Keep running

Today J and I watched the Boston Marathon from our usual spot between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. It was the first Marathon since the race was canceled in 2020 and postponed this past April due to the pandemic: a relic from the Before Times modified for our current COVID days.

Water station

Today’s field of runners was intentionally smaller than usual, and we missed seeing the elite front runners who started earlier this year to allow a rolling start for the general field. It didn’t matter, though. This year wasn’t about seeing any particular runner win or lose; it was about taking back the streets after more than a year in pandemic isolation.

Guide runner

Usually Marathon Monday happens in April, when New Englanders are ready to get outside after a long, cold winter. This October, we’re emerging from a different kind of hibernation, ready to return to in-person activities (with proper precautions).

Run for the candy

In 2014, one year after the Marathon bombings, showing up to shout from the sidelines felt like an intentionally courageous act: no terrorist is going to bomb us into hiding. This year felt similarly liberating: after a year and a half of avoiding crowds, here we are again in the open air cheering for strangers.

Worst parade ever

Although some spectators were masked (and J and I carried masks on our wrists, ready to wear if the crowds got too dense), most of the folks we saw today were bare-faced to the open air. It felt good to be outside, and good to see other folks outside. During the dark days of 2020, we weren’t sure this day would ever come.

Find your happy pace

CLICK HERE to view photos from today’s pandemic-delayed 2021 Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Pokeweed on drippy morning

This morning I photographed the tiny pokeweed blooming on the edge of our driveway. I was walking back from taking the trash out, and I had my head down, watching for puddles.

Pokeweed is usually a bushy, expansive plant, growing and sprawling into every inch of available space: an opportunistic weed. It grows everywhere, bearing bright green leaves and inconspicuous white flowers with green centers that eventually ripen into purple-black berries on hot pink stems.

Pokeweed is a showy, eye-grabbing plant that is photogenic at every stage of development–one of my favorite weeds. But the pokeweed growing next to our driveway is less than ankle-high: a sprout hoping nobody notices it is there, unobtrusively doing its weedy thing.

I know this poke won’t last the summer: J will trim or uproot it when it gets too tall. But in the meantime, it is doing what weeds everywhere do. Having sprouted, I presume, from a seed excreted by a bird sitting on the fence, this miniature pokeweed is growing as tall as a slender strip of soil between the fence and pavement permits while furtively following the advice to Bloom Where You’re Planted.

Proboscis Paradise

The start of August is the beginning of the end for college instructors. My semester starts on September 1, so I finally need to get to the business of preparing my classes. This time last year, I had no idea what teaching during a pandemic would actually look like: in a cloud of uncertainty, I designed my classes so they could function entirely online if necessary, figuring that any in-person classes we could manage would be icing on the pedagogical cake.

This year, we’d assumed or hoped that Fall would be different. In the Vaccinated Times, we believed we’d all be back on campus together, maskless in full classrooms, the threat of sickness and death behind us. As Spring semester ended in May, we all looked toward Fall for a return to Almost Normal.

Now, though, the future is once again uncertain. Will vaccines alone be enough to keep students in crowded classrooms and full residence halls safe? Are we ready–really–to return to the Petri dish version of college, where students start falling ill with colds, flu, and unidentified illness a few weeks into the semester, then circulate said ailments among their sleep-deprived peers for the rest of the semester before bringing all manner of germs home for Thanksgiving, only to return to campus with a fresh set of bugs exchanged over family gatherings?

In the Before Times, I’d regularly come to class with pocket packs of tissues and an assortment of cough drops, distributing both to my sniffling, sneezing, and coughing students. (Students sick from the other end were on their own.) Sickness rages like proverbial wildfire on college campuses, bred and spread in the close quarters of classrooms, cafeterias, and dorm rooms. Are we really ready to return to that part of the Before Times?

In the face of the Delta variant, rising COVID cases nationwide, and the disheartening reality of breakthrough infections, I find myself quietly planning my own worst-case contingencies.

Sudden mushrooms

It’s been a rainier-than-usual July, with last week’s aftermath of tropical storm Elsa bringing torrential rain followed by gray drizzle and gloomy humidity. Although Roxy hates rain, we walk regardless of weather, which means this past week has been filled with the smell of wet dog.

Wet dog is a smell I’ve only recently discovered, as I’ve been anosmic from allergies for most of my adult life. But one of the ironic wonders of this pandemic year is that while many folks lost their sense of smell due to COVID, I have partially regained mine after months of masking, avoiding sick students, and religiously taking my allergy and asthma meds.

