Sunday, June 13, 2021

When Your Ending Isn't Happily Ever After

East of the Sun and West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen
Print from "East of the Sun and West of the Moon"
by Kay Nielsen, 1914
Author's Note: I was so grateful and honored to be asked to give a sermon on the subject of story for the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in May 2021. I know I'm a lazy blogger, but I'm far from a lazy writer. This assignment was a gift of grace that helped me to process some ideas that have been floating around in my brain for quite a while now. I've included the reading I chose from Margaret Atwood's short story, "Happy Endings," as a preface to the sermon. In a season where we all have a chance to think about what we want our stories to look like, I hope this provokes some thoughts and conversationswith yourself or with those you love.

Reading: “Happy Endings” by Margaret Atwood
Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood wrote a thought-provoking short story called “Happy Endings.” This reading includes the beginning and a few lines near the end of the story. 

John and Mary meet.  

What happens next?  

If you want a happy ending, try A. 

A. John and Mary fall in love and get married. They both have worthwhile and remunerative jobs which they find stimulating and challenging. They buy a charming house. Real estate values go up. Eventually, when they can afford live-in help, they have two children, to whom they are devoted. The children turn out well. John and Mary have a stimulating and challenging sex life and worthwhile friends. They go on fun vacations together. They retire. They both have hobbies which they find stimulating and challenging. Eventually they die. This is the end of the story. 

[Variations B-F on this theme follow, where Mary falls in love with John, but John does not love Mary, then the reverse, then explorations of what happens to their subsequent partners, and finally, a John Le Carre version where John is a revolutionary and Mary is a spy]. Then Atwood writes this gut-wrenching truth: 

You'll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it. Don't be deluded by any other endings, they're all fake, either deliberately fake, with malicious intent to deceive, or just motivated by excessive optimism if not by downright sentimentality.  

The only authentic ending is the one provided here:  

John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die (Atwood). 


I have a confession: Most of my notions about love and life were formed by Andrew Lang’s Blue Book of Fairy Tales. 

I read this book—along with its sister volumes, the yellow, the red, the purple, and yes, even the olive—shortly after I learned the magic of letters making words, and words making thoughts, and thoughts making stories, and stories making life make sense.  

What are the stories that shaped you?  “East of the Sun and West of the Moon,” a Norwegian folktale in Lang’s Blue Book, is a seminal text in my life. I discovered this powerful story of love, transformation, jealousy, and perseverance at the tender age of 7. One of my most prized possessions is an original art deco print by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen from the 1914 illustrated version I encountered as a child. The print was given to me by a dear friend when I was in a particularly low and dark place. It now hangs on my living room wall, reminding me that tragedy sometimes precedes happy endings. 

As an assistant professor of English who teaches world mythology and literary analysis, I guess I am considered an expert in the subject of this sermon: the power of storytelling, how the stories we love can shape our lives, and why interrogating those stories is important. 

But I feel more like a life-long learner. 

“East of the Sun and West of the Moon” tells the story of a girl who, against her better judgment, agrees to leave her family for a white bear. The girl is the youngest daughter of a poor family, and the bear promises that if she goes with him, he will lift her family out of poverty. She travels on his back to a beautiful castle where all her wishes are granted. But at night, she discovers a strange secret: the bear transforms into a man.  

After a few months of this, the girl becomes lonely and asks to visit her family, but the bear warns her not to talk with her mother alone. Of course, she does this anyway because fairy tale. Her mother, upon hearing her daughter’s odd story, gives the girl a candle stub to hide away. When she returns to the castle, the girl lights the candle that night and sees a handsome prince in her bed. She falls immediately and completely in love. 

The prince wakes up and informs the girl that he must now leave her to go east of the sun and west of the moon, and he will have to marry a long-nosed troll princess, and she shouldn’t try to follow him because it’s impossible. 

Their love is impossible. She can never have what she wants. She has ruined everything.  

In the morning, the girl finds herself alone in a wood. The castle and the prince have vanished. 

Well. Game on. The girl wanders for days until she meets an old woman who tells her that her quest is indeed impossible, but gives her a horse and a golden apple, just in case.  

The girl rides the horse for days and meets another old woman with a golden spinning wheel. This old woman also disparages the girl’s chances but mentions that the east wind might have an idea where the prince had gone—probably not, but it never hurts to ask. The second old woman gives the girl a fresh horse and the golden spinning wheel and sends her on her way. 

The east wind tells the girl he too has heard rumors, but she’ll have to go ask the West Wind for specifics. Ultimately, the East, West, and South winds escort the girl to the North Wind. The North Wind knows how to get there, but he is pretty grumpy about it—he once blew a single aspen leaf east of the sun and west of the moon, and it wore him out for literally days. Still, if the girl isn’t afraid, no matter how wild the ride gets, he agrees to take her there. 

She isn’t afraid. Against all the odds, she reaches the castle that is east of the sun and west of the moon, where the first person she meets is, of course, the infamous long-nosed troll princess. The girl trades the golden apple the first old woman gave her for a night with the prince, but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t wake her beloved. 

The next morning, the troll princess kicks her out. The girl then trades the golden spinning wheel the second old woman gave her for another night with the prince. Fortunately, some good Christians overhear their conversation and let the prince know about it. That night, the prince pretends to drink his sleeping potion but tosses it over his shoulder when the troll princess isn’t looking, so he is awake when the girl enters his bedroom.  

They joyfully reunite and hatch a plan to free the prince. The next day, the day that the prince is supposed to marry the troll princess, the girl will—get this—engage in a contest with her rival to wash the prince’s shirt. 

