ShapingEDU Winter Games: Making Sense and Making Music IRL

January 8, 2021

There is no going back; there is only going forward, a panelist suggested during the opening keynote event on Day Two (yesterday) of the Arizona State University ShapingEDU three-day Winter Games conference for dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And, like much of what we heard, saw, and experienced yesterday, those words were, before the day was over, provoking entirely different thoughts than what the speaker had intended when he voiced them during a dynamic, thoughtful, and wide-ranging discussion of “The Future of Sports and Entertainment.”

One central element of that panel discussion was a series of reflections on how the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the current coronavirus pandemic are continuing to force major adjustments regarding how teams and fans interact, and regarding how technology is providing possibilities, short- and long-term, that weren’t much under consideration before the pandemic began—virtual interactions between players and fans, apps that extend the experiences of the games themselves, and virtual gatherings of fans who are geographically dispersed.

Where the pandemic erected barriers, creativity (and tragedy and necessity) fostered innovation. When it became impossible for fans and teams to be together onsite, many—including panelists Robert Mathews; Collaboration Strategist, AVI Systems; Rick Schantz, Head Coach, Phoenix Rising FC; Mark Feller, VP of Technology, Arizona Cardinals; Salvatore Galatioto, President of Galatioto Sports Partners; and Stephen Rusche, Sr. Director, Smart Communities, COX Communications—immediately began engaging in large-scale rethinking. Followed by innovation. Followed by success stories that are already creating a new normal. And, possibly, to be followed—in the months and years ahead of us—by a long-lasting new-and-better normal. One that combines the best of what we had with the best of what we are developing during the pandemic.

Which pretty much carries us to a theme flowing through much of what the “digital immersive experiences” of the Winter Games has offered: the idea that, in digital-age lifelong learning, we are experiencing massive shifts caused by situations many of us were too comfortable to anticipate or acknowledge, and to which we now are responding—sometimes creatively and sometimes successfully—with innovations that are well worth nurturing and preserving after the need for social distancing becomes less necessary.

A highly-interactive session later that morning—ShapingEDU Storyteller in Residence Tom Haymes’ “Learn at Your Own Risk: A Hackathon for Navigating the Post-Pandemic Slope and Skiing Into the Digital Age of Learning” —took us a significant step farther down that path of designing and exploring a new and better normal. Built on the theme of nine strategies for thriving in a pandemic and beyond (drawn from his newly-released book (Learn at Your Own Risk), the hackathon engaged session participants through interactions within an online collaborative tool to help us see how we could apply those strategies, to the benefit of our learners, within our own teaching environments.

“Systems shape our behavior” and “our behavior shapes systems,” Haymes observed at one point, and those words, like the sports panelist’s remark about looking forward rather than back, seemed unintentionally prescient less than a few hours later…because that’s when many of us, during a scheduled break in the Winter Games conference, became aware of and tried to make sense of the actions of the seditionists who had forced their way through the meager and ineffectual security forces in our nation’s Capitol and had temporarily disrupted our legislature’s attempt to formally count and certify the votes cast through the Electoral College.

It’s impossible to try to capture even a small portion of all the thoughts and emotions we had during that three-hour mid-day break. I am, however, left with the memory of one stunning contrast in terms of reactions I observed. Away from the Winter Games (in the sense that I was talking with my wife and absorbing news reports), I was skimming email messages and came across a notice that, because of what was happening in Washington, DC, a local San Francisco Bay Area bookseller I very much admire was cancelling an online author event that was to be held that evening—a decision with which I have no disagreement because it was the right decision for the community served by that bookseller. In contrast, moments later, I was back online with others in the ShapingEDU community at the scheduled time for the resumption of the Winter Games conference. Because I knew that this was a community that would see, in the act of moving ahead as planned rather than postponing or cancelling our interactions, a reaffirmation of all that is at the core of our community. A commitment to working together. To finding solace and encouragement by remaining together during this latest time of national tragedy. And to thinking about all we had been hearing, seeing, and doing together—looking toward and helping shape the future rather than being frozen by looking back. Considering how systems and behavior are interwoven and equally important elements in our efforts to foster positive change among ourselves, our communities, and those we serve.

In that moment during which divisiveness was on display in all its ugliness in our national capital, we couldn’t miss the irony—nor could we have been any more appreciative—of the fact that the Winter Games session we were about to attend together was centered on the theme of inclusivity. Nor could we have been more appreciative for the realization that we were about to hear about and explore possibilities for healing ourselves through that session, facilitated by Alycia Anderson, on the power of inclusivity. But most stunning of all—in the most positive of ways—was the ease with which one of our community leaders and Winter Games organizers, Samantha Becker, stepped up to the plate to introduce that session. She immediately acknowledged what was happening in the Capitol. How the situation was touching each of us in the most personal and emotional ways possible. And how, through what we do, we continue to light and carry the equivalent of an Olympic-sized torch to light the way toward the bright future to which our community is so strongly committed. It was yet another in an enormously long list of moments in which I’ve been proud to be part of the ShapingEDU community.  Inspired by people like Anderson who join us in an effort to help us broaden our horizons and remember the importance of what we are doing. And (somewhat) hopeful, even in our darkest moments, that we might continue looking forward and improving our systems and our behavior in ways that lift to one step closer to living up to our highest and most cherished ideals.

You would think, after all of that (including the very moving presentation Anderson offered us in that tremendous moment of need), that we would be ready to call it a day. But no. As is a tradition within our nearly four-year-old community of dreamers-doers-drivers, we weren’t quite done with each other yet. So we moved into the final event of the day—a stunningly positive online concert featuring seven tremendously diverse musicians who not only reminded us of the importance of the arts in our lives, but demonstrated, through their adaptability, the innovative way our artists are responding to the challenges and changes caused by the pandemic. The performers very effectively dealt with Zoom-as-a-concert venue from the beginning segment (which featured a series of one-song-per-artist performances in our main virtual concert hall); into a second segment where were able to follow a few individual performers into breakout rooms that served as smaller, more intimate recital halls for short sets; and then back into the main hall for activities that culminated in a final set of one-song-per-artist performances by each musician. And it was through this very effective combination of live music online and the social connections fostered among audience members who communicated through Zoom’s typed-chat function that the session became so much more than it might otherwise have been. A musical event. A chance for the same sort of online interactions many of us have during evening events at onsite conferences. And a chance, using and observing the technology, to be immersed in and simultaneously step back from the environment to see what it was providing.

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“I’ve had the honor of seeing [him] play this IRL,” one colleague observed in a comment via chat near the end of the evening. “And it’s awesome in any format.”

“I love the reference to ‘in real life,’” I immediately responded as if we were chatting across a table in a coffee house where musicians were performing, and I was thinking again of how the pandemic has inspired us to redefine what we see as “in real life.”

Is it only physical, face-to-face interactions, as some continue to assume without considering how our world is rapidly evolving? Or has “in real life” matured to the point where we can see our blending of onsite and online interactions as a magnificent opportunity to interact in almost magical, mystical ways, that have never before been possible in sports, the arts, and lifelong learning?

