Rebuilding in Times of Uncertainty

The only way to hear another’s story and to truly see their reality, is to be assured that our own stories have been heard, that we have been seen. Social isolation drives a stake deeper into the systemic social divisions that already exist between us, wedging ever wider the yawning gap between our reality and that of “others.”

Malcolm Jenkins Narrative

Months of coronavirus isolation have provided a stark window into how isolation affects an individual and a community. We are living what happens when people are cut-off and feel they have no control over their life: hopelessness prevails; children fall behind academically and emotionally; a scarcity mindset stokes protectionism and hoarding; anger and frustration simmer and then boil over.

Fear, powerlessness, and uncertainty have become unwelcome, familiar feelings. With the sand perpetually shifting beneath our feet, we find ourselves quagmired by the overwhelming tidal wave of disillusionment, division, and disenfranchisement. We can’t stay here. We need to take a deep breath, set our course, and keep moving forward so inertia and negativity don’t suck us in.

You might wonder where exactly we are supposed to move forward to, being in the middle of a pandemic and the wheels clearly coming off the cart and all? While everyone is focused on the loss of now, on this period of sacrifice and challenge, we have to constantly remind ourselves that this is a finite moment in time; that great opportunity comes from overcoming adversity; that history is full of stories of struggle, resilience, and hope.

There is SO MUCH WORK to be done to move our society toward being more whole and equitable. As a country reckoning with a heightened awareness of our divisions, how do we do better?

The way to begin to heal is to come together, solving the issues of isolation and racial division through deliberate, intentional connection and engagement. North Brookfield, a rural community of 4,800 in central Massachusetts, is spearheading a regional creative arts program – ROAR (Rural Opportunity through Art and Restoration) – to do just that.

The Brookfields region has been wrestling with its identity and isolation for twenty-five years. As with many rural communities nation-wide, un- or underemployment, intergenerational poverty, depression, and drug dependency have permeated the region. Small businesses that were the life-blood of small town centers were decimated as retail was sucked outward to major highways and big box shopping centers. Health care and social supports are difficult to access. Though Vibram continues to manufacture shoe soles locally, employment and advancement opportunities have declined. Isolation here has become status quo.

The Friends of the North Brookfield Town House (“Friends”) have worked for over a decade to preserve their community’s vacant town hall, an architectural masterpiece and once “the center of everything.” The deteriorating building’s location in a small, isolated community has meant that a traditional commercial use would be challenging, if not infeasible. Two years ago the Friends contacted Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF), a Boston-based preservation organization, to help them with the puzzle of how to sustainably occupy the building.

AHF collaborated as a thought-partner, helping the Friends to recognize that renovating the Town House could catalyze change in their community and throughout the region, but only if complemented by additional economic development efforts. AHF recommended repainting the building, a small, empowering act that proved transformative in garnering broader support. The repainted Town House caught the attention of many area residents and was the catalytic spark that ignited a partnership with local recording company Long View Entertainment. Long View worked with the Friends to envision the building as an art and music center for at-risk rural communities.

ROAR, an expansion of Long View’s award-winning after-school program, will partner with Boston’s Berklee College of Music to offer educational and cultural programming featuring music, writing, storytelling, audio and video production, art, and theater click here for program offerings). Creative commerce education will build life skills, foster change, and inject energy – and hope. The program, anchored in a centrally-located historic structure that is meaningful to the community, will address from the inside-out the impacts of social isolation that divide and perpetuate separateness. ROAR will also provide work experience for Berklee students, infusing artistic talent from beyond the region and tearing down the rural-urban divide.

How does this help to heal? Data shows that tight family and community social networks can shield people psychologically from the stresses of having lower incomes, lower educational levels, or generally stressful living conditions. Dr. Tony Iton, from the University of California Berkeley, found that the social vulnerability resulting from poor schools, housing, transportation, and lack of access to healthy foods creates incubators of chronic stress that reduce life expectancy by 15 to 20 years as compared to higher income, healthier environments.[1] While Iton’s research primarily focuses on the inner city, poor rural areas face similar issues and outcomes. Meanwhile, a January 2019 National Governors Association report showed that rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations experienced higher incomes, population growth, and greater well-being and social inclusion than rural counties that lack performing arts institutions.[2]

Arts programing aimed at connection and diversification addresses both the turmoil boiling in our streets and economic vitality in distressed regions. In fact, the 2019 Massachusetts Rural Development Policy Plan highlighted “encouraging dialog and partnership between towns and regions; forming strong partnerships with regional academic institutions; developing youth leadership programs; redeveloping and reusing vacant industrial sites; growing local jobs and leveraging local assets; devoting more money to education; developing tourism and hospitality services; and promoting racial diversity”[3] as best practice. ROAR is all of these things.