Inevitably, the troll princess lacks good laundering skills, and of course, since the girl is a Christian (I am still not sure if this is correlation or causality), she is able to wash the shirt as white as snow. The troll princess explodes on the spot. The prince is freed from the curse, marries the girl, and the prince and princess free all the Christians who had been trapped east of the sun and west of the moon by the trolls. Good triumphs over evil, love conquers all, and they all live happily ever after. 

What I learned from this story that I first read at the age of seven shaped my views of romantic relationships for many years. These were my four takeaways:  

  1. Bears aren’t actually bears. They are handsome princes inside. 
  2. If you try to find out the truth about bears and are disappointed, it’s all your fault. 
  3. You have to work really hard and sacrifice everything if you want to be with your true love. 
  4. If you’re really good at getting stains out of shirts, you will beat the troll princess and win the prince’s hand in marriage. 

I am really good at getting stains out of shirts. 

However, these lessons have not served me well in my actual adult romantic relationships. Spoiler alert: Life is not a fairy tale. I’m just now learning this at the age of 7 squared—I'd like to think by sharing my sad journey, I’ll save those of you who are younger than me the wasted time, but life doesn’t always work out that way. We have to live and learn from our own stories.  

In real life, I have found, sometimes bears are bears. 

If you find out the truth about them, you will be disappointed, but it’s probably NOT your fault. Sometimes the trolls win. And finally, you can work really hard for true love and still not achieve it—or after achieving it, you can lose it all—even if, and I cannot stress this enough, you are really good at getting stains out of shirts. 

I’ve learned these truths the hard way, just as you have, through experience--through the messy failures of life and love that still sting. Divorce, mental illness, addiction. Patriarchy, privilege, power imbalances. 

But I’ve also learned, like you have, that we don’t have to always be brave and beautiful and good. Sometimes we can be scared and lonely and exhausted. Sometimes, we can even be disappointed.  

This is the truth we learn in Margaret Atwood’s short story, “Happy Endings.” Another confession: Option A, where John and Mary meet, fall in love, marry, have a wonderful life together, and die of old age was the life story I wanted and perhaps still pine for. I was well on this path (or so I thought) until my 35th year, when everything blew up. Icons were smashed, trust was betrayed, dreams were shattered. Worst of all, beloved, precious, innocent children were irreparably harmed, and nothing in my life since can make up for that loss.  

I hate divorce. Specifically, I hated my divorce. I didn’t want to go through it, and I don’t ever want to go through divorce again. But in the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want.” 

And the older I get, the more I realize just how much my fairy tale notions of love and life have made it hard for me to let go of the past. I tell myself that I had the fairy tale, and that I lost it—it was all my fault--because that’s what happened in the story.  

But is this true?  

After option A, Margaret Atwood spins out many other versions of the “John meets Mary” story. Sometimes John loves Mary, but Mary doesn't love John. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes they find happiness with new partners. Sometimes they don’t. But the ending is always the same: John and Mary die. 

“So much for endings,” Atwood says. “Beginnings are always more fun. True connoisseurs, however, are known to favor the stretch in between, since it's the hardest to do anything with. That's about all that can be said for plots, which anyway are just one thing after another, a what and a what and a what.  

Now try How and Why.” (Atwood)

How and Why. And favoring the stretch in between. 

If you’re like me, 2020 gave you had a bit more time to think than usual. The pandemic brought many changes, and the one I welcomed—and feared—most was quiet. I had time to sit with my own thoughts and really listen to them—and to interrogate them. In the stillness, away from the busyness of pre-pandemic life, I realized something about my relationship with stories. I realized that I was a servant to a narrative that was not my own. 

I was living my life as a what and a what and a what. I was not thinking about how and why. 

What is your story’s plot? How did the pandemic interrupt that plot? How does that story fit in this world of Big Lies and “alternative facts”? What happened to you? And then what happened? What happened after that? Do you know how and why? 

The pandemic shoved the randomness and inevitability of our mortality right in our faces. We could not look away. 

So many of us began to interrogate our cultural stories, asking questions like these: 

  • Why do too many Black men die at the hands of police? 
  • Why does late-stage capitalism fail so many individuals and communities? 
  • Why does the United States have so many policies that are hostile to women? 
  • Who cares what bathrooms or pronouns people use anyway? 

We still don’t have all the answers, but asking the questions—challenging the narrative—is the first step to change. 

It must not be the only step. We all deserve to have stories that shape our lives in positive, productive, healthy ways. 

Let's interrogate “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” The story follows the conventions of the hero’s journey—the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, the talismans and mentors, the battles and ultimate triumphs. This story is a universal monomyth for a good reason—it speaks to all of us in some way. But Margaret Atwood could suggest several different paths to the story’s happy ending. 

Option A: The girl sticks by her initial gut instinct to refuse the bear’s advances. He leaves, never to return. The girl goes off to university on scholarship and makes an important discovery. She saves her family through her own hard work and ingenuity, and they all live happily ever after. 

Option B: When the prince is whisked away against his will to the castle, he rejects the finality and ultimate power of the troll princess’s curse. He works with the Christians to overpower the curse and return to the girl he loves. They all live happily ever after. 

Option C: The girl starts out on a journey to find the prince but changes her mind and decides to apprentice with the first old woman. She learns plant magic and becomes a successful healer. She is beloved in her community and helps her family to escape poverty through her skill and knowledge. She never marries and trains one of her nieces in her healing arts. They all live happily ever after. 

Option D: The girl makes it all the way to the castle that lies east of the sun and west of the moon. But instead of competing with the troll princess, the two fall in love. They share stories about their awful experiences with the prince and decide to jointly rule the kingdom. The prince is banished and they all live happily ever after (except for the prince. But let’s face it: He is problematic). 

