Flicker feather

During a normal summer, I procrastinate teaching prep until the end of August, when the start of the semester looms large. This summer, however, I don’t have that luxury. Preparing to teach during a pandemic means re-working everything from the ground up: classes that worked just fine in a normal classroom setting won’t work as well in a hybrid format, so I’m revisiting and revising all of my courses, trying to make them pandemic-proof.

I don’t know exactly what my hybrid classes will look like in the fall: until I get classroom assignments, I can’t visualize what it will look like to have students sitting in assigned seats six feet apart at desks that can’t be moved. What I do know, however, is that my classes will have to be flexible: accessible to students in class or at home, and able to continue when I or any of my students have to quarantine.

In the spring, my colleagues and I moved our in-person classes online without much lead time. Now, I have a summer to prepare my wholly-remote literature class and my hybrid writing classes. The latter classes are the bigger puzzle: I know how to teach wholly online, and I’ve taught one hybrid class where we spent in-class time doing small group work. But teaching in a socially distanced classroom where some students are in the room and others are remote is a whole other animal, and I’ve been spending more time than ever this summer meeting with teaching colleagues and attending professional development workshops, trying to figure it all out.

All of this helps explain why time is flying faster than ever this summer: already, it is almost August, which every teacher knows marks the Almost End of Summer. Although I’ve been religiously spending time in the mornings outside reading on the patio and have continued to write in my journal daily, blogging and more “serious” writing have fallen by the wayside. I know that once the semester starts, life will get busy, fast, and I’ve tried to cherish every moment of this summer’s working staycation.

Backyard cardinal

It’s a hot and sunny day, with clear skies, so J and I are hoping to see Comet NEOWISE tonight, either in our backyard, which is fringed with trees, or at the neighborhood Little League field, which provides a broad, less obstructed view.

In advance of sundown, I’ve gotten my binoculars out, and in doing so, I realize I can’t remember the last time I used them, which is a shame since they are a nice set of optics–Nikon Monarchs–with a pleasing heft in the hand.

Birding is something I used to enjoy, which is to say it is something I enjoyed when I made time for it. There is a hushed expectancy that birding inspires–you train yourself to be quiet and attentive, honed to notice anything that looks or sounds usual.

This watchful demeanor is something birding and meditation share–both require you to intentionally focus your attention. When I used to go on Brookline Bird Club bird walks at Mount Auburn Cemetery, I’d practice the art of selective attention, peeling back the layers of conversation among the birders around me to focus on the faint chirps and whistles in the background, like removing a song’s vocal track to focus on the bass line.

When you go birding, you aren’t necessarily looking for any particular bird–or at least, I’ve never had much luck looking for and then finding a specific species. Instead, you keep your eyes and ears open for anything that seems different from the norm–a sound that doesn’t match the ambient noise, or a movement that runs counter to the usual grain.

In this sense, birding is as much about looking for clues as it is about hunting down specific species–or at least, that is how it usually works for me. The most interesting things I find are usually the things that appear by accident or surprise, like an unexpected eruption of mushrooms after summer storms.

This is why looking for wildflowers underfoot is a great accompaniment for listening to birds overheard. While you occupy your fidgety mind with one thing, you create an expectant opening for something else to appear.

Waiting room

Today I had a mammogram that had originally been scheduled for May, when nonessential medical procedures were postponed. It was the first time I’d ventured into a medical building since before the pandemic, and like every other aspect of life in the age of Corona, the old routines are distinctly different now.

There were three burly security guards at the entrance of the medical facility, all masked. Immediately inside was a screening station where you had to answer medical questions before picking up a disposable mask and a bright green GUEST decal that indicated you’d passed the health screening.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking an elevator even though signs indicated only one or two passengers were allowed at a time; instead, I took the stairs to my appointment on the fifth floor. In the hallways, drinking fountains were barricaded “out of an abundance of caution,” and decals on the floor indicated where to stand and wait for the receptionist to check you in.

