Into the Great Wide Open

The title of this post references the Tom Petty Album of the same name that was released on July 2nd, 1991. The songs on the album include – “Learning to Fly”, “Kings Highway”, “Into the Great Wide Open”, “The Dark of the Sun”, “All or Nothin'”, “All the Wrong Reasons”, “Too Good to Be True”, “Out in the Cold”, “You and I Will Meet Again”, “Makin’ Some Noise”, “Built to Last”. Taking a listen to the lyrics on these songs, they could be a possible section of 2021’s soundtrack. The first song on this album? “Learning to Fly” and the lyrics are very apropos of our communal experience heading into 2021. Think of this as a lyrical intro to the post that follows. You can jam to the song here if you’d like.

Well I started out down a dirty road
Started out all alone
And the sun went down as I crossed the hill
And the town lit up, the world got still
I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings
Coming down is the hardest thing
Well, the good ol' days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn
I'm learning to fly (learning to fly) but I ain't got wings (learning to fly)
Coming down (learning to fly) is the hardest thing (learning to fly)
Well, some say life will beat you down
Break your heart, steal your crown
So I've started out for God-knows-where
I guess I'll know when I get there

It’s time to look to the future which is just days away.  The symbolism is going to be heavy this year as we transition numerically from the year 2020 to 2021, and as I mentioned in a recent post – it really doesn’t matter taking that zero and adding a one to it.  The world’s politics, current events, and ongoing pandemic(s) will continue to be experienced unabated despite a new year starting.  The things we can’t control will continue to operate at their own pace, direction, and effect.  Yet there is where I take a hard right turn, and pull off to the side of the metaphorical road to 2021.

I’ve talked before about how we do have control over some things in the world around us.  Our own levers, buttons, and switches.  These are things ranging from how we react to various things, how we handle adversity, how much heart we put into our work, to how we treat others, and ourselves.  There is an abounding amount of variables that we control – and those things have a direct, immediate, and long lasting effect on us and the lives we live.

After a tradition introduced to me by Olivia Van Ledtje in a blog she wrote in 2017 (aka @thelivbits on twitter).  The prompt she introduced was this, “Have you thought about words you’ve been gifted in 2017 and what you’re meant to learn from them?”.  I wrote my own post that year in the same vein titled, “The Gift of Words”.  I eventually turned Olvia’s idea further on its head when I wrote “2019 Wasn’t That Bad Right?” and boy howdy is hindsight crystal clear 2020 vision.  In that post, I chose some words for 2020 with the goal to focus on those words and phrases as I continued in my second year of teaching into my third.  We all know how that turned out – it took me not one, but two to process through the 2020 experience.

I don’t want to attempt to predict what 2021 will look like as the events of this pandemic continue to unfold, change, mutate, and impact the entirety of the population of this planet Earth.  I will choose some words to help chart my path into the opening moments of the year and continue to carry them with me as I walk, run, dodge, crouch, slide, scamper, skip, scramble, and slip down the path.

My first word is hope.  It’s been said by many (including me in a video) that “hope is not a strategy”, and I’m here to agree with that sentiment and belief.  Hope should never be plug and play.  Hope isn’t the winter hat you wear only in the cold.  Hope isn’t the mittens you take on and off depending on how cold it is in the car.  Hope is life, and should be lived in life, through life, and with life.  Hope should be instinctual to us, something that clings to our heart and soul that a team of wild horses couldn’t tear them apart.  Hope is how I’ve gotten through 2020, and it’s part of how many of my friends, family, and coworkers have done the same.  It hasn’t been easy.  There were weeks in the waning months of April and May where I experienced some significant depression and the summer had its own stress and anxiety as I transitioned jobs within my district.  Through it all I held onto hope – that I would get through this, that there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  In Brene Brown’s book, “Dare to Lead”, there’s a paragraph on hope that was shared with me by a coworker.  It struck me so much, I picked up the book, and it is on my reading shelf for this week.  The section below is key when it comes to hope.

My second word is love. Love is powerful. It has brought down empires, ended reigns, and shifted the path of the world’s future many times over. I realized I didn’t use that word enough with my second group of 6th graders in the 2019-2020 school year (the school year that COVID destroyed), and I’ve come to realize how important that word is, and the effect it can have in someone’s life. I wrote a post (“The Five Most Important Words for Teachers“) on a whole lotta words (love included) that I needed to remind myself of as a teacher, as a human, as a friend, and as a husband. To wit, “Love is a religion – it needs practice, it needs sharpening, and it needs to grow.” I need to get on the field, and practice, practice, and practice. Love is a muscle. It needs cardio. It needs strength training. Love must endure. To endure it must be used, lived, and given freely. The other important part of love is that it needs to be extended to all. Love only works if applied to all people of creed and color. Everyone deserves to be loved and loved well. That means folks you don’t agree with, view as your enemy (for the practicers of Christianity, there’s a few verses on that subject, and love as a whole as well), or folks you don’t even know. Love at its zenith can change the people and the world they call home in wild ways. We gotta dig into our hearts and discover how to make the chambers and muscles stronger, and fuller – so it can pour more and more out to those around us.

