Windblown

As the end of the term approaches, my first-year students are working on a Theory of Writing project that asks them to consider how they work as writers.

My students at Babson College have been working on this assignment for several weeks, and my students at Framingham State are just starting. In both cases, I asked students to read an essay by novelist Zadie Smith in which she talks about her writing craft.

One of the things Smith does in her essay is describe the phases of a novel’s composition. In discussing this essay with my students, I asked them to consider the steps or stages they go through when working on a paper, and I in turn considered the steps I go through when crafting a blog post.

  1. Start by writing by hand, in a notebook, about whatever comes to mind.
  2. Go back and type up relevant or usable bits from that hand-written first draft, wordsmithing sentences as I go.
  3. Re-read the entire thing, adding transitions, deleting redundant or clunky passages, and adding additional paragraphs or a conclusion as necessary
  4. Add a photo, decide on a tagline for social media, and publish.

This first approach is the ideal workflow for me: start by writing by hand, usually with no (or only a vague) idea of what I want to say. But when life is busy, sometimes the process looks more like this:

  1. Open Google Docs
  2. Start typing on a broad topic, agonizing over sentences as I write
  3. Step 3: Re-read, revise, and post as described above.

This second approach is quicker insofar as I eliminate the step of writing by hand…but it’s more tortuous. If I start with writing by hand, my thoughts flow more quickly and naturally. For me, thinking on paper is akin to thinking out loud, but safer: only I see that initial scribbled draft. When I write by hand in my journal, I’m chasing ideas, not wordsmithing sentences. This means my ideas come out fresh and raw, with the reassuring knowledge that I’ll make them pretty later.

If I go straight to typing, my attitude toward composition is different. I’m more hesitant and halting. I pause over sentences and go back to re-read, spending as much time going backwards as going forwards. Although these typed drafts are still rough, they feel more formal and intimidating. I’m more mindful of audience–that is, the fact that someone will eventually read this–and that makes me spend more time hemming and hawing over every sentence..

If blog-writing Process One is my most ideal writing scenario and Process Two is what I do when life gets busy, blog-writing Process Three is what I rely upon when I’m even busier. When I’m really, really busy, I sometimes post directly to the WordPress app on my phone, typing with my thumbs to comment on a picture I’ve uploaded. But this third approach is so far from my ideal, I hesitate to even mention it.


Flags

I’m superstitious when it comes to Mondays. I have an unproven theory that if I start Monday organized and on-top of my schedule, the rest of the week will go smoothly, but if I start Monday scrambling, the rest of the week is doomed. As goes Monday, so goes the week.

Today I fell behind schedule before I’d even left the house. Morning chores took longer than I’d planned, and I left home later than I’d like. I arrived at my post-holiday COVID test a few minutes late, only to discover a long line of students waiting ahead of me. As I stood in line answering emails on my phone, my wrist buzzed to alert me to the office hours I was supposed to be holding. It’s never a good omen when you’re late to your own office hours.

And yet, after my COVID test I found a parking spot–the last one–right outside the building where I teach. And when I entered the building where my office is located, the elevator that had been out of service all last week was fixed. I arrived at my office ten minutes late, and nobody was in the hall waiting for me.

I might survive the week after all.


Discarded

Every year before we adjourn for Thanksgiving, I tell my first-year students to rest up over break, as we’ll return to the busiest time of the semester. And just like that, another Thanksgiving break is over, and we’re headed into the maelstrom that is the end-of-term: from rest to stress in the blink of an eye.

Maple leaves and reflected sky

I have fewer than 50 pages left in Richard Powers’ Bewildermentt, which is breaking my heart in profound and complex ways. The human and natural worlds are troubled and broken–deeply wounded and traumatized–and yet both are the site of great joy. Powers’ novel somehow captures all these emotions–the whole human gamut, from ecstasy to rage–while expressing the cosmic loneliness of these almost-end times.

Does it seem extreme to call these days apocalyptic? In some ways, Powers’ book is dystopian: he takes the political realities of the present moment–including climate denialism, anti-science conspiracy theories, and a xenophobic slide toward authoritarianism–and exaggerates them only slightly, which makes their impact that much more devastating. The world of Powers’ novel isn’t exactly the present moment, but it certainly could be.

