5 good things

The past few weeks have been hard on many fronts — the COVID front, the work front, the home front, the news cycle front, the everything-is-a-racist-mess front, the I-am-so-done-with-people front (not my students — they have been a bright, bright spot this term!) — ok, you get the picture. Suffice it to say the heavy, contemplative, possibly a bit navel-gazing, post I’d planned for today felt impossible to finish and not the kind of heaviness I wanted to pile on today.

When life gets impossibly hard, I draft a resignation letter that I have no intention of sending (or, at least, not yet) and fantasize about disappearing to a cabin in the woods and living as a hermit. But I also remind myself of the not-sucky things happening in my life. This is one part of the suite of tools I use to manage my anxiety and depression — and boy, have I needed those tools recently.

So when I did this exercise this week, as life spiraled downward, this is what appeared on my list.

Deep family conversations. We tend to have lively conversations (ok, sometimes those “lively conversations” are my kids fighting) over dinner, and given the nature and interests of my kids, I’m never sure where we’ll end up. This week’s topics included the geopolitical situation in the Middle East; sex education and what my kids are learning about healthy intimate relationships; the origins of capitalism; alternate economic systems and their pros and cons; how slavery built White wealth in the US. Lest you think we’re all deep topics, all the time, popular dinnertime conversation topics also include Why What Mom Cooked Tonight Is Gross and 20 Reasons Why I Hate School. I like how these conversations allow me a window into what’s on my kids’ minds and how they’re currently processing the world around them.

Morning reading habit. This year I added “read something vaguely work-related for 15 minutes” to my morning routine, right after I meditate. I’ve been able to finish a few books I’d been working my way through for a while, and generally get more work reading done. Reading is one of my favorite things, and starting the day with one of my favorite things usually starts me off on the right foot for the rest of the day — or at least keeps me somewhat zen through the first few crises of the day.

Injury rehab. Now admittedly, this seems like an odd addition to the list. But I’d kept injuring the same ankle and finally made a PT appointment. And learned that the ankle I badly sprained last spring never quite healed — and oh yeah, my calf muscles are so tight that they’re completely screwing up my running biomechanics. PT is hard and not always fun, but I appreciate knowing what’s causing my injuries and, especially, having a specific plan to follow every day to recover. When everything else is falling apart, there is real comfort in knowing that I have to do 50 reps of these 4 exercises and this many minutes of run/walk intervals and 2 minutes of those stretches — and that no matter what else happens, I can control this small part of my day.

Coffee. Coffee is always a good thing.

Vaccinations. I got my first dose of Moderna earlier this month (one of the first ones at Carleton!!) and will get my second dose at the end of the month. My partner got the Johnson and Johnson vaccine right before they paused it. The resident 8th grader is eager to get vaccinated once anything is approved for the 12-15 age group. I think all of my siblings and their partners, and my mom, have either finished their doses or are in between doses. And more of the people in my life are getting their first and second doses. Getting vaccinated has been a HUGE relief, easing some of the underlying stress and anxiety I’ve held for over a year now. I haven’t seen my family in forever and am looking forward to being able to travel to see them again. And I look forward to hugging local friends again. It’s been way too long.

What positive things are happening for you right now?

And we’re off and running (well, limping) in Spring Term

Monday marked the start of Spring Term at Carleton — a gorgeous, sunny, record-breaking warm day, full of hope and promise and springtime and all the feelings that an especially warm March day brings.

As I write this, for the record, it’s in the 20s and windy — a miserable weather change that matches the change from “yay, a new term!” to the sinking reality of 10 more weeks of slog.

Spring Term, as I’ve written before, is the time we all hate the quarter / trimester system. Fall Term? Love it, because we get to enjoy all of August before starting up. Winter break? Especially love it, because we get a full break for the November and December holidays. Spring break? Fun for students, not at all a break for faculty, who frantically work to submit Winter Term grades before turning around to frantically prepare for Spring Term. Spring Term is when the reality sets in that we’re in the middle of a 6 month slog towards summer, and that when the majority of US institutions end their academic years in May, we’ll be at the midpoint of the term.

I’m heading into the term with an even emptier tank than usual. While I’m usually able to take a bit of a break during spring break (a day or two off at least), this wasn’t in the cards this year — and work even bled into both weekends. And a confluence of obligations means that I am completely swamped through the end of next week — and will be working the vast majority of this coming weekend as a result. Plus, the world is still a dumpster fire in many respects, and many of us are dealing with various forms of trauma.

The good news (?) is that I completely recognize that I am at / over capacity right now, and unlike Previous Amy, I recognize that this should not mean that I push myself even harder and beyond my limits. I also recognize that, while things won’t magically get all the way better when the confluence of obligations ends at the end of next week, I will at least regain more control over my time and to-do list. And, as I find myself saying often these days, that’s not nothin’.

The other good (?) news is that I’m taking this as an opportunity to triage, not just my own list but what I expect of my students. When putting together this week’s course activities, I removed one activity (developing a team contract) from the list and moved it to Week 3, because I knew that I didn’t have the energy to shepherd my students through that process this week and that the world would not end if students worked for a couple of weeks without a team contract. (And, in fact, there may be benefits in applying some of the tenets of iterative development that we’re discussing in class this week towards evolving team rules and norms.)

I then realized that there’s likely value in removing one thing from each week of the term. I do this when I write exams (in courses where I give exams). I draft the exam, take the exam and time myself to see how long it takes me, tweak the questions based on my experience taking my own exam, re-take the exam — and then I remove one question altogether. I do this to give students extra breathing room, so that they are not worried about finishing the exam. I also find that there’s always one question that may be a very fine question, but really doesn’t add anything to what I’m trying to assess. The same concepts are assessed elsewhere, or I realize that I could slightly modify a different question to assess the same concept. It stands to reason that there’s likely at least one activity I’m assigning or introducing each week that’s nice and all, but probably not strictly necessary for student learning. And if that makes everyone’s lives easier — my students, to make their loads more manageable; and mine / my course staff, to reduce the time spent assessing the activity and answering questions about the activity — well, then, that also benefits learning.

What are you triaging this week, either for yourself or your students? How are you preserving your own energy for the things that matter?