In a humdrum


Gathering storm

Just over a week ago, on the same day my social media feed blew up with gut reactions, primal screams, and hot takes from the official announcement that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade, I was on a hospital gurney, waiting for a diagnostic colonoscopy after a positive Cologuard test.

Although I’ve spent the past month telling myself the test results were either a false positive or “just” indicative of benign polyps, I’ve also been nursing a lingering sense of dread. What if I have cancer? What if the cancer has spread? What will I do in the aftermath of a dire diagnosis: what might treatment look like, and why me, why now?

I’ve never been pregnant, and I’ve never had a pregnancy scare: like Terry Tempest Williams, the only thing I’ve done religiously my entire adult life is keep a journal and take birth control. But I’m guessing quietly worrying you might have cancer is similar to quietly worrying you might have an unwanted pregnancy. In both cases, you fear something growing inside you might end or upend your life.

One of the first things my gastroenterologist did before starting the procedure was ask me to sign a consent form. Nobody can force a patient to undergo cancer screening or even cancer surgery: had I wanted to ignore my Cologuard results, that would have been a bad decision, but it would have been my right.

Because we assume grown adults have the right to make their own medical decisions, nobody can force a person to eat a healthy diet, quit smoking, or give blood, even if doing so would save another’s life. Even after we die, nobody has the right to harvest our organs without our consent. But with the stroke of a pen, the Supreme Court erased the right to bodily autonomy for women across the country. If you’re a woman of childbearing age living in a red state, what happens in your body is now the government’s business, not your own.

In the month leading up to my colonoscopy, I told only a handful of friends and relatives. I didn’t share my fears on social media, and I didn’t blog about them, either. I chose, in other words, privacy over publicity. Roe v. Wade argued that women have the right to make the most intimate of decisions about their health and families privately, without government interference. As soon as a woman begins to show, however, everyone has an opinion about her pregnancy: whether a pregnant woman likes it or not, her personal decisions suddenly become political.

During my colonoscopy, my gastroenterologist found and removed four polyps, each a clump of cells that could be benign, cancerous, or precancerous. While I waited for my pathology results, I realized the world of difference between cells that are precancerous and those that are cancer: the difference between an acorn and oak, zygote and child.

It doesn’t matter what your or my personal beliefs about abortion are: medical decisions are each individual’s personal business. Earlier this week, I got my pathology report: all four polyps were precancerous, not cancer. I dodged a bullet when it comes to my personal health, but I still have dire concerns about the American body politic. A court that ignores precedent to strip away rights is a threat to democracy from within.


Outside Shake Shack

Exactly one year ago today, J and I walked into O’Hara’s Food & Spirits in Newton Highlands, MA and had lunch at our usual high top table: the first time we’d eaten inside since March 12, 2020. This time last year, J and I were freshly vaccinated, and we hadn’t yet been schooled in the Greek letters of viral nomenclature: first Delta, then Omicron, and now a litany of Omicron sub-variants.

This year, J and I are eating outside again, thanks to the current COVID surge here in the northeast. Over the past year, J and I have mastered a nimble dance, returning to restaurants when case counts are low and relying on takeout and outdoor dining when cases are high.

Right now, the weather is nice enough that eating outside doesn’t feel like a hardship. Plenty of restaurants have tables squeezed along sidewalks or in parking spaces, and it feels almost Parisian to eat outside while both cars and pedestrians stream past.

This weekend, J and I ordered takeout sandwiches from a local pizza place, then we had an impromptu picnic on the Newton Centre green. Families were reading books on blankets, friends were chatting on park benches, and a man was playing jazz standards on a colorfully painted outdoor piano.

I’ve often wondered if today’s children will someday remember the pandemic as “those summers when we ate outside.” Years ago, I saw a man with a dog sitting on a grassy embankment next to a disabled car. The man had his head in his hands, depressed; the dog, on the other hand, lolled on the grass with a doggy grin, clearly enjoying the sights and smells of a sunny day.

There are plenty of things we’ve lost over the past two years, but having a reason to spend more time outside is a welcome consolation.


Already peonies

The weather in New England has been crazy. Last week was beautiful, with a string of sunny days with temperatures in the 70s: perfect weather for walking, reading on the patio, and dining alfresco. Saturday was overcast and humid with afternoon thunderstorms, Sunday was warm and sunny, and Monday spiked into the upper 80s: suddenly summer. Yesterday started warm until temperatures dropped into the 60s–spring again–and today has been gray and drippy after overnight thunderstorms.

