I wrote a piece recently about comics, and art, and method, and disrupting and questioning and hopefully growing the work that we do in the academy. Remember those little capsules that you put in water and they suddenly expand and become a huge sponge dinosaur? …
I owe 99.99999% of who I am and the work I do to the education I received at Grinnell College (’96, English). I went there sight unseen from Honolulu, Hawaii. I didn’t have a warm winter coat, many pairs of socks, or any idea of what I was getting into. I had never been to the midwest before. But I stayed for all four years. And today I found myself in the pages of Grinnell Magazine! I am so pleased.
You can read the whole thing here: http://magazine.grinnell.edu/news/stories-good-world
Wondering what I’ve been up to? Dr. Marie Pierre Moreau and I have perpetrated a delicious graphic installation piece of comics-based/arts-based research focusing on the experiences of carers in higher education. This project has been generously supported by an AdvanceHE Good Practice Grant. We hope …
This week’s Helpers cartoon focuses on the fearless chickadee.
I used to live in a little house on a remote dirt road. At that house, there was a wooden post cover in the center of the yard that had a perfect little round hole in the top and a sheltered space within. As I watched from inside the house, I noticed that a chickadee was flying in and out of that little chickadee-sized hole carrying bugs and bits of straw and all kinds of little fluffy things. Turns out, he had his baby chickadees nesting in there, as was shortly confirmed with a quick trip out to peer carefully into the hole at the little fluffy heads and hungry mouths, silently and sweetly bunched together. In and out Father and Mother Chickadee went, while the four little fluffs waited inside. For a moment upon each departure, they would stand straddling the entrance, giving the world one furious once-over, as if to say, I’m going to be right back so don’t even think about it. And nothing did.
I have always loved the Chickadee (and imagine my delight upon discovering that it is our state bird here in Massachusetts). I love her winsomeness, her scrappy black cap and tiny fury, but most of all I love her fearlessness. I once went for a walk in the woods with a naturalist friend and was amazed at how chickadees would land on our outstretched hands to eat seeds from our palms. These were wild birds, not tame– and I can’t imagine a tame chickadee, anyway. It was certainly magical thinking but during some of the more difficult times– alone at home and isolated with my little children, powering through my painful divorce, beset with worry over life and money and academic careers and — now– disease and disaster– I go back out into the woods and hold out my hands. Without fail, if I wait long enough, the chickadees come. I want to believe that they are reminding me that, as our own blessed Emily Dickinson said, “hope is the thing with feathers.”
And hope and fearlessness are related. They call this little bird the Fearless Chickadee not because she embodies a kind of sense-deaf bravado we might associate with some stripes of human “fearlessness”, but because she is ferocious in her hope. Shakespeare would have said that, “though she be but little, she is fierce” and I would say she embodies Atticus Finch’s admonition that to be fearless is to have courage, and that can be the courage of hope, the courage of tenacity, the courage of humility, and of carrying on even when the world seems to be a very dark place. He said, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.” Chickadees know that they are small and vulnerable and the winter is long and dark but they carry on, full stop. To be an overwintering creature made of feathers and air weighing scarcely 12 grams is the epitome of “knowing you’re licked before you begin” but she lands on my hand anyway. Chickadees aren’t stupid: Some of nature’s smartest birds, they are known to have excellent memories— outwitting snakes and other predators, cleverly hiding their food stores–they can remember thousands upon thousands of hiding places–and building their burrows in such a way that only they can enter. Linguistically complex, even other unrelated species of birds listen to and understand their alarm calls. Everyone heeds the Chickadee. They know what must be done and they do it, even though the odds seem stacked against them.
So, remember the Chickadee and persevere. Be brave. Have courage. Even as we are surrounded and led by cowardice, venality, and wickedness, good people continue to do good and brighter days are coming. Tyrants are brought down. Kindness is power. Small is mighty. Hope is the thing with feathers. We can do this. Get it done.
When was the last time you were running in the rain and cold, perhaps loaded down with packages or groceries or unwieldy children’s art projects, and someone held the door open for you? Maybe they held it for quite a while while you shuffled along. Maybe it was a bit awkward. Maybe they themselves got a bit wet waiting for you. Maybe they did it anyway. Either way, you probably felt good.
This story came to me from a community member whose children attend an area elementary school. As I wrote in today’s comic, the principal at this school greets students every day by holding the building door open for them. As a former PreK-6 teacher, I remember the days I had door duty and it was always a fun and exciting start to even the longer days; the children were always happy to see me, to see their friends, to be back in the place where they felt loved and secure and where routines and predictability reigned. That’s the way it was in the school where I taught. It’s also the way it is in this principal’s school. So when the children were not coming to school anymore, she did the next best thing and made daily videos to “hold the door” for the children, metaphorically but also emotionally, until they could all be back together again. Every single day. And that is how hope works: holding the door open, even if it takes a really long time and we get very, very wet waiting for that last person to come shuffling across the parking lot, is an affirmation of the value of that last straggler and the belief that we continue to invest in the future and one another no matter what. Hold the door. We are all coming back in.
Of course I thought about all the ways we hold the door for each other, both before this chaotic and scary time and now in the midst of social distancing, lockdowns, and sheltering-in-place. This is quiet work, barely visible to many, and hard to sustain in an asynchronous and disjointed online reality. As Craig Smith @ColumbiaSurgery writes, “the rapture of action” can be a relief in these days, when staying at home seems frustratingly inadequate (spoiler: it’s not). But teachers and parents and families keep mushing just as hard. The emails and phone calls and messages and videos from the people out there doing what they can to connect with and feed and sustain the most vulnerable among us are the signal fires that break up this long night and will help us find our way when it ends.
How are those around you holding the door? Send me your stories at email@example.com