I look at my three-day in-real-life experiences at the Winter Games—which I’ll continue to describe in my next post, covering Day 3—and at all the small and large transformations the experiences are nurturing within me and other members of the community. And I’m inspired to continue looking forward. Trying to make sense of what I see. Hungry to make music and foster positive change at every possible level. And committed to helping shape a brilliant future in collaboration with these cherished members of our community and anyone one who wants to join us on this journey.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-seventh in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the second in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU Winter Games.


ShapingEDU Winter Games: We Tune Because We Care

January 6, 2021

With my head exploding from a week’s worth of thoughtful, transformative experiences packed into a single day, at least one thing is clear to me: If we were to diligently look for communities that have rapidly evolved and managed to thrive during the current coronavirus pandemic while remaining grounded in their core work and values, we would have to place Arizona State University’s ShapingEDU at or near the summit.

The community opened its first-ever three-day “digital immersive experience” of Winter Games earlier today—an ambitiously innovative set of offerings designed for “an international community of changemakers (educator leaders, smart city experts, students, faculty and technologists) engaged in a breadth of activities designed to surface the best in emerging approaches for shaping the future of smart campuses, cities and education—during and after the pandemic.” And you would have had to have been completely immobilized, beneath an avalanche, to have been left feeling unmoved.

This is a community that, because of its ever-growing membership—more than 4,000 members, most acquired during the past seven months—and its commitment to exploring and adapting to change, was well-positioned at the beginning of the pandemic to shift a mostly-onsite conference into a completely online conference—while that conference was in progress. It’s a community that, a few months later, saw (in the shelter-in-place social distancing guidelines implemented in response to the pandemic) an opportunity to innovate, so came up with and produced a week-long campy virtual summer camp—Learning(Hu)Man—for dreamer-driver-doers committed to shaping the future of learning in the digital age. And it is the community that brought nearly 1,200 of us together today in yet another online convocation that rivals the best of anything I have ever experienced in onsite or online gatherings.

I knew, even before taking advantage of an extended lunch break, that Day 1 of the Winter Games was going to be another transformative experience for me and for the other teacher-trainer-learners who form the core of this community of dreamer-driver-doers. And when the activities resumed mid-afternoon Pacific Time (as opposed to mid-morning “tomorrow” for those colleagues and presenters on the other side of the world—including singer-songwriter Biddy Healey, participating live from Australia), I was even more energized and inspired by the combination of an hour-long social event that continued the Winter Games conversations and the subsequent, more formal, early-evening panel discussion that was conducted in a way that fostered the creation and strengthening of connections. Connections between the panelists and those watching/listening to the panel. Connections between viewers/listeners who contributed to what the panelists offered. And connections between viewers/listeners who used the online chat function to reach out to each other to initiate conversations that will continue long after the formal three-day event ends and have positive impacts of members of the communities we serve. For connections are what ShapingEDU and the Winter Games are all about.

It’s simply that kind of community and that sort of event: the preparation and the follow-up are as important as what transpires during the run of the event itself.

This was a virtual gathering that began the day at the top of the virtual ski slopes and never really stopped so we could catch our breath. The “Opening Ceremony + Olympic Keynote” (“Learning Futures: Designing the Horizon”) brought us together with a trio of engaging, forward-thinking educators from Arizona State University: Dr. Sean Leahy, Director of Technology Initiatives, MaryLou Fulton Teachers College; Dr. Punya Mishra, Associate Dean and Professor, Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College; and Jodie Donner, Lead Technology Strategist and Head of IgnitED Labs. The thoughts were so rich, the resources so numerous, that we could (and should) spend several days reviewing notes, following links to the resources cited, and broadening our view of our world by reading and absorbing the reports and texts on websites as diverse as those representing the Future Today Institute, Arizona State University’s Learning Futures Collaboratory and IgnitED Labs (the latter a project that pivoted magnificently from onsite to online environments without giving up its commitment to hands-on learning experiences in pursuit of technology, creativity, and learning), and many others that you can learn about through the archived recording of the session. (The fact that the archived recording was already posted online on the ShapingEDU Community YouTube channel before the end of the day, and that a lovely, playful 3.5-minute “View from the Chair Life: Tuesday Evening Recap” was among several other videos on that same channel before mid-evening, is yet another sign of how efficiently and effectively this community functions.)

“We are not predicting the future,” Leahy said at one point in a comment capturing a theme running through much of what I saw and heard. “We are designing in a principled manner to build resilient educational systems to address that uncertainty.”

Moving to a different part of the Winter Games slopes for the first of two mid-morning break-out sessions I attended, I was completely taken by what CoSN (the Consortium for School Networking) CEO Keith Krueger and Technology Innovation Design Entrepreneurship Sustainability Coordinator Kim Flintoff provided—both intentionally and unintentionally—provided during their 45-minute Innovating the Future of Learning: Schussing Downhill With Driving K-12 Innovation session. The intentional offering included a wonderful preview of CoSN’s 2021 Driving K-12 Innovation report, which is scheduled for formal release before the end of this month. The report, a summary of which is available online, includes a survey of hurdles (digital equity, scaling & sustaining innovation, and evolution of teaching & learning), accelerators (personalization, social & emotional learning, and learner autonomy), and tech enablers (digital collaboration environments, untether broadband & connectivity, and blended learning tools) to the expansion of the use of technology in K-12 learning environments. The unintentional offering—at least for me—was the reminder, as I absorbed these observations about a part of the learning sector I don’t normally visit, of how much overlap there is between the hurdles, accelerators, and tech enablers in that sector and other sectors with which I am much more familiar in my overall lifelong-learning environment. And, again, it reminds me of the gift ShapingEDU provides by bringing such a diverse group of lifelong learners together for an exchange of ideas that we, in turn, will help disseminate through conversations, presentations, and posts such as the one you are reading—to the benefit of those we serve.

Rejoining the Winter Games for the mid-afternoon “Fireside Chat: State of the Smart Region” social hour brought yet another set of surprises—not the least of which was how smoothly event organizers combined an informal conversation about how The Connective—a consortium of 23 city, town, and county local governments organizations collaboratively creating the nation’s largest and most connected Smart Region—with a live musical performance that was seamlessly interwoven with, rather than being a diversion from, the offerings of the Winter Games. As we made the transition from Smart Regions to what event organizers described as “part entertainment and part exploration of the event’s themes,” singer/songwriter Biddy Healey began a live online performance of solo-acoustic versions of a few of the songs from her recently-released album Salt River Bed (recorded with a nine-member band) and one new song that has not yet been recorded. Her rendition of “Patterns of Your Mind,” a song directed to someone lost to Alzheimer’s, was so hauntingly beautiful and meaningful to anyone who has experienced or is experiencing that loss that it immediately becomes something we want to be singing to our own lost loved ones; and it’s true to the spirit of commitment ShapingEDU community members have to individuals/learners in a world where technology often seems to be given precedence over people/learners. And her rendition of the new song about a stolen river—Australia’s Murray-Darling, where “more than 2 trillion litres of water…has gone missing”—became, in this context, much more than a song about a river; it perfectly captured the challenges we all face in so many of the “rivers” we traverse. And a great call to action for those of us in the ShapingEDU community.

