August 19, 2020

Love (and Work) in a Time of Corona (Part One)

These past five months have been a really strange, disturbing and personally intense roller-coaster experience.

The first thing I had to get used to was being classified as a member of the high-risk category. Not only do I fall into the aged category at 72 (well over 60!), I am also a male with 'underlying medical conditions' (asthma and high blood pressure). Suddenly I had my children phoning to check up on my health and I was no longer able to visit my even older (91) mother, who was in a special care section of an old age home, having descended into the world of Alzheimers a decade ago.

Within a week or two, a new 'condition' was added as each of my teaching engagements for the year was cancelled. I became an almost totally out-of-work 'high risker'!

I started off confidently. I mean, I have been teaching about complexity and uncertainty and the skills that are needed to stay grounded and intelligent in the face of chaos for many years, and I have always prided myself on making sure that I practise what I preach.

The first step was to convince my partner, Louise, that she did not need to pack up everything and move in with me. She had huge editing deadlines and would work much better in her own space. We could continue spending weekends together, as this was South Africa and there was always a way to beat the system.

My next step was to get organised. Within a week, I was enjoying the new freedom of being able to join dance sessions without leaving home; starting to learn Spanish on DuoLingo in the hope that we could still travel to the very south of Argentina in October; getting 'my affairs in order' by starting to sort through and order all my memorabilia (having fun dwelling on some of the pictures and writings); resting, reading and so on. My only sadness was that I was photographed and 'shamed' for breaking the lockdown rules by going off kayaking on day one of lockdown - somewhat ironically (given the actual photo, which heads this blog), I was apparently not self-isolating properly!

I had soon drawn up a schedule of these different activities on my office whiteboard and identified an optimal arrangement where I would study Spanish for at least 30 minutes a day, in addition to including at least two different resting activities, two different organising chores and two different relaxing spaces. All was good and for a short while I seemed to have Paradise within reach ...

And then it all changed. Suddenly I lost all desire to learn Spanish, as I was spending longer and longer periods on Duolingo competing with strangers to get promoted to a new league. My long-dormant competitive self had, in a short space of time, managed to KPI all my spontaneity and joy to death, and I was in trouble. I had single-handedly created my own hamster wheel!

Time for a change of plan. So I flipped the focus from doing (in my mind) into my learnings about being (in my heart). I let go of this overwhelming drive for structure and organisation. I started making more contact with friends and family. I paid even more attention to making sure that I was able to totally immerse myself into the love bubble that Louise and I always create when she comes to stay over weekends. I also reconnected with several people for the first time in decades, and this led to a warm and stimulating regular weekly call with Paul, reanimating a friendship that had been formed on a Schumacher College course run by James Hillman way back in 1994.

And all was good again ...

... for a while.

I could not totally silence the inner voice that wanted to talk and think about WORK. When could I expect to get back to doing the work I loved doing? When would things get back to being 'normal'?

You have to understand that I had devoted my whole academic career in UCT's School of Education to developing and researching my own practice in an attempt to develop a methodology that foregrounded personal and systemic transformation as embedded activism. During this time (and in the 12 years since then), I have created a methodology that attempts to construct real-life, real-time experiences for participants. This experience allows them to examine their own actions in some sort of 'unsafe safety'. I played the enactivist role of the perturbator with increasing skill and abandon over the years as I 'forced' participants to acknowledge and then examine their hitherto taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions to see whether these still served them. I had developed a range of classroom persona as well as an ability to play with the environment (and the participants!) in service of building a space that foregrounded equality, diversity, vulnerability and intimacy.

Now, very suddenly, COV19 and lockdown had sliced through this personal face-to-face contact and forced everyone to start ZOOMing from home!

Panic struck. All the sophisticated and familiar trappings of my 'normal' teaching style had been stripped away and I was standing naked.

I looked online and saw many of my colleagues in the field of facilitation seemingly ZOOMing into the future with alacrity as they were able to re-tool themselves to work in the new media. People were offering new online programmes that seemed to suggest that the facilitator had a handle on what was happening. I noticed some fellow academics dusting off older papers with the suggestion that they contained wise thoughts that could be appropriate guides for others to find a way out of today and into tomorrow. LinkedIn was rapidly being taken over with seemingly wise words of advice.

