Mirror wall

This weekend, I finished a two-week online professional development course on inclusive teaching. The course featured asynchronous course materials–readings, videos, discussion boards–and four real-time Webex sessions with faculty from a range of disciplines. It was a welcome opportunity to debrief and talk shop at the end of another grueling semester.

As strange as it might sound, one of the things I most enjoyed over the past two weeks was the luxury of being a student. For two weeks, I read articles and watched videos someone else found, participated in discussions someone else led, and reflected upon questions someone else posed. All I had to do, in other words, was show up to the course and do what the instructors told me to do.

One of the exercises we practiced was called windows and mirrors. The premise was simple: when you read a text or watch a video, there are aspects that ring true with your experience and other aspects that show you a new perspective. The ideas that reflect your own experience are Mirrors, and the moments that show you something new are Windows. We like to see our own perspective mirrored back to us, but it’s also important to get a glimpse into how other people experience the world.

When I teach literature, I practice a version of this windows and mirrors exercise. I often ask students what resonated for them in a literary text, and also what surprised them. Now I’m realizing that this familiar readerly practice can be applied to pretty much everything, not just literature. There are moments when we nod in agreement, and there are moments when we say “Hmm, I never realized that.” Both experiences are powerful, and both are worthy of reflection.


Outside Shake Shack

Exactly one year ago today, J and I walked into O’Hara’s Food & Spirits in Newton Highlands, MA and had lunch at our usual high top table: the first time we’d eaten inside since March 12, 2020. This time last year, J and I were freshly vaccinated, and we hadn’t yet been schooled in the Greek letters of viral nomenclature: first Delta, then Omicron, and now a litany of Omicron sub-variants.

This year, J and I are eating outside again, thanks to the current COVID surge here in the northeast. Over the past year, J and I have mastered a nimble dance, returning to restaurants when case counts are low and relying on takeout and outdoor dining when cases are high.

Right now, the weather is nice enough that eating outside doesn’t feel like a hardship. Plenty of restaurants have tables squeezed along sidewalks or in parking spaces, and it feels almost Parisian to eat outside while both cars and pedestrians stream past.

This weekend, J and I ordered takeout sandwiches from a local pizza place, then we had an impromptu picnic on the Newton Centre green. Families were reading books on blankets, friends were chatting on park benches, and a man was playing jazz standards on a colorfully painted outdoor piano.

I’ve often wondered if today’s children will someday remember the pandemic as “those summers when we ate outside.” Years ago, I saw a man with a dog sitting on a grassy embankment next to a disabled car. The man had his head in his hands, depressed; the dog, on the other hand, lolled on the grass with a doggy grin, clearly enjoying the sights and smells of a sunny day.

There are plenty of things we’ve lost over the past two years, but having a reason to spend more time outside is a welcome consolation.


Hydrangea-to-be

This year’s Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network (BRAWN) summer institute is happening virtually, so this morning I led a Zoom session on building community in the college composition classroom, then I skipped the rest of the day’s sessions. As much as I enjoy talking shop with my Boston-area teaching colleagues, Zoom fatigue is real, and two hours of Zooming is about all that my Inner Introvert can handle.

I’m relieved to have finished the session. When I was asked to lead a workshop, my immediate reaction was “I have nothing worth sharing,” but of course these workshops aren’t about offering answers as much as asking questions, posing problems, and gently steering the conversation as colleagues describe what did or didn’t work in their classes this year.

So, what did or didn’t work in my classes? I naively (in retrospect) believed that having students simply return to the classroom after more than a year of remote, hybrid, and hyflex teaching would magically result in a close-knit community of learners: after all the complaining about Zoom school, surely students would be eager and energized to engage in the face-to-face classroom.

Instead, this past academic year was challenging and disjointed–a proverbial mixed bag–as students went in and out of quarantine. Too many students didn’t come to class, and too many students came to class but didn’t actively participate, treating the classroom as a virtual meeting they watched on mute with cameras off.