There are, of course, many other options, depending on how and why the girl (or the prince) decides to interrupt the narrative.  

Another question to ask yourself is this: Am I actually the hero in this story? 

In all our favorite stories, we tend to see ourselves as the heroes. But what if we are the villains in somebody else’s story? 

In “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” I have personally identified with the brave girl who fights for true love ever since I was seven years old. But to my ex-husband’s current wife, I’m the long-nosed troll princess, always whining about how he was promised to me. In their version of the story, his current wife is the brave, plucky heroine who escaped from poverty and won the handsome prince. I am indisputably the villain in their fairy tale. To be fair, my nose is somewhat long, and I do enjoy resting in the shade under bridges on the Boise River Greenbelt (but did I mention that I am really good at getting stains out of shirts? Because I am). 

What I’ve learned from the "alternative facts” of my post-divorce life is this: No matter how bad things get, I don’t ever want to be the villain in anyone else’s story.  

To a certain extent, our stories are inevitable—John, Mary, all of us are going to die. Honestly, there should be less fear and more relief in knowing the ending, like when we skip to the end of a suspenseful book because we can’t wait to learn what happens. I’ve been thinking about this through the pandemic too, as it coincided with my entrance into a tunnel that any adult who lost a parent when they were younger will recognize. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was 19 and he was 47—my age when the pandemic started. He died when I was 22 and he was 50. I have now entered my 50th year. 

The tunnel is a space of uncertainty and loss and grief, mourning for the parent whose loss means that we now have no role model for our future years. What lies ahead is truly a mystery. 

But we have more control over the “how and the why” than we think we do. Learning to interrogate the stories that shape us is the work of a lifetime. As the novelist Salman Rushdie wrote in a May 2021 opinion piece for the New York Times, we can learn a lot about our values when we ask ourselves which books we love. Rushdie says, 

“I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  

That has certainly been true in my experience. 

What are the stories and books you love? Is it time to revisit a beloved classic, or to replace it with something new? Are your beloved stories serving your narrative? Or are they hindering you?  

I cannot part with “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” But today, I love it for a new reason. As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, I’ve decided to reject the identities of both the girl and the troll princess. Now, I’m the second old woman. I still believe in the fairy tale and the power of true love, even though the world has given me good reason to doubt. But I’ll keep spinning my yarn on my golden spinning wheel, providing help and the answers I know, but leaving the hard work of questing to others. 

And maybe, if we’re lucky, we will all live happily ever after. 

Sunday, December 13, 2020

"Come and Find the Quiet Center"

Sermon given Sunday, December 13, 2020 for Magic ValleyUnitarian Universalist Fellowship Zoom Worship Service

I am so grateful to be here with you virtually today and look forward to the time when we can be together again in physical space. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about this month’s theme: stillness.

Like many of us during this year of global pandemic and tremendous change, I have begun to categorize my life into the Before Time and the Now. As some background, I’m a mother of four children (two in college, two still in high school), a wife, a community college English professor, and a mental health advocate.

For many years, the one constant in my life has been chaos. I’m betting more than a few of you can relate. What was your life like in the Before Time?

Then COVID-19 came—and before we get too far, I have a confession to make. The pandemic was definitely all my fault. No, really! Let me explain.

Here’s what my calendar looked like in the last week before everything changed.

On Saturday, March 7, I attended the Depressed Cake Shop fundraiser for Boise’s Interfaith Sanctuary homeless shelter and connected with my dear friend and fellow mental health advocate Valerie Van Gelder and her sister and equally dear friend Jodi Peterson, director of Interfaith Sanctuary. My children and I had baked “depressed Oreos” for the event—sad looking dark chocolate cookies with grey cream cheese frosting filling, but when you bit into them, you saw a rainbow of cheery pinks and blues and yellows, reminding us that mental illness doesn’t define who we are.

That evening, I attended the Idaho Democratic Party’s gala. When I bought my tickets, I had been over the moon at the thought of hearing Mayor Pete, then ecstatic over the prospect of Elizabeth Warren, then when they both cancelled, I was just happy to attend and catch up with good friends. Remember when we could hang out together? took my last groupies that night, and now, it seems like another world to me when I look at those photos. We were all so physically close! None of us was wearing a mask! (It was a wonderful night).

On Sunday, March 8, I attended what would be the last in-person service of the Boise Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. There were murmurs then about COVID—cases popping up in Seattle and New York—but here in Idaho, nothing seemed out of place just yet.

On Monday, March 9, my 48th birthday, I taught my usual English classes at the College of Western Idaho, and my sweetheart took me out to Rice, one of my favorite Asian restaurants, for what would turn out to be my last supper inside a restaurant in 2020.

On Tuesday, March 10, I hosted a Mayan archaeologist for a guest lecture at the College of Western Idaho for my survey of world mythology students. More than 30 students and community members attended. We passed around a heavy rubber ball used in pok a tok, the traditional Mayan ball game that figures heavily in the Mayan creation story.

A week later, we would learn that someone in the building that night with us had tested positive for COVID 19.

On Wednesday, March 11 my students were beginning to ask questions—and I did not have answers. I blithely told them not to worry—that if we went online, I had years of online teaching experience and would be able to support them during the few weeks we would not be able to attend class together.

That night, I attended what would be my last in person choir rehearsal at BUUF—and realized to my horror that I had accidentally double booked myself for the coming March 15 Sunday services.

