Waiting for Approval

I’ll know by Monday whether I can leave for India after New Year. I’m waiting for funding. For permission to take a very short leave of absence.

I haven’t been excited about it. I have sent emails. Checked to see if my vaccinations are up to date. But I haven’t hoped really. I’m still waiting for approval. Waiting for someone to say: this is a good idea; this you should do; this you can do. I am trying to sort all this out in my head – how my suppression of enthusiasm is related to everything else in my life.

I blame all those mailers I got in college saying I was “pre-approved” for credit; a kind of freedom/privilege and a god-awful pressure to meet expectations as a consumer. A glowing letter of recommendation opens a door but demands a tap dance.

What if I don’t learn anything in India? What if my head just keeps spinning and I interrogate every bit of inspiration to root out potential cultural appropriation as an exercise in avoidance?

I just gave a brief lecture to the students last week about procrastination and the theory of immunity to change. How we would rather take an incomplete than a failing grade. Even when failing is the only option for a second chance to pass.

That is the daily dose of naval gazing.

The Process Journal

I have six more scenes to write for the students. We did a read-through of the first two acts yesterday and I’ve never had a class so skilled at improvisational translation. I’ve never had a class approach one of my scripts with such trust. The characters they created are my puppets at this stage. I am very curious about how this project will turn out. We talk about working outside/in or inside/out as actors. Which (in my opinion) isn’t a real thing anyway. Here the students and I seem to be playing a game of tennis to make the characters come to life. They give, I give. I am not sure why this year, this project, seems so different. More collaborative in spirit, though not in fact.

After New Year, they’ll begin to work to embody the characters. Some scenes will be Brecht-inspired (as is the entire play). So embodied in the way that a sock puppet is embodied by a hand. In other scenes, I will ask them for an abstraction of the character’s movements where the essence of the character is disembodied. And in some scenes, I will ask for more. I will ask them to invest in “physical action” until it they begin playing the way a professional tennis player handles herself on the court. Flowing seamlessly between the mind and the body. Maybe one could say in this case the minds and the body.

That’s a lot put on their shoulders.

The thing is: how you do give someone pre-approval without creating daunting expectations?

Making a New Cognitive Map for the Real World

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 is 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.

Anticipating the Present

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.


Circling Back

We weren’t supposed to hug the students last night, but hand them each a rose: this class that laughed when they noticed that last night’s graduation was the first time they were all standing on the stage where the students normally perform a couple of times a year; these drama students graduating without having performed for an audience anywhere in the last two years. I keep telling myself they are stronger for it in many ways. Maybe their laughter last night was proof of that.

I always cry a little on these evenings knowing I will miss them next year. And they head off to parties and to universities and gap year excursions and real jobs. And I relish the thought of a few weeks of self-indulgence before I circle back again.

It has taken me years to shake the end-of-year feeling that everyone else is moving forward while I circle back every August, in a kind of stasis. When former students write and ask me “Are you still at Vågen” I used to have to push down the defensive emotions that rose up: the “Yes, But”s.

But my life is not stagnated.

I’m embracing the dialectic aspect of being a grown-up. The circling back. My students are my teachers in so many ways. Instead of a deeper education, I am getting a broader education in all that it is to be human. I have let go of the stupid notion that I’ve “seen it all” (at any age) and realize that if I believe that – that I have seen it before – I’m not looking closely enough at the details. What knowledge I have from before might offer itself as a key to unlocking something, but it isn’t the solution itself. There is no one-size-fits-all.

Until this year I struggled with the division of my efforts: nurturing other people’s talents, and making room for my own creative work/practices. I thought that the former sucked energy from the latter. But I am beginning to see how it doesn’t work like that. There is no either-or. That’s an excuse.

The occupation of teaching is the continuing education that is necessary for my vocation as an artist. For my growth. It connects me to a world beyond my own narrow perspective, and it keeps me soft and strong and capable of kneading the big emotions.

When I was 25 I worked the graveyard shift in a bakery. Throwing huge balls of bread dough onto the table. Flipping and curling the triangles of butter-laden pastry dough into crab-shaped croissants. It was surprisingly hard work. And there were nights when it felt simultaneously meaningless, and essential.

We never know how the little snapshots of our memories can rise up and lock into place and make sense without a rational connection.

Maybe this is because the deepest truths aren’t products of our rational minds at all. Because the deepest truths will always be poetry.

(photo: the students’ term papers and the roses they gave me earlier this year turned into pulp and new bookmarks)

Hoop or No Hoop

The school year is coming to a rocky end. Usually, the students are calculating grade point averages now. Double-checking the university requirements. Strategically studying for the exams that will lift their grades just that little extra to put them over the acceptance line. But the government has been canceling exams, one by one, and moving dates around for the final grades to be set.

The trickiest thing for me is the requirement for us to hold classes – and for the students to attend – for nearly weeks after final grades have been turned in.

