Life in the time of Coronavirus


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.


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.


Donut Stress

This is the third week of the semester, but it’s the first week I’ve taught entirely in-person.

Both Babson and Framingham State started the Spring semester remotely, giving students time to get booster shots and take on-campus COVID tests. Babson returned to in-person instruction last week, and this week I finally met my Framingham State students face-to-face.

It’s strange to meet students in-person after you’ve already read their first assignments: the opposite of how it usually happens. The names and words on the screen now have flesh-and-blood personalities attached, and in my Tuesday classes we did an icebreaker activity I often do on the first day of class, not the third week of the term.

Omicron or no, I’m ready to be back in-person. Last Thursday, I taught my final (scheduled) Zoom classes from my desk in my bedroom while workmen in the basement clanged and rattled, tearing out a leaky oil tank and replacing it with a shiny new one. As Roxy paced and whined, upset that Strangers Were in the House Doing Things, I lectured to my screen and tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism despite the domestic chaos in the background.

After two years of intermittent work-from-home, I’m ready for boundaries again: let home happen at home and work happen at work. When I’m teaching or holding office hours on campus, I’m not worrying about walking the dog, folding the laundry, or unloading the dishwasher. Although I still grade papers, answer emails, and prep classes at home, I’ve had my fill of real-time remote classes. I’m ready to kick students out of my bedroom and back into the classroom where they belong.


Teaching at home

Spring semester starts tomorrow at both of the colleges where I teach. Tomorrow I’ll teach my Framingham State classes from my desk at home, and on Wednesday I’ll teach my Babson classes from my office on campus, followed by my first COVID test of the semester.

I’m so accustomed to pandemic-related modality shifts, I didn’t bat an eye when FSU then Babson announced the first week of the in-person semester would be remote to give returning students and faculty time to get tested before returning to the classroom. I had a similar lack of response when FSU announced we’d actually spend the first two weeks of the semester remote. At this point of the pandemic, I have practice with nearly any modality: been there, done that.

At this point of the pandemic, teaching college feels like some sort of Green Eggs and Ham-style nursery rhyme:

I can teach standing in class
Or sitting at my desk on my ass.
I can teach in a room
Or I can teach in a Zoom.
Students can Webex from home
Or from wherever they roam.
I can teach from home when I’m sick
Or when the snow and ice are too thick.
I’ll teach however we need to stop the spread.
I’ll teach however you’d like, as long as I’m not dead.

Because Once You Enter My House, It Becomes Our House

Back in November, when J and I were newly boosted and the daily number of new COVID cases in Massachusetts was low, J and I went to the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, briefly roaming the grounds before heading inside to see the colorful fringe towers at the heart of Jeffrey Gibson’s INFINITE INDIGENOUS QUEER LOVE.

Fringe

November’s trip to the DeCordova was in part a purification ritual. The last time J and I had gone to the DeCordova was January 6, 2021: a pandemic-appropriate birthday celebration, where we wore masks to wander the grounds before the day turned strange.

Rainbow towers

Among the many things I missed during the height of COVID lockdown, wandering museums was near the top of the list. After we learned how to Zoom with friends, order grab-and-go takeout from our favorite restaurants, and schedule curbside pickup from our favorite stores, we were still denied the joys of museum bathing: something I enjoy so much, for years I’ve kept a tradition of going to a museum on or around my birthday.

LOVE LOVE LOVE

Wandering the DeCordova grounds in January 2021 and going inside the museum in November 2021 was a step toward reclaiming an activity I enjoyed in the Before Times. I love the reverent attentiveness of museums. While the Zen Center is still shuttered, museums are the closest thing I have to an indoor sacred space outside my own home.

Three towers

This year on my birthday, J and I stayed home. Thanks to the Omicron variant, COVID cases are surging here, and we’ve spent my winter break hunkering at home, retreating from the risk of infection. Once the semester begins, my retreat will end; for now, I’m enjoying the tranquility of a self-imposed stay-at-home order.

The future is present

In the early days of the pandemic, it sometimes felt like we’d never return to our once-cherished activities. In the first days of the Vaccinated Times, it felt like life was returning to normal, but Delta then Omicron complicated matters.

POWER POWER POWER

I’m now realizing that life in the age of COVID will be a hybrid entity: in some ways like the Before Times, and in other ways not. We talk of “the pandemic” as if it were a monolithic thing, constant and consistent from one week to the next, when in actuality, the pandemic has its own seasons and cycles.

Gallery

J and I aren’t currently going to museums even though they are open…but we know we will return, eventually. Case counts will surge, case counts will fall: sickness will come and go in waves, and we’ll learn to surf those changes, venturing out when it’s safe and going to ground when it’s not.

