“They will not be the same.” Siegfried Sassoon puts these words in the mouth of a bishop, speaking of the soldiers leaving for the front in World War I. The bishop is a Polonius-like figure, and the words are not without irony, but they are certainly true: the “boys” will not be the same when they return.
Google the phrase now, over a hundred years later, and you will be amazed at the number of current references. We are all sensing that we, as individuals and as institutions, “will not be the same” when we emerge from the pandemic – and no one knows when that may be.
So it is unsurprising that my recollections, notes and writings, even my dreams, from this time are full of amphibian images. As my classes moved to Zoom, as my students spread out over 15 time zones, and my meetings and poetry readings went online, I began to feel that not only my routines but my essential self had entered an amphibian state. I wrote this poem, inspired by a dream I had after the move to online teaching in mid-March:
Why did I agree
to go fishing from a truck? I hate
the agonized twist of the fish,
the squirm of the worm.
I went because my colleagues were going.
And why did I assume
that the truck would stay on a dock
or a boat? Instead it plunged
from dark air into dark water. Only
the silt plumed lighter around us, like clouds.
And why did I open the windows, try
to pull everyone out? They were fine; they were calm.
They were starting to breathe underwater.
After a while I could too, if not well.
The water felt thick and particulate.
Still, I could pull out the oxygen. I floated up
and swam around. On the banks I could see
small settlements of lights. Humans
were growing gills, going amphibian. The sea,
I thought, the thing beyond our control. When it ebbs,
we think ourselves on solid ground. It returns,
at random, like the plague; it is always there.
Living in this state of mutability, as I met online with colleagues from the department and the college, I began to feel the necessity of a pause in the action, a time for reflection. As I told Dean Chris Long in my plea for a hiatus in the intake of new Citizen Scholars, everything is in a state of flux, including the very meaning of citizenship and the experience of it that our new students would bring. We need to stop and reflect on what and how we teach – and these questions go far beyond a move to online instruction. Think about it. A caterpillar in its cocoon is less distinct, less functional, than it was as a caterpillar. For the moment, it is only butterfly soup. That’s how I am feeling now.
And I have been granted this pause. And now, contrary to all expectation, I have found it a time for not only sadness and fear, but moments of great satisfaction, even joy. I am having, in effect, a retreat: time to write and reflect; time to discover new outlets for creativity (drawing and painting); time to give voice to my protests against the inequality highlighted by the pandemic, the economic crash and the murder of George Floyd, who has become the figurehead of the resistance against police brutality. Joan Baez is said to have said that “action is the antidote to despair,” and I have the freedom, right now, to take meaningful action.
I am, however, intensely aware that this freedom rests on a foundation of privilege. My work can be done remotely and is not precarious. Already this places me in a favored minority. I have the power to speak out, even to publish an anti-Trump book, while remaining protected. Reflecting on this administration’s destructive policy on climate change, its abject neglect of the COVID emergency until too late, its tolerance of extrajudicial murders of minorities, I can publish a manifesto like this one:
A gilded mask obscures the planet’s face.
Fool’s gold, factitious metal, but enough
to smother us. We cannot breathe. We pace
and sweat. Abandoned like unhappy dogs
in summer cars. Tortured like hapless ants
under a cruel magnifying glass.
Or like caged boxers, fighting in a trance.
Below, the planet dies. Above, the mask
is glittering at the sun. It has no eyes.
It wears a rigid grin, like Pennywise.
But I am not, personally, being smothered. So my guilt is a necessary companion, to spur me to make the best possible use of this gift of time and space. Likewise the awareness that my existence is, ultimately, precarious. I could get sick, my husband could get sick, my university could undergo such financial trauma that it found itself unable to keep me on. Anything can happen. All shelters are, in the end, temporary. Mutability again.
A box. A bed.
A house. A home.
It’s the shelter that waits
when you’re living alone.
A coat. A bag.
A phone. A Mac.
It’s your coffeeshop space
with the wall at your back.
It’s a carrel that’s lined
with graffiti you know.
It’s the stall where you hide
when there’s nowhere to go.
It’s the wind in your hair.
It’s the sun in your face.
It’s a nest in the bush.
It’s a sheltering place.
A skin. A cell.
A tent. A tarp.
It’s a chamber to hold
every beat of your heart.
A here. A there.
A me, a you.
At the end of the day
We are all passing through.
