Words Matter.

Now more than ever, the words we speak, write, and listen to matter. Deeply.

I’m not just saying this as homage to my job as a writer, or to the five years I spent studying for my Masters Degree, or to my childhood self who used to read way past her bedtime. Words have always mattered to me, but I think right now they matter more than ever.

Words define us.

Words are among the first things we hear, long before we are born. At a mere 18 weeks, fetuses can hear sounds, and most of those sounds are words. When we learn how to talk, through the truly miraculous process of speech acquisition, we mimic those around us, using words like “more” and “up” to express our needs. If we are lucky, our parents and caretakers model language for us, talking about what they are doing so we can learn how to express what we are doing.

But we also define words.

It is at this early stage of self-expression that we begin to define which words matter, to us. We learn to speak the words we like, in a way that is meaningful. And we also learn all of the bad habits and inappropriate words that cause anger or surprise or sadness in others.

Lately, though, words seem to have become fungible (that’s one of my favorites). Words are interchangeable, elastic, meaningless somehow. Truth is now subjective; meanings are often misconstrued, and some facts are even alternative to other facts. In this post-truth age, we are suddenly bereft of the actual tools we need to help define our current and future status: the right words. So while “facts are stubborn things,” as John Adams said, facts as described by words have become far too pliable in the 250 years since he penned those truthful words.

It’s 4 am around the world, and right now it looks a little grim.

Yes, it’s dark, and the sun hasn’t risen yet. But I believe we’re at the cusp of a new age, in which facts – and words – will actually come to matter more widely than ever. We are in an oddly similar state to that of the late 17th century, when really big ideas were being really widely questioned: ideas like monarchy and absolute power, the privilege of spiritual views over scientific findings, and even the existence of God. Today, it’s about structural racism, and saving our planet from overheating, and determining if we can work together as a society to improve public health (and many other) systems for all.

But I also believe we’re about to find a whole lot of common ground.

Despite what it feels like right now, just as the Enlightenment came into being, common ground was being found on a massive scale: philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke were beginning to agree that people, rather, than monarchs, were better-equipped to govern society. Religious leaders like Cotton Mather (who ardently believed in witches), were advocating for science and new vaccinations to eradicate the smallpox pandemic. (Sound familiar?) And as society struggled to define ultimate power as more than a long-held, patriarchal construct, the Age of Reason dawned, and our modern era was made possible.

Words foment these changes.

As we consider the debate over “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter,” one need not be a rhetor to understand the difference between “Black” and “All.” By saying “all” we negate the very subject of the cause itself. The word Black matters.

As we watch the planet heat up beyond repair, we can each take actions that – when combined – begin to make a difference. The word Change matters.

And as we witness the casualties from COVID-19 rise across the world, we wonder how a society that evolved from great thinkers like Sir Francis Bacon and Immanuel Kant could turn away from the communal Us, in sole favor of the individual I. The word Us matters.

Words can pave the way.

I refuse to believe that words have lost the power we’ve all given them, over the centuries. Words may be more ubiquitous (another favorite), and more divisive, and even less treasured than in the past, but I refuse to believe they no longer define the truth. It is only with words that we will change how we live, and it is only by recognizing their power that we, in turn, can recognize our own ability to define our future.

As Nicholas Kristof said in his hopeful July 17, 2020 editorial about the 4 am moment we’re all experiencing, “history doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme.” The dawn will come, we’ll all get back to productivity, and society will keep advancing toward an ideal blend of individual freedom and justice for all. I’m equally hopeful that when the current darkness falls away, the dawn of the next age we create will be more reasoned, more fair, and ultimately more truthful.

For more information about how to use words in a powerful, truthful way, send me an email at [email protected]

Let’s recycle 2020.

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid we didn’t recycle anything. I’m not sure I ever heard the word back then. Everything went in the trash – plastic, metal, everything. In fact, some of my best memories with my Dad are driving out to the dump on a Saturday morning, to discard whatever we were throwing away and shoot at some empty Coke bottles in the bargain. Now those were some good old days.

Today, we take more care – and it’s a good thing. We rinse out the plastic and metal and try to turn it into something better. We use cloth rather than paper towels and even re-use Ziploc bags. Our thoughtfulness is helping, and it’s also turning our thoughts more toward conservation than consumption. Again, that’s a really good thing.

