in on the day to give out the gold star for a presentation, and talent. They have distance. But this year, between Covid shutdowns and my own sick leave, I feel like I’ve failed as a teacher and am taking on a role as an examiner. A very biased examiner.

We can’t have a “do-over”. But it is really what I want for all of us. I feel robbed of the opportunity to have learned from these 22 people. Then again. I know I have learned more from them than I would have otherwise. Maybe that is a selfish perspective.

I keep trying to put this pandemic in perspective. Just a week before most of Europe shut down, I was roaming Mary King’s cross in Edinburgh with a guide who explained how the Black Death hit the area. There were manikins with black, bird-beaked face masks filled with flowers to mask the stench of decaying, but living bodies. One child-sized manikin made me think of the Norwegian legend of Jostedalsrypa, the girl who was the only one to survive when the plague hit her village. I wondered – guardedly – what we were heading toward.

As pretentious as it is to quote myself: Every moment brings somebody/the Apocalypse […] I know that there are people who have suffered greatly in the past year. I wouldn’t want to belittle their loss. But as a culture, where I am: we haven’t. And although I don’t think we are through this entirely, it seems unlikely that the majority of us will experience a plague in the way some-few previous generations have.

I will not appropriate the suffering in India. Neither do I wish to turn away or discount it. But the truth is, I cannot smell death over social media. I can process the visual information, the narratives intellectually and have an emotional response. I can empathize. But I cannot claim their experiences or the kind of knowledge gained from those experiences.

I wonder if the un-sanitized deaths of the 1300s, 1600s were easier to process than our sanitized deaths now: where people slip into white hospital gowns and slip away. I suppose someone has tried to study this: how our physical distance from witnessing so much of death affects the grieving process. But then, no one has invented the time machine yet.

Am I right in assuming that there still seems to be an unspoken consensus that it is better for our mental health to have physical suffering prettied up for us?

And this is not at all what I wanted to explore this morning. It is a winding path to a kind of gratitude I suppose. We’ve been painfully affected this past year. I get angry now and then. But this is what we have. And it is not more than this. Or less.

I have not even touched a student on the shoulder this year when they have cried. I haven’t even squeezed their hand when they’ve been so excited their heart could jump out of their chest. It has been a year of restraint. Acting against instinct. I worry that I am shutting down.

But we are not sacrificing anything. And it is the wrong mindset to believe things were “taken from us” as though those things were our possessions. This is life. And on the scale of things, we face the same threats. The cancers, the accidents, the hate. Most of the crises that have come up among my students have been unrelated to the pandemic, though sometimes exacerbated by it.

What I have witnessed is their resilience. Their growth. It seems absurd to think about “grading” anything this year.

and when we inhale
the flower we taste it too
like earthworms, we eat
the world passing through our days
– so much you don’t want to know