Changing the Way I Look at … Everything

Maryna Teplova


"If you change the way you look at things, things you look at change." W. Dyer

To begin with, writing a Documentarian narrative based on my life during 4 days in March 2020, shortly after the beginning of COVID-19 pandemic, is an adventure. 

You might ask, why? Why not a challenge, a burden, a traumatic experience?  There are several reasons, as usual! :-)

By “as usual,” I mean that as a non-native speaker and as a Ukrainian educator who has taught English for 22 years at a university before becoming a PhD student at Illinois State University, I have always relied on the fixed structure of formal argumentative essays, a must-have element in all types of standardized testing. So, if you ask me how many different types of testing I’ve had to go through to be admitted for the doctoral study in the US, … you’d better not ask! That’s what I mean by “as usual” - patterns in our writing reveal who we are in many subtle ways.

 Of course, sitting at my desk now, in June, after the semester is over and my 2-year course work in my doctoral program completed successfully, almost any writing will look like an adventure! 

There is a difference between the eye that looks at the events from inside, living through the experience, and the eye that is distanced from the drama of the moment but enriched with the wisdom of a witness. So, the Me writing this tale is different from the version of Me back in March 25-28, the days when I could have been in Milwaukee, presenting my research at CCCC 2020, serving as a Documentarian, making my digital praxis poster presentation, etc.… etc.… etc…. - a lot of could have beens, really!

Yet, in this essay, I will change the focus of the introspective exploration of myself and my life: I will be looking at those days in a new way, not from the perspective of ‘could have been,’ but ‘have done, have felt, and have learned.’ 

Indeed, how did I live through those 4 days at the beginning of the second half of this tormented spring 2020 semester, what structures did I create in my teaching, what helped me survive and succeed personally and professionally, what did I learn? 

In fact, the paragraph above looks like a statement of research questions, which again shows how much I depend on the habitual patterns of academic writing - these patterns have helped me a lot in overcoming the harsh demands of graduate study. At this point, I start feeling that this essay is going to be a blend of several genres or styles. 

Well, the easiest question to begin with is, what did I do professionally and academically during those days? 

March 25, 2020. First day of CCCC 2020.

I look back at the survey for Documentarians and see that the first 2 questions and my replies are about ‘would and could have beens’

I would be in the university, teaching ENG 145, Writing in the Academic Disciplines, from 14 till 17.00.”

“Today I would be participating in the QRN - Qualitative Research Network event where I would present my idea for a research to be discussed by the colleagues.”

Yet, I promised to myself not to look at the impossibilities ingrained in those first days of quarantine, but at the positive aspects of what I did in my teaching and just living through the day.

So, I actually held two Zoom sessions with my sections at the time of our regular classes before COVID-19 (almost wanted to call it BC😊); I managed to establish a good working environment and had a friendly chat with my students. Pedagogically speaking, we started the session with some small talk, after which I engaged them in a free-writing activity, which has become a staple of my academic writing course. I usually provide some writing prompt at the beginning of a class and let students write for about 7-10 minutes. The goal is to let them jot down everything that comes to mind, without a fixed structure, or pattern, or genre conventions. After they finish writing, I ask the students to share either their text or the ideas from their free writes, and this creates good vibes for the class ahead, engaging everyone in the conversation and helping those who need it to express themselves and to be heard. This Wednesday was my second Zoom class with both sections, so I was still a bit awkward in using the technology: I still remember the excitement I felt when I managed to share the screen with the prompt with my students, as if it was such an accomplishment! 

I noticed that my usual habit of being open and sincere in talking to students and sharing my concerns and worries with them helped in setting rapport online. I also remember their encouraging smiles when I simply told them how I still needed to learn Zoom and how I planned to try using the Breakout Room feature to divide them into teams. My students were super understanding and kind to me, for which I am so grateful. We created a special dimension - not only a learning space, but also a common emotional space where everyone could ask for help, advice, or just share their problems.

That Wednesday, we had some fun, too. 

After I shared the prompt with the students, I thought spontaneously, why not play the piano for them during the free-writing activity? Here I should explain that playing the piano is my second nature: I've been enjoying it since I was 6; I actually finished musical school in Ukraine, my home country, and now I play by ear almost anything, so I have a vast repertoire of favorite tunes, classics, and instrumentals. Sadly, I had to leave behind my old-stager Belarus piano that had been with me literally through many ups and downs connected with relocations: now it is in Ukraine at my daughter’s place where my 1.5-year old granddaughter, Aphrodite, can take delight in exploring its sounds.

