The last play

The weeks that my kids spend at summer camp are usually my opportunity to purge the accumulation of stuff in our house. If I can get it done when they’re not looking, they usually don’t notice that the toy-they-haven’t-played-with-in-two-years-but-is-super-precious-and-can’t-be-thrown-out is missing. This year, like everything else, my annual donate-a-thon has been different.

Firstly, the kids didn’t go to camp so we’ve essentially been together non-stop for 6 months. Secondly, very few places are taking donations of used toys/clothes/books.

My kids’ constant presence this summer has made it very tough to get any of their extensive collections pared back. They go to bed later now so unless I time my covert eviction sessions for early in the morning, I’m out of luck. I can occasionally get them to agree to giving away clothes or books but toys are really, really hard. Even though they very rarely play with them, each toy has an emotional attachment that resists separation, claws out.

But even when I do manage to get them to admit that, no they haven’t played with that pirate ship in three years, and yes, some other child would probably enjoy it, actually getting it out of the house presents it’s own challenges as very few places are taking donations in the pandemic.

So, the toys sit there by the front door, waiting for a new home.

And then something curious happened.

The 12 year old boy who eats two bowl of cereal before bed, who insists that his name is Jeffrey the 3rd-and-a-half (his name isn’t Jeffrey at all), and who thinks it’s hilarious that his armpits smell terrible because it’s yet another way he can torment his sister stumbles across the bag of plastic animals that I promised to one of my Kindergarten teachers and starts playing.

Battle groups of bears

And just like that, time rolls back.

I hear him from the other room, making guttural noises and talking in voices, pretending to be a dinosaur, then a kangaroo, then a bear. I sneak around the corner to spy on my boy/man.

He’s making teams, and organizing battle groups, figuring out who could beat whom (turkey versus kangaroo… who would win?). His elongated pre-adolescent legs folded underneath him in a posture only young hips (or yogis) can tolerate, totally engrossed in play, in a way he hasn’t been for months.

It was so beautiful, and so very sad. He was once an epic player, he could do this for hours, on his own, totally engrossed in a universe of his own imagining. I used to marvel at the way he’d give himself over to the experience with such total intense focus – before fishing and bike riding with his buddies and Minecraft lured him away.

But the playing days are almost over. Take a picture. Hold your breath. Make a wish. And maybe hold onto that pirate ship for just a little longer.

Surreptitious photography

We don’t know what comes next.

I make a lot of jokes at my own expense. One of my chestnuts is that I have 6 undergraduate credits in walking backwards… I drag this one out when someone notes how deftly I walk backwards down a hallway, leading a group of kids from the gym, or I catch myself after slipping on the playground ice, or I balance on slippery rocks to free a grounded boat. All those years of movement training pay dividends in unexpected ways.

As a child, what I liked about ballet was that it had rules. There was a right and a wrong and progress towards the perfected ideal was clearly defined. You worked hard and you got better. I liked the control, the planning, the purpose, the vocabulary, the known. Like many kids growing up in alcoholic families, my reaction to all the things I couldn’t control was to control as many things as I could. Ballet was all about control and I loved it – I still do.

But then my dance world grew and I was introduced to forms that valued release, fall, suspension, and spiral. I was asked to find my own definitions of progress by teachers who challenged me to decide for myself what meaning movement was making in my life. That was hard work and I didn’t always like it – I really, really wanted there to be a right and wrong. I didn’t want the grey; I was nostalgic for the certainty of ballet.

Just as I was getting comfortable in the modern dance greyscape, I found improvisation, or maybe more accurately, it found me. Whereas in modern dance classes, there were at least some structures for me to hang my control needs on, now I was completely at sea – making it up as I went along, trusting that I could.

I had the good fortune of having improvisation teachers who took my angst in stride – I wasn’t the first recovering ballerina they’d met. They were patient with me and probably kinder than I deserved. Dana Reitz, Lionel Popkin, Sara Rudner… I’m not kidding about the backwards walking – we did everything backwards until we sort of forgot how to do it forwards; that was probably the point.

