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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.

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.

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.

Watching

This morning I gave consulting interviews at the Cambridge Zen Center after months of being too subsumed with Other Obligations to attend formal practice. Whenever I go to the Zen Center after months away, settling onto a cushion feels like coming home. My meditation practice isn’t limited to the four walls of the Zen Center–even when I don’t drag myself to Cambridge to meditate with other folks, I continue to practice on my own–but there is something about sitting alongside other meditators in a Dharma room that is steeped with practice energy.

Meditating at the Zen Center this morning felt like a welcome respite: a chance to plug in my mental batteries after running for far too long on a depleted charge. On any given day, I feel like the queen of multitasking: every day there are students, pets, and a husband all depending on me to Do My (Various) Job(s), and it often feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. Meditating at the Zen Center, however, is pure monotasking. For thirty solid minutes, I have nothing to do but sit up straight, keep my eyes down, and follow my breath, gently bringing my mind back to attention whenever it wanders. This opportunity to do Just One Thing for an uninterrupted span of time is an inconceivable luxury.

Today has been rainy, with constant drizzle and intermittent downpours. After I’d finished giving the last of this morning’s interviews and had returned to the Dharma room for the final few minutes of practice, I noticed someone had opened the windows just a crack: not enough to let in the damp chill of November, but just enough to let in the sound of rain.

Come From Away

Last night J and I went to the Boston Opera House to see Come From Away, a musical retelling of the story of Gander, Newfoundland, where 38 planes were stranded for nearly a week after the terror attacks of 9/11.

On September 11, 2001, the population of Gander nearly doubled as 7,000 travelers were forced to disembark there after the United States shut down its airspace. Come From Away dramatizes some of these travelers’ stories, and it also portrays the town’s response as locals flooded emergency shelters with supplies and opened their homes to confused and frightened travelers.

Although I knew many travelers were stranded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, I didn’t know the full story of how (and why) planes were diverted to Gander. Initially, passengers on the 38 planes didn’t know why they were landing in Newfoundland: in order to avoid widespread panic, flight crews didn’t divulge the full details of what was happening on the ground in New York, Washington, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. As a result, puzzled passengers were literally flying (and landing) blind.

Even after the diverted planes landed in Canada, passengers were prevented from disembarking, as nobody knew if there were additional terrorists on the planes. Flights were diverted to Gander and other remote Canadian airports because authorities feared they were carrying explosives, and isolating the potential danger at remote airports was deemed a safer option than having the planes land in densely populated areas.

Once the tired and disoriented passengers were allowed to deplane, the town of Gander hurried to provide food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities for the “plane people.” An elementary school was transformed into an emergency shelter, the local hockey rink was commandeered to hold and refrigerate bulk shipments of food, and extra televisions, phones, and computers were installed so stranded travelers could watch news coverage and reach out to loved ones back home.

Come From Away did an excellent job dramatizing the hospitality Gander, Newfoundland showed in the aftermath of 9/11 and the impromptu community that arose among locals and their transient guests. Not surprisingly, my favorite character in the musical was an SPCA worker who tended the 19 dogs, cats, and chimpanzees (!) riding as cargo in the stranded planes.

Although Come From Away wasn’t the best, most profound, or funniest musical I’ve ever seen–Hamilton, Fun Home, and The Book of Mormon take those honors, respectively–it was entertaining, sweet, and alternatingly heart-breaking and humorous. From beginning to end, I was captivated by the story of how residents in a remote town opened their doors to strangers in the aftermath of a dark day.

Sunset from second floor women's restroom

Today has been a very long day with a beautiful sunset in the middle of it.

Holly berries

I used to wait until after Thanksgiving to start listening to Christmas music, but in recent years I’ve loosened my own rule. During the light of day, I don’t yearn for holiday music, but last night while I was running Friday afternoon-into-evening errands, I switched from the news on NPR to Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night,” a CD that is perennially appropriate in late autumn-into-winter.

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the pagan nature of Christmas: a holiday of light at the darkest time of year. Years ago when I taught in New Hampshire during the week and spent my long weekends in Massachusetts, there were many weeks when my Thursday night commute was brightened by isolated houses on lonely roads that had colorful Christmas lights. Those lights guided my way like beacons in a storm.

These days, my commute is significantly shorter, but I dread the darkness of winter more than the cold. Even a short commute feels long when the way is dark, so while I don’t need the cheer of Christmas carols when the sun shines, after dark I appreciate the company of songs designed for the longest nights of the year.

Autumn oak

I’ve already mentioned that November is my favorite month, and here’s another reason why: November light glows like no other. This year, the end of October was gray and rainy, and my mood was as dismal as the days. But so far, November has been brisk and bright, the waning days gleaming golden.

Golden glow

I’ve lived in New England for more than 25 years now–just over half my life–and that is long enough for me to know this: November light is precious because it is both short and short-lived. The nights are noticeably longer now: the afternoon class that used to be bathed with setting sunlight now adjourns in darkness, and the days will continue to shrink. The beaten-bronze glow of stubborn oak trees–the last to leaf in spring, and the last to drop in autumn–will soon fade and fall. Come December, the landscape will be drab and the days dim.

But for now, every moment of November light is precious. When you know a thing is dying, you cherish every moment you share.

Reflected

Several weeks ago, on my way home from a medical appointment in Chestnut Hill, I stopped at Hammond Pond to snap a few pictures of the mute swans there. Hammond Pond sits directly behind a busy shopping complex and directly abuts a parking lot. The mute swans don’t seem to care, however. They just mind their own business, paddling and dabbling in the calm water while busy humans like me zip and hurry past.

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