So many wonderful moments. So much to absorb. So much to do. Yet through all of this inspiration, it is, perhaps, one of the most unplanned and, therefore, most unrehearsed moments that stays with me at the end of Day 1 of the Winter Games. That moment when Healey, between songs, stopped long enough to tune her guitar and apologize for its having gone out of tune because of the heat there in Australia. At which point one of the Winter Games participants (Deputy CIO and BI Strategist at Arizona State University John Rome) responded, via the online chat, “We tune because we care.” Which, for me, captures the spirit of how ShapingEDU community members thrive by continually tuning every figurative instrument we encounter and every situation we face: because we care.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-sixth in a series of reflections inspired by colleagues’ reactions to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place experiences, and the first in a series of posts inspired by the ShapingEDU 2021Winter Games.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Living With and Through Virtual Concerts

October 30, 2020

Set aside for a moment the claims and fears that pandemic-induced social-distancing is making it impossible for us to engage in some of life’s greatest pleasures. Forget the unfounded claims that live, “face-to-face” performance and other activities (e.g., learning together or collaborating for social change) are hibernating until we can once again safely gather in physical spaces.

Think, instead, of the best experiences we have had when drawn together for live performance.  A curtain rises. A performer or ensemble of performers remains quietly poised, in that tension-filled silence before the music or play or evening of improvisational comedy begins. It is a moment full of possibilities. A harbinger of unexpected, unpredictable surprises—sometimes as much for the performers as for those of us gathered as an audience present at the moment of creation. An invitation—and a mandate—to set everything else aside. For an hour or two. In exchange for an opportunity to be part of an audience carried into a transcendent experience. Through art and artistry.

It is a reminder that when members of communities overcome challenges and creatively seek/find ways to gather for performances (or learning or fostering social change), their communities thrive, regardless of the challenges they face outside of the performance (or learning or collaboration) space.

Three virtual concerts—two by Roy Zimmerman, the other by Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir—over the past week again bring home for me, at the most visceral of all possible levels, the power of shared experiences within virtual communities. The online, ticketed events also highlight the inspirational levels of creativity, passion, and adaptability which are helping us reshape—at least temporarily—a world much different than the one in which many of us were living a year ago. And they show how a commitment to being responsive to audience needs and unexpected technical glitches enhance rather than diminish these efforts to create new opportunities in a time of tremendous challenges.

A point to be emphasized here: Zimmerman and members of the Phoenix Chamber Choir are not trying solely to find a substitute for the live face-to-face performances they have been presenting for more than two decades. They are, at significant levels, asking what we can do to keep art, artistry, and community vibrant in a time of social distancing. The results, frankly, are opportunities that I hope will continue to exist long after social-distancing stops governing and limiting what we are able to do within our communities. In the meantime, the creative “face to face” online approach they are taking is providing unique opportunities that are socially, emotionally, and artistically rewarding at many levels.  

Zimmerman’s first online ticketed event, set for October 21, 2020 and then rescheduled for October 23, showed resilience in action—and the results of more than two decades of preparation through recordings and live, onsite performances; the preparation also clearly included the series of shorter, free, online sessions he had been doing regularly on YouTube and Facebook since summer 2020 to further hone his online presence and learn how to deal with, overcome, and, with his signature sense of humor, embrace part of the online performance experience. The October 21 event began as scheduled at 6 pm Pacific Time…and then came to a halt minutes later when messages from several of us let him know that we were unable to access that live performance. His co-writer/wife, Melanie Harby, was monitoring and quickly responding to incoming comments, so the show-that-wasn’t-a-show was halted while the two of them tried—unsuccessfully—to resolve the problems. To their credit (and our benefit), they made the decision to postpone that performance and offer members of their community a few options: receive a refund; join, at no additional charge, a rescheduled show two days later at the same time of day; and/or receive a link to an archived recording of whatever live show emerged if the time for the rescheduled show wasn’t convenient.

Joining the performance that Friday evening, I was able to set aside the temporary disappointment of the postponed performance; enjoy the live, virtual concert as much as I have enjoyed any live, onsite performance I have ever seen; and, thanks to his consummate ability to engage audiences live onsite as well as online, was drawn into those wonderfully playful moments when he encouraged all of us to sing—from our own homes, as if we were all in the same room—the refrains from a couple of his more popular songs that have received tens of thousands of views (and in one case—the original version of “The Liar Tweets Tonight (Vote Him Away)”— nearly 10 million views) online.

There was, for those of us captivated by the spirit of the event, humor on top of humor on top of humor…and engagement: laughing at/with him and at/with ourselves over the idea that we were singing “together” even though none of us could see or hear anyone other than Zimmerman; laughing when he jokingly teased us because he couldn’t hear us, just as he and so many others have teased audiences face to face when sing-alongs initially produced less than rousing responses from reluctant audience members; and even laughing at ourselves for singing “alone together” within physical spaces that were not quite virtually connected in any real sense of the world “connection,” but were offering the sense of connection fostered through comments we made to him and to each other through the live chat window. No, it wasn’t the same as being part of a live, onsite performance. But then again, it wasn’t meant to be. What it actually had become was a best-under-the-circumstances response to a world that seemed hell-bent on keeping us apart while we remained hell-bent on finding ways to be “together” in any way we could be. And by the end of the evening and the follow-up one-hour live virtual performance I attended earlier this evening, I was as happy and as inspired as I have ever been through the experience of being drawn together onsite with others through art and artistry.

The Phoenix “live” event carried similar unexpected tech challenges and, ultimately, the same positive sense of having been drawn together with rather than (socially) distanced from others through art and artistry as the result of the creative, audience-centered, highly-responsive approach taken by members of that Phoenix Chamber Choir family—including seeking solutions for those of us who had difficulties accessing the program. Just as Zimmerman seems to be building upon his experimental short “Live from the Left Coast” sessions on YouTube and Facebook, Phoenix members seem to be building upon—and growing creatively/artistically as a result of experimenting with—the pandemic, shelter-in-place-inspired parodies they have created and posted online this year. These are not stop-gap, let’s kill time until we can perform together again productions; they are invitations to engagement every bit as inspiring, far-reaching, and moving as anything I have ever seen/heard in physical settings for performances.

Their “Gathering Together” concert, the first in their 2020-2021 (virtual) season, featured “music from around the world, sung by singers from around the city [Vancouver]…to reflect this new chapter of choral singing,” they note on their website. It was an engaging example of how to create a virtual live performance that combined, through masterful editing, live performances from choir members; brief introductions to the music and to the performers themselves; and photography that was seamlessly interwoven into parts of the performance. We were drawn further into their/our Phoenix community through those moments when we were reminded that choir members include doctors, paramedics, teachers/music educators, a speech-language pathologist, an arts administrator, a librarian, a student, and a sous chef—all drawn together by their love of singing music from around the world, from a wide range of time periods.

The same playfulness that is evident in their parody videos was evident up front (through the song “Seven Days of the Week (On Mondays I Never Go to Work)” and at the end (through a pandemic,shelter-in-place-inspired parody of “Part of Your World,” from The Little Mermaid). Between those opening and closing segments, there were numerous other moments of tremendous engagement and artistry. Admitting straight up that each of us approaches music and other art forms with our own preferences and expectations firmly in place, I have to say that the inclusion of two songs I have always adored—Maurice Duruflé’s “Ubi Caritas,” with an opening line translated—from Latin to English—by a choir member as “Where charity and love are, there God is,” and the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ Lakmé went a long way in further dispelling the notion that online experiences can somehow never match onsite experiences.  Both pieces were performed so lovingly, so tenderly, and so exquisitely that I have to admit I’ve never been more moved by them.

