Finding a flow

Maple trees tapped with hoses to collect sap for makingmaple syrup.

Are you struggling with social distancing or staying put in one place? Is it hard for you to feel connected these days? This might seem crazy, but my life as a work-from-farm educator has taught me one thing, the same thing, about how to get through this.

You need to find your flow. Yep.

As I collected maple sap this morning, I thought about all that has happened in the year since I last did this. My son has started walking, talking and terrorizing the dogs. The farm has gone through its blossom and bust cycle of seeing new green shoots pop from the ground and then months later, explode with seeds. My partner and I added a new home preservation item to our pantry (the maple syrup). My creative writing workshop students have congratulated each other on “finding a better flow” in their papers in every class, in every term.

This all seems like a lot, and not much at all.  But when I think about it all, the metaphors strike me.

Cedar has learned to put one step in front of the other, and now he runs all over. The weeds and flowers and intentional crops came up, lived there lives and then generated new seeds to further their lineage for the following year. Sean and I harvested, consumed and ran out of sap/syrup. And sap is now running, once again. I am working to find my own “flow” as a busy human and a writer.  Even though there has been a lot of chaos and randomness in the last 366 days (heyo, leap year), there have been so many patterns.

It’s not easy to find peace and balance in the midst of a storm because we’re caught up in the swirl of energy. Yet what I sensed while gathering jugs of sap and reflecting on my past year is that any pattern we can create for ourselves right now will be one more tool for getting us through whatever the next 365 days look like.

I’ve seen lots of calendars about  snack patterns,  meal charts, homework or work-from-home setups, and most of them are jokes, memes. I think the humor is great, and it’s another thing that is keeping me smiling. I’m sure I’m late to the game and several articles exist on the importance of establishing a schedule during chaotic times, but I really think that putting together some sort of routine would be helpful for me. It would:

  • provide (at least the illusion of) control over the day
  • create something to look forward to
  • establish clear breaks in the day and clear days
  • lead to a sense of accomplishment

I’ve been working from home for the last three years, and although I miss my friends from the office more than anything else about the office, I’ve recognized in this time that not having a schedule is both freeing and damning. Even though  my schedule now is loose,with a toddler on hand it’s definitely got some structure I can’t avoid.

So no matter what your daily structure might like, shoot for something. If you fail, try again. That could be a way to get through the days.

We can’t control what’s going on with our neighbors or city officials or national government, and we definitely have no control over the virus instilling all this fear. But just like the dandelions or all the babies that will learn to walk over the next few months, we can prepare for the future and look forward to it by following whatever cycles we can in our present lives.

Could this disruption be a win?

Earlier this week, Southern New Hampshire University published an article by Dr. Gregory Fowler,  global campus president for SNHU. I always admire Dr. Fowler’s thoughts on disruption, innovation and education, and this piece stood out to me not just as an educator but as a freelance writer as well.

I see that higher education has changed in the 20 years (yikes, really?!) since I took my first college class, and I see that it has changed even more in the nearly 10 years that I’ve been on the other side of the classroom. Technology, the game changer here, has also become a game changer in the work that my BA prepared me for: journalism.

We see newspapers crumbling, TV news roaring ahead at insane and harmful paces, and we even see sites like Reddit becoming sources and guides for journos working on story ideas. Technology has changed how the world works, or at least how the developed world works, and these times (#Coronavirus) are giving everyone a chance to see how tech can help them do their jobs — like it or not.

A few days ago, I said I felt a bit smug about the security of my professional world being a digital one. That was probably a crappy way to word things, but it was true. I felt good about my work life amid the instant changes others were dealing with. Yet at the same time, I know that even the online world is in for a series of real disruptions over the next few months. It’s not just the education sector that is feeling rattled; offices that can are now put in the position of granting work-from-home status to employees despite years of saying no to such things. I’m happy to see this happen; in fact, I left my last desk job because I could not work from home, although my job required that I sit at a computer all day…which I could do at home.

As the world around us shifts in a new way during what is for many the first week of working from home, I’m curious to see just how much it will impact the ways business as usual moves forward. Will the meme I saw last week prove true? I don’t remember the image, but the caption said something like “Working from home/Time to see just how many of those meetings could have been emails.”

I don’t want to wish cabin fever and the confines of social distancing on anyone in a bad way, but what if this disruption could ultimately get more people IN school, as more schools put in place eLearning structures? What if it could get more people OUT of the office while still working?

 

Moving online a bigger shock than COVID-19

neon signage

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

I’m a bit ashamed say it, but as an online educator, I’ve been feeling a little smug this week.