Living with only four senses is a strange and alienating experience. When others describe a particular scent triggering a specific memory, like Proust’s madeleine moment, I stare dumbly, having no such experience. When others remark on the scent of a flowering shrub, baking bread, or distinctive perfume, I politely smile and nod without being able to sense what they’re talking about.

Even on those rare occasions in the past when my sinuses were clear, my sense of smell was unpredictable. Sniffing a bouquet of roses, for instance, I might smell the water in their vase instead; opening a box of cereal, I might be overwhelmed by the smell of cardboard more than the food inside. And then there are times when a particular smell has gotten stuck in my nose, supplanting all over aromas, like the time I discovered I didn’t actually like the lavender-scented shampoo I’d used for years, and then I smelled it on everything for days.

But this year, after the pandemic literally cleared my head, I have smelled the waft of blooming lilacs, the aroma of takeout pizza, and the odors of litter boxes, dog poop, and road-killed skunk. Even the stinky smells of dirty laundry and my own sweat are welcome novelties: a reminder that being able to smell is a superpower that able-bodied folks take for granted until they lose it.

Feel free to use lawn

Last night I dreamed I was assigned to teach first-year writing in a large, shady cemetery. As I walked the grounds on the first day of class, I wondered how I was supposed to teach outside without the usual infrastructure of a normal classroom. I also fretted because my syllabus wasn’t ready for a class that was abruptly starting in July rather than September.

Eventually I found a flat, coffin-sized tombstone I figured I could stand on while shouting to my students, whom I assumed would be far-flung throughout the cemetery grounds. Right at class time, however, I realized none of my students had showed up, so after several more minutes of wandering, I found my class packed into a small, squarish chapel, where some students were standing and others were sitting on an assortment of rickety wooden chairs they had pushed against the chapel’s stone walls, with everyone’s backpacks and other belongings piled in a messy heap at the center of the room.

After introducing myself and explaining that I’d post the syllabus before our next class meeting, I sent my students outside to complete a small-group icebreaker while I took inventory of our makeshift classroom. There were not enough chairs, no desks, no podium or table for me, no projector for my laptop, no electrical outlets for my students’ laptops, and not even a chalk or whiteboard to write upon.

But since my first-years had never been to college before, they were unfazed by the weirdness, even as I explained that today’s class was in July and our next class wouldn’t meet until September.

Bejeweled

Today has been a soft day: drizzly with temperatures in the 50s, a welcome respite from this week’s heat wave. I’ve had the windows open and the fan on all day to keep the air inside from stagnating, and the mist has been light enough I didn’t need an umbrella to walk the dog, just a ballcap and raincoat.

Soft days are good for reading, journaling, and letter-writing, which is exactly what I did today. After you come in from a drizzly dog walk, you’re content to settle in with a book, notebook, and cup of tea. Sunny days are perfect for extroverts who need to Go Places and Do Things, but soft days are perfect for introverts who don’t mind staying home with a stack of books and a pile of letters to write.

Ladybug on day lily

Tomorrow I’m driving to Ohio to visit my Mom, whom I haven’t seen since September, 2019, right after my Dad passed away. This trip to see my Mom is the last in a series of post-vaccine “first agains.” Now that I’ve seen friends in-person for the first time again, eaten inside restaurants for the first time again, gone to the Museum of Fine Arts, shopped at Trader Joes, and gone to a movie for the first time again, it’s time for me to go to Ohio to see my Mom again.

My pandemic lockdown officially started on March 13, 2020, when I’d planned to fly to Ohio to spend part of my Spring Break helping my Mom move out of a nursing home where she had been recovering from hip replacement surgery. Because of the pandemic, I cancelled that flight, and one of my sisters helped my Mom move home right before her nursing home went on lockdown.

For the past more-than-a-year, my Mom has been living on her own, and I’ve spoken with her only via phone, as she doesn’t have email, much less Zoom. My Mom doesn’t travel, so my summer visits to Ohio were an annual tradition in the Before Times. Now that we’re settling into the new normal-ish of these Vaccinated Times, taking a long drive to see my Mom feels like a rite of passage: a chance to come full circle by finally taking the trip I couldn’t take before.

Trillum

This morning I sorted through the photos I’d taken while walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery with Leslee several weeks ago, along with the photos I’d taken at Arnold Arboretum with J the weekend after that. Already these outings seem like forever ago: that’s why I almost compulsively take photos, to remember what I’d otherwise forget.