Attending a live performances or other live event, for many of us, produces one of those extended, timeless “moments” and experiences that would seem to be lost to us during the current pandemic, with its shelter-in-place guidelines. But, as those three performances suggest, that experience is far from gone or even dormant. It, too, is simply evolving into another pandemic-inspired opportunity for us to work toward creating a new and better normal. And we can be thankful to our artists for their willingness to invite us along as joyful co-conspirators in that process.

A post-script: in the process of completing and posting this piece on my blog a few hours after attending Zimmerman’s latest Friday evening “Live From the Left Coast” performance, I realized I was unintentionally creating the virtual version of a common post-performance activity—reliving the experience with friends, including some who weren’t present for the initial event. If any of us who attended the performances or manage to experience them through archived recordings engage in follow-up conversations, we will have carried this evolving experiment in pandemic-collaboration-through-virtual-performance a step further…and built upon what our artists are helping to create.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-fourth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Knives, Lightning, and Awe

October 20, 2020

Sometimes the real gift is hidden deeply within the gift we think we have received—or the tragedy we have experienced.

A case in point: a few years ago, a friend gave me a couple of beautiful, exquisitely crafted knives far sharper and far more beautiful than any I had ever owned. Because I love to cook and because I love working with good-quality tools, I immediately fell in love with those knives and looked for opportunities to use them as often as I could. But the more significant gift, it turns out, was something included with the knives, not the knives themselves: a simple sheet of instructions emphasizing the benefits of sharpening those knives after each use rather than sporadically.

So, like any good trainer-teacher-learner, I adopted that tip and applied it to all the terribly-dull, far-less-efficient knives we own. And, after months of after-each-use sharpening, I had an entire kitchen full of knives that were far more useful—and required far more attention and caution if I wanted to avoid inadvertently slicing something I would rather not have sliced. And I also experience cherished, rekindled memories of this friend—who is no longer with us—every time I use the knives she gave me…and all the others I own. As if her spirit had become embedded within the knives themselves.

The often-unnoticed gift within a gift—and its corollary, the initially unnoticed (potential) tragedy within something that initially is pleasurable—is something that has been on my mind quite frequently this year. We have the gift of opportunity (the opportunity to build a “new and better normal”) mixed in with the terrible tragedy of the losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic and our radically-different environment resulting from the shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to that pandemic. We have the pandemic-inspired opportunity to better explore and use our online resources in response to the sense of social isolation many of us are feeling while continuing to follow modified shelter-in-place guidelines.

And, for those of us who find comfort and inspiration (in challenging times) in the work of writers, musicians, and other artists we admire, we have the gift of finding ourselves able to carve out time to revisit that work—and finding the work of additional writers, musicians, and other artists—because of some of the experiences we are currently having.

Scott Russell Sanders

This becomes completely circular for me through what I continue to see as an ever-expanding “extended pandemic/wildfire moment” that began a couple of months ago during an hours-long bombardment of lightning and thunder here in the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of California. My initial reaction to the pre-dawn visual and audible bursts was a rekindling of a sense of awe—a rekindling that sent me back to Scott Russell Sanders’ memories (in his book A Private History of Awe) of being a four-year-old and feeling awe at the sight of lightning striking and splitting a beautiful old oak. The lightning filled me with a positive sense of awe; the wildfires that spread rapidly over the subsequent days and weeks grounded me in a sense of loss and grief I hadn’t been astute enough to anticipate initially. And, in the middle of the grief and loss friends and so many others experienced from the wildfires, I found a bit of comfort in re-exploring Sanders’ work and absorbing much more of it than I had ever before taken the time to read.

The result, as I devoured his most recent collection—The Way of Imagination—was to more fully and viscerally immerse myself into the idea of lightning as a metaphor for creativity/creation/acts of creation. As a force that lights our nights. And as a force that carries the potential for and reality of tremendously devastating destruction. Something reminding us of by the double-edged sword of creativity and destruction, opportunity and loss.

Sanders’ richly complex and lyrically stunning body of work and the interviews he has given over a long period of time weave together all of that, and so much more. His appreciation for and love of nature. His commitment to place and community. His dedication to taking principled stands that are rooted in a belief that we should be looking far into the future to be sure what we do lays the most positive foundations for a future we can be proud of helping to create. And his invitation to us, as readers, to share the moments of awe and the moments of tragedy he and those around him have experienced during his own lifetime of writing about life, love, community, and place in ways that inspire us to join him for as much of that journey as we care to take with him.

The gifts are obvious, complex, and ever-expanding. We see the world through the eyes of one of our master storytellers. We feel a bit more connected to him and to the world he describes. We feel inspired by what he reveals and what he unleashes in us. And we feel a bit less isolated, less overwhelmed, than we might have felt without hm.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-third in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Virtual Collaborative Learning (and Doing) With ShapingEDU

October 16, 2020

Suzanne Lipsett, a writer I very much admired, insisted at the beginning of Surviving a Writer’s Life that what we do with our experiences—i.e., write about them—is as important as having those experiences in the first place.

Living and then sharing our lived experiences through storytelling is at the heart of the communities I most adore. I see it in my continuing interactions with colleagues in the #etmooc and #lrnchat communities. I consistently look forward to it within the context of the biweekly gatherings of Maurice Coleman’s T is for Training podcast community. It’s what keeps me connected to Jonathan Nalder’s FutureWe community. And it is an idea that resurfaced for me earlier this week—and, of course made me immediately want to write about it—when members of one of those communities (ShapingEDU) released a free online “Toolkit for Producing Collaborative Events to Shape the Future,” the third in a continuing series of online publications that celebrate what we accomplish together by documenting those successes.

Formally (and playfully) titled ASU [Arizona State University] ShapingED-YOU!, the ASU ShapingEDU toolkit follows the pattern employed in the earlier online resources: Stakeholder Inclusion Framework, an online inclusivity and access resource jointly produced with the Penn State CoAction Learning Lab to help those involved in the technology planning process, and a second ShapingEDU/CoAction Learning Lab collaborative resource, Building Effective Communities of Practice, which included contributions from more than 20 co-authors drawn from the ShapingEDU community and working together—often asynchronously—online. The publications, like the community itself, are dynamic examples of the commitment to playfulness and collaboration that runs through and nourishes this community of “dreamers, doers, and drivers shaping the future of learning in the Digital Age.”

More importantly, the publications and the ongoing work produced through ShapingEDU are tremendous, positive examples of how some communities entered this social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world creatively and positively and continue to thrive in spite of the tremendous challenges and tragedies we face every day. Thriving because of the commitment to positive action. To creativity. To playfulness. To collaboration. And to looking forward to creating a new and better future without ignoring a far-from-perfect past and present.

A glance at the table of contents for ASU ShapingED-YOU! sets the tenor for what awaits you. The publication begins with an introduction to this “value-led,” “action-oriented,” “community-driven” community’s work, and then focuses on two of the community’s most engaging, productive gatherings: the annual “unconference” which began as a yearly face-to-face working session to dream and drive and do before switching, in the middle of the 2020 unconference, to an online working session/virtual conference, and the newly-established online Learning(Hu)Man weeklong campy summer camp for teacher-trainer-learners exploring concrete possibilities for shaping the future of learning.