I’m not scrambling to convert classes or learn new software, and I’m not worried about the future of higher education as I know it–well, at least not because of  coronavirus pandemic shifts. I’m not faced with high attrition rates because my students don’t know how to use new software, or don’t have data or space in which to use it.

I’m smug because although people I know are still poo-pooing online education as a “real” means of education, these same people are being forced to give it a shot. Ideally, they’d have a much smoother, more welcoming introduction to teaching online, like I did, eight years ago. It would certainly make them bigger proponents of the method. There will a lot of cracks for them and their students to fall through with this instant setup.

But all that aside, instead of basking too much in my “ease” of academic life, I’ve been trying to learn from this disruption. My newsfeeds are full of articles, tips sheets and suggestions.

This article, from Inside Higher Ed offers “practical advice” for temporarily teaching online. There are good points in it, by my favorite, as a seasoned online instructor, are:

Create a class communication plan so students know where to go and what to expect; address questions like:

  • Where to send questions
  • How quickly will you respond to emails; how quickly will you respond to discussion posts
  • How to reach you with any urgent needs or questions
  • What sort of regular communications you will send out to the class (e.g. weekly reviews and/or updates)

I like these points because students need some stability amid this shift, and telling them what they can expect from their instructor is ALWAYS a good policy. It’s even more important online, where they don’t get to connect physically.

Another piece, this one from The Chronicle of Higher Education, points out that

Shock doctrines make emergencies the new normal — they turn temporary exertions into permanent expectations. American higher education has already endured several slow-moving disasters over the past 40 years: the radical defunding of public institutions, the casualization of academic labor, the militarization of campus security, and the erosion of faculty governance. As a result, the very instructors now tasked with the herculean transition are already working in extreme conditions: Somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of college and university teaching is performed by non-tenure-track faculty members or by graduate students, many of whom conduct heavy course loads without health insurance and with suppressed wages, housing insecurity, and stifling debt.

In essence, the problem is that instructors are being asked to turn their classes into virtual classes in a split second (compared to how long it takes to truly prep a class), and they are already overburdened. When asked to do this, and then doing it becomes acceptable, what else will universities ask of these folks?

The answer, in part, lies in this third piece, from Rebecca Barrett-Fox. As a writing coach, teacher and researcher, Barrett-Fox seems to have a lot of irons in the fire. We all do, I get it. I just appreciate that she’s not just in academe.

Her points 2, 3 and 14 are the best balancing act I’ve seen thus far:

2. Do not require synchronous work. Students should not need to show up at a specific time for anything. REFUSE to do any synchronous work.

3. Do not record lectures unless you need to. (This is fundamentally different from designing an online course, where recorded information is, I think, really important.) They will be a low priority for students, and they take up a lot of resources on your end and on theirs. You have already built a rapport with them, and they don’t need to hear your voice to remember that.

14. Don’t do too much. Right now, your students don’t need it. They need time to do the other things they need to do.

Barrett-Fox offer practical advice that is geared toward sanely navigating this moment/semester as an instructor, but she’s put some thought into how that will spill over and help students, too.

After all, anyone who teaches, who puts in the hours, the research and the organization–virtually or in-person–does so because it’s something they enjoy, and they want their students to get something out of it too. This is a key thing to remember as universities fret over what this might mean for their bottom lines. Now is not the time to worry about that. Students, staff and faculty should come first.

I’m continuing to learn from my peers as they/we muddle through what it means to teach in 2020, but right now, I’m also feeling extremely lucky that my creative writing students and I can just hang out and do our thing. This week they’re working on scene and setting, and they’ve read “High in Hell,” which does such a great job of bringing the African country Djibouti to life though scene and setting. I’d like to say everyone should read this piece of literary journalism to understand just how lucky we here in the US are, lucky to have tech disruptions and tech and any resources at all.

And yet here I am

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In this blog, I stay away from writing about the farm I live on because I want my writing life to be my writing life. I want my blog to be about education, writing, news, culture…things that interest me.

Yes, the farm interests me, but not in the same way these other things do. Until tonight I hadn’t really put much thought into why I want the farm to be and occupy a separate space. But as I overheard my husband talking with a former hemp colleague, I understood why I want this distance.

The farm is a shared place for us, and a shared interest. I like my multiple gardens, the space we have and the joy our son experiences when he’s outside. But the isolation of farm life, the struggle and uncertainty…these things I don’t like. And although things didn’t feel uncertain on the farm I grew up on, the isolation is one thing I wanted to leave when I left the farm of my childhood at 18. And yet here I am again, living on a farm. 

