Life as Lorianne


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.

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.

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.

DeCordova Sculpture Park

I’ve had 52 birthdays in my life, and yesterday’s was by far the weirdest.

For many years I’ve had a tradition of going to the Museum of Fine Arts on my birthday, but since the museum is closed due to COVID, J and I reserved timed tickets for the DeCordova Sculpture Park in Lincoln, MA. It was a lovely change of pace, a chance to take a stroll on a gray day. I was enchanted by the stone cairns next to Andy Goldsworthy’s Watershed as well as an impromptu collection of wrapped and painted stones (“small hopes”) created by local children and wedged into the stone walls in the now-empty rectangle where Big, With Rift used to stand.

That was the normal part of the day, where J and I celebrated my birthday and relished the morning news that Rev. Raphael Warnock had won his Senate race in Georgia. As we wandered the sculpture park taking pictures, I occasionally glanced at my smartwatch, awaiting word of Jon Ossoff’s projected Senate win.

But then the day turned strange. On the way home from the DeCordova, J and I stopped at the bank to get a document notarized, and while waiting our turn with a teller, I saw a notification on my phone that pro-Trump protestors had breached the Capitol where Congress was certifying the Electoral College results. With the Capitol on lockdown and lawmakers evacuated, the certification was paused, DC was in chaos, and we spent the rest of the day watching the news in dismay.

Nothing I saw on the news yesterday was surprising: Trump has been encouraging rebellion since he lost in November, and it was widely known that right-wing zealots planned to gather in DC on January 6. But what was disheartening was the way security basically stood back and allowed riotous thugs to run roughshod through the Capitol. Apparently it’s easier to storm a joint session of Congress than it is to get through airport security or into a municipal courthouse.

And if the news out of Washington wasn’t bad enough, yesterday afternoon I learned a longtime friend had lost his week’s-long battle with COVID-19: a bright light extinguished on the darkest of days. While my heart already ached for America, it broke again for M’s wife and many friends, and for all the people who have died because some people’s definition of “freedom” ignores the simple responsibility of keeping other people safe.

So, yesterday was a strange day…and an even weirder birthday. By nightfall I was wrung out by a mix of emotions: happiness and small hopes, heartbreak and incredulity. After 52 years on this strange planet, I still don’t understand what possesses people to behave the way they do.

CLICK HERE to view an album of photos from yesterday’s trip to the DeCordova Sculpture Park.

Turning oak

Today is one of those Mother Hubbard days: I want to write, but the cupboard is bare. Yesterday I conferenced with my students at Babson College, graded some papers, then came home, exhausted. I took a nap, read, and felt infinitely better for both.

Today I’m teaching at Framingham State, where I have a long break between my morning and afternoon classes. After teaching my morning class, I held office hours, prepped my afternoon classes, checked discussion forums, and graded (and am grading) yet more papers. At this point of the semester, my paper-piles are endless.

My office here at Framingham State overlooks the main street through campus, and I have my window ajar to let in fresh air. Along with the air wafts the incessant sound of leaf blowers. At this point of the season, the work of leaf-clearing is endless.

Resting in peace

After another whirlwind week, it’s a relief to reach the respite that is Friday. I teach in-person (and thus wake up early) on Wednesdays and Thursdays, so on Fridays I sleep in and look forward to simple domestic pleasures: the morning dog-walk, a cup of tea at my desk, a half hour spent reading before I turn on my laptop to face another day of email, virtual meetings, and the mundane juggling act that is my work-from-home life.

November parking garage

One of the (many) strange things about teaching a hybrid class during a pandemic is the ghost-town vibe on campus, with few students and even fewer professors, closed meeting rooms and shuttered offices, and plenty of parking.

Yesterday's news

I’ve been tethered to my laptop for most of the day, commenting on a fat pile of student essay drafts in advance of tomorrow’s in-person classes. Reading student papers is an excellent way to ignore the news: paper-grading requires concentration, and concentration is the antithesis of the obsessive checking of the news and social media I did four years ago on Election Day.

