Life in the time of Coronavirus


Windblown

This morning I wrote my monthly letter to myself, a habit I started in January 2019 when I turned 50. Sometime around the beginning of each month, I write a letter to my Next Year’s Self: twelve paper time capsules that give me an excuse to use pretty stationery and stickers for a person I know will appreciate them. In the past I’ve relied upon my blog and photo archive to remind myself how things were going this time last year, but a letter is more intimate: a handwritten thing for an audience of one.

This time last year, J and I went to Wachusett Reservoir for Dam Day. It was a brisk and beautiful day to be outside, and after walking across the dam, we had lunch at the Clinton Bar & Grille, a restaurant we’d gone to two other times: once after we’d gone to the Museum of Russian Icons, and once after going to Tower Hill Botanic Garden.

That day a year ago feels like a lifetime away: a day from a bygone era. Everything from the Before Times has his kind of hazy veneer: remember when we went to events with crowds of people and ate inside restaurants alongside other diners? But that year-ago October day also seems dim and distant because it wasn’t long after my Dad’s death, and everything from that whole season–Autumn, 2019–is muffled and distorted, like memories from a span of time when I lived underwater.

Last year, I called Fall 2019 the “Semester from Hell” given all I was juggling: teaching six classes, struggling to keep ahead with a course I had newly designed while learning a new-to-me learning management system, and trying to navigate the alien world of grief. Now in retrospect, I know the Semester from Hell was gently preparing me for 2020, when we keep trying to find our sea-legs in an uncertain world where we continually have to walk (and work) on water.

In the early days of the pandemic, we fixed our sights on the end, imagining a return to normal as being clearly on the horizon. Now we know we will be here at sea for the foreseeable future, adrift in a place where we can’t see the continent we left nor the one we are sailing toward. Here at sea, where all we know is the rock and swell of the present moment, I write letters to a Future Self whose situation I won’t even pretend to predict.

Codman frogs

It’s the start of the third week of the semester at Framingham State and the fourth week of the semester at Babson College. I’m teaching hybrid classes at both colleges, so instead of commuting four days a week, I teach at Babson on Wednesdays, Framingham State on Thursdays, and online the other days.

For much of the summer, I alternated between anxieties: on the one hand, I worried about the health risks of teaching in-person; on the other, I worried about keeping my job. Now that the semester is officially underway, I’m calmer and less anxious than I have been at any time during the pandemic. Instead of fixating on the many things outside my control, I am busy paying attention to the things within my power.

These days I spend an inordinate amount of time fiddling with the classroom technology that allows me to teach students in the room and students who are logged in from home. When the technology works, it is awesome and amazing; when it doesn’t (which is often), I wonder whether I’m effectively reaching anyone, anywhere.

Despite the glitches, though, I find myself wondering whether I’ll go back to conventional teaching ever again. Teaching half-time in-person forces me to prioritize what we do in class, with me in the room, versus what we can do more effectively online, at each student’s own speed. In retrospect, the amount of time I used to spend giving real-time lectures on writing–a skill that must be practiced to be perfected–seems unnecessary and counter-productive. I would have been better served meeting with students individually or in small groups.

This much I know: I will never have a conventional attendance policy again. I no longer have any desire to force sick students to come to class when there are perfectly viable ways they can participate remotely. One of the things I’m curious to see this term is whether we all stay healthier than usual. Will having morning classes one day a week rather than two mean my students this semester will be less sleep-deprived? Will there be less sickness–fewer cases of colds and flu–now that we’re washing our hands, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart?

I’ve always said that teaching in a college classroom is like working in a germ-infested Petri dish: by the fifth week of a normal semester, everyone is sick with an infectious malaise that gets passed around and around ‘til Thanksgiving, when students go home, rest up, then return to campus with a fresh set of germs to share.

But this is not a normal semester–and most people say that as if it were a bad thing. Yes, it’s sad that the virus-spreading activities of the “normal college experience” have been cancelled or curtailed this semester. But what if this particular cloud of contagion has an unexpectedly salubrious side-effect?

I would happily say goodbye to the infectious practices of past semesters. There used to be a badge of honor bestowed upon students who came to class sick–what dedication!–or who boasted about multiple all-nighters–what diligence! But why should growing your brain be a danger to your physical health? What if one side-effect of the COVID crisis were a paradigm shift where caring for one’s own (and one’s neighbors’) physical health were as important as making the grade?