Robin, the child protagonist who feels too much, has an empathetic connection with endangered creatures great and small. Robin embodies the limited emotional options for those of us living with open-eyes in an environmentally devastated world. Do we rage against the dying of the light as species disappear and the planet warms? Or do we ecstatically embrace the wondrous creatures who somehow, miraculously remain, endangered but still surviving (for now)?

If you knew the planet was dying, would you rage or grieve or make the most of your remaining time…or would you oscillate among all three? If you chose the latter, would that make you crazy and disturbed–a person in need of treatment–or one of the only humans on the planet who is clear-eyed and sane?


Lost jacket

Last night J and I watched the National Dog Show, which has become a Thanksgiving tradition. A Scottish deerhound named Claire won Best in Show for the second straight year: this year with fans rather than cardboard cut-outs in the stands, and with most of the handlers trotting around the ring without masks.

Not surprisingly, the day after I blogged about learning to live with COVID-19, today’s news is full of worrisome details about a new variant out of South Africa that seems to be highly transmissible and could evade current vaccines. If both traits are true, this would be a game-changer, but it’s too early to tell for sure. In the meantime, we continue to be both vigilant and nimble, reminding ourselves of all the other times we thought we were out of the woods, only to have the situation change.

This much I know: we live in the woods, so we’ll never be out of them. Many of us see Life in the Age of COVID as a time of unprecedented uncertainty, and we long for the stability and security of the Before Times. But here’s the troubling truth: we weren’t safe or certain then, we just fooled ourselves into thinking so.

The pandemic has made many folks acutely aware of their own mortality as well as the fragility of everything from the economy to global supply chains. But “we” were never safe or certain even in the Before Times: our lives have always hung on a slender thread, and the next moment was never guaranteed. The pandemic didn’t create this fragility; it simply illuminated it.

People plan, and the gods laugh. Countless times over the past almost-two years, I’ve remembered a passage from Momma Zen where Karen Maezen Miller describes motherhood like this: as soon as you adapt to your child’s current life-stage, they grow out of that stage, and you have to adapt anew. Everything Changes when you’re raising a small child, and this dictum applies to the pandemic and everything else because “Everything Changes” is the law of life itself.

One of my most vivid memories of pandemic teaching came one early-evening last year when I was prepping in-person classes for the next day. With a ping in my inbox, everything changed: an email announced an uptick in campus COVID cases, so the next day’s classes would go remote and students would shelter in their rooms while the college completed contact tracing.

Without batting an eye, I scrolled back through the lesson I’d planned to teach in my classroom on campus and made a few changes so I could teach from my desk at home instead. Living in the Age of COVID means being perennially nimble: plan, make adjustments, then plan to adjust again.

Sun and shadows

There’s much to be thankful for this year, even as the pandemic continues. J and I got our booster shots a month ago, exactly six months after our second Pfizer dose: as soon (in other words) as we were eligible. This time last year, I was teaching hybrid classes in half-empty classrooms; this year, my classrooms are full of vaccinated students, my colleagues have returned to campus, and I don’t think twice about wearing a mask inside stores, the library, and museums.

Now that J and I have been boosted and the weather is cold, we’ve returned to eating lunch twice a week inside our favorite pub: a bit of normalcy that feels good for the soul. I’m not sure we’ll ever return to the old normal of the Before Times: I suspect we’ll always startle when we hear someone cough or sneeze in public, and I’ll probably continue wearing a mask indoors during cold and flu season.

But the early days of lockdown, when nonessential businesses were closed and J and I didn’t venture out even for take-out food, seem very far away. We’re learning how to live with the virus, recognizing COVID has changed our lives in lasting ways, and in a strange way I’m grateful for that, too.


Empties

This year like last, J and I are planning a quiet Thanksgiving at home. Even in the Before Times, I never enjoyed traveling for the holidays, when roads, airports, and train stations are crowded. In the years before the pandemic, J and I would go to a fancy restaurant for Thanksgiving; last year, we had a turkey dinner delivered from a local catering company, then J divided the food into three meals we ate over the course of the holiday weekend.

This year’s Thanksgiving feast was delivered today, so the refrigerator is full. I went to Trader Joe’s last week to avoid going to the grocery store this week, and we literally have nowhere to go tomorrow: no crowds or traffic to navigate.