In the waiting room, three chairs were spaced with wide empty space between them. There were no magazines or tables: nothing that could be touched and need to be disinfected. After my name was called, the mammographer took me directly into the exam room: gone was the extra step of disrobing in a partitioned changing room where you could leave your clothes in a locker. Again, having a separate changing room created too many surfaces to disinfect.

Instead, the mammographer left me alone in the exam room–just me, the massive mammography machine, and a lone chair–to disrobe and change into a gown she’d left for me: just one gown instead of the piles of small, medium, and large ones you’d normally choose from in the changing room.

Mammography is a high-touch procedure: it simply cannot be done while observing social distance. There is a lot of manipulating as the mammographer positions your breast on the glass plates of the mammography machine, and the two of you are in close contact–like dance partners, intertwined–for the minute or two it takes for her to arrange your arms and shoulders out of the imaging plane: turn your face this way, turn your torso that way, lean your shoulder here, point your feet and backside there.

The mammographer steps behind a plexiglass shield when she takes the actual images, telling you when to breathe and when to hold your breath, and during the procedure you are literally hugging the imaging equipment, your hands gripping the same hand-holds as every other woman who has gone before you. For this reason, the mammographer wiped down the machine before my procedure, explaining that she cleans the equipment after each patient leaves and again within sight of the next patient, a redundancy I appreciated.

When the procedure was done, I waited briefly for the results in case the radiologist wanted more images. Again, I waited in the exam room itself–one less space to sanitize–trying not to think about how many other women before me had sat and exhaled in the same chair in the same enclosed room.

I would never say that mammography is a tender procedure: mammographers manipulate your body in ways that would be manhandling in any other context, and the machine itself smashes and irradiates tissue that is particularly sensitive to pressure. But as my mammographer twisted my body into place, telling me to turn my face directly toward hers, I found myself holding my breath to save her from the tender intimacy of my (masked) exhalation.

Capt. William Smith's house

This time last year, I took myself to an author talk with Elizabeth Gilbert in Harvard Square. This year, all author talks are virtual, and I can’t remember the last time I was in Harvard Square. When will it feel safe to go into a crowd again–to mingle with strangers? The rush of community–the thrill you feel walking down a crowded street or congregating with other readers, sports fans, or theater-goers–is something the virus has stolen from us, at least for now.

Today J and I went walking at Minute Man National Historic Park. J had never walked down the Battle Road there, and it has been a long time since I’ve been walking there: a year or so, or more? This time, I was mindful of the space between us and other walkers, joggers, and cyclists, and I carefully noted whether each passerby was or wasn’t wearing a mask. Strangers in the time of COVID-19 have become something dangerous or at least suspect: a new form of stranger danger.

On our way back to our car, J and I saw a large family posing for a group photo, one of the family members taking a photo of all the rest. In the Before Time, we might have stopped and offered to take a picture of all of them, together: the kind of thing Friendly Strangers used to do. Instead, I quickly calculated the potential risk in my head: the risk of stopping, the risk of drawing near enough to offer help, and the risk of touching and taking a photo with someone else’s phone.

The risk was too great, so we walked on. It will be a while, I think, before being a friendly stranger feels safe again.

Lightning makes no sound until it strikes. #mlk

This weekend, J and I watched CNN coverage of the protests in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and elsewhere over the death of George Floyd. It was a mistake to watch: cable news is an addictive drug that does more to fuel rage than to illuminate or change minds. But we watched the same story we’ve seen play out before, with angry protestors facing off against officers in riot gear until someone blinked, blood was shed, and everybody lost.

After every senseless killing of unarmed black men, there is the same hand-wringing. White folks like me insist we aren’t racist while wondering how racism nevertheless endures. Can’t we all just get along, we ask, then we insist that some of our best friends are black. I always go out of my way to be nice to everyone, we insist, arguing that we don’t even see color.