Quiet classroom

This week, after more than 150 days of assiduously avoiding stores, restaurants, and other Indoor Spaces, I went to both Framingham State and Babson College for demonstrations of new classroom technology that will allow me to teach in-person and remote students simultaneously in the Fall. One thing that has died in the Age of Corona is a strict attendance policy. This semester, instead of punishing students who are absent, I will all but beg them to STAY HOME and PARTICIPATE REMOTELY if they are sick or exhibiting even the mildest of symptoms.

As I prepare to teach in-person in a few weeks, I’ve decided that teaching during a pandemic is like riding a bike in heavy traffic. When I am in the safety of my car, I am terrified to see cyclists zipping around traffic on busy roads. From the relative safety of my car, cyclists seem terrifyingly vulnerable with their bare, unprotected flesh.

But when I lived in Boston in graduate school and regularly rode a bike down Mass Ave and other busy roads, I wasn’t paralyzed by fear: to the contrary, I remember being hyper-aware of both my bike and body as they existed in time and space. Recognizing that I couldn’t control or even predict the movements of the cars around me, I meticulously managed the narrow pocket of space immediately surrounding my person.

When you ride a bike on heavily trafficked roads, you quickly learn how small a space you can squeeze through, and you learn the limits of your own maneuverability. You become intimately honed to your inner sense of how close is too close, as if your entire body bristled with antennae attuned to your surroundings. Cars and trucks and random pedestrians can zip and collide around you, but you move with an implicitly surety that you’ll stay safe as long as you are moving within your own Protective Pocket, defensive bike-riding subsuming all of your concentration.

Yes, cyclists get hit and die on busy roads, but when you are actually biking, you aren’t thinking of the risk. Instead, worry is something that drivers like me do whenever I see cyclists riding down streets that I regularly rode down when I was younger.

So after months of staying home and worrying from a distance about my eventual return to the classroom, I was surprised at how natural it felt to be back on campus this week: like riding a bike, teaching is a skill you don’t easily forget. While moving through two different college campuses this week, I was ever-mindful of my personal precautions–my mask, my bottle of hand sanitizer, my perennial sense of how close or far away the people around me were. Just as I couldn’t control the cars around me when I was a grad student riding a bike in Boston, I can’t control a global pandemic. What I focus on instead is staying safe in my own personal bubble.

Masked

Today J and I drove down Beacon Street into Boston. It was the first time we’d been in the city since March 1, when we saw Bobby McFerrin perform at Symphony Hall: our last normal outing during the Before Time, before we went into quarantine on March 14.

David Ortiz Bridge

It was strange to drive from Newton into Brookline then Boston after so many months at home. As we passed Boston College, we didn’t see a soul, and at Cleveland Circle, we saw teams playing softball while wearing masks, as if that was how the sport was supposed to be played. As we drove through Kenmore Square and into the Back Bay, we marveled at empty parking spots–plenty of street parking in a town where parking is always at a premium.

Lansdowne Street

We’d driven into Boston to see the new Black Lives Matter mural outside Fenway Park, so after turning around in the Back Bay, we drove back to Kenmore Square, parked on Beacon Street near Boston University, and walked toward Fenway. In a city of pedestrians, we had the streets and sidewalks largely to ourselves–yes, there were other walkers, but not near the number we’d normally see, and nearly all of them masked.

Open year round

It was outside Fenway Park where things started to feel weird. We’ve been avoiding places where we might encounter large groups of people, but there were no crowds around Fenway, and in pre-pandemic times, there were always crowds around the Park: throngs of baseball fans on game days, and throngs of sightseers every other day. The relative absence of people was odd, eerie, and preternaturally unsettling.

Your local mask dealer

Lansdowne Street was open to pedestrians, with tables set up for people to eat outside–and there was indeed a handful of people enjoying a sunny summer day while dining al fresco. But there were no vendors hawking baseball programs, no gravel-voiced ticket scalpers, no jugglers or caricature artists or stilt-walkers. There was a lone vendor selling sausages from a cart who asked almost apologetically if we wanted a cold beverage, and after initially demurring, we turned around, said yes, and tipped him $7 for a $3 soda: the least we could do.

