Dear Julie, here’s what you say.

Dear Julie,

It’s a lot, isn’t it? And exhausting, and I know you feel like you’re taking crazy pills, especially after three days in a row of talking to people and reading tweets from people who imply that the doctors at UNMC, a global leader in infectious disease, don’t know what they are talking about. (You really need to limit your time on Twitter to 30 minutes a day, but that’s a letter for another time.)

So I’d like you to take a little trip back in time with me, to September 1999.

Remember September 1999? You were in your last semester of coursework before student teaching, you’d just started dating someone, you had good friends, and a retail job you actually really liked. What a great fall on the horizon.

And then your dad was diagnosed with colon cancer. Netscape Navigator was your internet search engine of choice, but you didn’t even think to use it to research mortality rates of 50 year-old men with colon cancer. You didn’t spend hours reading story after story of folk remedies that reportedly saved other lives. After all, internet research at that time was still viewed with suspicion. How could you trust a research venue where *anyone* could upload information and present it as fact, even if it wasn’t?

Your dad liked his oncologist, Dr. Soori, and together with your mom, they chose to trust him. You’re still not certain of what his initial prognosis was regarding how many years (or months) he had left, but after the initial colon resection, you trusted the surgeon and the pathologist and as your dad embarked on his cancer-fighting regimen, you trusted the process.

And then the cancer spread to his liver.

It would’ve been so easy for you to hop on Netscape Navigator and start finding alternatives for his care, to look for “data” to support your compulsion to find a way for your dad to survive, through sheer force of will if nothing else. But you deferred to the doctors again, and your dad and mom still liked Dr. Soori, so as a family, that was the plan. After all, it wasn’t HIS fault the cancer spread.

So the family plan was this: trust the doctors at UNMC.

Now I know there is a part of your brain right now screaming “But not ALL of Dr. Soori’s patients survived, and plenty of people die from cancer all the time!”

You’re right.

There was plenty of luck and circumstance that went into your dad surviving those two cancers. But be sure of this: all the luck and circumstance in the world would mean nothing without all the surgeons, pathologists, nurses, anesthesiologists, and dear Dr. Soori—and think of the research since then! Why, just the other day you heard of someone who had a colon resection laparoscopically! Could you have even imagined that in September 1999?

So the next time you are accosted by someone making false analogies with the current pandemic by comparing it to the flu (which—sidebar—if 60,000 people die from flu-related illnesses every year and masks would save 30,000 of those lives, why AREN’T we normalizing masks during flu season?), or someone who says they just need more data, I’m giving you a response. The only response you need.

“I’m going to stick with the doctors from the hospital that saved my dad’s life.”

Love,

Julie

Grieving.

I woke up this morning to lots of dread. The days of me being able to control my exposure to Covid-19 are waning, and that reality is starting to hit me. After a summer of trying really hard to err on the side of positivity, of hoping leaders will do what’s best, I broke. I sat in my bed and sobbed.

Lately on Sundays, I have a bit of a different worship routine—I listen to one of Kate Bowler’s podcasts, followed by an episode of the Evolving Faith podcast, before tuning into church on Facebook Live. I’m behind on Bowler’s podcasts, and realized this morning I had missed one from last May, not long after Rachel Held Evans died. The topic was grief and her guest, Reverend Dr. Susan Dunlap, reminded listeners of disenfranchised grief.

I wrote about such grief a couple of years ago, as it relates to grieving the children I would never raise, but this morning it took on a different meaning. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel facing down an unknown school year. There is no societal recognition of the grief I feel knowing my class sizes will be smaller, knowing that there is a possibility my colleagues and students might get sick—and not fully understanding the long-term consequences of such an illness. And no societal recognition of the grief I feel for how much my job is changing this school year.

Two hours after I listened to Bowler’s podcast, I tuned in to church, and the sermon was about grief.

(God is something else, amirite?)

Today’s sermon was delivered by Rev. Debra McKnight, and her words about grief reminded me that grief is a necessary human reaction that shouldn’t be reserved for losing a loved one. Paraphrasing here: she reminded me that we can grieve loss, tension, and life just being difficult. And grief is something we must honor and give its place if we want to move forward into healing.

I start back to school this week, first with schedule pickup, then my first full day of work time on Friday. Next Monday is the first day with all staff. We are moving forward with a plan that has unknown outcomes. The unknown is hard, this moment is hard, and if grieving helps me—or my students, friends, parents, colleagues—move forward, then please don’t deny that grief. Don’t default to toxic positivity and inundate us with platitudes. Don’t tell us to “get over it.” Sit with those educators and students in your life that right now might be feeling grief. Acknowledge their fear of the unknown. Support them how they need to be supported—which looks different for everyone. (For me, it’s usually memes and potatoes in any form.)