And here’s why the pandemic with all its chaos is my fault. I had said yes to playing for BUUF’s choir and to playing the organ at my children’s Mormon church—at exactly the same time! Reverend Sara, the music director, and I began a frantic flurry of emails trying to come up with a new order of service that would allow me to play at one church before racing up the road to the other one. But no matter how we looked at it, the logistics problem seemed insoluble. It looked like I would have to let someone down and accept the consequences of my poor planning.

So in desperation, I prayed to whatever gods may be that somehow I could get out of the mess I had created for myself. And here we are.

On Thursday, March 12, I taught what would be my last in-person classes—the last time I stepped onto CWI’s campus--until the Fall semester of 2020. That night, I attended my son’s last minute choir concert at Northwest Nazarene University. His choir had been chosen from all the high school choirs in the Pacific Northwest to perform at the American Choral Directors Association annual meeting—which had abruptly been cancelled earlier that week because of fears about the pandemic.

So the choir sang for us instead. The director joked (with foresight, it turns out) that it was probably the last time singing like this would be legal for a while. In case you haven’t heard, it turns out choir is pretty much the perfect superspreader event.

The music that night was exquisite, and tears ran down my cheeks as these high school students whose entire world was about to change began with their signature piece, a hymn called “Come and Find the Quiet Center.” We’ll come back to that hymn in a minute, but for now, let’s continue through the last week of my Before Time.

On Friday, March 13—Friday the thirteenth (haha). I learned that my college had decided to start Spring Break early and extend the break for three weeks. That three-week break turned into five months—and while I have returned to campus to teach a few in person classes, wearing a mask and socially distanced, of course, most of my colleagues are still working remotely.

On Saturday, March 14, the big Latter-day Saint mental health conference I had been looking forward to attending, featuring former Brigham Young University quarterback Tanner Mangum, was cancelled. That afternoon, I went to the fabric store and purchased cotton prints and flannel backing to make masks. It was the last time I would set foot in any store other than a grocery store for a while.

And on Sunday, March 15, the gods answered my desperate prayer. I was no longer double booked because everything was cancelled! Everything that day, and the next day, and the next, stretching into months, was cancelled.

What could this mean? At first, we all thought it would be a few weeks. Then we thought, maybe a few months. Then we realized the awful truth: 2020 was cancelled.

And just like that, I had the one thing I could never find enough of: time.

So I sewed masks. Like many of you, I baked—a lot—and thought about planting my garden. I developed a daily practice of taking long solitary walks around my neighborhood.

During my walks, the hymn my son’s choir sang would often fill my mind. I want to share the words with you.

“Come and Find the Quiet Center” by Shirley Erena Murray

Come and find the quiet center in the crowded life we lead.
Find the room for hope to enter, find the frame where we are freed.
Clear the chaos and the clutter, clear our eyes that we can see
all the things that really matter, be at peace and simply be.

And I wondered, What is so hard about stillness anyway? Why is it so hard to “be at peace and simply be”? The answer is not an easy one. In the sudden enforced quiet, we—all of us—have been forced to face the truth of our own mortality. We might get sick and die, or we might not. Our loved ones might get sick and die, or they might not. But we all have to face the truth: none of us gets out of here alive. We are powerless over life and death.

Some people turn to religion in times like these. We may think of Jesus calming the wind, the waves, and his disciples’ fears with a simple command: “Peace, be still.” Or we may think of the Biblical seventh day, the Sabbath, a day created specifically for rest and contemplation of the Divine.

Or our thoughts may turn to the Jewish tradition, especially during this week of Hanukkah. Speaking of another sacred day, Yom Kippur, the “Sabbath of Sabbaths” and holiest day in the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Marc Margolius of the West End Synagogue in New York City wrote that stillness is “the quintessence of Yom Kippur itself: the necessity for human beings to be, rather than to do; the necessity to be still, rather than to speak; the necessity to seek out the authentic and eternal, not the artificial or temporal.”

Rabbi Margolius further observes that “Some of Judaism’s most powerful religious metaphors are internal; they invite us to seek God not atop a mountain or in heaven, but within ourselves.”

Have you climbed mountains seeking something? I have. But these days, I am spending more time seeking God within myself.

In yoga, the hardest posture for me is savasana, corpse pose, where we lie silent and still on our mats. It’s also the most essential-part of my daily practice: to quiet my busy brain, to say “Peace: Be Still.” I have found that as I focus on being instead of thinking or doing, I can feel myself connected to the world in marvelous ways, experiencing what it means to exist in the glorious eternal now.

This time of enforced quiet has definitely not been all fun and games though. In the stillness, I learned some hard things about myself. I learned first that I was tired. We are all so tired. Living with mundane, quotidian existential dread has a way of doing that to us. From pandemics to politics, our poor limbic systems are stuck in panic mode.

I don’t know about you, but I’m taking antidepressants and doing tons of telehealth therapy to cope with even little things like grocery shopping right now. As a mental health advocate, I know there’s no shame in this. These times are hard, and I’m grateful that there is help, and that I can access it.

But I’m also focusing on my breath. At its simplest, breathing is the essence of existence. And as we breathe, we can “Clear the chaos and the clutter” so that we can see what really matters to us. As I have seen what really matters to me, I have experienced a profound sense of gratitude.

In the stillness, the second hard lesson I learned was that any sense of control is an illusion. In the Before Time, I thought that I was the master of my own fate. I tricked myself with Outlook calendars and social media and other tools of modern existence into believing that I could control what happened to me or to the people I loved. I can’t. You can’t. To “find the frame where we are freed,” we must first free ourselves from this illusion of control.

