Folks, it’s really cold out there. I don’t mean climate wise – after all I live in sunny SoCal and the temps today are a balmy 57 degrees – just cold enough to put on a sweater and hurry across the street to buy the makings of my umpteenth pot of vegetarian chili this semester.

I’ve lived on the stuff. Impossible burger plus some delish impossible sausage, two cans of diced tomatoes, 5-ish teaspoons of chili powder (3) and chipotle chili powder (2), and one can of light red/dark red kidney beans. Try it! I just tasted mine and it’s yummy but the above spice meter results in pretty hot chili.

No, I mean it’s really cold out in the world in general. Freakishly erratic temperatures and chilliness. Classes ended the week after Thanksgiving, and we’ve begun the inevitable grading of student assignments. In fact, thirteen or fourteen final papers stand between me and the finish line. I shouldn’t be here blogging now, but have been preoccupied with this weather phenomenon. People are touchy in a way I don’t remember them being. Perhaps it was being cloistered in our own homes/rooms and safely bubble-wrapped from each other for eighteen months before coming together on ground. We became used to tech rehearsals from our couches, strikes contained to the solitude of wrapping up the equipment and shipping it back to school, or merely hitting the end meeting button. Tidy. Cloistered.

We didn’t talk about what it would mean to bring to ground two classes of freshmen. Of course we did talk about how to make them feel welcome to the campus and planned events to welcome them and their families. But we didn’t talk about the chrysalis to pupa to adult part of this journey. We didn’t foresee the emergence from our dens (sorry pun intended) as resulting in overwhelming feelings of hunger and need. We planned a little for how to bring the sophomores up to level with skills workshops and tours/orientations of our labs/theatre spaces.

But we neglected to talk in depth about several crucial things.

  • How to be kind
  • How to be generous
  • How to learn to speak in draft while remaining vulnerable and empathetic to how good ours and others’ drafts are at any stage in time
  • How to expect variety in the skills and sensitivities of different generations of teachers
  • How to attribute that variety of practice to their life paths and not merely as anachronistic to our expectations of behavior and thus wrong
  • How to process our anger without harming others when someone pierces or tears our cocoon before we were ready to emerge, either intentionally by asking us to do something difficult or creatively challenging, or by accident
  • How to calm ourselves when we get angry or scared
  • How to start all interactions from a place of love, not fear
  • How to weight/rank/value upsets appropriately
  • How to move on
  • Again, how to relish our resilience and see the gifts when things go wrong. (I learned recently that social workers use the expression “failing forward.”)

We will inevitably pierce someone’s cocoon when we’ve been apart for so long and have forgotten how to be in the physical world.

Several weeks ago we lost one of the brightest stars in our theatrical orbit, Stephen Sondheim. It hit me very hard personally. “Not a day goes by” without my thinking/humming of how profoundly impactful on my life his lyrics and music have been. I was privileged to stage manage his 75th Birthday at the Hollywood Bowl, (Act I bootleg video – not mine, I hasten to add) one of the most fulfilling and exciting theatre gigs I’ve ever had.

I won’t soon forget sitting in the rehearsal studio in North Hollywood at the table adjacent to his watching his face in the mirror as the dozen or so luminary performers sang his life back to him. But aside from that experience, so many of his songs were the personal soundtrack to my life and I suspect millions of others. “In Buddy’s Eyes” I viewed as an ironic paean to my marriage to someone 33 years older than I, and associate it with the time when we’d acquired our first home and were living in bucolic splendor after sharing a one-bedroom apartment in New York City. Hearing Barbara Cook singing “Losing My Mind” still underscores my journey through grief after losing my life partner.

Since Sondheim’s death on November 26th I’ve listened to an amazing podcast (a dozen of them, if I were to be honest) about how he…

“Transformed musical theatre into an art form as rich, complex and contradictory as life itself.”

The Daily, “The Life and Legacy of Stephen Sondheim”

There are many illuminating moments during host Michael Barbaro’s interview with NY Times Theatre Critic, Jesse Green. One of my favorites was Green’s sharing the ripple effect of his parents’ seeing Company and discussing it still by the time they reached home. Young 11 or 12-year-old Jesse’s response? He listened over and over to the cassette of the musical, transposing every lyric by hand to paper and studied it to see what it was about the musical that had so affected his parents.

That spark, that fusion of curiosity, relevance and intellectual engagement is what we strive to instill as educators. Everyone comes into our classrooms with a different mix of experiences, traumas, expectations, aptitudes, readiness to be authentic in the space, flexibility to allow others to be authentic in the space. There are so many factors that we face in supporting their journey from cocoon to adult. This generation of young people seems riddled with self-doubt and an overwhelming underestimation of their own resiliency. During this pandemic we all seem to have lost a little of our ability to synthesize experiences and information before erupting with outrage or in offense. Our patience with the true exploration of ideas has waned. Emotions seem edgy and raw, our listening and empathy skills dimmed from lack of practice. This business of being human is complex, just as Sondheim knew it was.

