Editor’s Note: Christine Julien is the Annis & Jack Bowen Professor in Engineering, Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Assistant Dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the Cockrell School of Engineering, University of Texas at Austin, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
After long days leading video meetings with my engineering students, designing mobile apps to help contain the spread of Covid-19, while trying to entertain and support my two children so they won’t be too distracting while I’m on-screen, I’m usually too exhausted to even consider watching late night television.
But remembering Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill as the soundtrack for my senior year of high school, I was eager to catch her live performance on The Tonight Show recently, timed to the release of Such Pretty Forks in the Road, her first new album in eight years.
Morissette, now 46, performed Ablaze, a tender song about parenting. Yet, what she delivered for the world to see was nothing less than an anthem for working parents.
Morissette was at home, connected via web cam with her band, who were also performing remotely.
Dressed in a sleek black animal-print top, hair and makeup flawless, Morissette looked completely at ease, standing at a microphone placed in front of a wall of books. While she would usually be in the studio, physically backed by the band, she had no choice for this performance but to work with a remote arrangement.
♪ First thing that you’ll notice is some separation
from each other
I imagine that Morissette, like the rest of us, is trying hard to get through this time while maintaining some sense of normalcy. But normal was not meant to be, on this day. Morissette started her performance holding her 4-year-old daughter, Onyx, on her left hip.
As she began to sing, that tiny human kicked the mic stand, threatening to send it crashing. A few beats later, she started babbling to her mom and reached up to play with a headset that, one imagines, was meant to make her feel tended to while her mother worked.
♪ Second thing you’ll notice is that often we think
that there’s not enough
At each interruption, Morissette patiently paused while somehow not entirely missing a beat, then resumed her performance. She even spoke a few gentle words to her daughter, perhaps in hopes that she would settle in. Yet, just when it seemed the girl would stay still, she lifted her tiny hand and pressed it down, completely covering her mother’s mouth.
Instead of falling apart, giving up, succumbing to despair, or lashing out—any of which would have been my first impulse—Morissette play-nibbled at her fingers while she waited out the interruption. Sometimes she sang through, or around, Onyx’s “participation,” Morissette’s remote audience hanging on every note.
Yes, she skipped a few words and momentarily lost her place. But standing there like the rock goddess she is, Morissette continued to own the show.
In fact, her calm serves as a beautiful analogy to where also many of us are in this extraordinary year—trying to excel at our jobs while our personal lives have been thrown completely off kilter.
In 2020, in so many ways, there is simply not enough. Not enough time for working parents to guide their children through at-home schoolwork, not enough resources to ensure our elderly parents or neighbors have groceries delivered and meals prepared, not enough personal protective equipment to ensure health care workers are adequately protected, not enough bandwidth to ensure that all children can equitably access education, not enough infrastructure to ensure that those who have lost their jobs don’t also lose their electricity.
♪ You may be overcome with darkness and a sense of
And while we struggle to be and do “enough,” so many of us feel a nagging concern that we’re not achieving excellence at anything.
Video calls do not provide sufficient human connection for many tasks; competing demands on our time mean we’re missing deadlines; changing health situations make the reopening plans we made last week moot; juggling parenting shifts with work schedules leaves little time for marital connection; context switching between homework assistance and creating presentations for the office leads to spelling and formatting mistakes.
♪ But it won’t matter if you keep the core connected
to the oneness
Morissette’s performance shows us how unexpected “interruptions” may make us do our work differently, but they do not make us fundamentally worse at what we do. And when interrupted, we can choose to pick up where we left off and see the task to the end.
Today’s report, tomorrow’s event, next week’s analysis … there might be some typos, repeated steps, delays, and apologetic emails, but the tasks will get done.
♪ When you reach out, I am here hell or high water,
this nest is never going away
Morrisette’s grace on stage and kindness towards her daughter remind us that unexpected “interruptions” are themselves of essential importance.
Our kids need us, and they need the reassurance we provide them—at inconvenient moments and in uncertain times.
Our parents need us, our neighbors need us, our communities need us. It is necessary, important, and valuable to give our time, effort, and expertise to their needs just as we give our attention and effort to the demands of our jobs.
♪ First thing that you’ll notice is that everything
A colleague in a video call may be distracted by something in their home, requiring us to repeat the conversation. A supervisor’s request may be missing an essential step or have confusing information. A student’s submitted assignment may be entirely off topic.
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A friend may completely forget a scheduled virtual happy hour. All of these frustrations—they’re all temporary. In this time, we must give each other grace (there’s really no such thing as too much grace) and offer help and support.
Like Morissette, we need to just let it all BE and trust that expertise, experience, work ethic and kindness will carry us to the place we ultimately need to be.
♪ Next thing you might notice is that we will always
Our work products and how we spend our time in 2020 will likely not be the same as last year. They won’t be what we would have expected at the start of the year. Heck, mine aren’t even what I expected last week. That doesn’t mean they are any less magnificent or any less than what is needed.
♪ My mission is to keep the light in your eyes ablaze
Morissette’s lyrics remind us that our real work in life is learning to be human and treat others with a generosity of spirit. And that all of us can gain more from her fragmented yet fluent performance than we would from one that appeared “perfect” under ideal circumstances.
Morissette proved, once again, that she is a true rock star. And she gave us the gift we didn’t know we needed: a reminder that we are all rock stars, each in our own way.