Spring…as it’s always been & as it’s never been before

Annually in spring I go for regular walks to check-in on my tree neighbors and other annual plants.

I like to follow when the trees and bushes in particular enter budburst and the emergence of their new leaves.

So many of the newly emerging leaves are beautifully red—a process I once studied in oak trees—due to the mass synthesis of anthocyanins. I love to take a weekly walk to see what’s changing rapidly during spring as some plants reemerge anew from the ground or new leaves emerge from deciduous plants and trees.

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Tree with newly emerging, brightly red spring leaves

Today’s walk was my first intentional exploration for spring 2020 and a welcome respite from my day working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It occurred to me as I walked and observed new plantings in neighbors’ landscapes and the newest leaves on my familiar tree neighbors that this spring was in some ways exactly the same as all of my first spring walks of years past—and yet this year is like none before.

My walk was marked by nearly deserted streets. When a rare other neighbor was seen, we both took a wide berth to maintain social distancing even as we waved and smiled in passing.

The reduced traffic—foot and car—led to a quieter walk in which I was keenly aware of sounds, including the humming of electricity, the sound of tires of lone approaching cars on asphalt, the chirping of busy spring birds, and more. There was an absence of idle chats of passing neighbors and friends, a rare heard voice of a playing child. The silence was loudly jarring in ways.

Yet, the silence allowed me to look at even the regular afresh. I stood in awe of the same buds eager to release spring leaves—a process I watch each year, but in the absence of distractions I had a more laser focus and uninterrupted attention.

In our work domains, it feels that we are facing the opposite. We face a time that feels super congested with news of the spread of the coronavirus and skyrocketing numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 and associated tragic deaths. Our schedules are congested with trainings and what seems at times endless offerings of Zoom gatherings—whether classes, community gatherings, or business meetings. Parents are trying to balance working from home with running home school classes and managing their own and dependents’ mental, physical and emotional needs.

These personal spaces too likely have moments that seem as if they’ve always been, but more likely your days are like mine full of moments that highlight the reality that we’ve never experienced anything like this before.

I’m challenging myself to reflect upon those things that feel most important moment to moment.

Today that meant braving my first walk of spring to reconnect with the plants that are emerging anew in whole or in part and drawing upon the lesson that they have rested over winter to prepare for this new spring.

I don’t know what lessons we’ll emerge from this crisis with, but one I truly hope that resonates for so many of us is how interconnected we are—even when we can’t experience this connection physically.

Next week I’ll take the same path I took this week to see what changes have emerged. Because of the reality of this moment in our global history, I don’t know how I will have changed over this week, but I draw some peace from knowing that the plants will continue progressing into spring based on their purpose.

I must find the strength to do the same.

If you have comments on this post, as always find me on Twitter—@BerondaM.

The meaning of “meaning”

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

As many of us stay “safe” at home in the face of a persistent COVID-19 pandemic, I’m intentionally reflecting on the meaning of meaning and how that “sits” relative to the daily decisions that need be made about how we spend our time.

We have to make these decisions daily, even when things are more “normal” than in a pandemic. Yet in specific times like these where we are staying safe at home with other responsibilities—childcare and homeschooling, eldercare or coordinating such care from a distance, care of pets, additional chores that are intensified with increased time at home, and lack of access to some self-care options such as visiting the gym or leisure time and energy for reading—the range of flexibility that we have in making choices can be diminished.

With many of these “at home” responsibilities being things that can’t wait or be easily compartmentalized, options of “keeping up” with scholarly or professional demands can rapidly dissipate or the realities of what can be accomplished can be significantly less than anticipated. This is particularly true when also weighing the physical and mental costs for some of moving much of their work—teaching that has received much attention, but also other forms of work and meetings—to online platforms and formats.

While I consistently try to prioritize my own definition of success, impact, and what it means to have “meaning” in my work and purpose, changes in our environment are best met with a time of reflection about “meaning” in a particular time, space, and context.

The prevailing messages in many academic circles—and associated frameworks of support—are focused on the premise that we simply physically move our bodies from one work location to another and accordingly move our focus to our homes and the goal of keeping going. Across the nation, these messages of resilience are branded as keep “learning”, keep “teaching”, keep “researching” perspectives. Yet, the likelihood of these being spoken into reality is limited for many.

Many of us desperately need someone to “keep supporting” and “keep listening” to us explain what our true priorities must be in this time like none we have ever seen before. What is needed most in this time is grace and understanding.

Grace extended from each of us to ourselves, but also grace extended in what may be expected of us.

Also needed is understanding that each of us seeks peace and well-being in such moments in ways that resonate with our values, our own processes of making meaning, and through strategies that feed our motivations and sense of self.

What I am finding in this time is that something as BIG—as unprecedented—as this global pandemic is sending me on a search for and deep reflection about the “meaning” of “meaning”. Whereas for me writing can be a panacea, a celebration, a mourning, a respite, and so much more, in these times I find myself thinking deeply about the meaning of my writing.

Because each moment can seem weightier than the last during a global pandemic of this magnitude, I find it hard to focus on writing about topics that are only measured in terms of whether I’m being “productive”—quantity of words produced, words for the sake of words but not linked to improving someone’s possibility for advancing a “worthy” goal, words linked in some way to pursuit of status in an academy that may emerge from this crisis understanding its worth differently [or perhaps so I hope in regards to this latter point].

Yet, I know, as much as I know the seriousness of this current moment, that I process the world through words. Thus, writing will remain critically important to me in this moment.

