I chose the word RESIST as my One Little Word for 2021 because I wanted to resist complacency in my personal and professional life. Now, in hindsight, after surviving a terrible semester of pandemic teaching (we need to keep speaking the name of this beast out loud to acknowledge that it is something new and terrible) I can say that resisting the slide into despair was physically and emotionally demanding nearly every day. In fact, here in July I am still resisting that slide. My resistance and resilience is so fragile right now that a chicken vindaloo recipe sent me into a panic attack yesterday. I am still fighting my way through obligations and resisting the urge to schedule my remaining summer “break” with professional and personal events. I need rest – physically, mentally, and emotionally – but the decision fatigue is real. I don’t have the capacity to plan and prioritize which leads to more panic attacks as I try to carve out at least a few weeks when I don’t need to do any planning and prioritizing before the hectic academic calendar kicks back in. Just thinking about looking at my calendar – and the remaining obligations for the summer – is enough to send me into a tailspin. Hence the chicken vindaloo incident.
It is so much easier to offer grace to others – especially my students and my peers – but so very hard to give it to myself and yet I know the very real costs of failing to put on my own oxygen mask first. How can I do the necessary and important work of supporting my students and the teachers in my care if I do not take care of myself? I know that there is not an actual pandemic olympics where we will hold a medal ceremony for those with the most pandemic trauma. I also know that I wouldn’t even qualify if there were such an event because the virus and the economic fallout left me and my loved ones relatively unscathed. And that means that I feel tremendous guilt over what I suspect is post traumatic stress disorder. What right do I have to claim PTSD?
And yet if I described the events of the past few years as someone else’s life experience, whether student, peer, or stranger, I would be kinder, gentler, and more full of grace. Has teaching and academia broken me that much that I cannot give myself any grace? Or it is just the toxic myth of the strong woman who can do it all? Probably all the things. And so I need to remind myself that I was not OK going into this pandemic and that no one will emerge unscathed from this pandemic. No one. But the key is to also to remind myself that I did not enter the pandemic whole and healthy.
On Dec. 30, 2019, my father died after years of battling Parkinson’s and dementia. Five years before his death my parents moved from my hometown to Kentucky so I could help my mother with his care. This burden dominated our lives for those years – overshadowing my son’s high school career and so many important events. My mother served as his primary caretaker until a few months before his death when she finally agreed to first in-home caregivers and finally a nursing home. As a consequence I was my father’s secondary caretaker and my mother’s primary support system. We had no other family (other than my husband and teenage son) to rely on. It is highly likely that both my mother and I suffer from PTSD as a result of the mental and physical demands of my father’s dual diagnosis. Parkinson’s and dementia are individually challenging diseases but the combination is brutal on everyone involved.
Then the pandemic swept into our lives only weeks later. I taught throughout the pandemic: Spring 2020, Summer 2020, Fall 2020, Winter 2020, Spring 2021, and now Summer 2021. This schedule meant a continuous cycle of preparation and teaching with little time to rest and recover between each session while continuing to live with the ongoing stress of a pandemic and divided country. Even though I have no official responsibilities in July I have a number of program and administrative tasks that I should wrap up and I am finding it increasingly difficult to manage even small challenges (which explains why we ate chicken slathered in barbecue sauce rather than chicken vindaloo for dinner last night). I suspect that a series of apologetic emails are in my future so I can postpone some of those challenges which will hopefully allow me to cope with the others.
One of the biggest lessons from this second spring and summer of pandemic teaching is to be more graceful as in full of grace (no one, ever, has accused me of the physical attribute of grace). First and foremost to build grace into my personal daily life so there is adequate time to enjoy simple things that bring me joy and respite (such as the writing community that is one of the gifts that the pandemic gave me), but also to build a graceful work schedule that includes short breaks when I start to feel overwhelmed and longer breaks to allow myself time to recover. My less is more teaching philosophy will be even more important for the 2021-2022 academic year because my previous pace is not sustainable or healthy for me nor (I suspect) for my students. We are not out of this pandemic yet and we are all still coping with the trauma of upheavals to our personal lives as well as the world. We must resist the urge to return to life as usual in the before times. That previous pace was not healthy and now we are not the same and the world is not the same. Everyone and every system has sustained damage. We will all need more grace for ourselves and for each other.