Wednesday 2 December 2020

A Fall to Remember (Or Not)

We've made it to the end of the fall 2020 semester! Honestly, this semester was hard. It was technically a shortened semester, as the regular class schedule ended on November 18th with finals completed before Thanksgiving. Normally, we are wrapping up around December 10th with finals into the middle of the month. The reason for this shortened schedule was to give students the opportunity to travel home for Thanksgiving and then not return to campus following in order to try to stop virus spreading both at home and on campus. That being said, it made the 14.5 weeks of the semester feel pretty intense and crammed full. There were a couple reading days built in, but with no real breaks we were all very tired by the end. 

The shortened schedule was definitely not the toughest part of the semester, though. The students and faculty on campus were in a tough spot. In order to combat the pandemic, Olivet implemented a program called Tiger Pause led by an on campus task force who made decisions about distancing, classroom regulations, and social events. I do think it was a fairly effective program, as the COVID numbers didn't climb until the end of the semester, and even then, I believe, hovered below 100 active cases, but I do think it was hard on the students. The quarantine restrictions were rigorous, and students seemed to be in an out of quarantine regularly. One on campus professor reported anecdotally that in a class of 40 they had maybe 10 students in a given class period at the end of the week. The isolation was hard on the students, and I know many of my students struggled with this as they also dealt with course deadlines, sick family members, or job responsibilities. The professors and instructors also had to be flexible in preparing courses in multiple formats and trying their best to support students. In early October I did get to travel down to Olivet and participate in a departmental meeting and photo, and I was glad to have that one opportunity to connect with my colleagues in person.

Even though I wasn't on campus, I also thought and struggled regularly with the best ways to support students through this time. Not only was the pandemic a looming concern (and tragic reality for some), but the contentious election season culminated with the actual election during the very week of many final projects. I tried my best to rearrange the course schedules so that no work was due on election day or the immediate days following, but as we saw, the election stretched far past November 2nd, and I'm sure that the students felt just as worn by it all as we did. I wanted to provide structure, accountability, and an expectation of excellence from my students without being a stickler, pedantic, or not understanding of the many difficulties they were facing. This was a really difficult balance to find this year, but I hope I was able to provide both instruction and support to my students.

My students' end of the semester reflections were encouraging to me. They confirmed that they'd felt heard, supported, and understood throughout the semester. In fact, three of my Advanced Writing students chose to (unprompted) specifically write about the grace they received this fall:

"Grace is always needed, for others, and for ourselves. I am grateful for your grace this semester." 

"This semester has taught me to give myself grace, or rather, accept the grace that is already given to me. In writing, this acceptance of grace has allowed me to look at my own work with more kindness."

"The grace that you showed me was so needed and so appreciated, and in a lot of ways flipped a switch for me. It sounds so silly, but in the grace that you showed me with that article draft, I felt the whispers of the Lord inviting me to extend that grace to myself." 

These comments really touched me because maybe all of that worrying about balance wasn't necessary; maybe we just need to remember to give the grace that we have been given. I was also particularly moved by the way that these students found grace not only for others but for themselves. What a gift.

This semester I taught two sections of College Writing II and one section of Advanced Writing, which I really like to teach. I also continued to support the new writing major in the English department through creating assessment material, meeting with the department chair and other faculty members, and implementing some initiatives to start to share the major with students and other departments. One fun project that I completed at the end of the semester was this Writing Major Overview slideshow that we shared with our majors, writing students, admissions counselor, and any other interested parties. I'd be happy for this slideshow to be shared with anyone potentially interested! 

My students did do well this year. They each developed a comprehensive research project on an issue that they are passionate about. They compiled secondary research from the library and online databases, and they conducted primary research to augment their sources. They thought through opposing viewpoints and considered the ways that their topics and their research might impact their readers. They adjusted their tone and carefully chose their words and their sources. They established both personal and public exigency for their topics, and they represented that well. They read outside texts and discussed those with one another. They edited their work and then presented it for presentation either to their classmates or even more widely to possible publication venues. They reflected on their work and their time in the class as they completed the semester. Of course some students did better at some of these tasks than others, but I am confident in saying that each student left these classes with more knowledge of both themselves and their writing than when they entered. It was a tough but rewarding semester. 

Personally, the low point of the semester came in early October, as my husband and I made the truly heartbreaking decision to say goodbye to our nine year Beagle/ Blue Heeler, Finley. We adopted him from a snowy farm in Indiana on November 29th, 2011, and he'd been with us ever since. The decision to euthanize him due to behavioral issues felt both abrupt and like it had been coming for a long time. Nevertheless, it was the most difficult and painful of my life thus far. I miss him literally everyday, and the days after saying goodbye to him felt like continually falling into a vacuum and really not knowing how to breathe. I posted an explanation and tribute to him on my Instagram, and I sometimes go back to read it just to remind myself why we even did this in the first place. I know 2020 was a hard year for many, but losing my Fin was the deepest, darkest low for me. 