On my daily walks last spring, I began to develop what the poet Amy Clampitt called “a limitless interiority” where anything seemed possible. I watched ducklings grow from balls of yellow fuzz to mature confident adults. I watched buds swell on tree branches and slowly unfold their petals to the sun. Every day, a few more blossoms opened until the trees were splashes of pink and white against the blue spring sky. Those buds were hope. I watched as the blossoms faded, the trees greened then turned to gold. The leaves carpeted the sidewalks, and still we waited.

In the traditional Christian liturgical calendar, December is a time of waiting. During advent, Christians wait each year for the birth of their god in human form.

(Fun and slightly sacrilegious fact from Life Hacker Joel Cunningham—if you buy an advent calendar the day after Christmas this year, it will count down the days to Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s inauguration). 

But seriously, when you think about it, isn’t hope for a better world, in its simplest form, at the heart of religion? We are called, all of us, in this season of waiting, of hope, of light, to “Come and find our quiet center.”

My children and my students keep asking me when we will return to normal. I have good tidings for them—and for you: We won’t.

In mental health advocacy, we have a saying: “Normal is a setting on the washing machine.” If we’re lucky, we’ll emerge from this time of stillness with something important to say and do. When our eyes are opened to the things that really matter—to social justice and equity for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters, to stewardship for our fragile earth, to the future we want to leave our children and their children—we will “find the room for hope to enter.”

But most importantly, if we’ve learned the lessons of these challenging times, we’ll enter our new world, whatever it looks like, secure in the knowledge of how to return to our quiet centers, “to be at peace, and simply be.” That peace is my wish for myself and for all of you, in this season of waiting, of stillness, of hope, joy, and light.

Closing Song

Bothell High School "Come and Find the Quiet Center" arranged by Kirk Marcy

Or my son’s Sonous choir directed by Seth McMullen: at minute marker 28:10-30:35 

Reading: From “A Silence” by Amy Clampitt

past parentage or gender
beyond sung vocables
the slipped-between
the so infinitesimal
fault line
a limitless interiority

beyond the woven
unicorn    the maiden
(man-carved    worm-eaten)
God at her hip
the untransfigured
bluebell and primrose
growing wild     a strawberry
chagrin     night terrors
past the earthlit
unearthly masquerade

(we shall be changed)

a silence opens


Saturday, March 14, 2020

Online Teaching 101

Ready or Not, the Future Is Now—and It Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

Many of us in higher education received emails last week about either taking our classes online or preparing to do so. If you’re anxious about the next several weeks, imagine how your students are feeling! Many of them have avoided online classes or have had a negative experience with one in the past. For context, I teach hybrid, face-to-face, and online classes in an open-access community college where many of my students are already at risk, and last week, I could smell the fear. 

As a teacher, you are likely well aware that current research about online education suggests that distance learning is not as effective as face-to-face classes and that the retention and persistence rates for students are poor. Also, let’s be frank here: some administrators seem to think that online classes are “easy” to teach and that all we have to do is post our syllabus online to turn a face-to-face class into an online one.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and you should be aware upfront that developing and teaching an online course, in my experience, typically takes more time than teaching a face-to-face class (though it comes with added perks like flexibility and the ability to offer classes during a pandemic). For this reason, it’s important to track your labor over the next few weeks.

With those caveats, I want you to know how much I personally love teaching and learning online. As an instructor who began teaching online and hybrid classes in 2010 and completed my Organizational Leadership doctorate in a fully online program in 2016, I have seen firsthand that online teachers can create effective active learning opportunities. With intentional planning and deliberate outreach, an online class can provide a robust learning environment for your students.

Below, I have outlined a few areas that have been important to me as an online teacher, along with examples and resources. I have focused my suggestions on relatively simple and quick ways to transfer your existing face-to-face class to an online environment.

Communicate Early and Often
One of the most important ways to build engagement with online students is to communicate early and often. Communication should take a variety of forms, and make sure you let your students know what your preferred style of communication is. Here’s how I communicate with my classes:
  • Weekly LMS course announcements about assignments, sometimes including a short video I record on my phone and upload to YouTube.  
  • Regular and frequent emails, including a weekly email wrap up of the work we covered. Note: it’s important to make sure that students are checking their student email. Including a tutorial about how to forward their student emails to their phones can be a great way to make sure that they are checking their messages. It’s also really important that you respond to emails as quickly as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. I check for student emails before I go to bed every evening and when I wake up in the morning. Here is an example of a weekly wrap up course announcement/email I created for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology course:

  • “Ask Your Instructor” open forum in your LMS discussion board. Students can post questions that the whole class may have. Subscribe to this board so that you can get back to students quickly. 
  • Video feedback on assignment grades. Both Canvas and Blackboard make this easy to do by incorporating a way to record audio or video feedback directly in the assignment comment box. This way of giving feedback has two advantages: 1) It generally takes less time than line edits or written feedback, and 2) It builds rapport with your students. They will feel like you really care, which will contribute to their ability to succeed in the class. See here for Blackboard instructions:
  • Weekly online office hours. Some of my friends use these office hours for emails and DMs with students, which is fine. I also host a weekly Blackboard Collaborate live session. Usually between 2-6 students attend. Students have reported that just knowing they have this option makes them feel less anxious about our online class. If you don’t have Bb Collaborate, you could do the same thing through Google Hangouts.
  • Phone calls or live video chats. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with a student individually over the phone or through a video conference. 
  • A “resources” or “FAQ” link where students can look for commonly asked questions, including important information like how to contact the IT help desk and access online tutoring.
  • Student feedback. Treat your students as collaborators in your course development. I use Google Forms to ask my students for their preferences about short stories or potential assignments or to assess how well a particular assignment worked. This helps the students to feel like their voices are heard. Here is an example from my CWID “You Are What You Eat” course, where I surveyed students for their opinions on ethical issues that surround food (this took about 10 minutes to create):