ROAR at the Town House is piloting a replicable model that can be applied in other communities, not only in the Brookfields’ region but across Massachusetts and the nation. According to the New England Foundation for the Arts, “The creative economy is a powerful engine of growth and community vitality. A thriving cultural sector leads to thriving communities.” Creating a regional hub at the North Brookfield Town House will address downtown economic depression as well as rural social isolation.

When the world stopped, the arts, in all its forms, entertained and comforted us. It broke the barriers of quarantine and isolation by drawing us together. Now more than ever we need to be brought together to tell our stories, to be heard and seen, and to listen and learn.

All photographs are by Jason Baker @ jasonbakerphotography/

Footnotes:

[1] Iton, Dr. Anthony. (November 4, 2016 You Tube). “Change the Odds for Health,” TedX San Francisco, https://youtu.be/0H6yte4RXx0.

[2] Rood, Sally for the National Governor’s Association. “Rural Prosperity through the Arts & Creative Sector: A Rural Action Guide for Governors and States.” January 2019.

[3] Rural Policy Advisory Commission. Rural Policy Plan. Commonwealth of Massachusetts. October 2019, pg. 22.

 

Beyond Four Walls

We have to think big right now. And wide. Beyond what’s boxing us in.

People have a range of risk tolerances, values, and concerns. That is abundantly clear. In order to set up protocols for pandemic school in the fall means that all those risk tolerances and values and needs and wants are getting stewed together into one simmering pot. What people want and what is realistic may not be the same thing. Everyone wants something and pretty much everyone isn’t going to get everything.

All the arguing and division we are seeing in the national media and experiencing in our own social media feeds result from the sense – strike that, no, the fact – that we are trapped, that there are no good solutions that meet everyone’s needs and wants, and that this increasingly long period of upheaval feels as though it may never end. Sprinkle in a little conspiracy theory here, some uncertainty and fear there, and question science and facts with an onslaught of “what about-ism” and you end up with the centrifugal pull of a fast-spinning machine pushing people outward where we find ourselves with our backs suctioned against a wall, digging in our heels in an attempt to find solid ground, ironically ever more isolated and siloed from each other, and feeling rather nauseous.

So here we are.

Much of what we are experiencing is classic grief psychology. Grief is the acute pain that accompanies the loss of something we love. There’s a lot of loss in so many myriad ways right now. The response to that loss is the biggest variable, though. Some appear to be stuck in the anger, bargaining, and denial phases while others have grieved, been depressed, and moved on to acceptance.

What I know about grief, which has been my near constant companion the last several years, is that, while it feels counter-intuitive to face into the fire, that is in fact what needs to be done. While it feels like you should turn away from the pain, sadness, and loss to protect yourself, facing into it actually helps you heal faster, makes you stronger. The more you resist it and want to turn away, the stronger the pain becomes. It doesn’t slink off in the night because you have ignored it. No, it sits, bides its time, and quietly grows. By the time you deal with it it is so much bigger and more intense than it was originally. These days we witness daily the emotional devastation and turmoil that is wrought by crushed expectations and neglected grief.

Here’s a thought: instead of fighting with each other and arguing about the existence of or the impact of the virus and bombarding the superintendent/dean of students/president/you get the idea with hate mail and deluding ourselves into thinking that other school districts or private schools or whatever have figured this out, let’s all take a deep breath, call an adult time out, and step away from the screen. I made a rule for myself decades ago to wait 24 hours before I responded to something that irked or upset me. Typically if it still bothers you 24 hours later, it’s worth addressing. But a lot of problems lose their power if given a little time and, certainly, time affords clarity and calm in a response.

The trigger-happy, community-destroying, faction-inducing sparring on social media helps no one and advances no agenda other than an adrenaline rush. Everyone is so hyped and accusatory, constantly lobbing opposing news articles, demands, and opinions at each other. It’s like watching a pack of amped up dogs baring their teeth and straining at the end of their leashes looking for a fight. Take a day off. Trust me, you won’t miss anything. The needle won’t move one inch if you step away. Everyone already knows all there is to know – there aren’t any good or easy answers and that is what we are all living with.