Halcyon Lake, with Mary Baker Eddy monument

Before this morning, it had been a long while since I’d downloaded photos from an actual camera instead of taking and sharing photos with my phone. I’d forgotten the satisfaction of seeing (and editing) photos on my laptop screen versus the tiny window of a smartphone. I’d forgotten, too, how fun it is to click through a folder of photos, picking and editing the ones I like and deleting the rest.

Skulking Great Blue Heron

It’s a kind of creativity that went almost completely dormant during the pandemic, when I was taking fewer pictures (due to fewer outings) and doing everything in my power to avoid yet more screen time.

Cauliflory

But now as we emerge from our pandemic isolation, I want to resurrect old habits. When you take pictures, you get to relive and revisit experiences that were enjoyable the first time and provide additional delights at second, third, and even fourth sight.

Over the falls

A (not her real initial) and I hadn’t seen each other in-person since February, 2020, when we’d met to see an exhibit of street art and orchids at Tower Hill Botanic Garden.  As was true of many of the things we did in the early months of 2020, A and I had no idea we were living in the Before Times.  Instead, we took for granted our ritual of occasionally meeting halfway between our respective homes to enjoy a walk, art exhibit, or conversation over lunch…until COVID put an end to that.

Over the course of the pandemic, A, a mutual friend, and I have had the requisite Zoom happy hours to celebrate Christmas and each of our birthdays, with gifts shipped ahead of time.  More frequently over this past year, A and I scheduled Saturday night phone calls to keep in touch.  Without the need to stare at a screen, we were free to talk while folding laundry, piecing together a puzzle, or lounging with the dog:  the kind of leisurely conversation that is the antidote to Zoom fatigue.

Now that both A and I are fully vaccinated, we planned to meet yesterday for a walk in central Massachusetts…but when a cold, rainy forecast put a literal damper on those plans, we met in Northampton instead.  Equipped with rain gear and umbrellas, we walked around the Smith College campus, had lunch downtown at Sylvester’s, and went shopping at Thornes Marketplace:  the exact sort of thing we did countless times before the pandemic shut down our social lives.

Yesterday, everything seemed sharper, brighter, and more wondrous.  Repeatedly since J and I attained fully vaccinated status several weeks ago, I’ve had an unbidden and entirely spontaneous realization:  we lived.  While the virus raged, we hunkered down and followed every public health advisory.  We washed our hands, kept our distance, wore our masks, and avoided crowds.  We stayed home and didn’t socialize.  And now that we’re fully vaccinated, we’re enjoying re-entry, trusting the same science that kept us safe to continue to protect us in this next-normal.

So yesterday, when A and I settled in for a late lunch at Sylvester’s, I knew I had to order eggs.  Since J and I stopped going to restaurants in March, 2020, I haven’t had eggs, bacon, waffles, or pancakes:  foods J and I order when we go out for brunch, but don’t cook at home.  The process of re-entry has been a series of re-introductions:  the first time seeing friends again, the first time eating at restaurants again, the first time strolling through a mall and window-shopping again.  Words can’t describe how wonderful it is to enjoy these simple pleasures again.

Fern forest

Years ago, in the Way Before Times, A (not her real initial) noted that half the joy of a vacation is the planning:  the looking forward.  There are guidebooks to peruse and reviews to read and itineraries to plan.  There is the anticipation of future joy–the allure of a dangling carrot giving focus to one’s day– and the excitement of counting down to something special.

Something I eventually identified as being a large part of my personal  quarantine fatigue was the realization that in lockdown, you have nothing to look forward to:  no trips, no dinners with friends, no shows or concerts or sporting events.  It’s not simply that you have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no one to see, but the sobering fact that you have no plans to make and nothing definite to look forward to.

One of the joys of receiving the first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine last month was the excitement of having a momentous day to circle on the calendar:  a truly red letter day.  Once you’ve had your first dose, you can count down to your second, and one you’ve had your second, you can count down to that magical day two weeks later when you officially join the ranks of the Fully Vaccinated.

Last week J and I celebrated what we called our Immunity Day with lunch inside an actual restaurant, and this week, the planning for the After Times begins.  

Today I’ll meet a friend for an afternoon walk followed by cocktails and dinner; in a few weeks, I’ll meet another friend for a woodsy walk somewhere in central Massachusetts.  J and I are planning to walk to lunch tomorrow, and in a few weeks, we’re planning to go to the Museum of Fine Arts.  In June, I’ll visit my Mom in Ohio, and plans are currently underway for an afternoon meetup with a handful of my high school friends while I’m in town:  a flurry of social events that would have seemed impossible only a few months ago.