Keep It Simple

You may not have spent much time thinking about UX (user experience). But I’m sure you’ve encountered a website that is frustrating or difficult to navigate. Keeping your online course as simple as possible will be important to your students’ success. In an online guide written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Flower Darby provides a useful glossary of common online pedagogy jargon that may help you as you think about your user experience:

Here’s how I do this:

  • Start by looking at your existing syllabus and lesson plans. You probably already have discussions and assignments scheduled for each week. For each of these discussions and assignments, you’ll need to develop an online equivalent.
  • I recommend using the discussion board weekly for formative assessments. There are a few different ways to organize your discussion boards. Depending on the subject matter, you may want to create a single thread and have students respond directly to the thread. Or you may want to allow students to create their own threads within a forum. Have students post an initial response, but also require them to respond to classmates. It’s also important for you to participate regularly on these boards to build instructor presence—but you can quickly develop a bank of generic comments that can be repurposed. 
  • I use discussion boards in a variety of ways, including peer review on assignments and essays and for discussions that we would normally have in a classroom setting. Using discussion boards is pretty easy for most students, and grading them is pretty easy for you. Create a simple rubric with your expectations. Here is an example from my online Connecting with Ideas course: 

  • Think about how to organize your course as clearly as possible. I use weekly modules, open during the week we are working on them. These modules include links to the course documents, discussions, and assignments that students should focus on each week. All of my assignments are available under an “assignments” link, and all of my course documents are available under a “course documents” link, organized in folders by type of assignment.
  • In general, one discussion board assignment and one other assignment (such as homework, a lab report, or other assignment) should be enough to replicate what you did in a face-to-face class. Keep due dates regular and consistent so that students can plan ahead.

Be Creative and Use Your Resources

Again, using your existing syllabus and lesson plans as a guide, think about how you can meet the same outcomes in an online environment. Do you currently have group projects? So do I, and the online students really have fun with them. In the real world, many students will work on distributed teams, and giving an online group project is a great way to help them practice. You can set up different group discussions and even group Collaborate Live sessions in Blackboard; Canvas lets you set up entire sub-course sites for groups where they can have their own announcements and discussions. Here is an example of a critical edition website of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” that one English 211 student group created using Google Sites (shared with permission):

Do your students give speeches or presentations? Consider using Voice Thread or Flip Grid.  You can also use Flip Grid for discussions. I ask my students for their advice about tools—while I have not used this yet, for example, I would not be at all averse to having students create a TikTok video assignment.

For lectures, I’ve seen many of my colleagues use tools like Screencast-O-Matic or Powtoon. But I am more old school. I use PowerPoints that I created for my face-to-face classes and record narrative in PowerPoint 2016. I then export the presentation to video, upload it to YouTube, and voila! 

One note about YouTube presentations: try to keep your presentations under 15 minutes. Students seem to lose attention beyond that time frame. This may mean breaking up existing presentations into shorter ones. Recording a lecture like this is quick and easy--less than an hour from start to finish. I recommend avoiding specific due dates or saving all due dates for the last slide. It’s easy to record a new final slide with updated due dates each semester—then export to a new video. 

Here’s an example from my Survey of World Mythology class: 

If you have access to Office 365, you have a wonderful presentation tool in Microsoft Sway. A colleague showed me how to use Sway to create multi-media online lectures that are optimized for mobile phones. Adobe Spark is a similar program. Here’s an example of a presentation I created on the Maya for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology class (it took me about three hours).

While I teach humanities courses, thinking creatively can also apply to science courses. For example, my oldest son is in the final semester of his college physics program, and his college made the sudden decision to move everything online. He’s most concerned about his lab circuits class, but his professor is already exploring ideas like getting each student an Arduino to work on at home. I have a feeling that in the current climate, if you have a solid proposal for something like this, administrators are definitely likely to consider your requests.

Finally, the website Amazing School Resources is collecting a wide range of free educational resources to use in online classrooms. You can access the list here:

In conclusion, you can do this. Make sure you reach out to colleagues and to your institution’s instructional designers (and be patient with them during this time because I am sure they are slammed). Whenever I have a question about how to move something from a face-to-face to an online environment, our college’s instructional designers have provided excellent suggestions and resources, including many of the things I shared above. Program chairs should consider creating a professional development site in your LMS and using a dedicated discussion forum to share assignments and resources (our wonderful program chair already does this, and it’s a lifesaver!). I know many of my colleagues who teach online are more than eager to offer resources and support.

The last bit of advice I have comes from research on growthmindset, something that we all can now model for our students. Many of us have negative ideas about online teaching. But this modality has undeniable benefits. Without online education, I could not have earned my doctorate as a working single mother of four children. Online education means access. It means opportunity. And when done intentionally and with students at the center, online education can definitely mean success. The future of education is now—and it doesn’t have to be dystopian, for teachers or for our students.

If you have other ideas or resources to share, I would really appreciate you linking to them in the comments.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Is This Mic on?

Why I went an entire year without posting to my blog

Well, I mean, no one reads your blog anyway, right?
A year ago today in 2018, I was fidgeting on the examination table at my ob/gyn’s office, a paper drape wrapped awkwardly around my legs. I take these women ‘s health things pretty seriously; in 2012, I was diagnosed with Stage 0 cervical cancer (or carcinoma in situ), which really isn’t as serious as it sounds, but when you’ve just lost your job and your health insurance like I had, anything with the word “cancer” can seem pretty darn scary. I had avoided the dreaded pap smear for six years, too busy trying to balance work and four young children as a single mother, and who had time for self-care, let alone self-health-care?