Lansdowne Street

That is when we heard the crack of a bat and the roar of canned crowd noise from inside the park as an announcer intoned the next player at the plate. It was game day in an age with no fans in the stands, players competing for a TV audience and a handful of cardboard cutouts while the streets outside were nearly empty.

Yaz

Walking up Lansdowne Street hearing the sounds of a game played to an empty ballpark, I remembered all the times J and I have gone to games at Fenway Park, cheering ourselves hoarse in the outfield bleachers before streaming down the stairways and flooding into the street with thousands of other fans. The empty streets around Fenway felt simultaneously apocalyptic and surreally normal: on the one hand, so many COVID dead; on the other, the allure of spectator sports and casual outdoor dining.

Google tells me that Fenway Park held 37,731 fans in the Before Times, when living souls packed the stands. Google also tells me that as of today, 162,000 Americans have died of COVID-19. Do the math: that’s more than four Fenways of fans who have been struck, flied, or forced out, game over. What have we as a nation done to mourn these, our presumably beloved dead? Instead of mourning or even pausing, we’ve instead rushed to reopen for the sake of the economy, for the sake of our sanity, for the sake of denial in an amnesiac age.

Black Lives Matter

“Black Lives Matter,” that mural outside Fenway says…but what about the lives of all those lost grandmothers, grandfathers, aunties, uncles, and elders? What have we done to remember and mourn in our rush to return to normal as if none of this–including the lives and deaths of all those lost souls–had ever happened?

Welcome to Fenway Park

During the early days of the pandemic, we often told ourselves that we were all in this together, but now we each navigate these strange days on our own: some of us still sheltering at home, others venturing out and congregating. I remember the first Red Sox game J and I went to after the Boston Marathon bombing: it was both scary and reassuring to be outside in the sun with other fans, game day being a soothing ritual that brought us all together into the reassuring embrace of an anonymous crowd.

Retired

These days, though, crowds are places of contagion, and we steer clear of strangers whose faces are shrouded behind bandanas, gaiters, and masks of all kinds, all of us struggling to get back to normal in a time that is anything but. Who haunts the streets around Fenway Park on a sunny August day: are they the ghosts of those we’ve lost, or our memories of game days past?

Flicker feather

During a normal summer, I procrastinate teaching prep until the end of August, when the start of the semester looms large. This summer, however, I don’t have that luxury. Preparing to teach during a pandemic means re-working everything from the ground up: classes that worked just fine in a normal classroom setting won’t work as well in a hybrid format, so I’m revisiting and revising all of my courses, trying to make them pandemic-proof.

I don’t know exactly what my hybrid classes will look like in the fall: until I get classroom assignments, I can’t visualize what it will look like to have students sitting in assigned seats six feet apart at desks that can’t be moved. What I do know, however, is that my classes will have to be flexible: accessible to students in class or at home, and able to continue when I or any of my students have to quarantine.

In the spring, my colleagues and I moved our in-person classes online without much lead time. Now, I have a summer to prepare my wholly-remote literature class and my hybrid writing classes. The latter classes are the bigger puzzle: I know how to teach wholly online, and I’ve taught one hybrid class where we spent in-class time doing small group work. But teaching in a socially distanced classroom where some students are in the room and others are remote is a whole other animal, and I’ve been spending more time than ever this summer meeting with teaching colleagues and attending professional development workshops, trying to figure it all out.

All of this helps explain why time is flying faster than ever this summer: already, it is almost August, which every teacher knows marks the Almost End of Summer. Although I’ve been religiously spending time in the mornings outside reading on the patio and have continued to write in my journal daily, blogging and more “serious” writing have fallen by the wayside. I know that once the semester starts, life will get busy, fast, and I’ve tried to cherish every moment of this summer’s working staycation.

Waiting room

Today I had a mammogram that had originally been scheduled for May, when nonessential medical procedures were postponed. It was the first time I’d ventured into a medical building since before the pandemic, and like every other aspect of life in the age of Corona, the old routines are distinctly different now.

There were three burly security guards at the entrance of the medical facility, all masked. Immediately inside was a screening station where you had to answer medical questions before picking up a disposable mask and a bright green GUEST decal that indicated you’d passed the health screening.

I didn’t feel comfortable taking an elevator even though signs indicated only one or two passengers were allowed at a time; instead, I took the stairs to my appointment on the fifth floor. In the hallways, drinking fountains were barricaded “out of an abundance of caution,” and decals on the floor indicated where to stand and wait for the receptionist to check you in.

