Forsythia

Today the Spring semester resumed at Framingham State, just as it resumed last week at Babson College. Now that all of my classes have gone online, I’m settling into the new not-normal of a suddenly-online semester, holding virtual office hours Monday through Thursday, checking discussion board forums the other days, and still doing the same amount of grading.

On social media during the early days of self-isolation, friends relished the thought of long-procrastinated projects they hoped to do during quarantine, with so much time for reading, crafting, cooking, or writing the Great American Novel. But from where I sit in the work-from-home suburbs, I don’t see an open expanse of free time, just a rearrangement of my work and leisure hours.

I’m still working during these work-from-home days; I’m just working differently. I still teach five classes; I just don’t see my students in person any more. I still am employed part-time by two different colleges; I just don’t set foot on campus.

Self-isolating at home with a husband, two dogs, and eight cats, I still have to do all the household chores necessary to keep everyone alive and healthy, but the way I do those chores has changed. Gone are the days of stopping for a bag of cat litter on my way home from campus, and gone are the days of making the weekly shopping list over lunch at our favorite pub before going to the grocery store and picking up take-out pizza on Friday night.

Now we rely on delivery services (and delivery workers, whom we tip generously) to bring whatever food, pet supplies, or other essentials are in stock. In the days before COVID-19, we set a menu then shopped for the necessary ingredients; now, we set the menu based on whatever food is actually available.

In many ways, our life and rituals are largely unchanged: J has worked from home for years, and the things I used to do in a college classroom were a small part of what my job as a college instructor actually entails. In the “old-normal” days, we bought many household staples in bulk, simply for convenience. In these “new not-normal” days, buying a month’s worth of pet food, cleaning supplies, and other essentials is either smart or selfish, depending on your perspective.

I feel bad for couples who were still dating when COVID-19 divided our days into “before” and “after.” Gone are the days of going to clubs, concerts, and other crowded gatherings; gone are the days of actually “going out.” Instead, even young couples have fast-forwarded to middle-aged married life, when the best partner isn’t the flashiest dresser, smoothest talker, or most nimble dancer, but the one who can fix a toilet, quiet the kids, and cobble together a meal from whatever’s ready to expire in the pantry.

J and I are lucky to be able to work from home, as we both have pre-existing conditions that make us medically vulnerable. I say a silent prayer of gratitude whenever a car pulls up with this week’s grocery order or another shipment of pet supplies. (Forget about hoarding toilet paper: when you live in a house with eight cats, kitty litter is the most valuable household staple.)

My dad was a truck-driver, a job that is impossible to do from home; I’m humbled to remember that going to college is what made it possible for me to make a living (and choose to quarantine) in a way he never could have. As I meet virtually with the students I used to share a classroom with, I am awed to think I could be helping them make a similar transition from the old-normal of what their parents do to the new-normal of their aspirations.

Jolly Eggs after rain

I’ve started keeping track of the days J and I have been social-distancing at home: today, we’re on Day 13. Because both J and I can work from home, our daily life is largely unchanged except for an ongoing, low-grade worry over what is happening, what might happen, and what might come after that.

One of the things keeping me sane is my daily schedule: a predictable routine I call my liturgy of the hours. Monastic life directly depends upon a set schedule, religiously followed: when you are never confronted with the question “What should I do next,” you are free to focus full-heartedly on the task at hand. Now that J and I are retreating at home, my life feels monastic in many ways: as I explained to a friend recently, we’re all Thomas Merton now, living, working, and praying within the four walls of our new freedom.

For years–most of my adult life, it seems–I’ve struggled to find a schedule that suits me: one that is structured enough to keep me productive but loose enough to allow for spontaneity. When I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the 1990s, my life as a wife, graduate student, and teaching assistant was book-ended by formal Zen practice. Most mornings, I’d wake at 5:30 am to bow, sit, and chant; most evenings, I’d return to the Dharma room at 7:00 pm to chant and sit some more. Sandwiched between these practice sessions was the rest of my life: it was as if I were a layperson by day and a Zen nun in the morning and evening.

This regular structure suited me for the two-and-a-half years my then-husband and I lived at the Zen Center, but the logistics were less than ideal. Living as a part-time nun was fine and good, but my grad school obligations and teaching duties bled beyond the usual 9:00 – 5:00 time frame. Beginning and ending the day with Zen practice sounds good in theory, but in reality I was constantly sleep-deprived from too many late nights spent either writing or grading papers.

I no longer follow a Zen Center schedule; instead, my schedule centers around the creatures with whom I share a household. When do the cats need their insulin, and when does Roxy need to go outside to pee? Instead of setting my own schedule, these days our pets tell me what to do and when…and by following that set-but-spontaneous cadence, I find my entire life naturally falls into line.