Bit by bit I got over myself and learned to love improvisation. I learned to trust that I could come up with solutions to problems, in the moment, on my feet, sometimes just on one foot. Sometimes those solutions would be brilliant but most of the time they would be just enough to get us to the next moment, where I could make a new choice and another and another. Sometimes I fell down so then I got up; the dance continued and I learned some humility. I learned to make better in-the-moment choices, I got better at taking in the circumstances and choosing a good path. I also learned to live with the uncertainty of reality – man plans and G-d laughs isn’t an old adage for nothing.

If planned teaching is like gardening, with rows of orderly plants, staked and supported, planters and edging clearly defined, then improvisational teaching is like sidewalk flowers, bursting up unexpectedly in fertile but forgotten corners, largely unnoticed but still beautiful. It’s so much easier to measure the former, that most researchers ignore the latter. We pretend that we can plan everything and we participate in the collective illusion that one is better than the other because one is more predictable, knowable and nameable. Research tells us that improvising uses distinctly different areas of the brain than scripted performance does (Limb & Braun, 2008, Harris & de Jong, 2015, Alexander et al., 2020).

I’ve written in several places that if I could change one thing about teacher preparation in North America, it would be to focus less on planning and more on improvisation. Pre-service teachers graduate knowing how to plan, in almost inconceivable detail, lessons that are very likely to go sideways, if not backwards, in the process of delivery. They get no training in how to cope with the inevitable unpredictability of teaching life. They’re taught to teach as though things usually go as planned when, in reality, they rarely do. This system of planning-based teacher preparation leads to teachers who have a hard time managing the inevitable changes in practice that occur over a long career and sometimes leave the profession in their first five years, disenchanted by the messy reality of a teaching life.

Teaching, like ballet, attracts planners, organizers, and controllers. Most elementary teachers like to plan; they like colour-coded filing systems and day planners that map out instructional units and field trips months in advance. Not knowing how things will unfold every day is stressful and so the idea of going back to school this fall, without knowing what that will look like in any detail, is making many teachers extremely anxious.

I feel that stress too; I want to have good answers for people when they ask me what September will look like. But I don’t and you don’t and we won’t… even when we have a plan from the government, we still won’t. No one has done this before. We are in uncharted waters and we feel adrift.

movement improvisation in a teacher workshop

But are we actually drifting or are we just moving towards a shoreline that we can’t see yet? Five months ago, teachers moved an entire system of K-12 education online, something that had never been done before. It wasn’t perfect, mistakes were made, lessons were learned, but we did it. We have to trust that we’ll be able to do the same thing with whatever circumstances we’re facing in the fall. We have to trust that we’ll be able to take the next step, and the next one, and the next one, be they sideways or backwards and that we’ll be able use the tools we already have and the ones we’ll pick up along the way to make the moves that will see us and the kids to the next moment. It may not always be brilliant but we have to trust that it will be enough – goodness knows we won’t be doing it alone.

How do you get better at improvising? How do you learn to live with uncertainty without feeling panicked? How do you develop that kind of generous trust in yourself and in others? Well, ideally we’d all get into a studio or a field and play for a few hours and it would look something like this. You might start by watching uncomfortably on the sidelines but eventually you’d find a way to participate. Ideally, you’d have lots of time to practice.

In the absence of a contact-jam or a theatre improv class which sadly will have to wait for a post-COVID era, I’d suggest picking up a pencil and sketching something (anything), dancing in your kitchen (making the moves up as you go), writing a journal, collecting interesting things on a walk, sorting them and making a temporary installation, or sculpting a piece of clay into something unrecognizable. As a culture, we’ve subscribed to the idea that the only people who get to do this stuff are the people who are already good at it. That’s nonsense.

Practice not knowing. Practice playing. Practice making, or drawing or dancing even if, especially if, you’re bad at it. It will get those improvisational muscles working, even if they’ve been flaccid since Kindergarten. Have faith that we’ve got this, whatever it is.

Belden, A., Zeng, T., Przysinda, E., Anteraper, S. A., Whitfield-Gabrieli, S., & Loui, P. (2020). Improvising at rest: Differentiating jazz and classical music training with resting state functional connectivity. NeuroImage207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.116384

Harris, R. & de Jong B.M., (2015). Differential parietal and temporal contributions to music perception in improvising and score-dependent musicians, an fMRI study. Brain Research, 253–264.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation. PLoS ONE3(2), 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001679

Distancing tips from a dancer

A former student of mine posted a very funny meme today. I don’t know who created it but hats off to them for hitting the nail on the head (if it was you, please let me know so that I can give credit where it’s due).