In the waiting room, three chairs were spaced with wide empty space between them. There were no magazines or tables: nothing that could be touched and need to be disinfected. After my name was called, the mammographer took me directly into the exam room: gone was the extra step of disrobing in a partitioned changing room where you could leave your clothes in a locker. Again, having a separate changing room created too many surfaces to disinfect.

Instead, the mammographer left me alone in the exam room–just me, the massive mammography machine, and a lone chair–to disrobe and change into a gown she’d left for me: just one gown instead of the piles of small, medium, and large ones you’d normally choose from in the changing room.

Mammography is a high-touch procedure: it simply cannot be done while observing social distance. There is a lot of manipulating as the mammographer positions your breast on the glass plates of the mammography machine, and the two of you are in close contact–like dance partners, intertwined–for the minute or two it takes for her to arrange your arms and shoulders out of the imaging plane: turn your face this way, turn your torso that way, lean your shoulder here, point your feet and backside there.

The mammographer steps behind a plexiglass shield when she takes the actual images, telling you when to breathe and when to hold your breath, and during the procedure you are literally hugging the imaging equipment, your hands gripping the same hand-holds as every other woman who has gone before you. For this reason, the mammographer wiped down the machine before my procedure, explaining that she cleans the equipment after each patient leaves and again within sight of the next patient, a redundancy I appreciated.

When the procedure was done, I waited briefly for the results in case the radiologist wanted more images. Again, I waited in the exam room itself–one less space to sanitize–trying not to think about how many other women before me had sat and exhaled in the same chair in the same enclosed room.

I would never say that mammography is a tender procedure: mammographers manipulate your body in ways that would be manhandling in any other context, and the machine itself smashes and irradiates tissue that is particularly sensitive to pressure. But as my mammographer twisted my body into place, telling me to turn my face directly toward hers, I found myself holding my breath to save her from the tender intimacy of my (masked) exhalation.

Capt. William Smith's house

This time last year, I took myself to an author talk with Elizabeth Gilbert in Harvard Square. This year, all author talks are virtual, and I can’t remember the last time I was in Harvard Square. When will it feel safe to go into a crowd again–to mingle with strangers? The rush of community–the thrill you feel walking down a crowded street or congregating with other readers, sports fans, or theater-goers–is something the virus has stolen from us, at least for now.

Today J and I went walking at Minute Man National Historic Park. J had never walked down the Battle Road there, and it has been a long time since I’ve been walking there: a year or so, or more? This time, I was mindful of the space between us and other walkers, joggers, and cyclists, and I carefully noted whether each passerby was or wasn’t wearing a mask. Strangers in the time of COVID-19 have become something dangerous or at least suspect: a new form of stranger danger.

On our way back to our car, J and I saw a large family posing for a group photo, one of the family members taking a photo of all the rest. In the Before Time, we might have stopped and offered to take a picture of all of them, together: the kind of thing Friendly Strangers used to do. Instead, I quickly calculated the potential risk in my head: the risk of stopping, the risk of drawing near enough to offer help, and the risk of touching and taking a photo with someone else’s phone.

The risk was too great, so we walked on. It will be a while, I think, before being a friendly stranger feels safe again.

Memorial Day 2020

Yesterday J and I walked to Newton Cemetery to pay our respects at the military graves there, as we often do on Memorial Day. In many ways, this year’s cemetery visit was like any other year. J and I walked around reading the inscriptions on flag-decorated graves, noting how young or old each person was, or the commendations they had received, or other indications of the lives behind the stones.

In other ways, however, yesterday’s visit wasn’t like any other year. J and I wore masks on the way to and from the cemetery, and many other visitors were masked as well. There were more people visiting the cemetery than I remember in past years: with Memorial Day parades and other festivities cancelled, visiting graves was one of the few “normal” ways to mark the holiday.

J and I have been sticking close to home these days, so yesterday’s walk to the cemetery and back was the first time in months we walked past restaurants we used to go to weekly. It was strange to walk the same familiar route, but in odd and unsettling circumstances. Now unlike then, we notice who is or isn’t wearing a mask, and with each approaching pedestrian, we and they did a delicate dance of deciding which of us should step into the street to allow the other a safe distance on the sidewalk.