Fine I won't give up but

SO, we make the choice to dig in and be angry and fan the flames. OR, we choose to take a deep breath and proceed with calm, flexibility, and acceptance. There is opportunity in this total explosion to our normal lives if we choose to see it. It demands that we pivot and get creative, dig deep and be resourceful, and truly think outside the box and beyond our four walls (and certainly outside the fours walls of a school building). The social contract of a functioning society demands that the majority respect each other and follow the established rules. We can all get through this period faster and more whole if we commit to taking a deep breath, accepting that this time is finite and also exceptionally challenging, and being respectful of each other, each other’s values and risk tolerances, and the reality that this is hard on almost everyone (except maybe people who invested in Zoom before March 2020). We would do well to face into the fire instead of trying to resist and hold it off. You don’t have to like it, but how you respond to this period is 100% your choice.

“It’s our choices that show us who we truly are, far more than our abilities.”                          – Albus Dumbledore

Happiness is letting go SSL
from @sailorssweetlife

Release the death grip on what was, and open yourself to what could be. Be flexible and think beyond the norm. This period is anything but normal. If we stretch beyond the standards, expectations, and walls that typically box us in, we will find a whole world of opportunity. The natural world continues on without us. There is still so much to be learned right outside our front doors if we just re-focus our attention. Life goes on. Life skills school remains open for business.

“Try not to resist the changes that come your way. Instead let life live through you. And do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come.”                                                                          – Rumi

Breathe.

You will be alright.

We can do better. We are the solution.

MLK hope quote

Check out my General Resources page for podcast suggestions.

Masks are Tyranny???

Some people really and truly think that masks are tyranny. Really and truly. Despite EVERYTHING, there continues to be (really strong) opposition to wearing a mask.

I was initially all geared up to rant about it. I wanted to rant, but I am not going to. That’s the easy thing to do, but it isn’t helpful. It’s what everyone is doing these days. Who wants more of it?

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I looked up the definition of tyranny just to sanity check my gut reaction to that phrase and, yep, tyranny is a pretty extreme word for a face covering:

Tyranny (noun): “cruel and oppressive government or rule.

“people who survive war and escape tyranny” · 

Synonyms: despotism · absolutism · absolute power · autocracy · dictatorship · undemocratic rule · reign of terror · totalitarianism · Fascism · oppression · suppression · repression ·

  • a nation under cruel and oppressive government.
  • cruel, unreasonable, or arbitrary use of power or control.

    “the tyranny of the nine-to-five day” · 

  • (especially in ancient Greece) rule by one who has absolute power without legal right.”
close up of face masks
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I admit that after reading that definition I was even more pissed off for a while. Wearing a piece of cloth over your nose and mouth to stem a scientifically-proven public health crisis isn’t anywhere near the ballpark of being subjected to cruelty, oppression, or a reign of terror. It’s just not.

Of course there is plenty about this pandemic situation that is definitely cruel and unreasonable. Dying alone in a hospital comes to mind. Perpetuating this shit show and elongating everyone’s suffering by ignoring public health mandates gets a nod. Setting up the most vulnerable people in our society to be taken out by a virus that, at this point, we know exists and, honestly, we know how to contain, reigns pretty high too. But wearing a mask?

In the face of racial protests, clear inequality, food insecurity, massive unemployment, and pretty much many much bigger issues, calling a mask tyranny – wasting your breath complaining about it at all, really – seems pretty damn tone deaf.

But this blog isn’t Ranting and Raving.com for a reason. Put Your Own Oxygen Mask on First is about providing a hopeful viewpoint to counterbalance the pervasive negative we are ever more perpetually steeped in. It’s about changing the narrative, looking more deeply at the universality of human suffering (how much more universal could you get than a pandemic?), and striving to take a new look at our challenges and to uncover the threads of hope.

Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

So, here we are, deep in struggle, and this is what I got for ya.

It’s been a really hard time.

People are BURNT OUT and worried. In the U.S., we left school in March with the promise that fall would be better. And it’s not. We are still vulnerable, still uncertain. And now, all these months later, the cure is perceived to be worse than the curse. There is virus fatigue, isolation fatigue, fear fatigue, economic fatigue, uncertainty fatigue, cheering-myself-up-and-looking-on-the-bright-side fatigue, fatigue fatigue. Kids are climbing the walls and so are parents. What’s so sad is that if everyone would just wear a mask, keep some distance, and wash their hands, we wouldn’t be having this problem.

mona lisa protection protect virus
Photo by Yaroslav Danylchenko on Pexels.com

So here’s the short of it: we can do this. We HAVE to do this.