So, as I reflect on meaning, I ask myself which topics can I engage, which words can I juxtapose, which phrases can I turn, that may bring meaning to the meaning of this time. I draw on all the sages, word-masters, and lyrical philosophers whom I can conjure to find a guidepost.

I know that I’ll write through the crisis, but I’ll follow the wisdom of Queen Mother Toni Morrison and I will be “writing for life”.

There's a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises.... If you write for ...

My writing in this time will not in the least be about productivity.

As writing is so frequently for me, it will be my way of processing the world, my way of finding meaning in the face of senselessness, my way of hoping that I can sit at the feet of whatever teacher I find in the universe and demonstrate my learning in writing.

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

May they bring meaning…and comfort…to you now and far beyond.

As always, if you have thought or feedback on this post, find me @BerondaM.

Leading in Crisis…Are your leaders focused on the whole person and leadership for all?

We are learning a lot about leadership and community in the face of a global pandemic.

Undoubtedly, we are learning about the need for grace, kindness, thoughtfulness, and the need for progressive leadership in this crisis.

My work in higher education means that I am watching my local leadership and the leadership of learning institutions nationwide make decisions about multiple aspects of the lives of the people they serve. Quick decisions have been made in many cases about the physical safety of these people, in terms of moving classes to online platforms and suspending large gatherings.

Lessons that I am learning in this moment include the following

  • Crisis, and extreme crisis such as this global pandemic, is a time in which you quickly learn how and where your trust in your leadership lies. One sign of trust is that in moments when there are many things requiring your attention, you feel that you can leave a certain set of issues and decisions to your leaders without worrying about the decision(s) that will be made. If you have a large list of such issues and topics, you largely understand your leaders’ values and abilities to make the right decision in those areas. Having areas that you trust your leaders to steward in the short term means that your limited time, attention, and energy can go to areas of high priority that your know require your vigilance and input. Where trust is not firmly established or in place across many areas, your time and attention must be divided across paying attention to so much. The lesson for leaders is that trust needs to be firmly established and cultivated daily so that all can focus time, energy and resources to areas of greatest priority in times of crisis or urgency.

Where leaders identify areas that trust is limited or lacking in a crisis, they should make note of these as areas of extremely high priority when post-crisis.

  • Crisis is a magnifying glass or unintended “assessment” tool for the areas in our systems that work well, leadership strategies that are effective, and individuals who have fortitude, creativity, and communication skills to help our institutions. These moments of crisis simultaneously reveal where there are gaps in our leadership, resources, systems, and communication (forms, format and content). In a crisis the scale of this global pandemic of Coronavirus, we undoubtedly must pay attention to the moment and the way things can, and do, shift quickly and radically. Yet, we should not leave behind the valuable lessons that we learn about the strengths—and definitely not the lessons about the lack thereof—of our leaders, leadership structures, methods of communication, nuance of communications, or other factors when the crisis passes and just proceed back to business as usual.

If we learn and implement all that we should about our systems during the crisis, WE SHOULD NEVER BE EXACTLY THE SAME.

  • Whereas we must focus on our missions and try to preserve aspects of our core functions in our responses to crisis, we can’t forget that we are dealing with whole people. We are leading people whose first concern and priorities are likely to be about their personal health and safety, and that of those in their personal circles. The ways in which individuals in higher education are rising to the occasion in their local domains to support instructors in moving classes online, the ways in which leaders are thinking and working around the clock to try to “save” our educational terms are admirable. Across the nation “keep teaching”, “keep learning”, “keep researching” platforms are popping up. We can’t imagine the hours of work, thinking, planning and coordination that these are requiring. I applaud each of my local colleagues and those nationally working on these issues and the utility that they (will) provide to ensure that we do the best we can to “salvage” the terms for students and colleagues.

Certainly leaders from department chairs to deans to provosts to presidents/chancellors are sending out messages to inform and support.

I’ve also been encouraging leaders in my circles and on my campus to consider that we find ways to give more personalized messages, acknowledging that the current shift to limits in campus engagement and limited access to spaces is necessary, yet these changes impact distinct populations differently.

Although I recognize that these leaders are likely already working beyond their physical and emotional capacity, progressive leadership would identify a core set of individuals able to help in communicating the ways in which we recognize the urgency some individuals may feel depending on their status – graduate students defending in the next few weeks and moving on to other positions, instructors who renew contracts from year to year, assistant professors on schedule to come up for review for tenure this year, associate professors planning for promotion, etc.

Where possible, we should build into our systems efforts to have proactive communications such that these individuals do not feel undue urgency to risks their health (and by extension the health of those with whom they come in contact). We need act and communicate such that they understand that their leaders are proactively planning and implementing support for them and reasonable consideration and accommodations.

I was encouraged to see the following info shared by Terry McGlynn about such a proactive and thoughtful accommodation made about teaching evaluations:

I hope that we will see more action and dissemination of exemplars in this regard. Perhaps there will be campus leaders who consider enacting a decision to shift tenure decisions by 6 months or more this year for all, rather than defaulting to our usual practice of waiting for individuals to ask and then deciding on a case-by-case request basis which favors the bold and unafraid to ask and disadvantages the marginalized functioning in hypervisibility. I am sure there are many other creative things that we could do, and I look forward to brainstorming personally and learning from the many examples that I hope will emerge.

I think it is vitally important that as we contemplate ways to keep teaching, keep learning, and keep researching, that we proactively and innovatively KEEP SUPPORTING!

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.

But especially if you have needs or creative solutions or suggestions about supporting each other, please find me @BerondaM.