At times, this led me to wonder what exactly we were trying to accomplish in the face-to-face classroom: if it’s easier to post class materials online and let students complete tasks at their own pace, asynchronously, why even bother having class sessions?

Today my colleagues and I grappled with that tricky question, encouraging one another to re-envision the work and worth of the in-person classroom. We didn’t answer the question–we never do–but we had an engaging and thought-provoking conversation, made all the more interesting by the simple fact we were using Zoom to talk about improving our in-person classes.


Already peonies

The weather in New England has been crazy. Last week was beautiful, with a string of sunny days with temperatures in the 70s: perfect weather for walking, reading on the patio, and dining alfresco. Saturday was overcast and humid with afternoon thunderstorms, Sunday was warm and sunny, and Monday spiked into the upper 80s: suddenly summer. Yesterday started warm until temperatures dropped into the 60s–spring again–and today has been gray and drippy after overnight thunderstorms.

It’s hard to tell, in other words, if it’s spring or summer, so I’ve taken to calling this time of year spring-into-summer. It’s a transitional period marked by indecision and mood swings. May is clearly spring, and July will truly be summer, but early June can’t make up its mind. Some days are reminiscent of April showers, and others hearken ahead to summer sultriness.

This might explain why I’m always surprised when any of the neighbors’ peonies bloom. I associate peonies with summer, so I’m always surprised when they bloom out of the blue, before I’m ready. Peonies flower in their own good time, and I’m always out of step, muttering “Already?” under my breath.


Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


Rhododendrons

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday night, so now I’m returning to the leisurely routines of summer: reading on the patio, writing in my journal, and walking Roxy twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, rather than just once, after I’ve returned from teaching.

Teaching is tiring in part because you’re the one responsible for keeping everyone motivated and on-task: you’re the one setting the energy level in the classroom. By the end of the semester, my emotional cupboard is bare, and I need to refocus and refresh. This is what summer is for.

For years, I taught online classes all year round, starting one semester as soon as the previous one ended. That perpetual teaching schedule paid the bills, but it was emotionally exhausting. These days, I juggle two part-time teaching jobs during the academic year, and I recover from this juggling act during the summer: a chance to refill the well.


Orchard oriole

Last night Leslee and I went for a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery, just as we did almost exactly one year ago. Mount Auburn is a pedestrian paradise, with wide, meandering roads and little traffic: a perfect place to take in the fresh air.

Sunning turtles

In the spring, Mount Auburn is in full bloom, with birds buzzing or whistling from the trees, turtles sunning themselves on the banks of quiet ponds, and chipmunks darting through shaded undergrowth. Last night, Leslee and I saw an orchard oriole we would have walked past if a couple hadn’t been standing on the path, aiming their phone at a bird singing almost invisibly from a willow tree. “The app says orchard oriole,” they explained, and the bird called to mind a Baltimore oriole Leslee and I had seen at Mount Auburn in May, 2017.

May apple

Apparently Leslee and I meet at Mount Auburn for a placid walk almost every May, after I’m done teaching but need a break from grading. Every year, it’s a welcome respite to take a leisurely stroll among flowers…and this year, after another semester of pandemic teaching, it’s a relief to visit the cemetery as a survivor, not an occupant. In this age of airborne illness, walking in the fresh air feels healthy, healing, and restorative. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.

Plein air

CLICK HERE to view more photos from yesterday’s walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Enjoy!

2022 Boston Marathon

Today J and I resumed our Patriots’ Day routine of watching the Boston Marathon along Commonwealth Avenue between miles 18 and 19 in Newton. It has been three years since the Marathon happened in April: in 2020, the Marathon was canceled outright due to the pandemic, and in 2021, it was postponed until October. This year, the Marathon took its proper place in the calendar, serving as one of my favorite Boston-area rites of spring.

2022 Boston Marathon

New Englanders are known for their reticence and reserve, but Marathon Monday is a welcome exception. Patriots’ Day often falls on the first really nice day of Spring, and everyone turns out to celebrate, with parents guiding kids, kids tugging dogs, and folks of all ages waving signs and ringing cowbells to urge the runners on: go, go, go!