It takes “busy work” to a new level. I feel like I’m supposed to be Julie from The Love Boat – not that my students (or colleagues) have a clue who that is/was. My students are 18, 19, and 20. This is insulting to all of us. Bureaucrats plugging in random dates and expecting us to make sense of it. Justify our students’ time. Be entertaining enough to entice them to come to class. Remind them they have to or risk losing their diploma.

I am a good teacher. But a lousy cruise director. I am counting down the days with a fair amount of anxiety.

On social media, I keep reading the term post-pandemic being thrown around by some Americans. There is nothing here to really indicate that. I have a handful of my students in quarantine this week. Another local school has had another small cluster of cases. It’s worse in other parts of the country.

But more people than ever are conforming to the requirements for face masks on trains and buses. I’m wondering if people are hoping they’ll keep themselves safe enough through a summer vacation? Who knows, maybe feeling like the end of this is near makes people more willing to accept the restrictions?

I’m trying not to get ahead of myself. Not to speculate on the Indian variant that’s made its way here and to the UK. What any of this means for the future. We have the situation today. That’s all we can be sure of.

This fall I asked the students to write about what they’ve learned about themselves during this time. How they’d grown and what they did well. Maybe it is an exercise they should do again now that they are in this odd place with no clear view of the future.

As an adult, I like things to be predictable. I need them to be predictable. I like fences and guideposts: I set them up like those little guardrails at the bowling alley that you can set up to keep kids from losing their ball to the gutter and becoming demoralized. Keep trying. You’re getting better.

When I hit the wall this winter, I read about the difference between burn-out and demoralization. I hadn’t thought much before about the downside of a work ethic. Though now it seems obvious: the American Dream on such a tiny scale. A few years ago somehow it came up in class: “The American Dream”. And my students thought that it meant wanting to make a million dollars a game playing basketball for the NBA. I had them watch The Death of a Salesman. I am not sure any of them really understood the concept of legacy or capitalism’s “required” work ethic that Loman doesn’t really possess. Looks a lot like the NBA dream to them, I suppose. Hell, looks like that to me today.

There is a smart professor on YouTube who says that the play isn’t about the American Dream. But I disagree. It’s about Loman’s moral failure to achieve it. The play isn’t a critique of the Dream, it’s a tragedy: which is by definition a critique of a character’s morality.

Clearly, I miss teaching.

I wonder if my rarified understanding of the philosophical depths of The American Dream and demoralization of the working class is a footnote in the OED already. Whether the idea of doing meaningful work for a “respectable” everyday existence is archaic in and of itself. Replaced with the cult of talents and the lottery of fame?

If you do the right things, work hard, you’ll be rewarded is such a naive story. Maybe all those fairy tales really are closer to the truth than the psychological realism of the 1940s. Some ditz who talks to mice and who carelessly loses a precious shoe will always wind up living in a palace.

Is it possible to become demoralized if you don’t value the work you do for its own significance? You can become disappointed, bitch about fate and “fairness”. But demoralized? And if this is so: is my claiming to be demoralized a pat on my own back with the assumption that my work was meaningful?

I think this is why I’ve had an impulse to pull away from teaching. In the sense of pulling back from emotional or psychological investments in the teaching. (Not in the students.) I feel frustrated with all these turns-on-a-dime. Planning and replanning the practical application of the curriculum: online, offline, group work, 2 meters apart. How can I grade what they haven’t been taught? It feels uncomfortably close to sticking gold stars on their foreheads based on some psychic ability to know their potential – had they had a chance to learn. It feels both intensely personal and weirdly calculated. And all kinds of wrong.

How can it not be demoralizing for them?

I’ve always explained to students that my teaching philosophy in the arts is that I can help them explore their talents. But in reality, I am mainly giving them room to learn to use their own creativity in a way that allows them to learn how to jump through society’s hoops. “What’s the point of this?” “I don’t know. It’s a hoop. You’re going to have to jump through a lot of them.”

I don’t lie.

I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher. It wasn’t a career I chose, it was forced on me by the government here. I was qualified. I needed work. And I’ve been grateful. I embraced it – took extra education and really invested myself in 4 years of teaching and counseling education, alongside my doctorate. The administration stresses how important continued education is. To be a good teacher.

But while I was on partial sick leave, I was replaced with a young woman with no teaching certification, and my schedule was designed around hers. And things went fine.

So where is my meaningful work, now that the guardrails are down and the gutters in view?

It seems I keep circling back around to find myself stuck in the same me-sized, existential sinkhole. So I am here. In this now-space and the future is uncertain. Today what is meaningful? I’m going upstairs to paint. That’s going to have to be enough – hoop or no hoop, a gold star or not.

And then I’ll grade some papers.

the sudden quiet
when the air – the fan – is still
distant voices puncturing
the hum – an urban concert
indiscernible and good