In some ways, it’s remarkable to see how quickly we’ve all adapted to this strange new world of masks and social distancing. It makes me wonder how we as a society will look back on this time next year or the year after that.

Waiting

Earlier this week, I read an article Teju Cole published in the New York Times featuring excerpts from his pandemic journal. J and I have been sheltering at home for seventy days now, and I’ve written in my journal every single day, but I’d be hard pressed to glean much in the way of profundity there.

When you are in the middle of a surging wave, all you feel is wet. You have no understanding of how far or high the water looms; all you know is your own specific swirl. I can’t speak to a global pandemic, so my journal pages describe the mundane details of my own experience: the particular deck chairs I am busy arranging as the Titanic sinks.

Last week, I skimmed a BBC article featuring the “last normal photo” people had on their phones: reminders of the Before-Time. The last time I went shopping–the last time I touched a grocery cart, walked down aisles thronged with other shoppers, and stood in line before interacting with a cashier–was Friday, March 13, when I took a photo of empty grocery shelves where paper towels and toilet paper had once been. It isn’t exactly a “normal” photo, but it is one that takes me back to that strange and surreal time.

The day before that Final Shopping Trip–Thursday, March 12–J and I walked to our favorite pub for lunch. I don’t remember what we ordered, but it was unusual for us to walk to lunch on a Thursday, since I usually teach then. But I’d cancelled my Thursday classes because I thought I’d be flying to Ohio to visit my Mom the next day, and I ended up canceling my flight after the governor declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts.

That leisurely Thursday lunch–the last time J and I went to our favorite pub or any other restaurant–seemed like an odd but not yet apocalyptic time. The TV at the bar was tuned to the news, which was a litany of cancellations: first the NBA, then other professional sports leagues and major events in succession. On our way home, I snapped a picture of a dog tied outside a bakery, waiting for his owner inside, and J and I admired a sporty black Subaru parked along the curb, just as we’d do any other day.

That last time J and I walked to lunch at our favorite pub, we didn’t know it would be the last time. It was clear things were starting to get serious and weird: the weekend before, grocery shoppers were starting to stockpile supplies as if against an upcoming storm. We knew then a storm was coming, but we didn’t fully realize how long and devastating that storm would be.

Looking back on the last seventy days, I’m ashamed to admit how much ink I’ve spent in my journal pages fretting over groceries. People are losing their lives and livelihoods, and I’ve spent page upon page obsessed with delivery windows and weird rolling shortages: one week I can’t find paper towels or dishwasher detergent, and the next week there are no corn tortillas, dry pasta, or fresh produce. Groceries are something I once managed: I enjoyed making a list, going to the store, and stocking our refrigerator and pantry. Now, I realize the seemingly simple task of buying groceries is–like everything else–largely outside my control.

Seventy days after suddenly sheltering-in-place, I’m realizing it was never about the toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, or hand sanitizer. All the items that disappeared from store shelves were merely metaphors for the Before-Time, when we fancied ourselves in control of our lives.

Horse chestnut (aka buckeye) in bloom

If you’re looking for a way to stop a conversation during a pandemic, ask the question “What’s new.” Right now, on day 65 of J’s and my self-imposed quarantine, there’s not much “new” happening. People continue to sicken and die. People continue to lose jobs and businesses continue to fold. The divide between Haves and Have Nots continues to gape, with the only change being the light being shed on that chasm.

“What’s new” is exactly the wrong question to be asking right now. Instead, I wish we could ask ourselves “What matters” or “What remains and sustains?”

This year like any other, the trees are newly in leaf and buzzing with black-throated green warblers. Our backyard chipmunks chip and chirp, making up in fervent spring activity the long winter months they spent scarce and inactive underground. In every fruiting tree—the crabapples, cherries, and redbuds that abound in leafy suburbs like ours–male and female cardinals flit, juxtaposing their distinctive plumage with colorful spring blooms. Overhead, goldfinches spar and twitter, flitting from tree to tree as if spring days were entirely carefree and destined to last.

But these days don’t last: no days do. This isn’t news, but a perennial Truth we continually suppress, ignore, and deny. As we are hunkered down against infection, Spring emerges from her annual quarantine, just as she does every year. This isn’t new, but eternal. We are the ones who forget–either consciously or through unwitting ignorance–the ultimate truth of both nature and pandemic, and that is that only impermanence is here to stay.

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