(Planned Parenthood saved my life. The outpatient surgery was a fraction of the cost at their non-abortion performing clinic compared with other local providers, and they told me to pay “whatever you can, whenever you can.” Just a few weeks later, I had another, better job and health insurance).

Back to 2018. The perky medical assistant wheeled up the EMR cart and said, “I’m going to ask you a few questions about your health.” Sure. Standard stuff.

Then she asked, “Have you noticed a reduced interest in doing things that you normally enjoy?”

The question took me aback. This was a gynecological exam. The etymological history of the word hysteria aside, what did my mood have to do with my uterus?

“Yes,” I responded honestly.

“Are you feeling down, depressed, or hopeless? Have you felt that way for more than two weeks?”

“Yes,” I replied, “But it’s situational.”

And that situational depression—its causes and effects—is the reason I haven’t posted to my blog for a year. The situation involves a loved one, and that loved one has a medical condition for which the main treatment method involves the word “anonymous.” We don’t talk about it. We certainly don’t write about it.

After I continued to respond “yes” to each question on a nine-item depression screening instrument, the medical assistant stepped out to consult with my nurse practitioner who came into the room with a concerned smile.

“It’s situational,” I told her.

“I get that,” she said. “How long has this situation been affecting you?”

When did I stop hearing birdsong?

Was it in October, as the leaves changed colors and fell to the earth, as I grieved my dead father?

Certainly, the “situation” was serious by November, when I was a keynote speaker for the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health annual conference. It took everything I had to pull on nylons, slip into my red power dress and navy blue jacket, step on a stage in Houston in front of hundreds of passionate, powerful mental health advocates, and share my family’s story. All I wanted to do then was to sleep—permanently. I felt like a fraud.

Everywhere I went in Houston during that trip, I saw ghosts. In the tunnels, my father, who worked at One Shell Plaza. In the public library, my teenage self, poring over microfiche news clippings about T.E. Lawrence’s death (my first published article, in Brigham Young University’s Insight Magazine, was about Lawrence of Arabia and the problem of modern heroism). In the theater district, my first love, turning to me with bright eyes at the fountains beside the Wortham Center after we saw Prokofiev’s Cinderella on my 18th birthday.

No, if I was being honest, the “situation” and my inability to function at normal levels was probably earlier than that—September 2018, the start of a new term, when I was eligible to apply for promotion but simply could not see how I deserved it. What was the point of gathering student evaluations? How could I possibly write a narrative highlighting my accomplishments in the classroom when I myself could not see them? Wasn’t I just a burden to everyone?

In hindsight, I think that at least subconsciously, I sensed some of the warning signs that summer, and I tried to take proactive measures. I stopped drinking in early 2018 and will never go back. I resumed my regular yoga practice, lying in corpse pose after a strenuous daily vinyasa flow.

In hindsight, it wasn’t enough.

I was first diagnosed with depression in my senior year of college, and the illness nearly derailed me. With medication, therapy, and incredibly supportive friends and family, I was able to persevere and recover, graduating on time.

When depression struck again during my third pregnancy, I was forced to confront the fact that my mental health condition might be chronic. Once again, medication—a risk during pregnancy but a necessary one—stabilized me.

Before my divorce in 2008, as my marriage was ending, I reached a crisis point (I talked about this turning point and stepping away from suicidal ideation in a 2018 Story Story Night performance about semicolons). Yet once I was on my own, despite the challenges, I felt tremendous gratitude for my life, for second chances, for my beautiful children. During the years that my son was sick, I focused my energy on caring for him, and I am so proud of the man he is becoming today. I was grateful for the opportunities that both Eric and I had to share our stories of hope and recovery. Eric's awesome TEDx Boise talk has way more views than mine (I call that a definite mom win!).

But as a mental health advocate, I hate to admit that I grew complacent during that ten-year reprieve about my own mental health.

When did I stop hearing birdsong? All that I know is this: by the time I took the stage in Houston, I was moving slowly through muffled, suffocating silence. The air pressed on my skin, creeping, crawling. I could not escape. What if the worst thing happens? I thought. What is the worst thing?

I survived. Then December 2018 came. The second week of December, when I lost hope, again, forever.

I have to be vague because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my years of advocacy, it’s that our stories have boundaries. Where does my story end and where does yours begin? If you want to remain anonymous, do I need to remain silent too? What am I allowed to say? 

I’ve decided after a year of silence that I can talk about myself—my own experiences. I can say that in the second week of December 2018, I felt numb, grey, beyond hopeless, because being hopeless would require a knowledge of its opposite, hope, and those were just four letters on a page to me, like love, like self. These words had lost their meaning. In my experience with depression, everything is spoken and heard through thick cotton. Colors fade. Sleep disappears. Food has no taste. If there are birds, they do not sing.

I can say that this depressive episode was situational, but I cannot talk about the situation because stories have boundaries, and words have consequences. I know this more than most people.

I hate December. In my case, the consequences of sharing stories have involved my worst fears: the loss of my children.

In the second week of December 2018, I had 48 hours to find a new place to live. Thanks to white privilege and a good credit score, I was able to do this. And so there I was in my ob-gyn’s office on the last day of December, flunking a nine-question depression screening.

In 2014, after my book The Price of Silence: A Mom’sPerspective on Mental Illness was published, I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet with David Pate, then CEO of St. Luke’s, the largest healthcare provider in Idaho. He asked me, “If you could make one change to our current healthcare model that would promote mental health, what would you do?” 