But if white folks like me don’t see color, how can we see racism? “Not seeing color” is an excuse well-meaning but complacent white folks use to avoid the difficult and messy work of dismantling a system we didn’t design but that shields us in a protective cocoon. If I’m not racist, then racism is someone else’s problem, and I have no responsibility to fix it.

But racism is an ideology, not “just” an individual worldview, and ideologies are inherited. It isn’t your fault if you were born with a genetic predisposition toward addiction, heart disease, or cancer, but if you are aware of your congenital risk, you can make conscious choices to mitigate those circumstances. Just because you didn’t cause a problem doesn’t mean you have no responsibility for responding to it.

If you were born and raised in America, you inherited the problem of white supremacy. You didn’t cause or create it, but you were born into the consequences. Picture yourself being born atop someone else’s shitheap, and you’ve grown up your whole life breathing in that stench.

Proclaiming that this isn’t your shitheap–you didn’t build it, you don’t add to it, and you neither approve of or condone it–doesn’t make the pile and its smell disappear, and neither does trying to hide, cover, or distract from it. The only way to get rid of a massive, centuries-old pile of shit is to grab a shovel and start digging.

This is what anti-racists mean when they talk about doing the work. Yes, you can march; yes, you can wave a sign, post on social media, and vow to be a nicer, kinder, and more equitable person. But the shitpile of racism is higher and deeper than that. It’s a problem that’s bigger than a few shitty cops; it’s an entire social system that rests on the flawed, deeply rooted, and often unconscious assumption that there is something wrong, innately criminal, or just plain deficient about nonwhite folks.

American history rests on this premise. It’s how generations of slaveholders justified keeping humans as property, and it’s how generations of settlers justified taking land from Native people. It’s how countless capitalists up to and including the present day have justified policies such as redlining, segregation, and mass incarceration. The opportunity gap between white and black isn’t accidental; it’s intentionally designed.

The ideology of white supremacy explains why jogging while black is an executable offence and why a white dog-walker felt justified in calling the cops on a black birdwatcher who dared ask her to leash her dog. These individual actions are heinous, but they are not anomalous. People do shitty things to people of color not in isolation but within the context of a system that stands on a shitty foundation.

So what should we do? White people like me ask this question again and again after each upsetting incident, then we quickly return to our comfortable complacency, noseblind to the shitheap we’ve inherited.

White folks like me need to do the work of dismantling white supremacy, and that work varies from person to person: from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. Wherever you are, what row do you have to hoe? We each have implicit biases to understand, acknowledge, and uproot, and we each are stakeholders in social systems we can work to change from within.

If you are a teacher, how can you teach for justice? If you are a parent, how can you raise children who are more aware and self-aware? If you are a business owner, banker, or insurance adjuster, how can you do your job more justly and intentionally, with an eye toward greater equity, and how can you urge your colleagues and organizations to do the same?

The scenes from this past week prove that white folks like me are not doing enough: whatever our current comfort zone is, we each need to inch further outside of it. March if you can, but make that marching your first step, not your last. Individual action and collective change work together like two hands. Do your part, insist that your elected officials do theirs, and hold both yourself and your leaders accountable.

Since I am a reader, I start with books: if you’re white like me, educating yourself is essential. Some books I wish were required reading include Carol Anderson’s White Rage, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, Crystal Fleming’s How to Be Less Stupid About Race, Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race.

If you’re white like me, these books will challenge you; they aren’t comfortable reading, and that discomfort is the first step toward change. Cleaning up a shitheap is difficult, messy, and unpleasant work, but ignoring that shitheap is even worse.

Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday J and I walked to Newton Cemetery to pay our respects at the military graves there, as we often do on Memorial Day. In many ways, this year’s cemetery visit was like any other year. J and I walked around reading the inscriptions on flag-decorated graves, noting how young or old each person was, or the commendations they had received, or other indications of the lives behind the stones.