It’s hard to tell, in other words, if it’s spring or summer, so I’ve taken to calling this time of year spring-into-summer. It’s a transitional period marked by indecision and mood swings. May is clearly spring, and July will truly be summer, but early June can’t make up its mind. Some days are reminiscent of April showers, and others hearken ahead to summer sultriness.

This might explain why I’m always surprised when any of the neighbors’ peonies bloom. I associate peonies with summer, so I’m always surprised when they bloom out of the blue, before I’m ready. Peonies flower in their own good time, and I’m always out of step, muttering “Already?” under my breath.


Curved corridor

This morning, apropos of nothing, I woke up with Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush” endlessly repeating in my head. I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard the song–probably years, maybe decades ago–but there it was playing on the jukebox of my mind, randomly alternating between Neil Young’s original version and Michael Hedges’ instrumental cover.

Where did either song come from, other than the deep recesses of memory? There are CDs that bring me to my emotional knees when I revisit them: Sarah McLachlan’s Possession, for example, or Peter Gabriel’s Us. These albums are so interwoven with a particular time in my life, I immediately recall where and who I was when I listened to them endlessly, their songs providing a sonic bridge to my past.

I don’t have the same emotional connection with “After the Gold Rush”: it’s a song I’ve heard, for sure, but not one I’ve intentionally listened to time and again. But apparently it’s embedded itself into my consciousness, for this morning it randomly popped up from the auditory flotsam of my mind, a spontaneous and nonsensical earworm.

Popular wisdom says scents are connected most closely with memory, the scent of Proust’s madeleines triggering a flood of childhood recollections. But as someone who can smell only occasionally, I am more emotionally susceptible to sound than scent.

When I walk with friends, they will sometimes be stopped in their tracks by a specific and striking smell: for example, a gentle waft of lilac. But the things that stop me are sounds: a house wren singing in a rhododendron, or a brood of starlings churring in a tree cavity high overhead.

When I walk with friends, they seem to focus primarily on human sounds–the words we exchange–while I experience sound as a layered tapestry where words are the embroidered surface and birdsong or other ambient music are the woven warp and woof underneath.

Songs weave themselves into memory almost unconsciously–like a jingle you can’t forget–and occasionally years later the thread of a particular song frays loose at random, exposed at the tattered edge of sleep.


Rhododendrons

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday night, so now I’m returning to the leisurely routines of summer: reading on the patio, writing in my journal, and walking Roxy twice a day, in the morning and afternoon, rather than just once, after I’ve returned from teaching.

Teaching is tiring in part because you’re the one responsible for keeping everyone motivated and on-task: you’re the one setting the energy level in the classroom. By the end of the semester, my emotional cupboard is bare, and I need to refocus and refresh. This is what summer is for.

For years, I taught online classes all year round, starting one semester as soon as the previous one ended. That perpetual teaching schedule paid the bills, but it was emotionally exhausting. These days, I juggle two part-time teaching jobs during the academic year, and I recover from this juggling act during the summer: a chance to refill the well.


Best Good Friday ever

One year ago today, J and I took a 45-minute drive to Worcester, where we and a couple hundred other people received our first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in a gymnasium at Worcester State University.

Like seemingly everyone else in the spring of 2021, I had horror stories of trying to get the vaccine as soon as J and I were eligible. After trying for days to find an available appointment, I nearly wept with relief when I was able to book two simultaneous appointments for a Friday afternoon in April: a Friday that happened to be Good Friday, a day I immediately dubbed The Best Good Friday Ever.

Receiving the first then second Pfizer dose changed everything. In April 2021 I’d been teaching in-person since September 2020, relying upon nothing more than social distance, a KN95 mask, and my body’s own immunity to keep me safe. Getting the vaccine allowed me to continue teaching without fear of catching the virus, developing complications, and dying.

Although getting vaccinated didn’t end the pandemic–the Delta then Omicron variants dashed our naive hopes of quickly returning to our Old Normal–being able to navigate the world with a strong layer of protection has been life-changing. The vaccine isn’t a silver bullet: plenty of people have caught COVID (especially the Omicron variant) despite being fully vaccinated. But for those of us who are up-to-date with our shots, COVID is no longer a death sentence. I can’t overestimate how grateful I am for that.

Back in October, exactly six months after our second shot, J and I got boosted. And next week, just shy of six months after our booster, J and I have appointments for our fourth dose–a jab I’m calling our re-booster–at the pharmacy where I get my flu shot every year. If our New Normal means getting a COVID shot every six months or so, I’ll be the first in line.


