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

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

Yesterday after work I took a long bath without my mobile phone. Without earbuds. No podcast, no music, no news.

I can’t remember the last time I did that.

I had a rush of ideas. Most of them related to work, but that was fine really. Creativity feels good regardless of the arena. I got out of the tub, dried off, and worked at the computer until bedtime. I have a separate chrome browser for school-related bookmarks. At eight o’clock I closed it for the next 12 days.

Today though, I’m thinking about work again. About how I teach first-year drama students to be conscious of personal props, the items that become the habitual gestures and defining physical characteristics of their role’s personality. Glasses, scrunchies, cowboy boots, soda bottles, toothpicks. By the third year we are talking about Richard Schechner and our social behaviors related to personal props that prompted him to insist for a time that his Performance Group play in the nude.

For years now I’ve used my keys as an example of a personal prop. I have work keys. I don’t have a car, so I don’t have a car key. We have a code on our front door, so I don’t have a house key either. When I pull my work keys out of my backpack, I take on a role: teacher. My work keys are incredibly symbolic. Students will ask me to unlock the costume storage room, or a rehearsal room. Or by the third year, they may ask to borrow my keys so they can do it themselves.

At some point years ago, I became hyper-aware of my work keys. How I would actually cling tightly to them when I felt a class of 30 restless students taking control of a situation that should have been under my control. Weirdly, my noticing this – stepping back and taking on the role of the director in relationship with my “character” – I was able to access when control was necessary and when it wasn’t. I could make more conscious choices about my “role” as an instructor. These days, half the time I have no idea where my keys are – which I’m certain is not something my boss wants to know.

Yesterday finding myself in the bathtub without my mobile phone, I had the same kind of epiphany. We read and talk a lot about social media and how we can passively allow it to define us. But the phone itself – the device – has come to partially define me. My mindless connection to this object, and its ability to connect me to a world of ideas to occupy my thoughts every moment, is shaping my behavior. It is determining how I move in the world. Literally: in the bath, one elbow propped on the edge of the tub to hold the phone dry. My shoulder twisted slightly. My neck under stress.

I’ve believed for a long time that we are nothing more than what we do: what we think and how we interact with the world. And that thinking and interacting with the world are interconnected in such a way that one defines the other – reinforcing or challenging who are “are” at any moment. I believe this is how we can change. How we do change.

I’m going to stop grasping at my mobile phone. Stop clinging to my sense of self: the productivity shoulds and ought-tos.

I’m going to dare to be truly naked in the bathtub.

Maybe dare to drop my character more often, wherever I am.

Pain is not a punishment; pleasure is not a reward.
-Pema Chödron

I meditated this morning on impermanence. Specifically the impermanence of moods. Tension crept into my shoulders and neck again last night. Despite an half an hour on the shakti mat, I lay awake a good deal of the night feeling like there was a rubber band wrapped around my brain. My jaw. My shoulders.

And this morning is a deep pool of why bother. But I’ve stopped looking for clues, for catalysts, or causes. This will pass. I breathe in through my nose, out through my mouth three times – cleansing breaths. Then I peel a clementine. I rub the rind over my hands. I press my hands together, and to my lips. And I inhale again.

When Dix entered one of her melancholy seasons she went to England to rest with Quakers. They fed her fruit. I love the irony that these pious Christians turned to an orange, a peach, or… an apple for healing.

And quiet. They turned to Quiet.

I have been making an ever-greater effort to stop multitasking. And ever-failing. Yesterday I caught myself searching for audio apps to read the news to me so I could work on the computer simultaneously. This after I’d acknowledged to myself how I’ve been listening to podcasts in a weirdly performative way (paratheatre) while thinking about other things entirely.

So much noise. I may have stumbled on a catalyst to my rubber band situation, I guess. But this pain is a consequence, not a punishment. I know that.

I’ve been collecting worries for 9 months mow. I fretted as though my doing so would make the world easier for other people. As though it were a useful thing to do with my time. Yesterday a student complained about the educational law in Norway that prevents me from giving them the last day before vacation off. She insisted on having the last word: But it sucks. There was no way she was going to allow me to end the conversation otherwise: But you have to agree it sucks, she repeated.

How often my students are mirror versions of my own little oxpeckers. How often my efforts to change the world are substitutes for what I need to change in myself. I try to soothe what needs soothing within myself. I fret vicariously. Uselessly.