And that’s where the entire endeavor becomes tremendously, wonderfully, twistingly “meta” in the sense that the events themselves become examples of how creative blended communities can and are thriving as much because of the challenges they face as because of their commitment to exploring and addressing those challenges. Using both events as case studies, the writers of the toolkit begin with four “top tips”: “Identify your North Stars” in terms of what those guiding stars are for your event; “Foster Interaction” by creating “spaces and mechanisms for community members to connect”—connections are the center of the ShapingEDU universe; “Set Everyone up for Success” by setting expectations and making every possible effort to “empower the community with resources, templates, support systems and clear instructions”; and “Tell Your Story…though focused emails, social media, and multimedia” along with graphic facilitation as “a co-creation tool.”

The case study centered around the unconferences takes us engagingly through the process of setting the stage through interactive exercises before the events even begin: community members submitting questions/suggestions, community members being invited to serve as event participants/designers/facilitators—and much more. The importance of fostering high levels of face-to-face and/or online interactions that are meaningful to participants and conducive to achieving the concrete goals the gatherings are designed to pursue. And the need to end the gatherings with a significant, community-developed catalyzing action (e.g., a communique that serves as a roadmap for continuing collaboration) that offers everyone a clear view of how the event fits into the community’s long-term, results-oriented work.

Moving into the theme of “community camp” as a way to energize changemakers and catalyze action, the Learning(Hu)Man virtual summer camp becomes another inspiring story for any teacher-trainer-learner seeking ways to creatively foster productive, positive learning experiences within the learning communities we serve. The combination of tips, photos, screenshots, and descriptions provides a concise roadmap that can easily be adapted for use by a variety of educator-trainer-learning activists.

And, in the spirt of collaboration and resource-sharing that is at the heart of this publication, it concludes with an invitation to contact ShapingEDU community members for further information and opportunities for collaboration—which is, when you think about it, the greatest gift of all to anyone struggling to survive and thrive in a rapidly-changing topsy-turvy pandemic-driven world.

–N.B.: 1) This is the twenty-second in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences. 2) Paul is serving as one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021), which includes producing articles for the ShapingEDU blog.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Voice, Collaboration, Virtual Choirs, and Rising Up

October 10, 2020

There’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story to be told here—the story of how online interactions involving music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism are creating light and fostering positive action in times of darkness. The story of how online collaborations are drawing us together at a time when “social distances” are overwhelming so many people. And the story of why the arts remain an essential part of the human experience.

The story is rooted in the realization that there is something primally comforting and deeply inspirational about musical collaboration involving the human voice. It flows from the recognition that singing together can be a language of community. Creativity. And hope. Singing together and hearing others sing together in our online/social-distancing/sheltering-in-place/pandemic-plagued world are proving to be ways—for those of us not facing barriers to our access to the Internet and the tools needed to use it effectively—to build or further develop strong social connections rather than succumbing to isolation and social distances. Singing together and/or hearing others sing online are ways of using technology to overcome rather than to create distances, to bring us together in ways that allow us to build upon our shared interests and social needs rather than being dispirited by challenges that appear to be too large to tackle.

My own introduction to the concept of virtual choirs and online performances came a little more than a year ago (in May 2019), in a pre-coronavirus world, when I was lucky enough to see and hear virtual-choir pioneer Eric Whitacre demonstrating and embracing us with the power of global online choral collaborations in a closing keynote session presented during the ATD (Association of Talent Development) annual International Conference & Exposition (in San Diego). Hearing Whitacre describe and demonstrate what was involved in creating and nurturing virtual choirs and producing online performances was world-changing; it was a first-rate example of what we foster when we use technology as a tool and focus on the beauty of our creative spirit in the arts and many other endeavors—including training-teaching-learning, which draws the thousands of ATD members globally together.

Thoughts of virtual choirs and online performances receded into the inner recesses of my mind for several months. Then, in March 2020, we entered the “three-week” (now seven-month) period of sheltering-in-place guidelines put into place here in a six-county coalition within the San Francisco Bay Area and, soon thereafter, in other parts of the United States, in response to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic on our shores.

It was a recommendation from friend/colleague/co-conspirator in training-teaching-learning Jill Hurst-Wahl that rekindled my interest that month in virtual choirs and what they suggest in terms of online collaborative possibilities for all of us: the recommendation to watch a virtual-choir rendition of “Helplessly Hoping,” performed and recorded by Italy’s Il coro che non c’è (The Choir That Isn’t There). As was the case with seeing and hearing Whitacre’s virtual choir a year earlier, the experience of hearing and seeing the students in Il coro was transformative. Encouraging. Emotionally-engaging. Inspiring. Tremendously moving. And it made me want to hear more. Which led me to the work of Canada’s Phoenix Chamber Choir. The playfully creative online performances of musicians involved in a live virtual “coffee house” concert, complete with audience interactions via a conference backchannel, during the ShapingEDU Learning(Hu)Man weeklong summer camp in July 2020 for dreamer-doer-drivers working to shape the future of learning in the digital age. The virtual sing-along videos (including two versions of “Vote Him Way (the Liar Tweets Tonight”) created by singer-songwriter-satirist-activist Roy Zimmerman and his co-writer/wife Melanie Harby. And so many more.

But it’s Zimmerman’s work that most effectively shows us how we might use social media and online interactions to create that intersection of music, collaboration, the human voice, and activism. Because he is engaging. Because he is part of that ever-growing group of first-rate artist-activists who are exploring online alternatives and environments in response to the loss of the onsite venues and interactions that were their lifeblood before the coronavirus arrived. Because he is effectively using Facebook and YouTube, through his “Live from the Left Coast” performances, to not only to stay in touch with and further cultivate his audience, but to nurture relationships between those audience members through his use of online chat within those platforms. Because he is among those participating in the new “Trumped By Music” project initiated by a Dutch/American team “that wants to provide a platform for anti-Trump musicians to be seen and heard… We want to provide maximum exposure for this passionate and vocal community! Our aim is to help our featured artists gain exposure for their message, as well as stimulate musicians to send us new content.” And because his work is reaching and inspiring others equally committed to using music in deeply-emotional ways to foster social change—as was the case with Wilmington Academy Explorations teacher Sandy Errante and her husband, Wilmington Symphony Orchestra conductor Steven Errante.

The pre-coronavirus virtual meeting of Zimmerman and the Errantes is centered around Zimmerman’s incredibly moving song “Rise Up” (co-written with Harby). It was inspired by the students who survived the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School [Parkland, Florida] on Valentine’s Day in 2018 and who turned their experience into the March for Our Lives/Vote for Our Lives/Never Again movement that, six weeks later, inspired marches in more than 500 cities around the world. His rendition of the song as a duet with Laura Love was included on his Rize Up CD in 2018. And that’s where the story becomes very interesting, as Sandy Errante explained in a recent email exchange we had:

“My husband and I had heard Roy perform at the Unitarian Church in Wilmington before. We loved his satire, his energy, his passion, his humor and his music. And then…

“One Thursday evening after my rehearsal with the Girls’ Choir of Wilmington, I was on the way home when our local radio station, WHQR, started advertising an upcoming concert at the UU with Roy. The radio announcer, George Sheibner, played a song I had not heard before—Rise Up. As I drove along listening, I was captivated by the lyrics, the music, the harmonies and suspensions, and the message. By the end of the song and the final chorus, I was in tears. I knew the Girls’ Choir had to sing this piece. But how to make that happen? 