Question authority

William Wordsworth said that poetry is “emotion recollected in tranquility,” and as I look at the photos I took at the DeCordova last January and again last November, I experience a kind of vicarious thrill. During the reclusive moments of a pandemic, we sustain our spirits with the memory of past adventures recollected in tranquility.

Ziggurat

Wings

Two years ago, on January 5, 2020, I celebrated the day before my birthday by going to the Cambridge Zen Center, sitting one meditation session, then walking from Central to Harvard Square, where I sipped hot chocolate and wrote in my journal at Burdick’s Cafe.

We all have spent countless hours ruminating on the Before Times: the simple pleasures we took for granted before the pandemic changed our lives in profound and unpredictable ways. There are many things I miss from the Before Times, but this one will probably surprise you: I miss a certain kind of solitude.

Over the past two years, most of us have gotten more than our fill of remote, socially distanced, work-from-home solitude: the kind of isolation that comes from not going out, not seeing friends and family, not hanging around the office water cooler. But I miss the quiet anonymity of sitting alone in a crowded cafe, strangers buzzing amiably around me.

For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time alone together in the separate squares of Zoom screens, communicating with friends, family, and coworkers across our individual isolations. What I miss, though, is time spent together alone: time, that is, spent in the presence of strangers without any need to interact.

For the past almost-two years, I’ve gotten good at what I call duck-in interactions. Tonight, for instance, J and I wanted to try takeout from a new restaurant, so I followed the now-familiar drill: order and pay online, show up at the restaurant, scope out the register from outside to make sure there isn’t a line, then duck inside to pick up my order. Even allowing for brief, masked pleasantries, this kind of interaction lasts no more than a minute: duck in, grab food, duck out.

I miss the casual leisure of sitting in a cafe sharing space with strangers without worrying about shared air and exposure times. I miss the days when sitting alongside strangers was a welcome form of communion, not a potential source of contagion.


Squirrel on pumpkin

It’s been almost a month since I taught my last in-person class of the Fall semester, and nearly two weeks since I submitted my final grades. During that time, J and I have been hunkered down at home, riding out the current Omicron surge.

After three full semesters of pandemic teaching, I’m used to the COVID drill. I’m accustomed to teaching in a mask, and my work weeks now revolve around the regular ritual of a PCR test, with results coming via email in a day or two. When you teach during a pandemic, the best day of any week is when your negative COVID test results come back.

Once my on-campus obligations are over, however, the cumulative exhaustion of pandemic teaching sets in. Once I’m no longer navigating a college classroom, I realize how much energy it takes to be ever-vigilant, constantly monitoring my own and my students’ symptoms: was that cough just allergies or something more troubling?

Over the holidays, while other folks flocked to airports, family gatherings, and social events, all I’ve wanted to do is stay home, retreating into myself like a rabbit gone to ground. Outside, the virus is running rampant; inside, I recharge and refuel, craving hibernation more than social interaction.

A few days before New Year’s Eve, I heard yet another NPR interview with an infectious disease expert answering questions about What Is or Isn’t Safe over the holidays. After another semester of wondering what is or isn’t safe every second I’m on campus, all I want for Christmas, New Year’s, and the next few weeks is a break from non-stop vigilance. Here’s hoping the Omicron wave has crested before classes resume later this month.


Original booster eligibility

Today when I turned our kitchen calendar to the new month, I saw it: a note marking our eligibility for a COVID booster shot, which I’d added months ago when the CDC was recommending adults get a third shot eight months after their second dose.

For months, J and I were counting down to that eight-month date. When the CDC changed their guidance on boosters, I circled a different date: October 23. That’s the day J and I got our COVID booster exactly six months after our second Pfizer shot.

It was never a question of whether J and I would get a booster; it was simply a question of when. From the start of the pandemic, J and I have followed all the advice the experts have given. When asked to stay home, we stayed home. When instructed to wash our hands, we washed our hands. When told to wear a mask and avoid crowds, we did both. So when the vaccine then booster became available, we took the jab as soon as we were eligible.

Whenever I hear people grumble about the need for COVID boosters, I have to bite my tongue. Why do some folks think a lethal virus that caused a global pandemic will be defeated by a single one-two punch?

I’m guessing the folks who complain about needing to get a booster don’t have any chronic medical conditions that require ongoing management. If you’re able-bodied, it’s easy to envision illness as being a thing that can be quickly and efficiently cured. Got pandemic? Take a shot, and everything’s fixed!

Folks who live with chronic medical conditions know that life is seldom so simple. My life relies upon medical science. I have asthma and hypothyroidism, and I take multiple medications to manage both. Whenever I take my daily meds, I don’t curse the fact that there is no “one and done” treatment. Instead, I thank science for the medications that keep me alive, even if I have to keep taking them.

If you live in a country where boosters are available, don’t complain about “having to” get another shot. Instead, thank your lucky stars you have the opportunity.


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.


Next Page »