So, as I hear everyone talking about “throwing out” 2020 and saying goodbye to the “dumpster fire” – which I am certainly in agreement with – I’m also keen to reap what we can from all the rubble. As we put the last milk jug with a December 2020 date in the recycling bin, let’s take a moment to think about what we can use from the past 12 months.

What shall we keep?

It may take some pondering, but we can all come up with a few small things we’ve gained in 2020. These probably pale to the amount of distress we’ve endured, but they still matter. Here are a few of mine:

My daily walks. My full-time job is gone, and I work now from a corner of my kitchen. Every day is an online adventure, with some consulting and some teaching, and quite a bit of home management. But every day, almost without fail, I also bundle up and head outdoors with my pup. This is usually the brightest spot of my day, when the sun warms me and the cold wind wakes me up. Often I see a neighbor, and sometimes we see a bit of nature (yes, even a moose or a bunny). As many British writers have noted, this “daily constitutional” is key to a happy life and seems even more necessary these days, as a regular fresh-air break from the demands of living.

Good, home-cooked meals. This doesn’t happen every day, and sometimes not even every week. Meals often come from boxes and take-out. But one of the ways I got through the March quarantine was by exploring a new type of cuisine each week – Chinese, Mexican, Greek, Italian. It kept me from going mad and kept my teenager from starving of boredom. Setting aside a few dollars each week to try something new and fun is an easy way to keep things interesting – even if it really is just a few dollars!

Sleep, sleep, sleep…or at least REST. Although I’ve had plenty of sleepless nights, I’m also learning to calm myself down enough to at least rest. Maybe a full night’s sleep won’t come back until the pandemic is over, and we can say goodbye to election politics, but a good rest can still be had. One of the few silver linings to being at home is the ability to possibly sleep in a bit, or take a nap, or just stare out the window for a few minutes when it all seems too much. Taking a break from our cares can do wonders for our perspective, and there are plenty of tricks to getting a good night’s sleep as well.

What shall we re-purpose?

Rhetoric. As someone who makes my living with words, it’s hard not to be discouraged about the past 12 months of discourse. Our words matter, and the English language has suffered as much abuse as anything else in 2020. Harsh, hate-filled words have divided us, establishing binaries that seem impossible to overcome. But guess what? Words can also heal. Notice the language you use; does it create “sides”? Reinforce differences? Or does it acknowledge a third way? Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes it, the middle way?

In our college writing courses, we teach multi-sided inquiry, which abolishes binaries and instead seeks to examine an issue from multiple perspectives. This process requires a thorough review of other perspectives before we can even begin to make an argument about our own. It also requires the support of established facts to support these views, a discipline that is sadly becoming less common in our societal exchanges. Talking points and faulty logic are far too prevalent today, so it’s time to make a change in our own thinking and develop ways to think more critically. Through this kind of research and inquiry, we can go beyond a two-sided view of the world and truly start to understand each other. After all, education is the first step toward understanding.

Also, turning off the TV can help.

What shall we discard?

Here are just a few: Fear, intimidation, and ignorance. An inability to see things from another perspective. An unwillingness to learn the facts before stating an opinion. Selfishness and anger, most of which derive from fear. In short, all of the things that bring us sadness and none of the things that bring us joy.

Keeping what matters.

One of the best things I’ve gained in 2020 is a few special memories with my teenage son. During quarantine, we walked together almost every day, and that gave me a chance to learn a few things about him I didn’t know, and to listen more than I had in the past. I know this isn’t true for all of us, but hopefully we’ve all had at least one small moment to cherish from 2020. Was there a time when one of your kids hugged you a little tighter? Did you share a special treat you might not have otherwise done? Even a glance at the sunset on our way to run an errand counts as a take-away from this spectacularly unsettling year. In a 2020 that has felt very much like a dumpster fire, there are sparks we can capture and fan into a more beautiful flame.

So, these are the things I’d like to keep, from 2020. We can toss out the acrimony and division, and let’s leave behind the sadness and the suffering. But let’s also keep the things we didn’t know we needed…the small moments we gained even as the world around us burned. And let’s turn those little moments into something we can actually build upon for a better 2021.

Gratitude.

I’m grateful for words when we need them, and silence when we don’t.

It seems Mother Nature knew the value of both, which is why the Earth is quiet by default, and equally surprising in its own varied, unexpected, sometimes tragic, often raucous, and truly transcendent way.

So this most unusual Thanksgiving Day finds me listening, and grateful, and quiet. Remembering the joyful, boisterous Thanksgivings of years past, and waiting for the joyful, boisterous Thanksgivings of years to come…all while enjoying the beauty of both. For both words and silence have their place, and learning to stop and listen has a value all its own.