Do more of what makes you awesome

This past weekend, J and I walked to our local elementary school and back, then we took my car for a short Sunday drive. Because of the Coronavirus, we’ve been self-isolating at home for more than a week, leaving the house only to take the dogs out and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, so going for both a walk and a drive, no matter how short, was a welcome relief from our self-imposed quarantine.

At the local elementary school, nobody was around. Normally on a sunny weekend, there would be kids playing on the playground equipment, but signs strictly forbade this: too many touch surfaces. A house across from the school had an encouraging message drawn on the driveway with sidewalk chalk, with no sign of the kids or parents responsible for the message.

I bought a new car nearly a month ago, only to have it sit sadly in our driveway during this period of social distancing. On Sunday, J and I took “Trudy Subaru” for a short drive to keep her engine running, driving past the local hospital then up Route 16 to Commonwealth Avenue and back. The hospital was quiet, with only a handful of cars in the outside lots and no emergency vehicles coming or going. From the outside, it looked like a sleepy Sunday afternoon, with no obvious sign of an impending pandemic.

Commonwealth Avenue, on the other hand, was bustling with families, couples, and singles out walking, jogging, pushing strollers, and escorting happy dogs, each person or group keeping the requisite six feet between themselves and others. On Monday morning, Governor Baker would announce a stay-at-home advisory that closes nonessential businesses but still allows people to go outside and enjoy the fresh air, and on Sunday it was clear folks were relishing the right to be Healthy and Happy on a brisk and bright March day.

I always describe April’s Marathon as being Massachusetts’ unofficial celebration of spring, with folks and families coming out to socialize while watching a race that is in some ways just an excuse to go outside and let down the usual New England reserve. This year, the Marathon has been postponed until September, an unimaginably distant time, so it made sense that this weekend, after a long week of social distancing, our neighbors were doing exactly what they’d do on Marathon Monday, minus the actual race.

On Sunday, J and I took a drive for the car’s sake, but it was just as good for us to get out of the house and rev our inner engines.

First forsythias

This afternoon, a teaching colleague emailed to ask for any advice I might share as he transitions his face-to-face class online. Since so many instructors find themselves in a similar situation right now, I thought I’d share my response:

Although I spent more than a decade teaching fully-online classes elsewhere, I’ve never taught a face-to-face class that then suddenly went online. Ideally, you’d design an online class from the ground up versus on-the-fly. So don’t set your expectations too high: at this point, you’re trying to salvage some sort of decent learning experience out of a crappy situation.

More than anything, you want to be human and humane. I think this pretty much sums it up.

The more you can do asynchronously, the better. Let me repeat that: THE MORE YOU DO ASYNCHRONOUSLY, THE BETTER.

I know everyone is fascinated with the “shiny new toy” aspect of Zoom, Collaborate, and other real-time meeting tools, but I’d under-emphasize those. Students are going to be living at home with family, roommates, significant others, children, shared (or no) Internet connections, unpredictable schedules, and a pandemic that might affect the health of their loved ones and/or themselves. Adding the learning curve of new technology and the stress of real-time scheduling is NOT helpful.

When you’re teaching online, less is more, less is more, less is more. Or as Thoreau would say, Simplify, simplify, simplify.

The Blackboard discussion board is your friend. Students can post asynchronously whenever they are able, and they can post from their phone with the Blackboard app. Provide your students with clear expectations about discussion board participation. Emphasize that in an online class, “participation” and “attendance” are the same thing. You can’t sit in the back row and lurk: to be present, you need to participate.

In converting my face-to-face classes, I’ve cut a LOT of content and activities that work well in person but just won’t work online. In an online course, there is no need to “fill class time” with activities. Decide which final deliverables are essential, divide those into weekly chunks, and jettison the rest.

For one of my classes, this means each Monday-Sunday module features one discussion board and one writing assignment due on Sunday night. (These writing assignments are pieces of a larger research project.) THAT IS ALL.

We aren’t doing any real-time class sessions. If there is something I absolutely have to teach “in person,” I’ll record a video that students can watch whenever is convenient to them. Each Monday morning, I’ll post everything students need for that week’s module, including a checklist of relevant tasks and due-dates, links to whatever they need, etc. It’s up to students to plan out how they manage their time and work-load for each week’s deliverables.

The only real-time component I’m keeping is virtual office hours. I’ll have set times twice a week when I’ll be available for students to talk via WebEx or Blackboard Collaborate. (Skype is also an option many students are already familiar with.) If students want to “meet” at other times, we can schedule that, but I’m not requiring anyone to meet me in real time. Students’ schedules are too complicated for that, especially during these crazy times.

Students won’t remember whether you were a tech-guru who was a master of online technology; they’ll remember whether you were kind, humane, and helpful during an unbelievably stressful time.

I hope this is helpful. Let me know if you have additional questions, and STAY HEALTHY.