So, at some point during that Zoom class, I thought, why not take advantage of teaching from my home online - now that my gorgeous retro American Baldwin piano (Fig. 1), which my partner bought for me 2 years ago when I arrived in the US, is right next to me; so why not try and add some live music to my classes? The experiment turned out to be successful: the students told me that writing was easier to music, and they felt a stronger connection to me and their peers. 

Looking back at that day, I understand that extraordinary circumstances made me more creative and brave: I became emboldened to try new forms of teaching and communicating with my students, which overall had a positive effect on the outcomes of the course. I remember with a smile how at the next Zoom class, I was somewhat tense at the beginning, but a simple question from students made me relax and feel happier: will you play for us today?

Maryna Teplova's Baldwin piano. Dark wood with a piano light turned on above.

Watch the recital here!

After teaching online that Wednesday, I felt tired, but not physically. Zoom teaching made me spend more emotional energy trying to connect on all levels with my students, some of whom had video, some – an avatar picture, and others – just a name on the black background. I still remember how I would get up from my chair and go to Howard’s office where he would be having his own work meetings, and tell him how exhausted I would feel after Zooming with my students – even though I seemingly did very little! Of course, in those early days of the pandemic and quarantine, the educational community was obsessed with sharing online teaching techniques and resources. So, nobody, at least in my immediate circle, discussed the potential challenges, as well as the mental and emotional state of a teacher during and after online classes. All that would come through my Facebook timeline later, in April-May. 

That Wednesday evening, I had one more task to do. 

It was quite challenging to combine being an instructor with doctoral study before the pandemic; during the quarantine, there were days when I felt that I couldn’t make myself read anything – either for my courses, or just for pleasure! Probably, the flow of negative information about the virus, deaths, and the lack of proper response to the pandemic had been so intense and absorbing that the mind at times refused to take in anymore.

Yet, that Wednesday, I won a small victory: I finished a critical essay for my own grad course in life narrative, which I really enjoyed. As much as I dislike deadlines and planning, I managed to complete and even enjoy the process of writing my big life narrative project for this grad course. Writing during the quarantine became a discovery and a liberating therapy for me.

Dinner. How lucky I am to be Ukrainian and to be able to cook borscht, our national dish, and pampushki (Fig. 3), soft buns covered with garlic and dill! Food during the quarantine became one of the main sources of pleasure in life, ironically! I noticed that each day I looked forward to finding time for cooking some big and special meals, like golubtsy, cabbage rolls (or chard rolls, which is my American variation on Ukrainian topic) stuffed with meat; I also started baking something delicious almost every day, like my famous zapekanka (Figs. 4a & 4b) from farmer cheese.

The Pampushki made for dinner Zapekanka from farmer cheese Zapekanka from farmer cheese

Thursday, March 26

Reading my survey notes from this period, I am amazed at how precisely our subconscious can pinpoint our innermost needs and thoughts in writing. Looking back at these reflections now, in June, seems almost surreal, as if they are my message to myself from another dimension.

I'm usually more improvisational - plans don't always work for me. I start my day with having a break ... no! I always start my day with having a big glass of warm water with lemon, and after that I have breakfast with my partner. 

If I divide my day into units, it's more like morning, afternoon, evening, rather than hour by hour. I really envy people who can do it hour by hour – that is something I have to work on, I'm not that well self-organized and disciplined. I can plan a walk some time later this day, but I never think of it in terms of exact time, just somewhere around 5 or later, after my Zoom classes. In the evening, I will be writing my paper, that's for sure, because evening (and night till 2-3am) is the most productive time for me. 

Now, in the post-COVID world, being on the quarantine, I feel that I do need to work out some tough time management strategies since the overload of information from all sides is so huge that I feel as if I'm drowning in this big flow called corona virus news and updates

 Besides, I also feel that now my management strategies must include more conscious positive thinking (which I got used to and have been practicing and studying as a wide interest area for several years now); I think that now our brain especially needs more adjustment and more tender positive pushing like affirmations, reading positive books, watching comedies, etc. It's so easy now to slip into the negative thinking cycle that now, more than ever, I want to practice everything I know about staying happy and optimistic, which is, essentially, about staying healthy, too!