“I reached out to my husband, who was on his way to a rehearsal with the Wilmington Youth Orchestra. Steve is an arranger and a composer, and I needed him to know right away that this was something we absolutely HAD to do. He asked me to find a recording of the song. I did. And I hunted down the contact info for Roy, using my contacts at the UU church. Once we had permission from Roy to proceed, we started imagining this song as told from the children’s perspective. We altered the lyrics just a bit [changing it from the point of view of adults addressing the Parkland survivors to the point of view of the students themselves]. Now we had a song that the girls could sing from their hearts. We had a youth orchestra that could accompany. We had a performance in the making.­

“After all was said and done, we concurred, this IS their world and this was their song.”

And it remains our song—our anthem—in this pandemic, shelter-in-place world, through its availability on YouTube (with the girls’ choir) and on the CD. It’s there for them—and for us—as we continue seeking light and inspiration while living through devastatingly tragic times. Times of great division and conflict. Times that are, for many, overwhelming. And, as is often the case in tragic, divisive, conflict-ridden times, times that are also inspiring tremendous levels of creativity and opportunities for collaboration designed to foster positive change—which we nurture through our support and engagement in any and every way we can.

Update: Roy Zimmerman and Melanie Harby have posted a piece about the collaboration that produced their recent “My Vote, My Voice, My Right” video and included links to other virtual collaborations of that particular song: https://www.royzimmerman.com/blog/my-vote-my-voice-my-right.

–N.B.: This is the twenty-first in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Dianne Connery (Part 2 of 2)

October 7, 2020

This is the concluding segment of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s pivot a bit to focus on how successful partnerships that benefit everyone involved are developed. During a recent webinar you did for WebJunction, you talked about a variety of innovative approaches you and your colleagues in Pottsboro have taken in an effort to provide broadband access. Would you mind describing the partnership you created with a local conference center there in Pottsboro?

We work to support local businesses. Being in a tourist destination (Pottsboro is on a large recreational lake—Lake Texoma), our businesses were especially hard hit by the pandemic. Outside of city limits, access is more difficult. We talked to the manager of a resort hotel/conference center about the possibility of using their parking lot as a Wi-Fi hotspot for students. As part of that partnership, we shared our goal of getting media attention about the project. In fact, it has received national attention. When I took photos of the Wi-Fi hotspot, I made sure to take the picture from an angle that showed the resort in the background. This trailer was provided by by ITDRC [Information Technology Disaster Resource Center]. There was no cost to the resort or to the library. It was the library acting as the connector between organizations who could meet the need and the community.

Any stories from Pottsboro residents showing the positive impact that the placement of a Wi-Fi hotspot in town had?

A grandmother who is raising her three grandchildren in nearby apartments used that Wi-Fi for the kids to do their schoolwork. Not only did she not have Internet at home, but she doesn’t have a car. When the schools shut down, being able to walk to that hotspot was the only way the kids could finish out the school year. College students who came back home when their schools shut down used it for accounting homework and test taking. Fortunately, we have a board member who also lives in the nearby apartments who was able to capture some photos and get photo releases. That is part of being strategic with finding funding—being able to put a human face on the issues.

You have, in other conversations we have had, talked about the difference between what standard maps show in terms of broadband coverage and what coverage actually exists. Would you describe what you’ve seen and talk about what we can do to address the disparity between the maps and the actual situation impacting people who need broadband Internet access for work and learning?

One of the difficult national issues is no one has a clear picture of what the real extent of the infrastructure problem is. In short, the FCC maps are created by self-reporting from Internet providers. A provider considers an area covered if one home in a census block could potentially receive service. Self-reporting from providers results in tremendous over-reporting. Some organizations are working towards more accurate maps, but it is very labor intensive. Connected Nation is creating new maps. Their process is sending field engineers to drive every road in the county with equipment that looks for signals. (I’ve spent the morning riding around with two field engineers who were sent here to map coverage in Grayson County through funding provided through Texas Rural Funders.) The engineers take pictures of a variety of towers, power lines, etc. to figure out where actual coverage is. This is an area [where] I would like to see rural libraries take the lead. One of the first steps is to figure out if access is available. After that, we need to know if it is affordable. After that, we need to make sure devices are available. After that, the users have to have the digital literacy to use it. It is a complex problem with no quick fixes.

Drawing upon your extensive experience, what would you suggest individuals can do to support broadband access locally, regionally, and nationally?

Connect people who have an interest in the issue to work together. Who has an interest? Schools, businesses, libraries, realtors, health care providers, non-profits, internetproviders, people who work from home, and families. Sometimes even people in this small town don’t agree on whether or not there is a problem. If they have robust service in their home, they don’t understand that a house down the block might not be able to get a connection. I think gathering all the stakeholders to discuss what the current status is would be a great start.  

What have I not asked that you hoped to cover?

The only thing that comes to mind is that speaking to you has brought into focus the importance of storytelling. This is such a dry subject that it is easy for people to glaze over. By telling the stories, I think we have more of a chance of motivating people to work towards solutions. We are developing a coverage map with interactive markers that will tell the story of the person who lives in that location. All of this talk about spectrum, bandwidth, and infrastructure is about real people living their lives and trying to do the best they can.

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Promoting Universal Broadband Access With Dianne Connery (Part 1 of 2)

October 6, 2020

This is the first part of a two-part interview conducted with Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (in Texas) and a ShapingEDU colleague who has been a long-time proponent of universal broadband access, particularly for those in the community she serves. An article drawn from the interview is available on the ShapingEDU blog.

Let’s dive right into the substance of what you’re doing. What first drew you to the challenge of providing broadband Internet access for work and learning?

Dianne Connery

Working in a rural library, I talk to people every day who struggle with not having access to broadband. Their stories inspired me to work to improve conditions. In particular, I saw how young people do not have the same experiences and opportunities as kids in the suburbs and urban environments. I raised my kids in cities, and they were exposed to up-to-date technology. Many of the families do not have broadband in their homes, and parents are not tech savvy. The school system is struggling to provide up-to-date technology and training as well. It is not uncommon for teachers to lack access to broadband in their homes. I want young people to be on a level playing field when they graduate from high school.

Much of what I read and hear from colleagues focuses on the learners and on employees. You’ve raised an interesting part of the problem by mentioning the teachers and their own lack of access. Is the library doing anything to help instructors?

We were able to provide hot spots to some of the teachers although that is not a viable solution for some areas. The library recently received a $25,000 TSLAC [Texas State Library and Archives Commission] grant to provide internet in 40 homes. Teachers will be included, and the remainder are low-income families. A pending $232,000 IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] grant will provide home internet for an additional 85 homes. This is an EBS spectrum dedicated to education. I am working closely with a local fixed wireless internet provider (TekWav) to find funding to build infrastructure that will eventually cover every student and teacher in the county.  On the digital literacy side of the issue, the library has provided access and training to the teachers/students to use our databases. This week I started a learning circle that is a group learning experience for Google Drive Essentials. I’m hoping to support some of the teachers to work more efficiently with available technology.