Now that I’m back to teaching in-person, I remember with strange nostalgia the early days of the pandemic, when introverts were in high clover, not having to come up with an excuse to stay home and avoid social events. Although I don’t want to return to the days of complete lockdown, I’m looking forward to hunkering down for the long weekend. Teaching gives me more than enough social stimulation; what I need right now is a chance to recharge my batteries at home.


Crocker Hall

Every semester, I have a method for triaging teaching tasks. My basic rule is People Before Papers. This means paying attention to the student in front of me is more important than grading papers. What this means in practice, unfortunately, is that paper-grading inevitably gets bumped to the bottom of my to-do list.

Prepping classes takes priority over grading papers, for example, because class time is People Time: that is, time spent face-to-face with my students. I can catch up with paper-grading later, but I can’t make-up precious class sessions after they have passed.

If I’m in my office grading papers and a student walks in with a question or problem, the rule of People Before Papers applies. My paper pile is set aside so I can tend to the student in front of me.

If no student shows up for my office hours, the People Before Papers dictum applies to email, too. The paper-pile can always wait–it certainly isn’t going anywhere–while I answer an emailed question. As slow as I am at grading, students sometimes mention how much quicker I am responding to email than their other professors are.

When it comes to days off and weekends, People Before Papers applies to folks who aren’t my students. Lunches or weekend outings with J take precedence over my paper-piles, as do get-togethers with friends or the care and feeding of the pets. (Pets, after all, are people, too.)

What this all means, of course, is that paper-grading invariably gets pushed to the bottom of my priority pile. It’s not entirely a case of procrastination, although there is, of course, an element of that, too. Instead, it’s a matter of having too many obligations and not enough hours, with paper-grading always deferring to other priorities.

Every Fall semester, I look forward to Thanksgiving as a chance to catch up in large part because my other obligations lessen then. Every moment I’m not prepping or teaching classes can be spent grading papers. And as soon as students head home or elsewhere for the long Thanksgiving weekend, I have fewer questions to answer in-person or via email.

So while my students look forward to traveling, spending time with friends and family, and enjoying other holiday pastimes, I look forward to a long weekend of monotasking, everyone else’s holiday giving me a chance to catch up with work.


Norway maple leaf

Despite what the song says, rainy days and Mondays don’t always get me down. Today is the Monday of Thanksgiving week, and I find myself repeating my annual mantra: “If I can make it to Thanksgiving, I’ll survive the semester.” I have the usual laundry-list of grading tasks, and since rainy days are perfect for paper-grading, I might survive the semester after all.


Trudy in autumn

Last night I took my 2020 Subaru Crosstrek, Trudy, to the dealership for a routine oil change and tire rotation. (Yes, I name my cars. Over the course of my adult life, I’ve owned three Subarus: Little Tank, Miss Bling, and now Trudy “True Blue” Subaru.)

Since I planned to wait at the dealership, I packed a bag with my iPad, a book (Richard Power’s Bewilderment), a notebook, and a packet of letters and blank notecards. I sat in the quiet waiting room, which has three desks, a handful of lounge chairs, and wifi but no TV. An older man sat in one of the lounge chairs, and a middle-aged woman with mid-length, graying hair sat at one of the desks, shuffling papers and folders into and out of a small tote bag.

As I claimed a lounge chair in the corner, I chuckled to myself. “That’s me without glasses,” I said to myself, remembering the ongoing joke J and I have about the stereotypical Subaru owner: middle-aged and female, possibly lesbian or at least tomboyish, with sensible shoes, no makeup, and at least one dog. The anonymous woman in the waiting room appeared to check all the boxes, as I do.

After I’d settled in to write the day’s journal pages in the notebook I’d brought, a service advisor walked into the room and approached the older man to update him on the status of his car. Observing proper waiting room protocol, the woman and I tried not to eavesdrop on the conversation. After the service advisor left, the woman packed up her folders and moved to one of the lounge chairs, where she busied herself on her phone.

Not long later, the same service advisor came into the lounge and walked up to me. “That’s weird,” I thought, “How does he know who I am since he wasn’t the one who checked me in?” The service advisor told me my car looked good, they were replacing the gear shift, but they didn’t have to replace the recalled airbags since that had already been done. They’d discovered a broken tail light, though, and he asked me if I wanted to replace it.

I said yes to the tail light but silently wondered why they had to replace the gear shift on a nearly-new car. Only after the service advisor left did I realize he’d mistaken me for the only other woman in the room, and I’d authorized service for her car.