Back to the messy metaphoric title – there seem to be more bears than butterflies these days. I’m peripherally aware of the consequences of bears – my son and his wife have lost several vehicles to nighttime incursions over food crumbs as the weather chilled toward snow. Recently, the tempting proximity to the bear box in their driveway while they were evacuated for Northern California fires proved to be irresistible and resulted in devastating destruction. An insatiable hunger resulted in the complete total of the vehicle. I won’t say rage is the appropriate attribution because to anthropomorphize the bears is simplistic. But they turned their physical fury from the inaccessible odor to the object that was penetrable.

It seems useful to consider the bears’ emergence from hibernation in contrast to the butterfly, who sheds their temporary shell after a “stage of being or growth”.

I read a deceptively light weight book last week that has had a strong impact on me and how I’m thinking about the emotional weather. Written by adrienne marie brown, “We Will Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice” this book has provided me with a touchstone about how to process the current call outs that we are experiencing in every workspace. As she says, it is time to think it through.

Cancel culture addresses real harm…and sometimes causes more. It’s time to think this through…..In We Will Not Cancel Us, movement mediator adrienne maree brown reframes the discussion for us, in a way that points to possible paths beyond this impasse. Most critiques of cancel culture come from outside the milieus that produce it, sometimes even from from its targets. However, brown explores the question from a Black, queer, and feminist viewpoint that gently asks, how well does this practice serve us? Does it prefigure the sort of world we want to live in? And, if it doesn’t, how do we seek accountability and redress for harm in ways that reflect our values?

adrienne marie brown (Amazon book synopsis)

I came into work yesterday to discover that the door to my office had been kicked in, shards of plywood strewn across the threshold at the top of the stairs, the door jamb splintered and ragged, a Christmas wreath tossed on the floor on the path into the room. No explanation was forthcoming when we notified the department of public safety, other than they responded to an incident in the middle of the night before.

As you might imagine, my saboteur voices were shouting at me:

  • Who did you enrage to the point of calling DPS about an incident at 3:00AM
  • Are we safe in our campus offices?
  • Where is the person who alerted DPS to a need to come breach the door to my office? Are they okay and getting the help they need?
  • Why are these outbursts happening frequently in our society?

When I calmed myself, and allowed my sage perspective to think this through, while I still don’t know what caused the need to break down the office door, I recognized:

  • Change is hard and people respond differently to it.

In the past, personally, I’ve run away from change. I remember specifically (and not something I’m proud of) turning down work at the Geffen Playhouse during the time period when they were renovating the Le Conte Avenue Theatre, and re-located their operations to The Brentwood Theatre on the Veterans’ Administration grounds. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around what that transition would be like, and all I could see/feel was the difficulties, not the excitement of being a part of such a big change. This is funny given how I came to embrace the changes at USC over the past two years.

  • A pandemic, forcing us to move to online teaching over a two week period which stretched into eighteen months
  • A new Dean
  • Working on planning for a new Drama Center
  • Incorporating COVID protocols into live performance and coming out the far side of the Fall Semester with no outbreaks
  • Hiring new staff in my area, and greeting the potential for new styles of management and organization

I find myself now greeting these transformations not as difficult/impossible/unmanageable, but apply a combined approach of taking them #daybyday and treating them like gifts. Like the hungry caterpillar, I am practicing masticating to get the nourishment I need, stretching my developing wings, bleeding a little when I get hurt, but ultimately emerging triumphant from my chrysalis at the appropriate time.

Now, how to teach that? Won’t you join me in coming up with ideas to favor the butterfly over the bear?

Happy Holidays!

6 thoughts

  1. As someone who recently left the world of higher education/student services/advising, I so connected with your story and I love the way you framed your perspective so creatively. Last winter, I had the chance to advise some undergraduate students and they are struggling so much (as are their professors and administrators!). With my background in counseling, I sometimes struggled to communicate the importance of students’ mental wellness to senior administrators who were solely focused on their academic achievement. I’m so glad that your students have you!

    1. Hi, Kimberly, thanks so much for sharing your perspective. It’s been a really tough time for everyone, I think. I feel so fortunate to have taken the time during the pandemic to retool my emotional acuity both to myself and others. I find our students (and you’re right, faculty and administrators, too) need so much support now. I feel grateful to work at a university that values wellness as well as academic achievement. Glad this piece touched you and thanks so much for reading! Happy holidays.

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