Nature Picture Library Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagus erythrorhynchus) pair  searching for parasites on Impala, Mpumalanga, South Africa - Heini Wehrle

I think about Dix and all her work on behalf of the mentally ill – and all her own mental pain. Like her, I’m a well-intentioned master of self-deception. Too often ignorant of my own motivations for choosing the lauded – but ignorant perspective: choosing the other, while drowning myself.

Every year I hold this thought that I will really relish Christmas. I will make things with my hands, invest in the act of creating and giving as a token of interpersonal gratitude. Instead, I rush things between grading exams and making dinner, and I curse and resent the entire season. I resent the fact that last year’s handmade candies are still in a jar on the shelf in my colleague’s office, unopened – and likely brewing something far less helpful than penicillin.

I think about all the almond flour and lemon that wedged painfully under my fingernails while I rolled the candies into small coconut-flour-dusted shapes. (What a frightening thought now, in these Covid times).

Yeah.

This year I’m making candles. I expect hot soy wax will bring with it a share of painful moments. But I’m hoping the scent of cloves and orange will help me focus on a brighter mood.

Essence of orange tends to stick around. There’s nothing smooth about it. Like a burr or a bit of Velcro, it snags and insists on attention. Like a toddler tugging at a shirttail, demanding to be lifted up onto a hipbone and carried through the day, pointing and clapping at everything that sparks a little bit of joy. Clove? That’s the old woman doing the carrying, paying attention, smiling warmly: saying put down the red pen and the grading, and come here and just sit a while.

Take a deep breath.

Last night I watched a documentary about children with cancer. One of the things that struck me was the humor: the parents and siblings with their steady stream of comments that wouldn’t make sense in a transcript but conveyed such complex experiences- their purposeful weaving of lightness with darkness to make the experience more complex. To create meaning in every moment.

But another thing that struck me so many times was the gathering of families for birthday parties, for funerals: the blowing-out of candles, the hugging.

The touching.

I thought a lot about touching at the beginning of all this. But how quickly things become habitual. How quickly a culture can change. When a nurse on the tv screen reaches over to comfort another nurse with a hug: my body responds by tightening, “No!”

I wondered what this documentary would look like had it been filmed this past year. If the one doctor, with his arms tightly crossed over his chest while he talk to the family about end-of-life decisions would seem… unremarkable?


This week I have been thinking about how much I miss mentoring. I miss my job. Since March, my role has changed drastically. The physical distance has created a kind of objectivity and hands-off mentality that I get no pleasure from. I can count on one hand how many times I have been able to sit in a room with students and work on a scene – jumping up and down from the floor to interrupt, to find a new perspective, to coach: “Take it again, from your upstage cross” – when I’ve been able to see the learning process – or see that I need to come at it from another angle.

The conscious physical restraint has restrained me creatively.

It feels like I’m trying to teach a child to swim while sitting on the bleachers. I can’t explain why. Objectively, I don’t think much has changed in terms of my actual behavior. I wonder what one would observe comparing film clips of my work before and after the Corona restrictions. If I would seem “normal” now. In the classroom, in the conference room: now sitting across the table and down one seat to measure out a meter.

The students come into the room single file now, and we spray their hands with anti-bac. They leave the same way, and we mop the floor after every class. There’s no logical reason my relationships with the students should be different because of these little rituals. But they are different. I have a whole new understanding of what makes a “safe space” in a rehearsal room: where I am allowed to touch a finger lightly to a sternum and say: “Move from here,” reminding the student that the theater is where the imagination creates an alternative and shared reality through our physical presence. Our physical energy. Our physicalized intentions – whether or not they are followed through – whether or not they are played against.

Fear is a wild creature, that doesn’t respect boundaries or arguments. Fear is a great, gaping mouth that latches onto whatever it can to feed.

I try to get a student’s attention in the hallway. I lightly touch my finger to her down jacket and everyone’s heads whip around: shame.

In the rehearsal room, the students can touch one another. It has to do with the subject’s egenart, it’s specific nature. We’re still unsure whether instructors are allowed to touch the students. The logic evades us all.

A distraught student comes to me in tears. I find the appropriate telephone numbers, write the emails, help him make a plan to get through the next day or two. I reach out to touch his arm… isn’t this the specific nature of the moment?

My role?

Some habits are hard to break, and any acting teacher knows that playing against the impulse heightens the emotion of the moment.

Adds complexity – which seems to be the specific nature of human nature.