Here it is:

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The image that accompanies it is particularly hilarious for those of us who’ve spent lots of time in contemporary dance classes and movement workshops. We see a group of people, all standing, facing in different directions, all between 6-10 feet apart. This is a typical way that modern, experimental or contemporary dance classes start, everyone in their own personal space (your space bubble), moving through the general space (the space in the room) without getting too close to each other. Often, dancers will start off moving slowly and accelerate as the exercise continues; what is easy at a slow tempo becomes very challenging the faster you go. As you move quickly through the space (yes, that’s really how we talk) you have to change directions or reverse if you get too close to someone else. You become hyper-aware of where everyone is. We do this kind of activity all the time. In our world it’s normal… although I’m sure to an outside viewer it looks a little odd, perhaps even slightly unhinged.

I was out in public briefly this afternoon, grabbing milkshakes with my kids at a local ice cream place. It was a very hot day and we had to wait on the sidewalk for our milkshakes to be ready. As people moved in and out of the line, and up and down the sidewalk, we had to make room for each other, adjusting our positions relative to the ice cream, the curb and the road. While I adjusted automatically, I watched other people really struggle to adapt to the changing environment while maintaining personal space. And then this genius meme landed in my social media feed and I wondered what exactly I learned during those many barefoot years that might help everyone adapt during these distant COVID times. So… here’s my best attempt at distilling more than a dozen years of contemporary dance training into 6 easy-ish tips.

  1. Be aware: You’re going to have to put down the phone for this to work, folks. Distraction is the enemy of spatial awareness. The first step to knowing who’s around you and where they are is knowing where you are in space and you can’t do that if you’re staring down at your phone.
  2. Slow down: There’s a reason we start our spatial awareness exercises slowly in a dance class. Moving at a slower tempo is far less challenging than moving quickly. While you can’t always control where other people are going to move, you can control your own movements and maintaining that control is much more straightforward when you take things slowly.
  3. Walking goes all ways: One of the dance classes I took as an undergraduate could easily have been re-named “The Walking Backwards Class”. Our teacher was very intent on getting us to be competent retrograders (retrograde means performing movement in reverse, like turning on the rewind button on a VCR). So, to build that skill we walked forward, then backward. We ran forward, then backward. We skipped and leaped forward, then backward (this is much harder than it sounds). What we quickly learned is that human beings are very bad at moving, as dancers say, in the backspace. Our eyes are in front and that’s how we travel through the world: facing forward, moving forward. Reversing and moving sideways take practice but they are essential skills if you’re going to maintain your personal space in public. You have to be able to move out of someone’s space if they’re moving towards yours.
  4. Kidwatching: Have you ever watched young children play tag? Have you seen how they change direction? Let me tell you what they don’t do: they don’t lock their knees and try to look cool. They bend their knees, they lower their centre of gravity, and they turn on a dime. If you want to move through a crowd with agility, you’re going to have to give up on looking cool. The fastest way to change direction is to lower your body weight by bending your knees and sticking out your tuchus. It also helps to counterbalance with your arms. You may not be the most chill-looking person in the grocery store but you might avoid getting too close to COVID Mary who’s coughing her way through the cereal aisle.
  5. Eyes up, ears open: Most people, unless they have extensive movement training, indicate pretty clearly where they’re about to move. If you really watch them, you can tell, through their eye focus, their arm movement, or the way they shift their body weight, which direction they’re about to go before they go there. You can also use your peripheral vision, every dancer’s best friend, to help you anticipate the movement of people who are beside or behind you. You’ve got to be looking up at people for that to work. Eye contact (particularly my eyebrow-raised-vice-principal-stare) is also really good at communicating your desire for personal space. Listening for people, particularly indoors, also helps. If you’re paying attention, you can hear people moving around you and you can move out of their path before they get to yours.
  6. Practice: All of these techniques work for dancers because we practice them… a lot. You’ll get better at observing and responding to movement the more you do it, I promise. And to everyone who told me I was wasting my time doing a dance degree, I now curtsey ironically in your general direction. Throw roses if you wish, just don’t get too close.
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It’s okay to play

We’re about to embark on week 6 of distance learning in Ontario, week 4 of that learning being led by classroom teachers. The novelty has worn off and our reserves of cheerful optimism are running low. Teachers, elementary teachers in particular, are known for their cheeriness but even the sun-shiniest among us are showing the wear and tear of this uniquely stressful time. If you’re feeling out of sorts you’re in good company.