We celebrated nine Christmases with Finley, though only eight Thanksgivings, since we brought him home just after in 2011. He moved with us seven different times in seven years. He had Lacy as a sister for six years. He was on anti-anxiety medication for five years, after four years of behavioral training attempts, due to three different vet hospitalizations for ulcers and dehydration caused by anxiety; we were very grateful for that medication, as it gave us many more years with Fin than we would have had otherwise. We moved across the country twice, and I'm so glad he got to spend one year with Coco... who called him "woof, woof!" and still says that whenever he sees a picture of Fin. They did love each other very much. 


There are still moments of sadness, sometimes tears, on many days, but I do feel that I'm starting to heal, and there have been many things that have helped me through. Our friends and family have rallied around us and loved us by lovingly remembering Finley, and that has truly meant so much. From cards to gifts to meals to messages to memories, it has all been a really healing balm. Our parents came over and helped us to commemorate Finley by burying a patch of his hair in our backyard under a bird-feeder with his name on it from our neighbors. That was a sweet moment through a lot of grief. A few weeks ago I came across a following quote from author Jamie Anderson:

This quote really spoke to me and gave words to what I have been feeling. I have grieved the loss of my Papa Deerwester and my Grandma Koury in 2013, as well as Wade's brother, Matt, in 2018, but grieving Finley has felt different. I think the reason is because I was used to pouring out my love and attention on him day in and day out for nine years, which was exhausting but became normal. And then, he was suddenly gone, and the love I had for him had no where to go. Lacy and Coco have helped tremendously, and they both give me not just distractions but light and love all day long. I am incredibly thankful for both of them, but as enneagram expert and author Abi Robbins said, "grief and gratitude are two independent experiences that are not mutually exclusive. You can feel both at the same time. They often come hand in hand." If anything could sum up my feelings not only about Finley but about this year as a whole, this is it. It's grief and it's gratitude, and somehow, they walk hand in hand. 

There definitely have been bright spots this year, and a lot of those have been since the end of summer and through the fall semester! In August, Wade, Coco, my sister Hannah, and some friends and I took a "statecation" (i.e. a vacation in the state) to Door County, WI. We stayed in a cute little condo, and we explored the various towns, beaches, and attractions that were available there, and we had a really nice time! 

In September, one of my oldest and best friends got married to her Prince Charming... and they had a Cinderella themed wedding to celebrate! We ate and danced and laughed and took so many pictures (and then quarantined and got COVID tested after), and I was honored to be part of their day.

At the end of September, Coco turned one! A quarantine birthday was not really what we had in mind, but it ended up being so fun. We celebrated his birthday along with his two other little buddies born within six weeks of him. We did a fun Harry Potter themed "Chosen One" birthday party with our three families. Then we had our families over for a dinner on his actual birthday. Coco loved his banana cake with apple juice frosting. He devoured two in two days! 

We loved celebrating him. He's just the most wonderful addition to our family. His laughs and smiled and padding around the house and opinionated exclamations and claps and dancing and "gentle" pats for Lacy are just pure light. The song "Extraordinary Magic" by Ben Rector plays on my Spotify a lot, and every time Ben sings: "I know that miracles happen/ who cares what they say/ 'cause love's nothin' short of a miracle/ happenin' over and over, every day/ I see it, I see it/ I swear I do/ I see extraordinary magic in you," I think: this is Cohen. He is magic to me. 

We've had other sweet times with friends and family including our first overnight without the baby, celebrating my sister's 30th birthday, my Nana's 90th birthday, and a sweet friendsgiving, which was great because we didn't actually get to see our families for Thanksgiving due to county gathering restrictions. We've done each social event with care and caution and within mandated social guidelines. We feel both blessed and hopeful for the continued health for us and our loved ones.  



I am looking forward to 2021 with more hope than I've had in at least four years, and I'm encouraged that there seems to be better things on the horizon. As our family of four will continue on here at home, I was recently reminded by my dear reading group friends of C.S. Lewis' proclamation at the end of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader through his sweet character Reepicheep. May we all be as bold in our plans as he.

"My own plans are made. While I can, I sail east in the Dawn Treader. When she fails me, I paddle east in my coracle. When she sinks, I shall swim east with my four paws. And when I can no longer swim, if I have not reached Aslan's country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise." 

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