2022 Boston Marathon

In a region where making eye contact with strangers is verboten, on Marathon Monday people actually talk to one another. On a day I’ve called New Englanders’ high holy day of hospitality, locals welcome all manner of strangers to their streets, clapping and cheering elite runners and everyday Joes alike. If you are bold enough to run 26 miles through our proverbial backyard, then by God we’re going to show up and treat you like a champion, even though we might curse you in traffic on any other day.

2022 Boston Marathon

Although it has always seemed fitting that the Marathon happens in Spring–a chance for locals to gather outside, enjoy some sunshine, and celebrate the fact that we’ve survived another long winter–this year I’m realizing how appropriate it is to run the Marathon on Patriots’ Day. Established to commemorate the day in April, 1775 when British troops came to town and the men of Lexington and Concord took up arms to say get off my lawn, Patriots’ Day is a celebration of American liberty in general and Massachusetts resolve in particular.

2022 Boston Marathon

Patriots’ Day celebrates something fierce, but the Boston Marathon celebrates something friendly. Every year on Marathon Monday, I’m struck by the simple kindness of people showing up to cheer for random strangers. Although it was a welcome respite to watch the Marathon last October, this 26-mile-long block party with a race running through it really belongs in April. During a month when both hope and Spring spring eternal, it’s a welcome relief to see strangers come together to cheer and encourage.

2022 Boston Marathon

CLICK HERE to view photos from today’s Boston Marathon. Enjoy!

Best Good Friday ever

One year ago today, J and I took a 45-minute drive to Worcester, where we and a couple hundred other people received our first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in a gymnasium at Worcester State University.

Like seemingly everyone else in the spring of 2021, I had horror stories of trying to get the vaccine as soon as J and I were eligible. After trying for days to find an available appointment, I nearly wept with relief when I was able to book two simultaneous appointments for a Friday afternoon in April: a Friday that happened to be Good Friday, a day I immediately dubbed The Best Good Friday Ever.

Receiving the first then second Pfizer dose changed everything. In April 2021 I’d been teaching in-person since September 2020, relying upon nothing more than social distance, a KN95 mask, and my body’s own immunity to keep me safe. Getting the vaccine allowed me to continue teaching without fear of catching the virus, developing complications, and dying.

Although getting vaccinated didn’t end the pandemic–the Delta then Omicron variants dashed our naive hopes of quickly returning to our Old Normal–being able to navigate the world with a strong layer of protection has been life-changing. The vaccine isn’t a silver bullet: plenty of people have caught COVID (especially the Omicron variant) despite being fully vaccinated. But for those of us who are up-to-date with our shots, COVID is no longer a death sentence. I can’t overestimate how grateful I am for that.

Back in October, exactly six months after our second shot, J and I got boosted. And next week, just shy of six months after our booster, J and I have appointments for our fourth dose–a jab I’m calling our re-booster–at the pharmacy where I get my flu shot every year. If our New Normal means getting a COVID shot every six months or so, I’ll be the first in line.


Red maple flowers

This year as always, the month of February crawled and the month of March flew. In like a lion, out in a flash.

Spring Break was a welcome respite that happened just as COVID cases were decreasing. Whereas I spent my winter break hunkered at home while Omicron surged, I spent Spring Break going out to lunch with J, meeting Leslee for a walk and margaritas, and taking day trips to Tower Hill Botanic Garden and the Museum of Fine Arts. It was wonderful to have a break from teaching and a chance to get out and do things.

Now that Spring Break is a memory, I’m back to the endless cycle of prepping classes, commenting on rough drafts, and grading final drafts: the wash, rinse, repeat of college writing instruction. But these days, it’s still light out when I arrive home after teaching and take Roxy for a walk.

While temperatures fluctuate between wintery chill and unseasonable warmth, the earth knows the days are lengthening. April means the semester will end in just over a month and summer will begin in earnest…eventually.