(What Rough Beast (June 2020), THE POET Anthology Series, July 2020; The Highland Park Poetry Challenge, September 2020)
My response has been, and will be, to do all I can to make my life and my time of some use, some value to my community. I will continue to protest, with signs and with poems, the social inequity of our country. I will educate myself further about this inequity, through the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge and the reading of books like Ibram W. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, and discussions with my colleagues.
I will continue to cultivate community in my classroom, even though it will necessarily have to assume new forms. Our spring semester classes transitioned to online projects: the Disciplinary Literacies and Remix assignments became a group website, created by two First-Year Writing classes, exploring the ways in which people in various professions used their creativity to cope with, and help others through, the pandemic. Our semester reflection morphed into a virtual open mic on the theme of how each student used their strengths to cope with the crisis; it featured stories, poems, visual art, raps and podcasts including the student’s family. It was full of amazing stories and images. Chinese students returning home on planes with cabins eerily draped in protective white cloths. These same students quarantined in anonymous hotel rooms like a David Hockney painting, their meals left in bags outside the door, their only human contact via internet, for two weeks. American students going home to find both parents laid off, and having to take fast food jobs to pay the family bills. As emcee, I introduced each performer and highlighted the special gifts that they had brought to our class. I recorded the entire open mic for each class, and shared them on the First-Year Writing Conference website. I plan to do the same in the fall.
Aided by colleague Sarah Gibbons’s online workshops and the ASPIRE training, sharing ideas through our program’s joint Google folder and the Pandemic Pedagogy Facebook page, I will find new ways to create and maintain community, even online. Mary Beth Heeder and I are at the moment researching the impact of the pandemic and the move to online teaching on empathetic pedagogy. How can we continue to manifest empathy when most of our body language is muted by Zoom, when we can no longer offer a cookie, a hot drink or a book by hand? This is all new territory, and the students and I will be exploring it together.
One key way will be through art: writing, visuals, music, dance … This morning, 8 June 2020, I am full of joy at seeing Trump’s White House barrier fence transformed into a protest gallery: signs, slogans, picture tributes of the victims … Words of protest are woven into the very interstices of the fence. I hear Tracey Chapman singing, “Finally the tables are starting to turn...” I truly believe that they are.
Dear May 2020 Cheryl,
You knew that we were undergoing a sea change. You wrote of feeling like an amphibian, moving between real and virtual worlds.
You couldn’t have known what “rich and strange” versions of ourselves would emerge on the far bank, a year later.
You didn’t know that our First-Year Writing Program would take proactive steps, ahead of the university, to move entirely to online classes and offer courses all summer to help us prepare. You didn’t know that you would find some affordances in this kind of teaching, and retain them (no grading on attendance, the offer of virtual office hours) whether face to face or on Zoom.
You had the privilege of a safe, health-insured, at-home job. You were in many ways protected.
You didn’t know just how much trauma our students would suffer, how you would have to communicate with students in psychiatric wards, students suffering from COVID, students caring for relatives with COVID, or working fast-food jobs because their parents were laid off. You did not conceive of how precarious their very existence as students was.
You didn’t know that a social-justice movement would erupt as our country’s extreme imbalance of power was brought into the glaring light of the plague. You couldn’t be sure that the orange pestilence would be out of the White House, that measures would be underway to protect unemployed Americans, that they might even respond like post-plague serfs and demand a living wage.
You knew that these would be needed more than ever in teaching and daily life.
You didn’t know what they would look like: the ways we would find to support students, even at a distance, sharing photos, videos, live glimpses of home life, stories, even meals, together online.
You didn’t know that you would find it imperative to engage your writing classes in the rising awareness of social-justice issues, sharing the ideas of Kendi, Oluo, Sensoy and DiAngelo, Tatum, Rankine, Lorde, Morrison, Smitherman, to enlarge their own perceived communities. You didn’t know that you would receive such help and support from like-minded colleagues in First-Year Writing.
You didn’t know that the Lansing writing and art community would find so many ways to “bridge the social gap,” as Melissa Kaelin puts it in her Social Gap Experiment virtual gatherings and the community anthology that emerged from it. You didn’t anticipate how the Lansing Poetry Club would not only maintain but expand its reach, with monthly workshops and readings open to poets across the globe.
We are all amphibians, moving between worlds, always evolving. Some trees release their seeds only after fire. Let us heal, but not hurry to forget what we have been through – rather, reflect deeply on it as we chart our paths forward. This letter is a valuable opportunity to do that.
Blessings from June 2021 Cheryl
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