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Kids are feeling weary too. It’s a long haul and it’s going to get longer. My own children are tech-savy and have all their basic needs met: they wake up and go to bed on a regular schedule, they’re getting outside every day, they’re eating well and they have parents who can help them academically (although I confess that dividing fractions required me to do some review).  If my kids are struggling to remain motivated with their online classes, which they are, then it’s likely that everyone is. The teachers I’m in touch with reported that this week felt like heavy lifting with kids. They weren’t engaged, they weren’t handing in work and they weren’t present for synchronous sessions. What had been working before, suddenly wasn’t.

In my last post, I shared this image which describes the Community of Inquiry as conceptualized by Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000). The model proposes that the educational experience in distance learning is composed of three equally important types of presence: cognitive presence, teaching presence, and social presence.

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Over the past several weeks we have seen a lot of influential educational thinkers frantically distancing themselves from the terms “distance learning” and “online learning” as we struggle to both name what we’re doing and to describe its challenges. Emergency remote learning seems to be a term most people can agree on. While I agree that what’s happening is somewhat different from a planned distance learning experience that students have chosen to engage in, I think that we ignore the lessons of distance education research at our peril. Imagining that what we’re doing is entirely different from what distance educators have been doing for decades just isn’t accurate. We’re doing it under intense pressure and with students who haven’t chosen to learn this way but the nuts and bolts of how it works is very similar.

One of the distance education practices that I think we would be wise to pay attention to is valuing social presence. Garrison (2009) describes social presence as “the ability of participants to identify with the community (e.g., course of study), communicate purposefully in a trusting environment, and develop inter-personal relationships by way of projecting their individual personalities.” I don’t know if that’s something most teachers thought about when they were rushing to put their online classrooms together a few weeks ago.

How are we allowing students to sustain and develop their relationships with us and with each other in our online context? How are we having fun? How are we being silly? How are we playing? We do this effortlessly in our classrooms by telling stories, joking with students, providing feedback, and relating personal connections to the material. We don’t even realize we’re doing it most of the time. Online we have to be more deliberate about it.

Even if you’re teaching grade 12 Physics, allowing time and space for the development of social presence matters. Why? It matters for its own sake – we all want to feel like we’re part of a community, especially now – and it also matters because it contributes to cognitive presence; students learn better when they’re socially engaged.  As an adult taking distance education courses, you may have never experienced this being done well but the research supports that social presence and cognitive presence go hand-in-hand. So don’t be afraid to ease off the content gas pedal for a while and focus on having fun with your students. Have a look at tools like FlipGrid, which allows students to post short video clips. Have a pet beauty contest, even if the contestants are pet rocks. Re-name the elements in the periodic table based on characters on their favourite TV shows, or politicians, or celebrities. Ask students to complete an activity outdoors – tableaux anyone? Have a silly walk contest. Give yourself permission to have fun. It’s not just okay to play, it may actually be essential to sustaining students’ cognitive presence over the long haul. We can be here for a good time and a long time.

Dive in: 5 things to think about when you’re planning for early learning online.

There aren’t many superlatives left to describe the times we’re living in: unprecedented is pretty much worn out by now.  But thread-bare though our adjectives may be they are nevertheless apt.  Most people alive today have never experienced anything like this pandemic and even those who can remember living through quarantines have never experienced something on this scale. My 95 year old grandmother was born 7 years after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and there aren’t many people alive who are older than her.

Next week, we in Ontario’s public education sector will begin on a trajectory that has never before been attempted – the roll out of distance learning from Kindergarten to grade 12 across an entire system of public education. Truly, the mind boggles. I challenge you to go into a research database (all Ontario College of Teachers members have access to one here: www.oct.ca) and use the search terms “early childhood education or kindergarten or first grade or elementary school” and “distance education or distance learning or online education or online learning.”  You’re going to come up with virtually nothing.