I felt myself disappearing. I felt another 'at risk' factor had arrived: the risk of being IRRELEVANT!

I disappeared into an inner place that some might have labelled as lethargy or even depression. I started focusing on coming to terms with finally retiring (12 years after I first officially retired at 60). As I started this line of thinking, my mother contracted COV19 in her old age home and quickly passed away with more peace than she had had for many years. This meant I became the oldest in the family and statistically the next in line for death! The outer world was even more bleak, as it was devastated by poverty, corruption, death and increased polarisation ...

These existential crisis times of 'retiring thoughts' were fortunately interspersed with amazingly regenerative times of love bubble.

This went on for several months, and then the gods struck.

In the space of a few days, they hit me two different invitations that were initiated by a past student and a current student, both of UCT's EMBA. I was invited to do a podcast interview on the topic of Change, where one possible question would be, 'What excites you right now?' In the other invitation, I was approached to run a leadership programme with the company's Exco.

My immediate response to these invitations was to go to a very familiar place of panic: I'm definitely 'not good enough' for these tasks. I really don't know. I don't have any answers. I'm not sure that I even have any skills any more.

The fact that this feeling of not being good enough felt very familiar to me made me smile when I came across a Rainer Maria Rilke quote that said, "Ultimately each one of us experiences only one conflict in life which constantly reappears under a different guise." (It might also be why I have already written three blogs on the topic!)

For 20 years, I have lived with the rule of saying yes to everything, particularly when it takes me out of my comfort zone. I recognised that I was in this place again and all I could do was face it. I took a deep breath and moved towards the panic, choosing to embrace it and to accept everything that this act brought.

And suddenly I found myself in a familiar place, riding my kayak and talking to the gods (who, as you might not know, live in the Kalk Bay mountains!). My mind and whole being were suddenly ignited and on fire with ideas and grounded possibilities.

As I started entering this unknown space of opening to the unknown and my clear imperfections, I connected at a deep level with what matters most. I knew with incredible clarity that for me, this has to do with Love.
* Love for beloved Louise and my two wonderful children.
* Love for my extended family of sisters and nieces and nephews who ZOOMed together recently to honour the passing of my mother, who found something in COV19 that could beat her incredible fight to keep living despite years of Alzheimer-induced absence.
* Love for my four amazing grandchildren and my superb daughter-in-law.
* Love for my students and friends, who make contact and share their experiences and battles in e-mails or Skype calls.
* Love for the strangers who connect with me in human ways in the streets or in shops or for the first time in ZOOM calls.

My podcast came and went with a total frustration of continuous stop-and-start internet connectivity on my side. Yet I found myself still alive the next day, although it took a few days after publication of the podcast before I could listen to it!

I really enjoyed my interview and saw new possibilities ...

Then I did my first teaching on ZOOM: a group of 68 EMBA students for three hours. I found that my ability to live with uncertainty, to cope with chaos and to shapeshift according to the situation stood me in good stead as my internet link played up and there was no way I could as I had planned. The students were great, helping me move through the block and create a new possibility. I somehow managed to mess up a breakout room session and left the call prematurely by mistake. I couldn't get back and had to end the session talking via my cellphone to someone else who was online.

Chaos! But I had broken the ice.

Where does this leave me at this moment of having just dipped my toes into the unfamiliar waters of a new world of ZOOM?

I have been thinking about my learning so far, and believe that, in addition to my earlier insights around Love, the following are also important:

  • I recognise in hindsight that I had entered a legitimate and welcome period of lying fallow and I stayed there until it was the right time to emerge. (I have the habit of drawing an Osho Zen card at important moments in my life and was not surprised to draw a No-thingness card in this period.)
  • This starting point for my new phase of teaching still has to foreground the heart and (if possible) also the body ...
  • This is certainly a time to continue to prioritise self-care, but it is also a time for me to focus on readiness for action.

Margaret Wheatley has spoken about the dire state of the world for a long time and reported that she had reached a place where she had to learn to live without hope and without fear. This is an extremely liberating concept (once one gets past its depressing side) as it helps to clear the noise and allows me to focus on aligning my outer actions with my soul's wisdom. Wheatley says that we have to act in accordance with our true higher self. I think that this can only end up being an activist role, as the fear of doing wrong or getting into trouble is taken away.

Welcome back world - here I come!

[To be continued ...]