But I agree with the reverend: to move toward healing, we must first give place for the grief.

Hold the right people accountable, please.

A Sunday morning rant.

Or maybe a sermon, depending on your beliefs.

Every year, I spend about $70 on Kleenex and hand sanitizer for my two classrooms. I do this because I don’t want students to miss instructional time by going to the restroom to blow their noses and wash their hands when sick, but also because I think it’s just kind to offer those basic conveniences. But due to budget cuts, Kleenex and hand sanitizer hasn’t been provided to teachers in my district for years*. I’m not necessarily complaining about that—it’s just part of the reality of my chosen profession.

Since many schools are looking to return at full capacity in two weeks, I keep seeing images of rearranged classrooms with safety measures created by the teacher to allow for as normal a return as possible.

If you’re praising “American ingenuity” because a teacher used shower curtains and pvc pipes and empty milk jugs or whatever to create a “safer” learning environment for their students, I want you to stop for just a minute and think.

Who paid for the plexiglass separators between you and your cashier at the grocery store?

Who paid for the signage imploring its customers to socially distance?

Who paid for the extra masks to hand out in case a patron forgot theirs?

Did the cashiers set up a GoFundMe to pay for all these things? Did the store managers take a trip to Lowe’s and bulk order plexiglass and then spend a weekend cutting them to size in his garage?

Or did corporate spring for it?

If you’re screaming for schools to reopen, are you also screaming at your congressional representatives, state legislators, governors to provide emergency funds to your district to ensure the safety of teachers, students, custodians, secretaries, paras, and administrators?

Or are you looking at these reconfigured classrooms, feeling a sense of satisfaction and maybe even pride that a teacher “figured something out” and then you send it to all your teacher friends suggesting it as something they should spend their own money on creating?

If it’s the latter, stop. If you have suggestions for how to spend money to keep students safe, make sure you’re telling the right people: the people who control how much money school districts receive. Ask the people you elected to govern and have stewardship over your tax dollars to pay for safety measures. Stop expecting teachers to just “figure it out.”

Amen.

*Edit: Since posting this Sunday morning, I’ve been told that there is a stash of Kleenex available to teachers in my building. I was told one year it no longer would be provided, and never checked back to see if things had changed. Apparently it has, though I was not told explicitly and don’t recall receiving any official notification that such supplies were available to staff.

On Boycotts, Resources, and Privilege

In 2014, when the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL initially hedged to take action after the video surfaced of Ray Rice beating his then-fiancée, it took me about three minutes to decide to boycott the NFL.

This had been brewing for a while. I had recently learned of their non-profit status with the U.S. Government, knew of how they saddled communities with taxes to pay for lavish stadiums, was irritated at the apparent lack of interest in creating stronger concussion protocols, was incensed at their continued use of Native American mascots, and was well aware of their “don’t ask don’t tell” approach to handling men who abused their partners.

But it was a little sad for me to stop watching something that had been a part of my life for so long. I loved watching games with friends. I loved playing Fantasy Football. I wrote—and then published in an actual book—a piece about Fantasy Football! I loved coming home from church every Sunday, laying on the couch, watching games, dozing off, waking up, checking stats.

But I couldn’t support it anymore.

I often say that if we really examined how every corporation operated and chose boycotting as a method of speech, no one would shop anywhere or do anything. And I know the NFL doesn’t miss my support; I’m a gnat in a swarm of murder hornets.

But I do think that on a personal enrichment level, boycotts of chosen companies can redirect our resources to better things.

Once my Sundays (and Mondays…and Thursdays) were no longer subject to football games, I suddenly freed up hours of time a week. I’m not saying I’ve always made the best choices about how I use that time, but I have noticed the biggest change with Sundays. I watch movies. I catch up with friends. I explore Ancestry’s website and learn about my forbears. Sometimes I work, sometimes I read books.

My Sunday time doesn’t disappear as fast as it used to, because I’m not spending nine hours watching football.

Which brings me to a weekly conversation I have with myself: boycotting Facebook and Instagram.

How can I reconcile supporting an uneducated megalomaniac who has allowed his innovation to be hijacked by white supremacists and merchants of misinformation?

A quick anecdote: when my selfies or stories about dogs peeing on my leg get more interactions, comments, and likes, than my calls to action, it tells me that maybe my time spent on those platforms is wasteful.