Friday, March 27. The day of my would-be presentation at CCCC 2020.

I feel excited writing these responses and thinking of my day – to a large degree because I'm looking forward to meeting my students online! Social interaction and contacts are something I really miss in this situation, that’s why I treasure the moments I can spend connected to my students; seeing their young beautiful faces, their smiles, their positivity and enthusiasm makes me feel better about tomorrow!

That Friday, I especially enjoyed reflecting on the materiality of the space where I was taking the Documentarian notes:

I'm in my study at my working desk, in front of my laptop. to the left of the laptop, I have a beautiful tall lamp on my desk (Fig. 5), and this lamp is special because we made it from the parts we bought in different thrift stores here in central Illinois: first my partner bought the basis or the metal stem of the lamp but without a shade. For some time, it was sitting in our basement, and we forgot about it. Then, I accidentally entered a local thrift store and saw this beautiful handmade Tiffany-Style lampshade made of white, turquoise, blue, and pink-colored leaded glass pieces. So, now that was how I got this amazing lamp on my desk.

A decorative lamp with different shades of red and greenTo the right of my laptop, in front of me (my desk is pretty wide) is another screen connected to a smaller netbook, which is rather old (8 years, which in today's tech-savvy world is a dinosaur). I use that netbook to project some positive and inspiring pics as a slideshow. In fact, I have a big collection of various pics with motivational phrases, beautiful images, etc. that I've accumulated over the years from different sources like Facebook and Pinterest. It so happens that when I glanced at my 2nd screen, it showed the pic with the affirmation: "I love my family and my home. I feel nurtured, warm and safe" – indeed, these are the things that I am thankful for right now! As for the sounds, I occasionally hear the noise of the cars passing by. Also, my Outlook program makes a peculiar alarm sound when a new mail comes.




Saturday, March 28. My friend Olena’s birthday.

Maryna and her friend Olena Zyma in July, 2018, before our flight to Bratislava to the General Assembly of the IDEA

That Saturday was a bit sad and reflective. Sad because I couldn’t be close to my friend Olena (Fig. 6) whose birthday we’d 

always celebrated together. She is so much more than a friend – a colleague, a team member, a leader, a mentor. The roads that we have traveled converged back 

in 2004 when we both became winners of the Partners in Education program administered by the US Department of State and went to Chico, California, to explore civic education in the US (at California State University, Chico, and Chico High). After that trip, there have been many more adventures: NGO New Vision that we created in 2010, Summer Schools in Civic Education for Ukrainian educators, our educational debate projects in Ukraine for youth and local leaders, our trips to Europe as members of the IDEA (International Debate Educational Association). Olena is someone whose intellectual and spiritual presence I miss a lot in the US. And yet, we hope to meet here one day – because we are both optimists who look into the future with the open minds.

Personal reflections. Just living my day.

I’m trying to recall when all this started. I mean, how we lived through February 2020, then March, slowly but inevitably crawling into April. Yes, crawling is the best word because somewhere in the middle of March, I started having this viscous and utterly unpleasant feeling in the mornings: as if you are waking up after a long sleep through the night, hoping that the nightmarish world we are living in is just  an illusion, a figment of someone’s sick imagination, and in the morning there will be no trace of COVID-19 anywhere in your reality. Yet, here I am: opening my eyes every morning with the hope that it’s all over, it’s done with, no pandemic in the world, no people dying, no hospitals desperately trying to find additional ventilators, no doctors and nurses unable to come back to their families because of overexposure to the virus. And every morning, as I grab my cell phone from the nightstand and sporadically browse my Facebook timeline and the news, I feel this overpowering, dense, sticky viscosity encompassing me somewhere deep at the core of my soul. It is still here, in our town of Bloomington, in the state of Illinois, in the US, in Ukraine, my home country, in Europe, in Asia, in Australia: the virus, the pandemic, it is getting worse, more people dying in New York, in Chicago, in New Orleans, now celebrities, musicians, actors, scientists, writers. The virus doesn’t care how rich we are, how famous we are, how young or old, how educated or ignorant. 

