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.

Violets

I don’t normally like to make sweeping generalizations about entire groups of people, but let me speak on the behalf of educators everywhere:  we are more than ready for this academic year to be over.  While much of the world is suffering from pandemic fatigue, take it from me:  right now, educators are suffering from simple fatigue.  

I haven’t been blogging much because pandemic teaching has drained me of every ounce of creative energy.  I’ve been writing in my journal, which is an intentionally low-tech and private space where I can vent, recite a litany of to-do’s, and otherwise be uninspiring.  But these days blogging feels too much like teaching–a task that requires me to have Something To Say and then shape that content into Something Presentable–and most days I simply don’t have the mental bandwidth.

Earlier this semester–probably sometime in March, when I was in dire need of the Spring Break that was cancelled at both of my colleges–I coined a motto that perfectly sums up how teaching during a pandemic feels when you are overwhelmed with grading, struggling to keep up with course prep, and wondering how you’re going to motivate students who are as tired and burned-out as you are:  too many tabs; not enough spoons.

“Too many tabs” refers to the constant multitasking that hybrid teaching entails.  Answering one emailed question from a student might entail checking the course management system, online gradebook, Google Doc assignment guidelines, course calendar, or syllabus.  Holding virtual office hours at one college might be the only uninterrupted time you can find to grade papers or prep courses at the other college, every day being a nonstop cycle of prep-work, reminders, and (of course) grading.  No matter how much time you spent preparing for this semester like no other, nothing can really prepare you for the whirlwind of work that is pandemic teaching.

“Not enough spoons” refers to Spoon Theory, a way of explaining the finite amount of energy any individual has for the mundane tasks of adulting.  In its original iteration, Spoon Theory referred to the limited energy folks with chronic illness or disability have to navigate the world:  completing Task X, Y, or Z might deplete all one’s spoons for the day.  During this interminable COVID year, educators at all levels–college and K-12 alike–are doing more work than ever, but with significantly fewer spoons.  At the end of any given day, when I look at my paltry pile of accomplishments alongside my looming list of tasks left undone, all I can say is “Sorry, but I’m all out of spoons.”

I can confidently say all educators feel this way because I started this academic year in relatively good shape, better prepared than many to face the challenges of a COVID semester.  I’ve taught online before, and I’m well-versed in online teaching design.  I knew the difference between synchronous and asynchronous modalities, and I understood the pedagogical benefits (and drawbacks) of each.  I already taught project-based classes where students submitted their assignments electronically, and I already used Google Docs to share handouts I could amend on-the-fly.  If anyone was prepared to teach in a hybrid format, it was me…and in retrospect, even I had no idea what I was getting into.

Additionally, I haven’t carried the burdens many of my college and K-12 colleagues have faced this year.  I don’t have kids, so I haven’t been trying to teach while overseeing my children’s remote classes.  I have a laptop and robust wifi at home, so teaching remotely on off-campus days hasn’t been a technological hardship.  I haven’t had to care for elderly or infirm loved ones; I haven’t had to grieve any family members who succumbed to the virus.  Through every day of an academic year filled with uncertainty and upheaval, I’ve had a roof over my head and food on the table.

But still, this has been an exhausting year.  Yesterday, I submitted final grades for one college; this week, I’m teaching the last week of classes at the other.  Spring is always a busy time of year for writing teachers:  at times it feels like you’ll never reach the bottom of your (virtual) paper piles.  But this year has been brutally exhausting, and many of us have been working in isolation, without the collegiality of on-campus colleagues to give us a morale boost.

Every semester feels like a marathon, and this COVID year feels like an ultra-marathon:  a test of endurance coupled with a crisis of faith. Against all odds, we educators have reached the almost-end of a semester where death itself was lurking around every corner, and we sometimes managed to do this with grace and even aplomb.  So as the end of this marathon academic year rapidly approaches, I have only one question:  where’s my fucking medal?

Emerging day lilies

I remember the first time I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak.  I was a teenage birdwatcher in Ohio, and my parents and I were birding in a group somewhere, probably Greenlawn Cemetery.  My Dad spotted a bird he didn’t immediately recognize, and someone else in the group called out the ID:  grosbeak!  

My Dad gave detailed instructions to anyone who wanted to see the bird:  it’s in the pale green tree around two o’clock, about ten feet from the center, on a half-bare branch.  And while folks around me gradually called out “Got it,” and “Beautiful,” I frantically scanned the place where the bird was supposed to be:  nothing!

After several minutes of listening to everyone else Ooh and Ahh over a bird I still couldn’t see, I cried out in a near panic:  “I don’t see it!  I don’t see it!”  My Dad laughed and told me to calm down:  the bird wasn’t going anywhere.  

After a few more minutes of my Dad describing exactly where I needed to look, I finally saw my first-ever rose-breasted grosbeak:  a chunky black-and-white robin-sized bird with a slash of hot pink beneath its throat.  The bird was as beautiful as everyone had said, and just like that, my panic over Not Seeing A Grosbeak turned into satisfaction over another life bird bagged.

These days, getting a COVID vaccine is like spotting a grosbeak.  Everyone around me, it seems, is getting the vaccine and posting jubilant pictures on social media, but I’m not yet old, sick, or essential enough to be eligible.  I know the vaccine isn’t going anywhere–it will still be there when it is eventually, finally, my turn–but in the meantime, I’m fretting in the Not Yet:  the Not Yet Spring, the Not Yet End of this interminable semester, the Not Yet End of the pandemic.  

We live in a world with plenty of grosbeaks, but when your own is hiding, you can worry yourself into a frenzy over what seems so near, but has not yet arrived.

Unplugged

It’s almost 5:00 pm and still light out, but I’m nevertheless feeling the sundowning fatigue that has become so familiar this pandemic year. In the morning, I’m energized and optimistic, looking forward to a productive day; by evening, though, I’m tapped and tired, and my to-do list still looms.

Before the pandemic, I would have soldiered through, milking as much work as possible out of every waking minute, then staying up late (or getting up early) to tackle the rest. But I can no longer do this: I’m too old to pull all-nighters, and worse yet, I’m no longer foolish enough to try. I’ve learned from long experience–52 years inhabiting this body, and nearly 30 years teaching college–that the shortcut of long hours leads to little progress in the long run.

When I deprive myself of sleep, I get sick–and when I get sick, I stay sick for weeks, even a simple cold triggering an avalanche of asthmatic complications. During this COVID year, I can’t afford to get sick. From the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve realized my top priority isn’t my job or my students or my to-do list; it’s my health. In the pit of my stomach, I know that if I get COVID, it won’t end well, so I must avoid infection at all costs.

Since late-afternoon-into-evening is when my energy, productivity, and morale lag, I’ve learned this past year how important it is to stop working when my body says “no more.” Because hybrid teaching forces me to spend more time than usual at my computer as I prep classes, check discussion forums, and Zoom with students, I’ve come to cherish the time I spend unplugged, reading print books, writing snail-mail letters, or writing by hand in my journal.

My laptop and Internet connection have been my tether to the outside world this past year, but my books, notebooks, stationery, and stamps have been my lifeline.