You’re opening a very interesting door here for readers who are interested in how to take a step-by-step approach to addressing even the smallest pieces of the broadband-access challenge, including the question of funding. Based on your experience pursuing and obtaining grants, what simple steps would you recommend for those who don’t know how to identify funders and create successful funding requests?

Much of our success is a result of building relationships with people/organizations who share the same goals. Especially since COVID-19, I’ve been actively participating in weekly calls where I am connecting with others who are working towards universal broadband. One helpful call is Gigabit Libraries Network. Through being on that call, I was invited to be a sub-awardee on a large global grant proposal that used different approaches in different locations as pilot projects. Ultimately, we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building, Gigabit Libraries Network emailed me and asked if I would like funding to deploy neighborhood access stations. They provided funding for three neighborhood access stations which are in the process of being constructed now. Additionally, they connected me with the Information Technology Disaster Resource Center [ITDRC]. ITDRC deployed a mobile Wi-Fi trailer to a parking lot outside of town in an area with limited connectivity. A few weeks ago, ITDRC installed a hot spot at a bait and tackle shop outside of town in an area with a lot of school kids who don’t have Internet at home. So, all of that happened as a result of just talking with other stakeholders. Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition is also helping me understand the whole issue from a legislative/advocacy perspective. Hopefully, the work we are doing there will result in federal funding to make things happen. So, just talk to people, and one connection leads to another. If you connect to the right person, the funding follows.

 Among the gems in the answer you just provided is this one: “..we did not receive that award, but through the relationship building…” Any thoughts to prospective fundraisers about how to react to the word “no” in response to a request for funding?

I give myself one day to be disappointed, and then [move] on to the next thing. Usually we have several grants in the pipeline at any one time, so we are already focused on the next horizon. Personally, I have also had the good fortune of being a grant reader for two organizations and have learned a lot from being on that side of the equation. Sometimes there is something particular the funder was looking for that, through no fault of your own, doesn’t match. It has helped me be a better grant writer. Also, I have learned to write case statements so that I am able to use content in future grant applications so the work was not wasted. 

N.B. — Paul is one of three Storytellers in Residence for ShapingEDU (July 2020-June 2021).


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: “And I Am…”

September 13, 2020

Our most challenging times are generally the times when I am most drawn to the arts for comfort, solace, and inspiration. It is, therefore, no surprise to me that as I continue adapting to and working within shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic, I am spending inordinate amounts of time lately returning to and exploring, more deeply than ever before, authors I admire and adore—people like Scott Russell Sanders, who over a long period of time, has consistently produced lyrical, thoughtful essays and much more, including his newly-released collection, The Way of Imagination. I was drawn back to Sander’ A Private History of Awe a few weeks ago when intense, hours-long lightning and thunder storms reminded me of the stunning opening of that book, in which Sanders recalls being four years old, standing with his father, and watching lightning shatter a magnificent, stately old oak tree.

My re-immersion into the arts has also brought me into contact with the work of wonderful singer-songwriter-satirists like Roy Zimmerman, who in the most dazzling yet down-to-earth ways mixes humor, biting social satire, and a sense of humanity that runs deeper than any river upon which I have ever rafted. Watching videos that capture his work spanning nearly a couple of decades has given me a strong appreciation for what he does and offers. Seeing some of his latest videos—including new, powerfully poignant collaborations along the lines of what he does in “Driving While Black” with Clovice Lewis, Jr. and the two versions he has recorded of “The Liar Tweets Tonight”—suggests to me that no matter how much recognition he receives for his work, he will always deserve even more. And catching a few of his free online “Live from the Left Coast” concerts over the past few weeks on Facebook and YouTube makes me wonder what rock I have been sleeping under while he has been out there entertainingly, provocatively, and lovingly shining light so effectively where it needs to be shone, how I could have missed, for so long, wonderful songs like “I Approve This Message,” which is as funny, poignant, and moving a song as any “protest” song I have ever heard, with its litany of “I ams” beginning with “I am the doughnut lady, I am the civil engineer, I am the tractor salesman who is a stand-up comic at his own daughter’s wedding…” and becoming more engaging as the song continues.

What has been most rewarding and transformative, however, is spotting the artistry in places where I usually do not seek it, as in letters from friends and colleagues. Those letters, like the one I received via email a couple of days ago from someone who is married to a firefighter in a rural part of Northern California devastated by wildfires, absolutely floor me through their combination of honesty, poignancy, and razer-sharp focus. They remind me of the inner artist each of us carriers and so often fails to take the time to nurture. And they further awaken the storyteller in me who wants to highlight other people’s stories as much as, if not more than, I tend to highlight my own.

With that in mind, I contacted the friend for permission to reprint a lightly-edited version of her story here—edited not because it needed any sort of rewriting, but because she and her husband are incredibly private people who do not, in any way, want to call attention to themselves at a time when so many others need our attention and support. The edits, therefore, remove references by specific name to the people she is describing and to the area in which they are living. But even with those omissions, the piece stands out to me as an example of the “…and I am…” approach Zimmerman adopts in singing about those people we mistakenly think of as “average Americans” when, in reality, they are so much more than the word “average” can ever begin to convey:

“It’s been an absolute life-changing devastation for almost everyone in our lives. And it’s so layered it’s hard to stay focused these days. My husband’s parents lost absolutely everything. He and I and his sister had a lot of belongings there too because we all still had our two “bedrooms” to stay in while visiting and store stuff. Not to mention all their childhood stuff. All the pictures and mementos. Not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of items and equipment and vehicles. They had been in that house for over 30 years. When the house got surrounded and his parents had left, my husband got there right after and tried to turn the sprinklers on, but the power was out, so the water pump wouldn’t work. My heart aches for him having to watch it all go up. And then he had to watch his aunt and uncle’s house go up. His dad’s sister and husband’s. And then watch all of our friends lose all of their homes. He was working with four of our close friends who are also firefighters, and they all lost their homes too. I believe two lives (an older gentleman who wouldn’t leave his home, and a lady who got trapped) and 150+ houses were lost so far.

“So much has been lost. There are so many displaced families and people. So many people with just the shirts on their backs. And, sadly, many people down there couldn’t afford fire insurance, so that adds a whole other problem to the list of problems. Almost everyone we know with family and friends is completely homeless. So many animals lost, too, which is absolutely heartbreaking. Many died and many are just missing. Thankfully, people from local agencies have gone down, collected, and are housing a lot of displaced animals until they can reunite.

“It’s an absolute chaotic nightmare. But there’s some things to be thankful for as well. My mother and her husband have not lost anything so far. And I’m so happy everyone we know and love is safe and alive. Stuff is just stuff. Lives matter more and cannot be replaced. If that had happened in the middle of the night on that one way in-one way out creek road, in the dark, people confused from sleep, in a fire going 50+ mph, it could have been even worse. When we lose one or two people in town it’s horrific. But to think we could have 20-30+ people missing or dead right now would make it so much worse. And to see everyone help one another and pull together brings hope. We can always rebuild.