Care about the economy and want it to open back up completely? Wear a mask.

Want the kids to go back to school? Yep, wear a mask.

You say Black Lives Matter? Wear the mask (otherwise that is 100% NOT how you are living. Black and brown people have been disproportionately impacted by this virus. So, mask it).

There are a bevy of excuses for disliking the mask: it’s hot, it fogs my glasses, I don’t know anyone who has had the virus, I want my kids to have a normal childhood. My short response: rip the band-aid off, wear the mask, and we can all move on. The long version is:

  1. It’s hot: that’s true, it’s damn hot and the mask is extra uncomfortable when it’s hot. I am pretty sure a ventilator is uncomfortable, too, so a mask seems like not that much to ask, relatively speaking;
  2. Glasses fog: I wear glasses, too. I wipe them off or lift them up when they start to fog up. Ink smudges when I write with certain pens, too. I deal;
  3. Don’t know anyone personally who’s had the virus? – well, I do. The conservatively estimated 165,000 people who have died in the U.S. to date all knew someone. You will, too – eventually. Would that really make you feel better?!?!? The fact that the majority who have died were old doesn’t make me feel better about them getting bumped off. It’s a horrible way to die. When did we get so callous?
  4. Kids having a normal childhood: I get the worry about the kids, trust me, I really do. But adversity can be a great teacher. Besides, does anyone remember their own childhood in great detail? Like year over year detail? My summer memories are a blur of the odd family vacation, the odd sports or all around camp. Mostly we made our own fun and spent A LOT of time being totally bored (my mom’s solution: “I have plenty of things you can help me with around the house,” which effectively sent me into hiding and back to figuring out how to entertain myself). There is no timeline or dates or ages associated with any of it, just a vague pool of memories. School years also blur together. I am sure bad stuff happened in there, but I don’t remember most of it. And I turned out okay. Maybe better than okay. Completely pandemic-ready okay. Resilient, flexible, able to make my own fun.
person with a face mask and latex gloves holding a globe
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

Basically, kids will respond to all of this okay, maybe even with some positive memories, if the adults in their world present it well. I don’t mean to fake it. I mean to listen and be present, but to work with it instead of against it. Resisting it or fighting it doesn’t make it better, it just makes it harder to live with this reality. This is 2020. This is just it. We don’t know the end date, but this isn’t forever. Take a deep breath.

Remember that many people are facing MAJOR, earth and life-shattering issues right now. If you aren’t food or shelter insecure, if you are safe in your home and not struggling with addiction or mental health issues, then it’s time to put your oxygen mask on, take a big deep breath, and then assist the person next to you.

Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy. – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata

Just because we wish it so will not make this all go away. Until we all tow the line in a unified way, the U.S. will continue to trundle along with its ineffective whack-a-mole approach to dealing with this. More and more people will suffer and die, the school year will be in a constant state of upheaval, and the economy will not be able to fully re-open. Instead of the fast, difficult, unified approach, to date we have taken the long, slow, extended suffering approach. All the loss plus a clear view into our broken health care/insurance system (that would sooner bankrupt people for needed care than cover them); the inability of many to skip work despite the risk (because there is no financial safety net whatsoever); food tied to schools/food insecurity in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; and a government that treats its most vulnerable citizens as expendable, well, I think I just described tyranny. If masks and tyranny belong in a sentence together, it would be more accurate to say “masks are liberators from tyranny.”

Wear a mask.

Unite. Be strong. This too shall pass. If we work together, it will pass all the more quickly.

We are the solution.

You will be alright.

Back to School options

 

 

Reasons for Hope (and I am Still Here)

Remember back when this whole Coronavirus thing started (see Don’t Freak Out. But Also Don’t Be Cavalier) and I was, well, freaked out, and for whatever reason it made me feel better to look at puppies? Welp, let my silence here be an indicator (warning?) that we went next level. Not only did I look at puppies, but we decided to actually get one. He has arrived and has fully absconded with our hearts as well as my erstwhile writing time (which was carved out in the wee hours of the morning from my erstwhile sleeping time)! It’s all good – he’s worth it – just a shift.

Puppy

So I sit here today finally trying to parse through all of my thoughts from the past, oh, three weeks and maybe even a little bit of these past four months. Distance and time are always good for reflection, so, thanks, puppy, for providing me with both. I was initially feeling like a good rant, given everything, but have redirected my bubbling (boiling?) passion toward a more positive direction (for now – the rant is still percolating, but ranting isn’t terribly productive, is it?).