In other ways, however, yesterday’s visit wasn’t like any other year. J and I wore masks on the way to and from the cemetery, and many other visitors were masked as well. There were more people visiting the cemetery than I remember in past years: with Memorial Day parades and other festivities cancelled, visiting graves was one of the few “normal” ways to mark the holiday.

J and I have been sticking close to home these days, so yesterday’s walk to the cemetery and back was the first time in months we walked past restaurants we used to go to weekly. It was strange to walk the same familiar route, but in odd and unsettling circumstances. Now unlike then, we notice who is or isn’t wearing a mask, and with each approaching pedestrian, we and they did a delicate dance of deciding which of us should step into the street to allow the other a safe distance on the sidewalk.

In some ways, it’s remarkable to see how quickly we’ve all adapted to this strange new world of masks and social distancing. It makes me wonder how we as a society will look back on this time next year or the year after that.

Waiting

Earlier this week, I read an article Teju Cole published in the New York Times featuring excerpts from his pandemic journal. J and I have been sheltering at home for seventy days now, and I’ve written in my journal every single day, but I’d be hard pressed to glean much in the way of profundity there.

When you are in the middle of a surging wave, all you feel is wet. You have no understanding of how far or high the water looms; all you know is your own specific swirl. I can’t speak to a global pandemic, so my journal pages describe the mundane details of my own experience: the particular deck chairs I am busy arranging as the Titanic sinks.

Last week, I skimmed a BBC article featuring the “last normal photo” people had on their phones: reminders of the Before-Time. The last time I went shopping–the last time I touched a grocery cart, walked down aisles thronged with other shoppers, and stood in line before interacting with a cashier–was Friday, March 13, when I took a photo of empty grocery shelves where paper towels and toilet paper had once been. It isn’t exactly a “normal” photo, but it is one that takes me back to that strange and surreal time.

The day before that Final Shopping Trip–Thursday, March 12–J and I walked to our favorite pub for lunch. I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was unusual for us to walk to lunch on a Thursday, since I usually teach then. But I’d cancelled my Thursday classes because I thought I’d be flying to Ohio to visit my Mom the next day, and I ended up canceling my flight after the governor declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts.

That leisurely Thursday lunch–the last time J and I went to our favorite pub or any other restaurant–seemed like an odd but not yet apocalyptic time. The TV at the bar was tuned to the news, which was a litany of cancellations: first the NBA, then other professional sports leagues and major events in succession. On our way home, I snapped a picture of a dog tied outside a bakery, waiting for his owner inside, and J and I admired a sporty black Subaru parked along the curb, just as we’d do any other day.

That last time J and I walked to lunch at our favorite pub, we didn’t know it would be the last time. It was clear things were starting to get serious and weird: the weekend before, grocery shoppers were starting to stockpile supplies as if against an upcoming storm. We knew then a storm was coming, but we didn’t fully realize how long and devastating that storm would be.

Looking back on the last seventy days, I’m ashamed to admit how much ink I’ve spent in my journal pages fretting over groceries. People are losing their lives and livelihoods, and I’ve spent page upon page obsessed with delivery windows and weird rolling shortages: one week I can’t find paper towels or dishwasher detergent, and the next week there are no corn tortillas, dry pasta, or fresh produce. Groceries are something I once managed: I enjoyed making a list, going to the store, and stocking our refrigerator and pantry. Now, I realize the seemingly simple task of buying groceries is–like everything else–largely outside my control.

Seventy days after suddenly sheltering-in-place, I’m realizing it was never about the toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or hand sanitizer. All the items that disappeared from store shelves were merely metaphors for the Before-Time, when we fancied ourselves in control of our lives.

Horse chestnut (aka buckeye) in bloom

If you’re looking for a way to stop a conversation during a pandemic, ask the question “What’s new.” Right now, on day 65 of J’s and my self-imposed quarantine, there’s not much “new” happening. People continue to sicken and die. People continue to lose jobs and businesses continue to fold. The divide between Haves and Have Nots continues to gape, with the only change being the light being shed on that chasm.