Yesterday, we took a walk to one of the scenic local areas – White Oak Park Lake, with a comfortable, paved pedestrian pathway along the edge of the pond, surrounded by a grassy rise leading to the up-scale housing. While walking with my partner from the parking lot to the lake, across the grassy baseball field nearby, I suddenly caught myself thinking a new thought, and this thought was not as comfortable as the soft fresh grass under my feet. I would even say that this thought was strange on such a beautiful sunny afternoon: with the local geese that live on the pond flying to and fro, robins and Illinois blackbirds joyfully singing to attract mates. I also knew why this thought had surfaced in my mind, sharply and unequivocally. We have been taking walks around this pond-like lake since we both came to live in Bloomington almost two years ago, me coming here from Ukraine to study in my PhD program at Illinois State University, and Howard coming from Detroit to live with me. Actually, this is not completely true: we BOTH came here to be able to finally be together, after all these years, about 7 now: years of knowing each other, of messaging to and fro on Facebook, Skype, Google Duo, etc…, with occasional short visits of Howard to Ukraine, with his surgery, years of poetry, uncertainty, longing, long-distance relationship, and love, throughout everything – LOVE.

We have seen the lake in different seasons, enjoying its serenity, its expanse of nature, birds, and trees, and most of all, the sky. Still, yesterday, while walking and smelling the fresh grass under our feet, I suddenly thought: why do I have a strange feeling that all this beauty is surreal? How would I have felt right now, right here, in this spot, holding Howard’s hand, looking at the sky above, if there were NO pandemic in the world around us? Does this thought that I was thinking and, which is worse, feeling, mean that there will be no more pure, unspoiled joy in the world around us, no more beauty and tranquility untouched by the ghost of the pandemic looming over everything?

As we were taking a short rest on one of the benches and watching the golden rays of the setting sun over the lake (Fig. 7), I felt better and more relaxed. A couple of muskrats were leisurely swimming near the shore, occasionally disappearing in the reeds where they probably have a nest; a pair of geese were soaring barely above the surface of the water peering down at the fish for dinner. I put my head on Howard’s shoulder, our hands interweaved, our legs touching each other. This is my heaven today and from now on, something I can hold on to and cherish, someone next to me who reminds me that life is going on, that there will be many more sunsets and sunrises for us, and that – thank God! – we are together through all of this.

White Oak Park Lake in Bloomington Illinois. The sun setting over the water


Author's Reflection

Dear 2020 Me,

I’m writing this after a visit to the Documentarian Tale you wrote last summer; there are so many things I want to tell you, yet I will focus on what is most relevant to me now, a year later.  

First, reading your Tale made me feel proud and optimistic, despite the dark image of Covid-19 looming over everything, shaping your thoughts and responses to the reality. You managed not only to survive, but also to thrive and find meaning in your daily life activities during that difficult transitional semester. Indeed, your flexibility and crisis management skills helped when our classrooms suddenly shifted from the habitual comfort of teaching and seeing students in the physical space to the relative comfort of teaching in the digital dimension while sitting in front of the computer at home and seeing black screens with names instead of human faces.

At times, I was smiling when looking at the photos of Ukrainian dishes you made a point of cooking almost every day. Now I understand that you needed to find some mental and spiritual stability and to reaffirm who you are through doing something deeply embedded in the cultural traditions of your ancestors. This represents one of the key lessons from that period: my identity, made up of Ukrainian roots and my present self with skills, desires, and emotions, is the anchor that will give meaning and balance to life in the world that has changed beyond recognition. Your Tale shows it so well: in everything you did - teaching, writing, cooking, playing the piano, taking walks with your partner (now my husband!) - you returned to yourself, to the source, practicing and cherishing the skills you had. 

At the same time, you created new patterns in life and teaching: remember that free writing activity you described in the Tale?  The one that you usually do at the beginning of each class, and that helped you build a creative and friendly dimension in Zoom classes? You would probably be surprised to hear that this free writing activity became the main focus of my presentation during the virtual CCCC 2021, in Teacher-to Teacher event. So, your enthusiasm and willingness to experiment has inspired me to further explore expressive writing in digital spaces like, venturing into a variety of new multimodal prompts and culminating in free writing collage that has become the most popular project with my students this semester.

Finally, you have made me more creative in life and more open in social media: since last spring, I have been actively writing a timeline of my life on Facebook, sharing stories, experiences, and pictures of my new hobbies, like doing Modpodge projects, sewing quilts and growing beautiful flowers in our patio. 

Looking back at everything we have overcome, I want to conclude with this: your Tale is precious to me the way it is, and I would not have taken out a single word or a picture!

Thank you!