This year’s leaves

This year’s leaves
seem so tired
with the weight of it all.
The summer’s bulk
of seclusion and grief
pining, and pressing, on limbs.

Leaves held on, all summer, for no reason
The sheer force of the sun keeping their veins intact
As the trickery of June fell into the acquiescence of August,
So tired, our arms,
So heavy, with summer’s weight.

The long influence of nature,
Pestilent in its grasp,
Raucous in its reach
Stretching and coiling,
Finding its way across oceans and peaks

Months in the making,
The dry, hot weight of it all
struggling to breathe,
heavy with the burden.

This year’s leaves are many, and varied
Some young, some green, most old
And rattling, struggling to breathe.

The weight of it all, suddenly falling,
In bright, sun-spotted crescents of cool
Air pulling them away in one final flourish,
Axils pulled free from their one simple strand.

Still, they seem so happy, these leaves
Content to be free of their captors,
Pleased to be falling to Earth
One final twirl, they breathe out, to the finish.

Death, in the end,
comes in waves of crashing color.
But the falling away is a sigh, not a sound.
And the cessation is not, so much, a dissent
as one final,
unspoken
relief.

(c) Catherine Goodman 2020
Dedicated to all we’ve lost.

I hope you enjoyed that beer, America.

This morning, I took my normal walk for about 40 minutes around my little hood. Far fewer people were out, because it is the first day of school in my town. Four or five buses passed me during that 40 minutes, and each one prompted in me that same feeling of excitement (nerd alert: I love school), but a second later I was hit with a gut-punch of anxiety as I realized what our kids are taking on.

Our kids are now the frontline workers.

While Rome was burning, Nero fiddled. And while our school administrators and teachers were trying to figure out how the HELL to teach this fall, much of America drank beer and took vacations and went to parties in the Hollywood Hills. Apparently unable to see beyond our immediate need for a return to normalcy, we opened up far more than we should have, and we see now that the economic promise of reopening was an empty one. As Paul Krugman rightly noted last month, American drank away its kids’ future, because the economy mattered more to some than the future of our children. Which, by the way, is a false dichotomy because they are forever intertwined.

I’m not against the economy; I get it that everyone is suffering. Many small businesses are shuttered for good – but that’s not the fault of our children. The basic idea that we cannot get the economy back until we get the virus under control seems to have eluded many in power. The money simply has not gone where it needed to go, in order to solve the problem of putting 30 kids in a classroom by September.

And now, our kids are the ones who must make up the difference.

As I neared my home, I saw a young boy and both of his parents approach the bus stop. My heart broke as I watched this little guy, maybe 11 years old and holding his mother’s hand, waiting for the biggest day of his life so far. Already at a disadvantage because of his skin color, he nervously adjusted his new backpack and shifted from one foot to the other. He was clearly well-loved and had the support of his family – both parents had walked him maybe 20 feet from their home to the stop. But they can’t help him avoid COVID, and my guess is they can’t keep him home, either.

From the time of day, I know this young man was heading into middle school – a huge emotional jump for any child. And now he has even more to deal with. On top of navigating his new class schedule, multiple teachers, and the horrors of the lunchroom, he now must keep track of a mask, not touch anything, eat lunch at an assigned seat, and worry about getting sick.

As I walked by, I sent him a little wish that the Middle School Angels would watch over him, and bring him home with tales of fun teachers and exciting classes and new friends – maybe even a special one to sit with at lunch. I know it’s a big wish, but I also know some of those angels, and they are pretty powerful.

Today is a busy one for the angels. May they find time for all of our littles, and may we all love our kids a bit more right now, as they do the job no one else was able to do.

It’s time for the grown-ups to decide.

Right now, if you’re a parent — you’re probably stuck in an endless loop of checking facts and evaluating risk. The CDC publishes new guidelines, so you check those new guidelines against your decisions about school, or play dates, or carpooling. Your school district issues new ideas about online schooling, so you check those new ideas against your *current* plan for fall, your kid’s development, and your own tolerance for risk.

This is a tautology, and that means it’s going nowhere. Fast.

As George W. Bush said, “It’s no exaggeration to say the undecideds could go one way or another.” Tautological statements have no end in sight; they loop around themselves without making any clear exit, ever. Statements like “If we do not succeed, we run the risk of failure” (Dan Quayle) are almost meaningless, because they don’t arrive at any certainty except for the uncertainty already contained within them. Logical tautologies like, “Either it will rain tomorrow, or it won’t rain” are completely without merit, because we simply won’t know until tomorrow arrives.