Contrails

In this time of social distancing and self-isolation, there is a meme going around that suggests introverts have been waiting their whole life for this moment. This might be true, but so is this: Buddhists of all stripes–introverted and extroverted alike–are similarly well-prepared for these extraordinary times, as hunkering down is something Buddhists do religiously.

When I contemplate the next few weeks (or more) of social isolation–the staying home, the sheltering in place–what comes to mind is a Zen retreat. Going on a retreat turns the simple choice of staying inside into an intentional spiritual practice. Right now, countless people who don’t consider themselves Buddhists are waking up to the realization that the Universe has signed them up for a long Zen retreat without asking first.

How do you turn self-isolation into a retreat? You make a schedule and stick to it. You intentionally alternate sitting and walking. You pay attention to mental hygiene, which is as important to your sanity as hand-washing is to your physical health. You cultivate gratitude and embrace boredom. And in the end, you recognize your intrinsic, unavoidable connection with all sentient beings in this contagious and contaminated world.

Yesterday on a video conference call with some other professors, a colleague remarked that he was diligently recording brief video lectures so that when or if he gets sick, his online course will carry on without him. While others are hoarding toilet paper and cans of soup, this colleague is preparing for the inevitability of his own mortality.

A split second after my colleague made this remark, a thought appeared: how will I continue teaching if I grow deathly ill and die…or worse yet, how will I continue teaching if any of my students were to sicken then disappear? This is a thought I’ve never contemplated: in all my years of teaching, the hyperbolic language of “surviving the semester” and even simply “passing the class” were innocuous and mundane. It’s not like my class or any other is a matter of life and death.

But then again, isn’t everything in our daily lives a matter of life and death? My earlier assumption that there would inevitably be a “next semester”–an “after” that follows this “before”–now seems terribly glib, presumptuous, and naive. Who was I just last week that I took so much for granted?

The thing about Zen retreats is this: absolutely nothing happens. You stay inside and spend hours staring at the floor. Every day, you eat the same boring breakfast–always oatmeal–at the same boring time; every day you show up and follow the same boring schedule whether you feel like it or not. You do this because when you sign up for a Zen retreat, you choose to put yourself in a situation where you have no choice.

None of us chose to live in these interesting times: we all are trapped in a situation that none of us willingly signed up for. But if self-isolation follows the model of a Zen retreat, here is what will happen, eventually: a couple days, weeks, or months into this crazy exile, something unforeseen and even magical will happen. Eventually, if you stop fighting against inevitabilities, you will see nothing more than what is actually there. You will taste the same bowl of oatmeal for the very first time, and you will notice anew that this morning’s angle of sunlight on the floor is somehow just like yesterday’s while being entirely unique.

None of us signed up for this: we were thrust into a dying world the moment we were born. But now that we are stuck here, isolated in our separate homes but united in our shared mortality, what will we do with this fragile moment?

Budding forsythia

After spending much of yesterday afternoon going to multiple stores to do the weekly grocery shopping I’d usually do at one, today it was a relief to stay home. Instead of walking to lunch as we normally do, J and I took a sunny afternoon walk around the neighborhood, and we weren’t the only ones. With museums and libraries closed, concerts and sporting events canceled, and store shelves emptied of goods, walking in the open air is one of the few things we can still safely do.

Lilac leaves

The irony of this weird and unsettling week is this: the weather has been beautiful, the lilacs are starting to leaf, and the forsythias are almost ready to burst into bloom. Outside, March is settling into spring; inside, we stay glued to devices that deliver a constant stream of bad and worrying news.

When J and I went walking this afternoon, it was a pleasant relief to stop at a nearby intersection, stand in the street, and talk to a handful of neighbors who, like us, were shaking off a weekend case of pandemic-inspired cabin fever. As we traded stories of grocery lines and plans for telecommuting, we stood in a wide circle with the prescribed six feet between us: a brief spot of socializing in the age of social distancing.

February gray

It’s the fourth week of the semester, and we are deep in the throes of February gray. Whenever I check my email, there is another message from a student who is sick and can’t come to class. I have papers to grade but pause to dissolve an Airborne tablet in my water bottle, a blithely optimistic attempt to stop a sore and scratchy throat from developing into a full-blown cold, or worse.

Hummingbird window clings

It sorta-snowed overnight, so we awoke to a thin layer of sleet and sludgy slush that is more mess than menace. Schools don’t cancel classes for sorta-snow, and they don’t cancel classes for the winter blues that arise from February gray. Instead, we trudge on, cheering ourselves with whatever winter coping strategies we’ve learned will get us through.

My office at Framingham State has three windows, including one right next to my desk, and I’ve decorated that one with colorful hummingbird decals. These window clings are designed to stop birds from flying into reflective surfaces, but I put them there as an act of faith: a reminder that February gray will someday, eventually, turn into the colorful flutter of spring.