My third word is pace. Interestingly, this word came to mind via a Twitter conversation with Abbey Dick and the phrase, “pace the rage” in reference to the election of Donald Trump in 2016. I’m adapting that word for myself into 2021 as a daily reminder – take it one step at a time, and don’t try and do everything all the time. The definition of the word is,

” 1) a single step taken when walking or running. 2) consistent and continuous speed in walking, running, or moving.”

Definition from Oxford Languages via Google Search

As I read this definition, I took to liking what the first sentence had to say. A single step, you say? I started to wonder if I slowed my pace to that – taking time to be in the moment of that single step, and to be in that moment without fretting about the massive to-do list waiting for me. To listen at that moment, to work with my students, and to concentrate on being the best teacher I can be in that single step. Perhaps it would grant me strength, and courage to take the next step and so on and so forth. As educators, we often move at the speed of light and sound through our days – and I can’t imagine that will ever change. What can change is how we move through those moments – and examining and controlling as much of the pace as we can – maybe there’s something to be gained there? I think the pendulum can also swing the other way, as the second definition intones, “[a] consistent and continuous speed in walking, running, or moving” which I think speaks to those moments when we need to move quickly, with intentionality, and with purpose – sometimes we gotta get to running in this job. I think the message of this word is to choose my pace carefully and thoughtfully – taking the time to plot my course and the speed at which I need to sail.

My fourth word is focus. There’s a lot of things in this world competing for our attention. Between streaming services, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and various other media and social platforms there is an overwhelming amount of bright screens we can direct our attention to and enjoy. You’ll never hear me say no to a night of “The Great British Baking Show”, “Voices of Fire”, or “Repair Shop” on Netflix. But it’s a night. I freely admit that I need to get better at this – giving up the precious and limited time that I have after teaching, planning, and working a full day at school has become a growing problem. A problem that is given me an opportunity to shift my paradigm. I’ve already started this week with a set hour of time at the gym either doing a walk, or strength training. I’ve also made an ongoing pile of books to read. Not school books, but books for pleasure, and for expanding my understanding of the events of the world. My pile as of today is below.

My goal is to read for a half-hour to an hour each day. My focus needs to be on the things that bring me joy, new knowledge, and an engagement with the discipline that I teach – English. We have 24 hours in a day. Some of that time is sleeping, some getting ready, eating, and working. The remaining time is a treasure to be protected and enjoyed. I need to refocus this part of my life in order to be the best I can be in everything I do. A bit of hyperbole? Maybe, but it feels like I need to plant the flag and make the statement.

– My fifth (and final) word is acceptance. There’s been so much that’s happened between March 13, 2020, and today – more than plenty of good, and even great things. Yet, I’ve also failed, tripped, sprawled, and fallen apart in that time. Back on December 3rd, I made a video blog about regret, and the phrase, “if only”, which I talked about why we have to find acceptance of our mistakes and move forward armed with the knowledge of avoiding those pitfalls again. It was important to talk about for me, but also for others in our community – both students and teachers. Every last one of us has, in some capacity and at some point(s) in our lives, has struggled with regret and sitting too long in the squalor of, “if only”, and we have to realize that sitting in that stinky and sucky mud of regret isn’t going to get us anywhere but sinking deeper and stinking more of the foulness that results. We have to get up, accept what got us there, and grab the hose to douse ourselves in the cold water of resolute resolve as we wash away the mess of regret. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I also recognize the harsh reality – that spirit still lives in corners of my heart ready to thrash around in the mud all over again. I need to readily be ready to have open-heart surgery, and have the chambers and valves cleansed of the cancer of regret and “if only”. It is a continuous process and one that gets better with time. It becomes instinctual for us to reject the regret, and only vague vestiges will briefly haunt us as we continue to work the muscles of our heart to resist, and reject that torrid spirit. As 2021 approaches I know I will feel that familiar pull when I pratfall in the midst of teaching, communication, or engaging. I want my heart to be ready to throw it right back out when it attempts anything.

I think the title of the first song on the Tom Petty Album, “Into the Great Wide Open” is an important way to close out this post. As I was writing these words, I kept reflecting back to the lyrics of the song. I listened to the entire album (adored it, by the way), but I kept returning to those words. The image of learning to fly, but not having the wings. The fear that the good ol’ days are gone, never to return. The image of the rocks melting, and the sea burning. The feeling of life beating you down, breaking your heart, and stealing your crown. Starting out for “God-knows-where”, and guessing that we’ll know when we get there. Perhaps “Learning to Fly” is the closing song to 2020, and we’re all singing it as we look towards 2021. We’re headed for “God-knows-where”, and we have no idea what’s coming next.

And the hardest thing to accept is that we’ll know when we get there. That we’ll learn to fly. And hopefully, we’ll get some wings. Or just maybe we’ll build our own, and take to the skies, and take back our lives.

Let’s get to work.

*****

Follow up question for comments, or response on Twitter – what are your words for 2021? Why?

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