Red maple flowers

This year as always, the month of February crawled and the month of March flew. In like a lion, out in a flash.

Spring Break was a welcome respite that happened just as COVID cases were decreasing. Whereas I spent my winter break hunkered at home while Omicron surged, I spent Spring Break going out to lunch with J, meeting Leslee for a walk and margaritas, and taking day trips to Tower Hill Botanic Garden and the Museum of Fine Arts. It was wonderful to have a break from teaching and a chance to get out and do things.

Now that Spring Break is a memory, I’m back to the endless cycle of prepping classes, commenting on rough drafts, and grading final drafts: the wash, rinse, repeat of college writing instruction. But these days, it’s still light out when I arrive home after teaching and take Roxy for a walk.

While temperatures fluctuate between wintery chill and unseasonable warmth, the earth knows the days are lengthening. April means the semester will end in just over a month and summer will begin in earnest…eventually.

Stairway window

Every year, I complain about the February doldrums. February in New England is an interminable month, with gray and dreary days adding to the long slog of winter. When March finally comes, it feels like an accomplishment: another month weathered, another step closer to someday-spring.

Right now, both my students and I are counting the days until Spring Break. Although I’m not planning to go anywhere, I’m looking forward to a week off from teaching: a chance to sleep in, catch up with my paper-piles, and reset before the last half of the semester.

Last year, Spring Break was canceled due to COVID: colleges deemed it too risky to allow students to travel, so we pushed our way through an entire semester without rest or refreshment. Even now, a full year later, I haven’t forgiven whoever thought it was a good idea to plow our way through Spring 2021 without a chance to catch our breath.

Pandemic teaching has been an exhausting roller coaster ride, and last year we needed a break more than ever. I’m glad that this year, students and faculty alike are getting the break we so urgently need.


What season is it?

There comes a time every not-quite-spring when I feel a surge of almost certainty: a feeling that says if I’ve survived winter this long, I just might survive the rest.

This feeling typically comes on a day like today when the sun is mostly out, there are still impassable stretches of ice underfoot, and the forecast calls for snow. It’s not over, the forecast says…but it will be over eventually, my soul whispers.

This year the pandemic feels like another interminable winter. We know we aren’t out of the woods yet, but… Even as the weather forecast calls for snow, we look at the calendar and the lengthening days and repeat our February mantra, “Every day without snow is a day closer to No More Snow.”

Right now, every day without a positive COVID diagnosis feels like a day closer to Lots Less COVID. (Four weeks into my fourth semester of in-person pandemic teaching, I still say the best day of the week is whatever day my negative PCR test results come back.)

We know that COVID, like New England snowstorms, isn’t going away for good…but the thing that gets us through another long winter is the knowledge that it won’t always be this way. Someday, eventually, we’ll wear sandals and short-sleeves again, and someday, eventually, we’ll return to dining outside or in and mingling with or without masks.

I can learn to weather COVID surges, going to ground when cases are high and venturing out when cases decline. I can learn to weather a threat that is cyclic if not seasonable, our lives divided into social time and stay-at-home times.

On days like today, I can feel it in my bones: we just might survive.


Turkey tracks in snow

Friday was a sleety, stay-at-home day, and yesterday I cleared a crust of snow and freezing rain from our cars early in the day so they would bake clean in the sun. Yesterday, the unshoveled sidewalks in our neighborhood–all the sidewalks, since you can’t shovel freezing rain–were crunchy with a topping of snow over ice, which gave good traction underfoot. This morning, though, even the snow has frozen slick, and we’re expecting rain and temperatures above freezing–melting weather–tomorrow into the week, which will turn everything into a slippery slop.

Welcome to not-quite Spring in Massachusetts.

I’ve lived in New England for three decades now–most of my adult life–and for all that time I’ve said New England doesn’t have a proper spring. Instead, we go straight from snow to mud to heat, without the weeks of temperate weather and wildflowers the Midwest gets in March. In New England, March comes in like a lion then stays, the threat of spring snowstorms lurking into April.

But climate change is affecting this: we get as much rain as snow these days, along with an abundance of bare frozen ground. Last weekend’s storm dumped more than a foot of snow on our backyard: only the second plowable snowfall of the season, and the first accumulation to stay a while.

This coming week’s temperatures in the 40s with rain aren’t quite Spring, but they certainly aren’t winter, either. Sunlight is the cleanest way to melt snow, shrinking it steadily into the dry air. Rain melts snow, too, but in a way that turns streets, sidewalks, and backyards into puddles by day and skating rinks by night.


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