For those of you finding this blog for the first time, as strangers, the farm I live on is spectacular. Huge 3-story turn-of-the-century house (as pictured above)a Quartz foundation, with frogs and rats and water in the spring.  Eleven acres of fruit trees. A greenhouse. Strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb, currant and asparagus patches. A history that goes back to my husband’s grandfather, making our son the fourth generation to live here. It’s a lovely place to live, and when we moved here, we had huge ambitions.

But last year we grew industrial hemp, and we encountered many issues that prevented us from making any money on it. In fact, we lost money. We lost investor money. We lost partner money. And worse yet, we’re now in litigation over the crop. I’ll write more about that as I’m able; with a court case in the works I’m censoring myself.

That bit of backstory brings me to tonight
A hemp partner on the East Coast told my husband that he’s selling his farm. He went all in on hemp in 2019, and like so many other hemp farmers, it broke him. He has a family to support, and bills to pay, and he has his land.  So he’s going to sell it. I was heartbroken for him for a split second, and angry, too. Angry at hemp, and ag and my own situation. And as I dealt with the twin pains of anger and sorrow, I thought about this farm and how much it takes to just LIVE HERE. I thought about dreams and aspirations and what it means to sacrifice for your dreams. And then I remembered that it was never my dream to return to a farm after I left the one in Nebraska, where I grew up. And yet here I am.

My husband wants me to sell the house I own in town, but I haven’t been willing to do that in the three years we’ve been here, and lately, there’s nothing even remotely inspiring about that idea. What if we too, must sell this farm? Or, what if I simply want off of it, away from the stress and the expense and the isolation? We pushed through two challenging years of getting the land around here cleaned up after years  of neglect, and each winter I feel the bite of wind cut through non-insulated walls, windows and doorjambs. I feel thefarmer depression that some news organizations report on from time to time. And I wonder, is there a better way o do this? What if we just returned this land to land. I don’t mean move off of it; I mean, what if we just lived here, in this house, on this yard, with these trees? What if we didn’t farm at all?

The idea comforts me and gives me something to look forward to. I don’t want to take my husband’s dream away from him, so for now I don’t need to drag him off the farm. But holding on to my dreams of writing and experiencing the culture of a city need to be part of what it means to be out here. I knew this when we moved, but I didn’t think it would be THIS hard.

And so, here I am, writing about the farm.

Yikes!

Oh, dear, reader! Today I updated my list of publications, and I realized it’s been months since I last updated my blog. Surely you don’t care (clearly I don’t either), but oh, my! What a crazy few months it has been since May, when I last made an effort to write. The submission I wrote about then, to Yoko Ono’s project, got accepted, and as far as I know, it is traveling around with the rest of the installation. I had hoped to make it to Chicago to see it at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but that just didn’t happen.

My son turned one in May, which means he’s 20 months now, and all atoms and molecules whizzing around at uncontrollable rates! He’s a jabberbox as well, and I expect nothing short of a complete collection of written insights and fragments by age 5.

My partner and I grew hemp, joined the Minnesota Department of Ag. for a task force on hemp in the state, learned a lot and have been planning for next year’s crop already. Will it be hemp, or won’t it? I make no promises regarding the crop, nor that I’ll be back soon with an update.

I digress, but it’s been so long since I took a moment to update this dusty old space that it seems only proper to catch one up fully with this note!

Back to writerly news, I attended the 33rd annual Summer Writing Festival at the University of Iowa in July. I submitted my stroke manuscript to be considered for a two-week revisions workshop, and I got in! Along with 9 other writers, I spent two weeks workshopping and revising with Sandra Scofield. It was fantastic, but I’ve only just now started working in earnest on my revisions.

When I came back from Iowa, I put in order a class on “The Literature of Revolution” for my alma mater, Augustana University. We touched on literature from/about Russia, Iran, South Africa, Greece, Mexico, the US and Colombia. I enjoyed being back among my former professors, but teaching face-to-face was a lot of work! Perhaps it’s because at the same time that the fall semester started, a freelance gig I had interest in came through. More on that when I can share!

In the nine months I’ve been away from this blog, I certainly feel like I birthed a child, and perhaps I’ll do no better at writing regularly now than in the year (years) past. What is different now, however, is that I don’t really feel all that bad about neglecting my blog. I’d love to have the free time to write, daily, but if I am too busy to do so, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it’s simply because I’ve got other writing calling my name.