“What’s new” is exactly the wrong question to be asking right now. Instead, I wish we could ask ourselves “What matters” or “What remains and sustains?”

This year like any other, the trees are newly in leaf and buzzing with black-throated green warblers. Our backyard chipmunks chip and chirp, making up in fervent spring activity the long winter months they spent scarce and inactive underground. In every fruiting tree—the crabapples, cherries, and redbuds that abound in leafy suburbs like ours–male and female cardinals flit, juxtaposing their distinctive plumage with colorful spring blooms. Overhead, goldfinches spar and twitter, flitting from tree to tree as if spring days were entirely carefree and destined to last.

But these days don’t last: no days do. This isn’t news, but a perennial Truth we continually suppress, ignore, and deny. As we are hunkered down against infection, Spring emerges from her annual quarantine, just as she does every year. This isn’t new, but eternal. We are the ones who forget–either consciously or through unwitting ignorance–the ultimate truth of both nature and pandemic, and that is that only impermanence is here to stay.

Elegant

Whenever a student or colleague asks via email how I’m doing, I often respond with the generic statement “We live in interesting times.” On the surface, J and I are doing well: we both are healthy, we both are (currently) employed, and we both are adapting to this curious self-quarantine we’ve kept for more than 50 days.

But under the surface, these are strange days. I read the news with a mixture of sadness, horror, and outrage. At any given moment, I alternate between wringing my proverbial hands and rolling up my figurative sleeves. I intentionally keep myself busy with work, housework, and pet tasks. Every day, I look forward to the afternoon walks J and I take to get exercise and fresh air, and every week, I look forward to the drives around the neighborhood we take to keep each of our cars running.

J and I are, in other words, settling into something that passes as “almost normal”…and that itself seems strange. It almost doesn’t seem right to turn a global pandemic into a domestic routine, but ordinary rituals are the only way I know how to make sense of the world and my place in it. For good or ill, I am a creature of habit, and I take a surprising amount of solace knowing my daily routine is one thing I can control in a world of unknowns.

Backyard buckeye buds

Today is the fortieth day that J and I have been self-isolating at home. Etymologically speaking, a true quarantine lasts forty days, but ours will last much longer. The first forty days are just the start of it.

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He brought me up out of the pit
Out of the mire and clay.

In my childhood religion classes, we learned that in the Bible, forty was shorthand for “a very long time.” Jesus fasted in the desert for forty days and nights, and it rained on Noah’s ark for just as long. Our current quarantine feels a bit like both: a long, dry spell in the desert, sustained by prayer, and a crowded, sometimes smelling stint in a storm-tossed vessel full of creatures seeking safe haven.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?

How did Jesus stay alive in the desert, and how did Noah keep all his passengers fed? In the Bible, these are questions left unasked and unanswered, trusted to the authority of faith. But during this actual quarantine, they are real questions that occasionally keep me up at night. What happens if we can’t get groceries while we’re isolating at home, what if our medicines or other supplies run out, and what if one or both of us get sick and have to shelter at home in the absence of available hospital beds?

He set my feet upon a rock
He made my footsteps firm
Many will see–many will see and hear

In the absence of definitive answers, I try to push such questions aside. This morning I found myself humming U2’s “40,” a rock anthem the band used to perform at the end of every concert. Its lyrics come from Psalm 40, which itself is a song of longing.

I will sing, sing a new song.
I will sing, sing a new song.
How long to sing this song?
How long to sing this song?
How long, how long, how long
How long to sing this song?

How long will this quarantine last? Certainly more than forty days, which is itself a very long time. I’ve decided “how long” isn’t a helpful question: like a child asking “Are we there yet” on a long car drive, “how long” is a question that is both unanswerable and annoying. You miss a lot of scenery if you’re only asking “how long.” Instead, each day you sing whatever song that day delivers.