4 May 2020
I started keeping a journal on the first day of the Shelter in Place order. It seemed like a great way to stay sane at the time, though the sarcasm has been a two-edged sword. I began combing through the pages to see if there was something that I could share to people in my shoes when I stumbled across these opening paragraphs of the very first entry:
March 20th—Here we go.
Today, I decided to start journaling. Nothing too serious… just something to make me less… mentally exhausted? Anyway, I’m going to need to start job-searching soon. I’m also going to need to work on my computer skills so I can school from home better because, while it may have taken me until ninth grade to send an email, I probably shouldn’t wait that long to learn anything else ever again. Enough about what I need to do. Instead, I want to talk about air.
I feel like breathing deeply will give me coronavirus, so I’ve been taking hamster-breaths instead. It’s like that exercise we had to do in elementary school where the guidance counselor ordered us students to breathe through a straw to simulate the effects of smoking on lung capacity. Sometimes, I suddenly gasp for air in the middle of my sentence because I haven’t inhaled for a minute. The other day, I tried to snap myself out of it and made an effort to breathe normally for a day, but I’ve forgotten how, and my exaggerated breathing attempts mean nothing with this weight on my chest. Tonight, I’ll probably practice breathing in an effort to find my “normal” air intake levels, but in the meantime, I’ll try playing loud music and to distract from the taunting sound of incorrect respiration.
While I haven’t been caught up in feelings of anxiety for the things I probably should be anxious about, I’ve found that in trying to maintain the status quo, I’m second-guessing the normalcy of every part of that status quo. Irony certainly isn’t helping that. Just a few weeks ago, I was writing proposals for a project in one of my classes. The written portion of the assignment was entitled “Learning Normal” and the public engagement portion of the assignment was entitled “Learning Abnormal.” Now, here I am trying to do exactly what I’d proposed I’d already done.
The public engagement assignment has been especially frustrating for the reason stated in its name. Engaging with the public during social distancing? My creativity has its limits. As the kind of person who gives speeches for fun, this assignment was the one I was looking most forward to. I immediately went to work on my proposal, detailing my plans to go to the WIU Macomb campus and give a guest lecture on my unconventional teaching history and how I developed my teaching philosophies because of it. It would be formatted like a TED Talk, beginning with a story, presenting the facts, and bringing all of it to a moving conclusion.
You see, I’m an instructor at Black Hawk College’s Outreach Center. Before you get too impressed, I should also probably mention that the material I teach is fuzzy, frustrating, and often tangled: yarnworks. As the youngest knitting and crocheting instructor in BHC history, I have had a lot more teaching experience than the average person my age, and as an extravert, I was all too eager to share my experiences with anyone who would listen to my presentation comparing teaching night school and teaching high school. Instead, I’m stuck indoors with nothing but my knitting and crocheting to keep me company. My grand presentation became a written transcript. It was sent out for written publication, and from there, all I could do was hope someone would read it. It was the best I could do, but it didn’t sit right. Something was missing, but what?
Maybe you’ve had this feeling as well. The best way I can explain it is that it’s like exhaling with a tightness in your chest. You get your work done, but you’ve left some wins on the table, wins only you know about. An A doesn’t help either, because you know it’s not living up to the grand plans you’ve made. For me, it’s as if, after years of living up to professors’ expectations of me, I’m suddenly forced into a situation where even if I meet their expectations, I still fail to meet my own. “My best” becomes “the best I could do.” While I’ve never cared much about what other people think of me, my very ability to breathe relies on my confidence in my abilities, and that confidence wanes in the wake of adapting to online learning in this present state of quarantine.
My public engagement assignment has pointed out this piece of my personality. It’s a blessing and a curse. It’s what drives me to succeed and drives me up the wall. It gives my life direction and makes me feel lost. It’s every paradox I can ever think of…except it isn’t. A few weeks ago, I learned a new word for the feeling that dominates my life right now: antinomy. If I felt a strong sense of purpose in some contexts and extremely lost in others, that would be a paradox because the contradiction that lives in both statements can be reconciled by changing circumstances. When both are muddled together and cannot be reconciled (as they are now), that’s antinomy. Antinomy messes with my very sense of reason, uprooting my common sense and replacing it with a seed of uncertainty.
Antinomy is my gasp for air and the hands around my neck, leaving me in a state of perpetual tension. The straw I breathe through gets smaller and smaller as my world shrinks to the square footage of my house. Change is inevitable. All of us are online having Google Meets and Zoom calls and Skyped lectures, setting up a new account for each professor’s streaming service of choice. Our beginning-of-class deadlines have moved to midnight submissions, our inboxes are filled to the brim, and our assignment expectations have been rewritten. Every change makes us question what our “new normal” will look like, and while I cling to a thread of oxygen today, I can find solace in one thing…that whatever this “new normal” may look like for me, it will soon be met with a long exhale to breathe in a new day.