The research that has been done on early childhood/early primary education and distance learning has been done in teacher preparation, not with young children.  From a research point of view, this isn’t surprising given the challenges in recruiting subjects and getting ethics approval to work with young children.  There are lots of reasons that this research hasn’t been done, not the least of which is that we’ve never had a reason to do it.  As a parent, I wanted my young children learning while interacting with their peers and it’s a well-supported truism that social engagment is critically important to learning, particularly in the early years. Necessity, however, is the mother of innovation.

So, what are some things we might want to consider as we reach out to families online and think about how to continue the learning we were doing face-to-face only a few weeks ago? Obviously, what’s below is only conjecture… there aren’t any actual experts out there, this is all too new. But, as an educator who spent years in Kindergarten and Primary classes both as a teacher and as a consultant and as a student working on her Doctorate in Distance Education, here are some suggestions that might be helpful.

  1. It’s still a community.

If your online learning experiences so far have been less-than-great, as I hear quite often, you may not realize that there this is a domain with theoretical pillars – there’s actually quite a lot of research into what works in Distance Education (DE), albeit mostly with older students. One of these big ideas in DE is the Community of Inquiry (COI) (Garrison, Anderson & Archer, 2000). This framework “represents a process of creating a deep and meaningful (collaborative-constructivist) learning experience through the development of three interdependent elements – social, cognitive and teaching presence.”

What that means for Kindergarten and Primary teachers is that all those things we already do: creating community, nurturing relationships, and supporting families still matter to learning in an online classroom. Your presence in the online space, responding to questions, making comments, asking questions, and sharing content matters. It’s not just a matter of creating content and leaving it there. Your ongoing presence and interaction remain important to the learning. 

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Student presence also matters and it’s important that there’s room for student voice and choice. Students should feel that they have input into the class and how it evolves online, in the same way that you teach responsively in the face-to-face context. I know I’ve taken courses online that feel rote and whose content clearly isn’t responsive to the people taking the class. It’s a miserable experience.

Don’t feel that you have to spend the next few days putting everything imaginable online. Try a few things and see how it goes. Think of it as dancing with a partner: wait to see what moves they make before you make your next move.

2. You are pioneers, be kind to yourselves… and ask for help.

Have I mentioned yet that this is brand new? For some of you the technology itself is brand new. For almost everyone, designing an online classroom is brand new.

It’s not going to be perfect. You’re going to try things that don’t work and there will be moments of frustration. That’s okay. We’re all learning this together.

When you get stuck, take a break or ask for help. There are lots of great videos out there explaining how all of the technolgical tools (D2L, Google Classroom, SeeSaw, etc…) work. There are also some good resources. You can ask your colleagues, you can ask your kids, you can ask me! Try to frame it as a unique learning opportunity for you too and be kind to yourself, no one is expecting perfection.

3. Boil it down

Think about the most important learning for your grade level. Think about where your students were in their learning trajectories when you last saw them. What are the key pieces for them to be successful as they continue through their education? Focus on those. It’s maple syrup season, which is fitting. Be inspired by that process and concentrate on the essence of your curriculum.

4. Think outside the screen.

The classroom will be online, yes, but the learning doesn’t have to be.

Think of your online posts to your classroom as provocations and invite students to use them as a springboard for their own ideas and explorations. You might ask them to write and record a video interviewing their parents or their siblings, they might collect objects in their homes to sort using a variety of attributes, they might create a movement pattern that they record so that their classmates can learn it.  They might collect rocks to use as counters. It’s going to be a less linear learning process than you might be used to and you’ll have to accept that individual products might be quite different but, if you can wrap your head around planning for differentiation, you might find that students are learning in new and unexpected ways.

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5. Relationships before everything.

You are the experts on your students, not me or anyone else. You know their families, what their living situations are, how many siblings they have, what language(s) they speak and whether they have grandparents at home. All of these factors, and more, are going to influence the ways that they interact with an online classroom. All the relationships you’ve built with parents and families in the past 7 months are going to matter a lot over the course of this process.