I answered without hesitation. “Work mental health screenings into all physical wellness check-ups, from pediatrics on up,” I said. Of course, there are numerous other things we can do—more hospital beds for psychiatric care, integrated models of mental and physical health care, etc. But access to care all starts with knowledge and normalization.

And here I was, four years later, at a St. Luke’s women’s health clinic, experiencing the integration of a mental health screening in my own physical wellness check-up.

“It’s situational,” I told my nurse practitioner. “It will pass.”

“But you don’t have to live like this right now,” she replied. She touched my arm gently and I burst into tears. Not because I was sad—my depression is not sadness. Touch—any touch—was painfully intrusive.

She prescribed antidepressant medication, the same one I had taken during my two previous episodes. The medication worked—I could function again—but I didn’t feel like myself. I was productive but still emotionless, an automaton. I could sleep and eat again, but I still couldn’t hear the songs of birds.

“Let’s try something different,” she said.

We did. And the second medication worked. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was discovering a new language—the language of the birds. They were singing to me, warbling the forgotten words: hope, love, self, okay. I was okay.

I have become acutely attenuated to birdsong.

I have almost completed my promotion packet. Reflecting on my Fall 2018 semester has instilled me with a sense of humility and gratitude that makes me a better teacher.

I have accepted that the nameless heartbreak of December 2018 has become a part of me. 
The past can’t be fixed, but the future is interesting to me again. I want to try.

The "situation" is still a major part of my life, and it’s still anonymous, but I am trying to find ways to reclaim my own voice. And I’m trying to appreciate this opportunity to practice radical compassion. I’ve realized that these efforts will be the work of a lifetime and that as long as some mental health conditions continue to require silence and shame, our work as advocates must continue.

Mental health is physical health. In 2020, we have work to do.  

To be fair, I did write a lot in 2019, just not for my personal blog. I continue to blog regularly for One in Five, an amazing organization dedicated to children's mental health, and I still write occasionally for Eagle Magazine and  Greenbelt Magazine. I also had my first short story, "Jesus, Take the Wheel," accepted for publication in the 2019 Writers in the Attic "Fuel" anthology from the Cabin. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

American Dreams

Image from 

Why Voting Blue Is the Right Thing to Do for Compassionate Conservative Republican Women

If you ask me why I’m a registered Republican, I can answer with two words: liberty and opportunity. For me, since I was young, liberty and opportunity have been my definition of the American Dream.

While I identify with traditional conservatives on many issues like free trade and disdain for big government, I also consider myself socially liberal, with justice as my main political concern. The truth is, like most Americans, I am actually somewhere in the center, and my values reflect that centrist, moderate approach. I have never voted straight ticket anything. I have always researched the issues and candidates and voted my conscience. In recent presidential elections, this meant a very tough decision to vote for Barack Obama over John McCain in 2008, a relatively easy decision to support Mitt Romney over President Obama in 2012, and a privilege and honor to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016.

My concern for justice and equity meant that I never excused Hillary’s husband Bill’s abhorrent affair with a White House intern, the cover up of which led to his impeachment. I never saw that affair as anything other than what it was: an abuse of power. And I felt betrayed by the feminists who seemed willing to make a bargain with the devil—“but he’s so good on women’s issues!” They were willing to sacrifice one young woman for what they thought was the greater good, an unacceptable sacrifice.

But Donald Trump brags about sexual assault. He seems to sincerely believe that he is entitled to women’s bodies, promoting the false narrative that men are actually the victims of the #metoo movement. As a survivor myself (who has no interest in sharing my story with the world), I am dumbstruck by the lengths to which men like Trump will go to protect their “rights” to control women’s bodies and personal liberty.

With this background, I was actually grateful for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court because we now have absolutely no doubt what the Republican Party thinks about women. Like most women I know, I absolutely believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. I am 100% certain that her memory of her assault at Brett Kavanaugh’s hands is accurate. I think most of the Republican senators who voted to confirm Kavanaugh believe her too.

So there it is. There’s no mistaking what happened here: when it comes down to he said/she said, no matter how credible she is, he’s the one who wins.

And really, isn’t that what the Founding Fathers intended? The world we live in now—a world where straight, white, rich men control everyone else—is exactly the world that they and their constitution intended to make.

The American Dream was never about liberty and opportunity for women or minorities or poor people. In America, liberty and opportunity—a few inconvenient constitutional amendments notwithstanding—belong only to rich white men. And—a few inconvenient constitutional amendments notwithstanding--that’s who is still in charge.

This country was born from resentment: no taxation without representation. Well, “we the people,” the majority of us, are not represented by the Republicans in charge today.

The messages of the 2016 presidential election and the Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation are clear: when it comes to “we, the people,” the system is broken.  

So here’s where this college-educated, Republican woman stands on this election day. I refuse to be one of the 53% of white women who is willing to trade my support for amorality and greed in exchange for the dubious privilege of remaining on the pedestal where Paul Ryan and his kind want to put me. I also refuse to condemn Susan Collins for a vote that literally any other Republican man could have cancelled by believing women.

This election is not about who has a brighter vision for all Americans. It’s about checking and balancing evil. 

Candidly, I don’t like Democratic socialism. I don’t believe that big government is the answer to the myriad problems facing society. I could spend a whole essay explaining how I prefer Universal Basic Income and a transparent healthcare marketplace with catastrophic coverage to “the government” providing these services.

But I will vote blue until these rich, entitled white men are gone. Because as long as they are in charge, there’s no American Dream for the rest of us.