Yet parents keep trying to predict the future, and it only takes one look at the media to see that no one really knows. We can read all the studies and watch all the news, and we all still have to make our own decisions. And if we start asking other parents, it gets even more difficult, because we start to align ourselves (or not) with others, and then we’re really in a fix.

Which makes me wonder if it’s really the risk that bothers us?

When I got divorced, the real trigger for it was not the myriad of reasons I typically give (insert your own ideas here…the top 3 for most couples are incompatible values, irreconcilable differences, and money). The real trigger for my divorce was the look on my 5 year-old’s face when he watched us fighting. I realized in that particular moment that my divorce was imminent, but also that I was teaching my child in a very material way how to relate to other people. (And sometimes, that’s to walk away.)

When we make a big decision — or even a small one — it seems to me that we’re modeling more than just our views on the question at hand. Making that decision about my divorce was not so much about the underlying reasons for the split; it was about how I wanted to model relationships to my child.

We can model the same decision-making behavior when we discuss — and finally decide — about school.

As we “cuss and discuss” school options, it’s worth considering what traits we’re modeling to our children. Are we showing that we can handle this decision, despite the conflicting views of others and the science that changes almost daily? That we can adjust, when we learn new information? That we can make a decision that differs from those of others, and still feel good about it? Or just that we can be calm in the face of uncertainty? These strike me as truly valuable skills to teach our children — especially in the face of other situations parents can’t always control (um, teenage drinking or pregnancy, anyone?).

So maybe that’s it. We’re uncertain, and it’s easy to transfer that uncertainty to our children.

I’ve got news for you, it’s our job as parents to model good decision-making behavior, and that includes NOT including them in our angst. We’ve got at least a few decades more experience than they do, and they are not yet equipped for decisions this complicated. While I’ve seen many parents give their kids a long leash on some things (honestly, it’s unnerving how much freedom some kids have), this is a decision that involves the parents — and the kids can contribute only if they are mature enough to do so. But allowing young children to participate in the process (I’m talking to you, Facebook Moms) is counter-productive and gives them far too much power. Especially for younger children, the decision rests solely with the parents — and we have to step up and do our best to show them how to make tough decisions.

And honestly, in the end, I think that’s what our kids will remember: That we cared enough to make a good decision, but also that we cared enough to show them how it’s done.

John Donne would have loved this conversation.

As the school year approaches, social media is burning up — microschools, private tutoring, people moving to entirely new states just so they can attend school in person. (This is true, sadly, especially in cute little towns like mine. Please help me not be upset about it.)

But really, the conversation should be about, as our district superintendent called it, “shared sacrifice.” As we customize and privatize and deputize, let’s also remember that we actually must socialize. School is not a bubble — and it’s not a magic answer for the rest of society, even if the best minds are already on it (and they are). We can do our best to control our own situation, but we are still “part of the main” — part of the bigger picture that involves businesses, health care systems, our most vulnerable, and society at large. No matter our school choice, what we do still affects others.

As John Donne so rightly said in 1624 — right before the Great Plague of London, BTW — we are all a “piece of the continent”:

‘No Man is an Island’

No man is an island entire of itself; every man 
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 
own were; any man's death diminishes me, 
because I am involved in mankind. 
And therefore never send to know for whom 
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 

MEDITATION XVII
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
John Donne 

He’s right, you know. We all are in this together…we are “involved in mankind,” and that’s why I think we all struggle with this. For centuries, we’ve been trying to resolve this conflict between self and society, between the individual and the collective — and this new virus only brings this old battle back into focus.

For more on a uniquely unselfish perspective that echoes Mr. Donne’s, see Emily’s ideas here about back-to-school. As a mom of 5 and daughter of the Greatest Mom Ever, she brings balanced insights and just the right touch of humor to the topic.

And I guarantee that if a bell tolls, she hears it.

For more on the great metaphysical poet John Donne, visit The Poetry Foundation. And if you want to talk about schools, poetry, or how parenthood brings perspective, send me an email at [email protected]

It’s July 20th – and that’s probably why I feel so broken.

Parents develop a sort of internal clock, as the years go by. When kids are young, this internal clock changes all the time – nap time, developmental milestones, vaccination schedules.