Earlier when I stepped away from my paper piles to pick up our usual Tuesday night Thai takeout, my smartwatch began vibrating at urgent intervals, each buzz an admonition to Check My Phone for the latest predictions, punditry, and speculations. J and I will watch the news later tonight, but for now, I swipe away each urgent buzz and turn back toward that fat paper pile.

Forefathers Burial Ground

This morning I drove to Chelmsford, MA to attend a postcarding group that meets at The Java Room, a coffee shop where I’d gone with A (not her real initial) to a book group more than 15 years ago, when A lived in Chelmsford, I lived in New Hampshire, and I was still married to C.

When A and I went to that long-ago book group, I was 35 years old, newly graduated with my PhD, and in the throes of a precocious midlife crisis, not knowing where my path forward should lead and idling in a haze of discontent in the meantime. A and other women in the group were in their 40s, on the other side of divorce and other reinventions, and I quietly envied them for the self-assured confidence that comes from being women of a certain age.

I don’t think I could have imagined then that 15 years later, I’d be divorced, remarried, and living in the Boston suburbs with a mortgage, two dogs, and eight cats. Back then, I had vague hopes of scoring a tenure-track job somewhere; first, though, I had to find the strength to leave my marriage, pay off my credit cards, and re-create a life for myself and my dog some 700 miles from my closest family.

I managed to re-create a life, but I never found a tenure-track job. Instead, all these years later I’m still in New England, still supporting myself as an adjunct instructor: no closer, it’s true, to the permanence and prestige of a full-time professorial job. In lieu of stable employment, I’ve settled into the predictability that comes with a house, money in the bank, and all the obligations that come with middle age. It’s not the life I’d envisioned, exactly, but it’s a living.

Yesterday I turned 51, and I can’t imagine how I ever grew to be so old: it feels like yesterday (or at least last year) that I was 35 and struggling to find my way. Last week, I heard an NPR story about Nirvana’s iconic “Sounds Like Teen Spirit,” a song that somehow is more than 25 years old: had Kurt Cobain lived, he’d be in his fifties now. How is it possible that the rebels and misfits of Generation X–my generation–are now middle aged?

During today’s postcard meeting, there was desultory chatter about politics and the world we live in: how is it that one woman’s smart thermostat responded to her loud laments about Trump, and how have we come to the point where handwriting get-out-the-vote postcards is a major method of preserving our sanity? At the end of the meeting, one of the women concluded with a wry observation: “I’ll see you next time, if we’re all still here by then.”

After the group dispersed, I ordered a cookie and a cup of hot chocolate to go, then I crossed the road to explore the old cemetery across the street. When you’re 51, you have a good idea where the path forward leads: on the drive home, I heard that Elizabeth Wurtzel, a writer I’ve never read, had died at 52. When you’re a woman of a certain age, you know how your story ends, eventually. What’s uncertain, however, is how many reinventions stand between then and now.

2020 planner

I bought a 2020 weekly planner in late October, back when I wasn’t sure I’d ever dig myself out of my paper-piles to survive what I secretly referred to as my Semester From Hell. While I blogged every day in November, this past month has been largely consumed with teaching tasks: reading drafts, grading final projects, (finally) submitting grades, and then recovering from all of the above.

Now that 2020 is only hours away, I’m looking forward to starting anew, again. Every year, I set more or less the same goals for myself: I always want to walk, write, read, meditate, and blog more. This past year, I didn’t meet all the goals I set for myself, but I’m proud to say I continued to track those goals all year: when I wasn’t walking, writing, reading, meditating, or blogging as much as I’d like, it wasn’t because I’d forgotten my commitment to do those things.

So today, I set-up the planner and calendar I use to track my daily, weekly, and monthly goals. I look forward to this routine every New Year’s Eve in part because I enjoy any excuse for buying office supplies. But I also appreciate the fresh start a new year, a new semester, or a new planner gives: a chance to turn the proverbial page. So as the end of December wanes into a New Year, I wish you and yours all the best for 2020.

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