“There’s so much hurt right now, I’m trying to just stay focused on my husband. Because he’s my priority, and I know how much family and friends mean to him, and he’s the biggest softie sweetie in the world. He’s being exceptionally hard on himself, feeling like as a firefighter he should have been able to save everything or anything. Feels like he’s failed his whole family and all our friends. But he’s so exhausted he hasn’t had a moment to process or grieve in any way. And everyone grieves differently, so I just have to give him time. He worked for over 40 hours straight before finally getting four hours of sleep. Hopefully, he will get a little more tonight.”

I devour Sanders’ work. I sink into Zimmerman’s music. And I immerse myself into my friend’s powerful description of how the current wildfires are affecting her and the people around her. And because they all are so compelling in their ability to capture essential truths and inspire empathy, Zimmerman’s refrain “…and I am…” makes me more of whom I am than I otherwise would be.

–N.B.: This is the twentieth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


Adapting to Change, Loss, and Possibilities: Awe, Night Skies, and Inspiration

August 16, 2020

Loudly-rattling windows in our home suggest a raging conversation between those windows and the howling wind. An unexpected downpour of rain starting at 3:30 a.m. offers relief to our thirsty garden and sends water flowing in streams though gutters along the street. Lightning ripping through the San Francisco fog illuminates the west-facing rooms of our home, looking out toward the Pacific Ocean. Thunder careens across San Francisco Bay, roars through the city’s numerous hills and valleys, and reverberates for several very long seconds before fading, only to be followed by more bursts of lightning and thunder.

Memories flow from and through the unexpected, rare summer storm here—one unlike any I can recall experiencing in nearly 35 years of living in the city. Memories of being awakened long before dawn to watch and hear and revel in similar primal screams and bursts of nature from hotel rooms in Austin while I was there to attend conferences with cherished colleagues long before any of us imagined a time when adapting to shelter-in-place guidelines implemented in response to a coronavirus pandemic would become a way of life for us. Memories of pleasurable, complete immersion in and surrender to similar storms blazing across mid-summer skies in the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence and Siena. Memories of being so overwhelmed by a mid-evening autumn deluge accompanied by lightning and thunder while I was driving on a poorly-lit rural road outside of West Palm Beach, Florida, that my wife and I decided to pull off to the side of the road and wait it out because we couldn’t see far enough to continue driving in those conditions.

A word comes to mind as those memories flow into one cohesive moment: “awe.” And that, in turn, inspires another memory: first encountering the work of one of my favorite essayists, Scott Russell Sanders, more than a decade ago through his book A Private History of Awe. Being completely captivated by his recollection of being wrapped in his father’s arms during a booming blowing thunderstorm and being there to see a magisterial oak “snapped like a stick, its top shattered on the ground, a charred streak running down the wet gray stub of the trunk,” I raced through that book. And have, many times since then, returned to reread large chunks of that lovely, literary exploration broken into sections under the subtitles “Fire,” “Air,” “Water,” and “Earth.”

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

“Awe” is not a word we seem to hear or use very much these days. “Anger,” “discord,” “strife,” and social and political “gridlock” are much more frequently the terms and topics around which our conversations are centered. We frame conversations as either-or choices around “personal rights” (e.g., the “right” to not wear a mask in the middle of a pandemic) or “public health” (the need to slow the spread of the coronavirus so hundreds of thousands of people won’t die—as is already the case).  Or around the need to “flatten the fear” because we have already allegedly flattened the pandemic (a proposal hard to defend at a time when the death rate in hotspots in the United States have again been increasing). “Awe” is not something I experience when I see colleagues inaccurately using the word “fear” rather than the term “social responsibility” or “commitment to community” in response to our choices to wash our hands, wear masks, and, as much as we can, engage in social distancing in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus; some of us believe it’s among the options we can be pursuing to collectively work together to address a tragically challenging situation that has already killed more than 775,000 people globally and more than 170,000 in the United States in less than a year.   

I feel sadness—not awe or fear—when I see a friend lose his mother to COVID-19 and know that if we had all taken a different approach to the coronavirus, she might still be alive. I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration when I see a skeptical member of my extended family ended up close to death in a hospital intensive care unit because he didn’t see the need to take any sort of protection to avoid succumbing to the coronavirus, and am further saddened and frustrated knowing he is now facing the possibility of a year-long “recovery” period that may still leave him permanently disabled. And I feel sadness, disbelief, and frustration knowing that another skeptical member of my extended family who, after testing positive, blithely ignored the likelihood that she would spread the virus, so ended up gifting it to two additional generations of relatives in that one household. What makes these up-close exposures to the human impact of COVID-19 as well as to the economic tragedies so many people are suffering difficult to accept are comments I read from wonderful friends who have a much different view of the situation than I do—insisting that we’re making a mistake by not letting nature run its course so that we, collectively, develop herd immunity (a term that bothers me tremendously because it seems to dehumanize the situation by hiding individual deaths behind a term that groups individuals into “herds” rather than members of our communities). Their contention is that we’re causing more harm through economic devastation than the coronavirus causes through illness and death. From their perspective, the high unemployment rate—impacting millions of people—could have been avoided and still could be remedied if we reacted to that rather than reacting to the “small percentage” of deaths caused by COVID-19.

So, we’re stuck on opposite sides of what appears, for now, to be an uncrossable chasm: millions of Americans devastated by loss of jobs/income compared to “only a small percentage” of people who have died (775,000 globally/170,000 in the U.S.) as a result of contracting COVID-19—their perception that “only a small percentage of people” will die from COVID-19 and my perception that hundreds of thousands of deaths is a national/global tragedy requiring the best, most creative efforts we can pursue collectively to try to avoid additional deaths and avoid the pain and suffering millions of people are facing in the United States because we can’t, legislatively or in any other way, find approaches that address both sides of that awful divide.

Hours have passed since that pre-dawn combination of wind and lightning and thunder drew me to a window, where I stood transfixed. And months have passed since I was, along with so many others, drawn into a much-altered world I had not taken the time to ever contemplate. I’m back to the concept of “awe” and all that it suggests about us being able to notice—and to react to in the most productive, positive, inspired way possible. To remember that there are forces far bigger than we can ever hope to be. To remember that the momentary, tragically painful challenges that produce life-changing results (e.g., loss of cherished loved ones regardless of how small or large a percentage of our communities those people were; loss of the income needed to survive in a wealthy country that can’t find ways to guarantee minimum subsistence for every member—every member—of its communities; acquiring permanent disabilities that in their own way obviously add to the economic challenges we are facing) require that we set aside the differences that divide us so we can work together to find solutions based on our belief that we are stronger and more awesome together than we will ever be alone.

It is now midafternoon. The windows are no longer rattling. The lightning and thunder from that hours-long storm have finally subsided. Clouds and the sun seem to be engaged in a playful dance that sends dappled light upon leaves shimmering in the maturity of a midsummer afternoon. Offering hints of the beauty that surrounds us. The beauty that needs to be nurtured to be sustained. The beauty that reminds us that numbers tell only part of the story of what sometimes makes our world awe-inspiring when we look to something bigger than ourselves and, against all odds and against all likelihood of failure, embrace it.

–N.B.: This is the nineteenth in a series of reflections inspired by coronavirus/ shelter-in-place experiences.


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