But when kids hit 5 or 6 and start heading off to school, the internal-parental clock gets stuck in place for a long time. School starts in August or early September, and ends in late May or early June. Every. Year. It’s a timeframe that’s been in place since school reformers codified the long summer break in the late 19th Century, when schools were all following disparate models depending on weather, agronomy, and a lack of required school days. In fact, the vast majority of schools follow this August – May calendar, with only 4% of public schools in the U.S. now attending year-round.

So no wonder I feel a little adrift.

Today is July 20, and school in my district starts on August 20. My internal school clock, put in motion a decade ago when my son started first grade, clicked its giant gears into place with a big thud this morning, as the school start date rolled up on my internal calender. One month away – late July – is the time to start getting these kids ready for school. The regular list of items formed in my mind:

  • Make sure he’s registered – check.
  • Confirm his class schedule and teacher(s) – check.
  • Review supply lists; buy calculators, instruments, binders, and pencils – check.
  • Do some informal research about his teachers, classmates, etc. – check.
  • Buy school clothes! – check.

But this year, another big agenda item is on the list, and it makes the others seem absolutely irrelevant right now:

  • Decide how he’ll attend school. – not even close to checked.

How in the world did we get to a place where the most fundamental question of our kids’ education is so chaotically in question? And a mere month before school starts?

Let’s travel back to those mid-1800s, before today’s formal school calendar was established, when a patchwork of schedules covered the country – with agrarian students attending in the winter and summer, and urban students attending on a more year-round basis. Students were not required to attend 180 days a year, and in fact many schools were open almost 250 days a year. Students attended when they were able, and if it was too hot or the corn was coming in, they worked or stayed home instead.

Almost 200 years later, our entire world order is now disrupted, and COVID-19 is dictating our choices. Yet those choices are, at best, a rude imitation of any choices we would have formulated, given the chance. District personnel across the country are weighing classroom size, delivery mechanisms, and teacher risk – almost as if spring quarter never happened and we were starting from zero.

While it feels like there should be more answers right now than there are, districts are attempting a massive change.

And I for one, want to thank those doing this work.

Do yourself a favor, and go read your school board meeting agendas and minutes. Watch the meeting videos, and review the budget. Our schools are huge, bureaucatic entities, subject to the direction of state governments and federal standards. It’s like turning a freighter around, to change these giant structures in just a few months, so take a moment and thank those who are trying so hard to do this right.

Then, take a moment and tell yourself it’s going to be okay.

Yes, there is big risk out there, and yes, some of us will get sick by taking those risks. But approaching the school year with a “sky is falling” mentality doesn’t help any of us, including our kids. Even those who choose remote learning are not totally free from risk, and there is no guarantee that those who attend school in person will get sick. It’s a wedding buffet with choices none of us would have selected, but we still have to choose from the menu.

Like everything else with COVID, it’s an opportunity for change.

Once I saw the hard work our district was doing behind the scenes, I realized there are many ways to make this school year work. Our district teams had thought through the options with careful precision, considering those who learn well at home and those who must be in school – those with marginalized home lives and those whose school attendance in-person right now is likely to change the trajectory of their lives forever. For many children, going to school may even keep them alive.

Maybe once this dust settles, and August 20 comes and goes – even with all of the bad choices – we can take a look at the bigger picture and make some truly fundamental changes in our school systems. Are there opportunities to include more students who are barely getting by? Can we help those at the margins be more fully involved and gain more from this very public system? Can teachers and staff feel more safe and supported than they currently do?

There is reason for hope.

My son is 16, and he’s unreasonably optimistic about the future. It’s inspiring to watch him and his friends talk about politics, and injustices, and reasons for change. I believe these kids are truly going to change our future in dramatic ways, and I also believe they are poised to make those changes with or without the rest of us.

And isn’t it quite possible that, given this enormous challenge during their formative years, this raw energy and desire for change will be polished in a way they wouldn’t get from a crisis-free life? My mother was adamant that kids need challenge; she was always leery of those who had it too easy. I think she was right – and I also think we are in for quite a wonderful world after 2020 and this pandemic make their blessed exit. Because these kids are truly fired up to change the world, and this pandemic is only going to spur them on to make it happen sooner.

It’s quite possible that there are unknown silver linings to this train wreck of a year, and we may end up with a far better public school system down the road because of it – one that meets the needs of more children and that never would have come to pass without our present trials.

My mother would say that sounds about right.

Here are key elements of how schools are planning for fall openings. And for more about how to use words in a powerful, truthful way, send me an email at [email protected]