I have a blog. I have email. I have a phone that sends and receives text messages AND makes phone calls. I subscribe to three newspapers and four magazines, all covering a variety of news. I listen to more podcasts than I can handle, and have more streaming services than I can watch.

I was all set to leave, and I realized: wow. What a privilege that must be.

What a privilege that I don’t rely on either platform to affect change.
What a privilege that I’m not fighting for my life and need to cast a wide net for support.
What a privilege that I have the money for a domain name and the “nicer” version of WordPress.

Privilege, privilege, privilege.

So I stopped my exodus plans and starting thinking about how I am using Facebook and Instagram, and how I might use them a little better. A little more focused.

On Instagram, I can make sure I’m curating follows of people whose voices I can learn from and amplify. Seek out people doing work in causes I believe in, donate to, and share their work.

On Facebook, I can take the same action as Instagram, PLUS use the embedded controls to see what I want to see. Sometimes I think we forget that as much power as Zuckerberg’s algorithms have over us, he’s also given us some tools to hack those algorithms, and third-party developers help out too. It might take some pruning, but I can create a feed that righteously motivates and sustains me.

As I went though the initial steps of leaving ZuckLand, I thought of the things that I might miss out on. Some were personal, but most were related to either my profession or how I want to improve the world.

As insidious as I find Facebook and Instagram to be, I can’t argue that the platform can be used for great good when I’m connected to the correct people.

I am going to limit my time, maybe publish more on my website, get more news from the places I subscribe to instead of relying on others’ feeds. But I’m sticking around for now. And if you go through a similar thought process from time to time, I invite you to reflect a bit, and maybe hack your own feed.

Or run your own boycott—you have my support.

Concrete Action

I took a break from poetry for a few days to work on this, something that’s been on my mind lately, and that something is concrete action.

I can dream with the best of ’em, and brainstorm ideas and click “like” on inspiring social media posts, but as I age, I’ve been increasingly drawn to concrete action. What is feasible? Practical? Reasonable? Actionable?

This is an unprecedented time for anyone under the age of 103. And navigating the new landscape is tricky and exhausting. I see platitudes blasted on social media from a cross-section of people, and the one thing many of those responses lack is concrete action.

Example: Telling college and high school students that their #1 priority is their mental health and not school.

I absolutely agree. As someone who works like mad every single day to keep the depression under control, this is true. Keeping your mental health in check is vital right now.

What I see lacking in these posts is feasible, practical, reasonable, and actionable steps to make mental health their #1 priority. And as a high school teacher, I know it’s not enough to just tell kids “make this a priority.” They need some structure, some guidance, some ideas as to what that actually means. So let me throw some things out there.

Many health systems have offered telecounseling. My insurance company uses an app called AmWell that offers mental health services. A local hospital system has a counseling hotline. Boys Town offers emergency intervention via phone, email, or text, even in non-pandemic times.

But what if you aren’t quite at that point? You either feel weak (PLEASE DON’T) or that someone else needs it more (NOT TRUE) so you hesitate to utilize those services? What then?

I am not a mental health professional. I must be clear about that. But if you are feeling like your mental health is teetering, there are less soul-baring resources for you to try.

The National Alliance for Mental Illness has a video library, including stories from people sharing their own experiences, as well as other educational resources on their website. Sometimes just knowing other people have been where you are can help you feel less alone.

The CDC has a list of recommendations, including meditation (Simple Habit and Headspace are my favorite meditation apps), checking your diet, exercising, and connecting with others. These might seem too simple, or some days they might seem like too much. These things alone do not “cure” my depression, but they do help keep it at bay.

I’m currently taking a class from Yale University on Coursera called The Science of Well-Being, and holy buckets is it fantastic. My preferred method to manage my depression is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), and this course is all about meta-cognition, looking at how our brains are wired by culture and then trying to challenge that wiring. It’s fantastic, and not for nothing: on the days I do anything with the class, I feel more relaxed.

Something else I’ve done is reach out to people. This is not easy for me. My depression brain tells me that I’m a burden and other people have bigger problems than mine and I shouldn’t add to them. But in the past three weeks, I’ve arranged several virtual meetings to connect with people–a couple whom I haven’t talked to in years. It’s been great to catch up in those cases, and it’s been good to maintain the relationships I never let lapse in the first place. And seeing their faces while we talk has been a thousand percent better than texting.

The platitudes are nice, and I do feel relieved to see them; an acknowledgment that none of *this* is normal does help. But following up those platitudes with how to live by them is equally important.