First things first, a deep breath. Even a recent article in the Wall Street Journal says deep breathing helps build our mental resilience. I say “even” because, while I respect the WSJ, I would have thought the editors would put deep breathing in the “woo woo” section. I already knew that deep breathing was a good idea, and useful to prevent ranting and other forms of insanity, but I was surprised and glad to see the WSJ sharing this wisdom, too. Surely all of us can use a good dose of resilience right now as well as shifting our focus to positive things (the WSJ notes how we are psychologically pre-wired to fixate on the negative – it’s a survival instinct, but it’s a little outdated since we no longer live in caves, usually, and don’t hunt and gather for food in a need-a-speer-and-I-could-get-killed-by-my-dinner-kind-of-way). So, breathe.

Last week, as I was cruising along holding my breath and all caught up in my thoughts about people only thinking about themselves and their own personal happiness, comfort and satisfaction, and how did we get here, and basically WTF is wrong with people it’s-a-little-piece-of-cloth-for-Christ’s-sake-stop-being-such-a-baby, I happened across an interview on the radio with Jane Goodall. She is one of my environmental (and life) heroes, and she is still out there fighting for environmental justice 60 years on. It is remarkable how little her message has changed over the years, and also how accurate it remains (and how calmly she delivers it – no ranting. Incredible). While there is still so much work to be done, still so many people ignoring science, still so much habitat and species destruction, her message is still one of hope. She doesn’t deny any of those issues, nor our role in this pandemic, and yet she remains hopeful. And sometimes I think, how can this be? And, then I realize her genius. Without hope all is lost. Hopelessness leads to giving up. Jane Goodall is not a giver-upper. And that’s inspiring. In the face of the many engrained, long-term problems we as a society need to face and change, we can’t lose hope and we cannot give up.

art artistic black and white blank
Photo by Lynnelle Richardson on Pexels.com

Over two decades ago, she published her book Reason for Hope. In summary, here are her reasons:

  1. The Human Brain (if we use it (that’s my line, not hers) – “We have at last begun to understand and face up to the problems that threaten us and the survival of life on Earth as we know it. Surely we can use our problem-solving abilities, our brains, to find ways to live in harmony with nature.”
  2. The Indomitable Human Spirit – “My second reason for hope lies in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. There are so many people who have dreamed seemingly unattainable dreams and, because they never gave up, achieved their goals against all the odds, or blazed a path along which others could follow.”
  3. The Resilience of Nature – “My third reason for hope is the incredible resilience of nature. I have visited Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb that ended World War II. Scientists had predicted that nothing could grow there for at least 30 years. But, amazingly, greenery grew very quickly. One sapling actually managed to survive the bombing, and today it is a large tree, with great cracks and fissures, all black inside; but that tree still produces leaves. I carry one of those leaves with me as a powerful symbol of hope. I have seen such renewals time and again, including animal species brought back from the brink of extinction.”
  4. The Determination of Young People – “My final reason for hope lies in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment of young people around the world. Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world. We should never underestimate the power of determined young people.”

The most compelling of this list to me back then and now is the indomitable human spirit. I think that’s where hope comes in.

Jimmy Fallon interviewed Jane Goodall on Earth Day in April 2020 if you are interested in hearing her thoughts outloud, including how animal trafficking and other forms of environmental destruction lay the groundwork for this pandemic as well as future ones. Unless, of course, we use our marvelous brains and change!

Finally, if you are still reading this, here’s a quick public service announcement: If you don’t really love dogs (like really, really love them), no matter how bored or lonely you are right now (or ever) don’t get one, especially a puppy. They are a lot of work and they deserve to be loved and taken care of now and in the future when life goes back to some semblance of normal. I know the pull of those cute little faces when you are sitting alone in your house day after day, week after week, and pretty much any other living creature coming to love you and direct your attention elsewhere seems like a really good idea. Puppies do those things, but that comes at a cost as well. I am joyfully but majorly picking and choosing how I spend what was already limited free time. I spend most of my day at the edge of my driveway encouraging my puppy to go to the bathroom. I love it, but it’s not super glamorous and if you can’t see yourself doing that much of the day and even the night, a puppy isn’t a good fit. So, there, PSA delivered and off my soapbox.

BREATHE.

Stay well.

You will be alright.

WE ARE THE SOLUTION.

And just wear a mask. If this is the greatest adversity you have ever faced, you are beyond blessed. It’s not hard. Honestly.

Jane Goodall Quote