My own children have been studying online with their Hebrew School teacher since they were very young. They’ve never met her; it’s unlikely that they’ll ever meet her – she lives on the other side of the world. They nevertheless have a great relationship with her.  You have an advantage she doesn’t; you already know your students. Distance learning is a great opportunity to get to know them in a new way. You can maintain and even grow your relationships with your students and their families during this time – what a unique experience to have lived together! What stories you’ll all have to tell! You are going where no one has gone before… be brave.

I’d love to hear how it’s going… please leave a comment below to share your experiences. We may be physically distanced but let’s stay connected!

 

On the verge

It was a week that started with people sharing memes about the convergence of the full moon, the time change and Friday the 13th – brace yourselves teachers, we’re in for a wild ride! How quaint that all seems now. On Wednesday morning we woke up to the news that our city had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. Suddenly, the full moon didn’t seem to matter any more.

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Image by Duncan Miller from Pixabay

We got through Wednesday and Thursday, remaining calm, comforting anxious kids, parents and staff; we were the calm squad. We handed out disinfecting wipes, cajoled kids into washing their hands (yes, again) and tried to stay positive. We mostly succeeded. Thursday afternoon brought the news that all schools would close for an additional two weeks after March Break. Is it possible to be both surprised and not surprised at the same time? If it is, I was. I felt both shock that such drastic action was being taken and relief that we were doing something concrete. I’m a dedicated hand-washer at the best of times; the impulse to do something more was becoming overwhelming, and now, we were.

But that thing we’re doing is, well, oddly, nothing. So far, less than two days into this social distancing experiment, I’m already wondering how to fill the time. I have assignments to complete and that’s probably what I should be writing right now but I’m finding it hard to think about anything other than my experience this past week.

Some things that surprised me:

  • The calm – There are moments when I’m extraordinarily proud to live in this country and this week was one of them. I thought it was very possible that the volume of early-morning sick calls would rise incrementally after the news of the first positive local case broke. After all, everyone was anxious and there are still a lot of unknowns in this rapidly evolving situation. I was wrong. Teachers and support staff came to work, they gave kids the consistency and normalcy they needed and they supported each other with humour and grace. It was Canadian dutifulness at its best.
  • The kindness: Staff baked treats, parents brought in chocolates, people were extra-gentle with each other. When a child had a cough or a runny nose teachers sent them to the office to get checked but with a noticeable undertone of deliberate calm so as not to upset either the child or their classmates. Crises don’t always bring out the best in people; this one did.
  • The work: On Friday morning, as we all digested the news that it would be at least three weeks before we were allowed to come back to school, teachers set to work organizing learning activities for their students. My daughter’s teacher and her grade partners put together a fantastic set of resources for students to work through and they did it all in record time. While my daughter may well wish they were less efficient, she will have lots to keep her busy over the next few weeks. I’m very grateful. They didn’t have to go the extra mile on a day that was already full, but they did.

So, I’m here, on the verge of something and also of nothing. With so much to do and yet nothing to do. With a pantry full of food and an empty calendar. It’s a privileged position but not a comfortable one – unease is the daily constant.

Often when I feel a bit unmoored, I re-read books that have been touchstones for me. Recently, I’ve re-read the last three books in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne series (Anne of Ingleside, Rainbow Valley and Rilla of Ingleside) and Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night.  The shadow of both world wars stalk those novels and it anchors me to remember the enormity of the challenges we’ve faced together as we rise to face this current one. My grandfather was fighting Nazis at 17 years old, surely we can survive a little isolation? My children are less than impressed by my historical musings: “Mom, that’s not fun!” Fair enough.

Two quotes have popped out at me:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.  ~ Hugh MacLennan

The body grows slowly and steadily but the soul grows by leaps and bounds. It may come to its full stature in an hour. ~ L.M. Montgomery

These are chestnuts, old ones, and whether they’ve aged well or not is a matter of opinion. But my experience so far in this crisis is that they’re true, both of them. I’ve seen souls growing by leaps and bounds this week and I’ve witnessed the complexity of our choices under pressure. What the next few weeks will bring, aside from more inevitable complaints about my lack of fun, I don’t know. I’m hoping it continues to bring out the better angels of our nature and that we manage to pull together, under duress, to protect each other.